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The Nine Best American League Starting Pitchers for 2013

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The previous eight weekends have featured lists of The Nine best players at each of the main field positions for the 2013 MLB season. You can access these lists here all season long and I will provide status reports of these lists as we proceed through 2013.

There will be no list for relief pitchers because there are so many of them and their range of performance is so small that making a list isn’t very interesting. There will also be no DH list because there just aren’t enough full time DHs to make it worthwhile. Only 15 teams can have a DH and some of them employ platoons. Picking 9 DHs out of like 13 guys seems silly.

But starting pitching is a place of great interest and I struggled to decide how to break it down. With more than 150 players receiving starts in a given season on the hill versus a number closer to 30 for the field positions, I’ve decided to break it in half. I thought about lefties and righties, but decided American League and National League would be more fun.

Here, without more nonsense, are The Nine best American League starting pitchers for 2013 according to SABR Toothed Tigers. The list is difficult to make because there are many excellent candidates, so as always, don’t get too worked up about it.

9. Max Scherzer (Tigers)
Scherzer will turn 29 during the upcoming season, which will be the fifth full one of his career. The strikeouts shot up last season and he kept his walk rate below 3.00 per 9 for a second straight season. He had some arm issues late in the season, but pitched well enough in the playoffs to make us think the winter off was enough to reset his aching body. He’s a flyball and strikeout pitcher, which will work well with the Tigers defense and last season was his most complete effort in the sense that he didn’t go through long stretches of poor performance. I still wonder if he can repeat his delivery and keep his awkward mechanics in line, but if he can continue on the path he started last year, he has a shot to be a force in the AL.

8. R.A. Dickey (Blue Jays)
Dickey is coming off two and a half very good seasons and an NL Cy Young. We can’t worry too much about his age given his knuckleballing ways, but we should worry that he’s moving to a less pitchers’ friendly Rogers Centre and slightly better AL East. Dickey won’t do quite as well under those conditions, but we can control for those context type factors. I don’t think he’ll be a Cy Young again, but his ability to make the ball dance should be enough to keep him on this list for another season.

7. C.C. Sabathia (Yankees)
Sabathia showed signs of aging in 2012 for the first time after 11 above average to great seasons leading up to it. He’s still a workhorse with great control and hasn’t had an ERA above 3.38 since 2005, with much of that time spend in the tough AL East. CC is probably making his final appearance on this list for his career, but he will remain one of the best pitchers in the AL for 2013.

6. Doug Fister (Tigers)
Fister had a higher WAR than all but 12 AL pitchers last season, despite only making 26 starts due to a nagging oblique injury during the first half of the season. Had he pitched at the same rate over 34 starts as he did over 26, he would have easily been a top nine pitcher last season. There is no reason to think anything but injuries would stand in his way. The strikeout rate is on the way up and his control has been excellent in a Tigers uniform. He’s only 29 and could easily be poised for another fine season. He also happens to be my favorite pitcher to watch. His mix of modesty and control with great fastball movement makes for excellent viewing. He’s also super tall. That’s fun too.

5. David Price (Rays)
The reigning Cy Young winner in the AL is fifth on this list, not because I don’t like him, but because I like his opponents more. Price has three straight 4.0+WAR seasons and is right in the middle of his prime. All signs point to another great year from Price, but I think he’ll be just shy of Cy Young conversation in 2013.

4. Matt Moore (Rays)
So when I previewed the AL East, I said Moore would be the Cy Young of the division. In doing so, I also decided he would be a better pitcher than his teammate David Price. Perhaps that was foolish, but I’m bullish on Moore and think people overlook him. He was a top three prospect entering last season and had made an excellent late season cameo in 2011. A year of control issues later, and everyone seems to be looking past him. I’m not. Moore is not yet 24 and has a lot of developing left to do. He throws gas from the left side with two solid offspeed pitches. He was a solid #3 starter in his first big league season. I don’t see any reason to think he can’t make the leap to #1 a year after he was the best prospect in the league.

3. Yu Darvish (Rangers)
Darvish tied Price last season for third in the AL in WAR and should still be on his way up. The strikeout rate was superb and if he can limit the walks at all, he’ll be an elite starter. After a year in the states, he should be poised for a better season because he won’t be adjusting to life in America and can focus solely on pitching. The stuff is great and his first year of results matched that.

2. Felix Hernandez (Mariners)
Felix is about to turn 27 and already has 38.3 career WAR and four straight 230 IP + seasons. The velocity ticking down is the only thing to worry about with the game’s richest pitcher, but he’s shown the ability to be effective at all speeds and is coming off one of his best seasons as a pro. He’s an ace and a stud and any word you can think of to describe a top pitcher. The only thing he isn’t is number one on this list.

A photo from directly above the author's desk.

A photo from directly above the author’s desk.

1. Justin Verlander (Tigers)
I’m not sure what needs to be said about Verlander. His first three seasons were very good and his last four have been phenomenal. He has a ROY, Cy Young, MVP, and has never missed a start in seven seasons. He’s entering his age thirty season as the game’s best and more reliable starting pitching. With four above average to elite pitches, the two time no-hitter thrower is every hitter’s worst nightmare.

How would you rank the AL’s arms? Sound off. Check back next weekend for the NL list.

King Felix Cashes In, Justin Verlander Comes Next

Felix Hernandez is a starting pitcher for the Seattle Mariners baseball club. He is now, also, the owner of the largest contract every given to a starting pitcher. The details of the deal are 7 years, $175 million. This contract will replace the final two years of his current deal and will carry through the 2019 season, paying out at $25 million per season.

So while this is the biggest contract in history for a pitcher, it absolutely should be. He’s one of the best four or five pitchers in the league and is entering his age 27 season. If every pitcher signed a one year deal before 2013, Felix would certainly be among the top handful by dollar amount and his relative youth compared to most free agent starting pitchers means a seven year commitment doesn’t take you very far into his decline years, as does a contract that a player signs at 30 or 31.

Felix is among the game’s best and most durable starting pitchers, having never been on the DL and throwing over 230 IP in each of the last four season to go along with four straight 5+WAR seasons. The Mariners want him anchoring their rotation for years to come.

Any big contract for a pitcher is a risk, but if you’re going to offer them, you want the deal to be going to a player on the right side of thirty with no injury history and a consistent and high level of performance. Felix meets all of those criteria and is the unquestioned face of the Mariners. This is the deal you sign when all of those things are going in your favor.

Let’s ponder briefly what this means for Justin Verlander who is on the same free agent clock. Verlander is three years older, but has been better over the last four seasons than Felix and has been no less durable. It’s probably safe to say that Felix and JV are the too safest bets as far as durability and sustained performance are concerned.

Verlander’s age will be a factor, but he also plays for a higher spending club and is at least marginally better than Felix. He will also sign his deal after Felix and could do so a year closer to free agency or while on the free agent market. Even if you think Felix is a better bet from a cost benefit standpoint over the next seven seasons, Verlander is the type of player who will attract more money because he’s a more dynamic and recognizable player and his ceiling is likely higher in the opinion of most baseball people.

Both players are Hall of Fame caliber players if they maintain their career paths and if the Tigers want to make JV a Tiger for life or some other team wants to pry him from the Tigers hands, it’s going to take a lot of cash.

Right or wrong, he’ll end up with more than Felix. Here are my estimates:

Signs before Opening Day 2013: 8 years, $210 million

Signs before Opening Day 2014: 7 years, $210 million

Signs as Free Agent after 2014 season: 6 years, $200 million.

As it appears, I’m confident that barring a serious injury, Verlander will be baseball’s first $200 million arm.

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