Friday, April 15, 2011

Who's got the best pitching in the land?

On April 7th, Trevor Cahill gave up just three hits and one run in 8 victorious innings against the Toronto Blue Jays. Two days later, lefthander Matt Harrison limited the Orioles lineup to just one run and two hits over seven innings. This Tuesday, April 12th former Diamondback Dan Haren threw a complete-game, 1-hit shutout in a win against the Cleveland Indians. All three of these pitchers throw for staffs with ERAs of 2.83 and lower, and all three of these pitchers pitch in the same division--the American League West. Prior to the year, the pitching attention was centered mostly on the East Coast, with incredibly talented arms in cities like Philadelphia, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, and Toronto. It seems, though we're just two weeks into the season, that all the East Coast attention might have gotten in the way of another crop of young talent that's ready to take over Major League Baseball in Oakland, Texas, and Los Angeles. Cahill's Athletics, Harrison's Rangers, and Haren's Angels are all full of dangerous arms, and not older ones either. So just how good are these guys? Let's take a look at the numbers...

Let's start off in Oakland, where the Athletics have managed only a 6-7 record despite a team ERA of 2.83 and a rotation ERA of 2.35. All five starters are 27 or younger, which is considered the age that pitchers are hitting their prime--though, in today's world of advanced medical screening, pitchers are learning to throw in ways that put less stress on their arms and allow for longer careers. Taking a look at the numbers from our weekly Rotation Rankings, it's obvious that the A's starters have really come to  play: 84.3 IP, an average game score over 57 (currently 4th in the majors), 6.6 Ks/9,
Gonzalez, originally a White Sox 1st-rounder back in 
2005, is in his second full year in the A's rotation
and a WHIP of 1.22 to go along with that low ERA. 25-year-old lefthander Gio Gonzalez (right) is off to the best start of the group, going 3-0 in his first three starts with a miniscule 0.47 ERA, though I'd expect that to go up seeing as he's also walked 12 batters in 19 innings. His WHIP is still low (1.26) due to low batting average against (only 12 hits allowed as well), but the low-ish strikeout numbers (6.6 per nine innings) mean he's also getting lucky with balls in play. I'd expect Gio's ERA to rise quite a bit unless he gets his walks under control, but for now his numbers still look pretty good. The rest of the A's rotation is pitching well: Brett Anderson (0-1, 2.29 ERA), 23-year-old Trevor Cahill (1-0, 3.12 ERA), Brandon McCarthy (1-0, 3.52), and last year's Mothers Day perfect game pitcher Dustin Braden. Unfortunately for the Athletics, even with a slightly "lucky" rotation early in the year, they're still looking up in the standings at two teams with even better rotations.

Two games above Oakland (but 360 miles south of the Bay) are the Los Angeles Angels, 7-5 overall but with a 2.83 team ERA of their own. I guess it helps to have Maicer Izturis and Howie Kendrick, not to mention the soon-to-arrive Kendrys Morales--who probably should avoid any sort of walk-off home runs--as compared to the Athletics  offense of  Kevin Kouzmanoff and  Josh Willingham. We're talking about
Haren has an impressive 21-to-2 K:BB ratio
pitching, anyways, and the Angels have some pretty good names going up on the mound, led by 30-year-old righthanded ace, Dan Haren (left). I don't like to throw the term "ace" around willy-nilly, but Haren seems ready to cement the title with an absolutely scorching start in his first full season down in Anaheim. He's thrown 24.2 innings in three starts, plus a win in a 14th-inning apperance for good measure, with a 0.73 ERA and 0.53 WHIP--he's already put up a WAR of 2.8 in just three starts. These is a Cy Young-quality start to the season, though the sample size is still small, and he's got a teammate right behind him in Jered Weaver (3-0, 0.87 ERA, 27 strikeouts in 20.2 innings). Unfortunately for the Angels, there's quite a drop-off after Weaver/Haren/Ervin Santana (3.74 ERA, 1.11 WHIP), as the Angels need to find the old Scott Kazmir once he gets off the DL. If the Angels can find a consistent fourth starter--like 2008 second-round draft pick Tyler Chatwood, who made his career debut April 11th--then they could be a really dangerous playoff rotation. Oh, and there's still one more major force to contend with in the division.

The Texas Rangers started off the season as hot as possible, going 9-1 before losing their last two. The pitching staff is still on fire, though, with a 2.53 overall ERA and a nice 2.45  contribution coming from the starters. With an  average  age of  27.4, and no
Harrison, 25, leads the surprising Rangers rotation
one older than 31 or younger than 25, the whole staff is  just in  their  prime  years as athletes, and it shows in the numbers. "Nobodies" Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, Alexi Ogando, Matt Harrison (right), and C.J. Wilson have combined for nine victories and 73.1 innings along with the great ERA and 1.08 WHIP. I don't mean, by the way, to imply that these guys are not good pitchers or worthy of praise, I just mean to say that you don't hear about any of these five combined as much as you hear about just one of the Phillies aces, or the Braves stellar young pitchers (Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson). The star of the young season down in Arlington is 25-year-old lefty Matt Harrison, he of the 34 career starts and 5.15 career ERA. Harrison seems to have started to put things together, striking out 11 batters in his first 14 innings while letting up only 2 runs (1.29 ERA). He's joined by 27-year-old Dominican Alexi Ogando, who hasn't allowed a run in his 13 innings over his first two starts, shutting down the Mariners and Tigers lineups already this season.

So who has the best outlook for the season? The Athletics have a history of strong rotations, and Gio Gonzalez (as well as Anderson and Cahill) are high-ceiling young pitchers who could carry Oakland to a World Series someday or could flame out and end up being just another group of young pitchers who never lived up to their potential. The problem for Oakland comes from their offense, and it can be frustrating for young pitchers to come up with a loss even when they pitch well (Brett Anderson took a loss with a 63-game score, while Dallas Braden took a ND with six innings of one-run ball). If Oakland can entice a few big-name hitters to the Bay Area, they could have a really dangerous team for quite a few years. Texas has a different problem, relying on pitchers who weren't as sought-after as the Oakland bunch. Harrison is pitching well thus far but his career ERA is less than stellar, while Ogando spent five years in the Dominican from '05-10 for his part in a human trafficking ring. So, I think the edge at this point goes to the Angels--Weaver and Haren are bona-fide stars in this league, and are the top-of-the-rotation guys needed to hold a team up. The key comes from the offenses, where the Angels have Izturis and Kendrick while the Rangers best offensive player (Josh Hamilton) goes to the DL for the next 8 weeks after a dangerous slide into home. If the Rangers want to have a shot at the division in October, they need to hope their rotation holds up through June.

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