Studs So Far: The Best American League Starters Through Mid-June

Remember people, the whole idea here is that how many "wins" a pitcher has should not factor in to whether or not you think he's good, or whether or not he wins the Cy Young Award.

Remember people, the whole idea here is that how many “wins” a pitcher has should not factor in to whether or not you think he’s good, or whether or not he wins the Cy Young Award.

And you know what? For once, I’M DOING THIS THING MY WAY (If don’t want to hear me blather on about the problems with traditional pitching statistics, you can scroll down to the picture of Felix).
Alright that was meant to sound angry guys, I’m sorry that’s not me. But the point is, “wins” and “losses” will not factor into this whatsoever. Whether or not a pitcher gets credited with a “win” or “loss” has very, very little to do with his performance that day. You’ve seen the examples time and again — a pitcher like a Felix Hernandez or a Zack Greinke in 2008 or 2009 with the Royals goes out, pitches eight innings, gives up one run or less, and does not get the “win.” On the other hand, you’ll see a reliever come on and pitch an inning – or less even – give up a run, two, three, and when his team takes the lead in the next half inning, he’ll get the “win.” We should be better than crediting one player alone for a teams’ success or failure in any game, considering how many players have an impact on the outcome.

And to dismiss something (and prove it’s not a strawman’s argument), I’ve made the above point before and been told, “Yeah well I’d like my pitcher to get wins.” The whole point of this argument is that “Win” doesn’t mean anything, or at least that what it means is irrelevant to how well he pitched. I want the team that I’m supporting to win. If the pitcher performs well, the chances of the outcome occurring increase and the opposite is also true. And yes (this one may be a bit more strawman), there may be great pitchers with good W-L records, good ERAs, WHIPs, etc. There may also be bad pitchers who have bad W-L records, bad ERAs, WHIPs, etc. For most any statistic, the larger the sample size, the clearer the picture we have of the player in question. But when great pitchers can have bad W-L records and bad pitchers can have great W-L records, this is proof enough that this is not something that should be referenced. At all.

I didn’t set out to write a referendum against dumb, unintelligent baseball statistics that don’t accurately or effectively assess talent, skill and performance. I did, however, set out to outline the best pitchers in the American League so far this season. But having made it clear that I won’t be using W-L or WHIP (a ridiculous statistic whose true value lies only in fantasy baseball), what will I be using to compare American League pitchers? In their glossary entry on pitching, FanGraphs says that, “evaluating pitchers [is] tricky,” but adds that, “When evaluating a pitcher, rely mostly on the golden trifecta of FIP/xFIP/tERA.” They do add, however, that things like batted ball data, LOB% (left on base percentage — sorry guys, has nothing to do with the Legion of Boom), and rate statistics, can provide added insight. Are you sitting there saying, “Dylan, I’ve never heard of FIP, xFIP, FIP-, xFIP-, tERA, SIERA, ERA-, or any of those things! What are you talking about?” Okay, I’m already starting to diverge into what I hadn’t planned on doing – some kind of instructional lesson on pitching sabermetrics – in part at least because I am by no means an expert. I have however repeatedly tried reading up on these statistics in an effort to understand them and have a firm grasp on them. Why? Not because I’m a nerd or an elitist. Yes, I think I, and we, are better than using W-L, WHIP, and even ERA, to evaluate pitchers. The goal of sabermetricians (or at least myself) really isn’t that different from any avid baseball fan throughout history; to most accurately assess and evaluate the skills and performance of a given player or group of players. The only difference is that over the years, there’s been a realization that the statistics we’d been using had not been accurately or efficiently assessing skills or performance.

The whole idea behind advanced metrics of evaluating pitching is to isolate one thing: pitching performance. This means using stats that do not take into account the contributions – positive or negative – of the defense behind a given pitcher. In general, there would also be a hope to isolate from other factors such as which batters a pitcher has faced, what league the pitcher plays in and what parks the pitcher has pitched in. Another aspect of this isolation of variables is to take out of the equation as many subjective factors as possible. We want to be able to objectively say that this pitcher is better at this thing or that thing – and he is a particular amount better – than another pitcher. I’m not sure I can fully explain how much – if at all – this factors into pitching metrics, but for my money one of the most subjective evaluations in baseball is the error. Each season there are dozens if not hundreds of error calls that certainly could have been ruled a hit and vice versa. But beyond that, the entire concept of an error – that some defensive plays are bad enough or mistakes are large enough that they should result in a special designation that is not a hit – is relatively arbitrary.

When evaluating pitchers in the modern day we often throw around a pitcher’s ERA, either right after mentioning a player’s W-L record, or – when using only measurement – in place of the W-L record, used by some as some strange means of sounding like they’re being significantly more accurate than just using W-L. In their entry on ERA, FanGraphs provides a solid example of what is wrong with ERA:

Pitchers aren’t held accountable for runs scored as a result of an Error by one of their fielders, but they are held accountable for runs scored on bloop hits that get by slow or poor defenders. If a pitcher has a poor defense behind him, he will likely end up with a higher ERA than he should have.

As a result, a pitcher’s ERA is a poor estimate of their true talent level. Consider this scenario. In your mind, who is the better player: the pitcher that strikes out the side, or the pitcher that relies on his rangy defense to haul in three deep fly balls? ERA thinks that both pitchers are just as good, but that’s not telling you the full picture.

Okay, questions about why ERA isn’t good enough? For the record, I will accept all questions – including the ones I don’t have the answer to, which is probably most of them – in the comments section of this piece, or you can message me somehow. That said about ERA, some of the stats I will use are placed on an ERA scale. In fact, as FanGraphs explains in describing FIP/xFIP/tERA, crux of these statistics is to determine what a pitcher’s ERA would be if he was playing with an average defense, or to put it another way, “assuming that performance on balls in play and timing were league average.” Generally speaking, you’ll see two different types of numbers for these stats; one puts the statistic on an ERA scale, in effect showing what his ERA should have been. The other will place a given statistic on a scale where 100 is the league average and however much above or below 100 a player is reflects the percentage greater or worse than league average they are.

Felix HernandezSeattle Mariners.

You're darn right there's entire sections devoted to supporting him. He's ours and you can't have him!

You’re darn right there’s entire sections devoted to supporting him. He’s ours and you can’t have him!

Let’s jump right in with FIP- , which again puts Fielding Independent Pitching on a scale where 100 is league average and shows what percentage better or worse a pitcher has been than the league average. Felix’s FIP- so far this season? 52. That means his FIP is 48% better than league average. Where would that FIP- rank all-time? 12th, with only five different pitchers ahead of him: Randy Johnson (1995, 2000, 2001, 2004), Pedro Martinez (1999, 2000, 2002, 2003), Christy Mathewson (1908), Dwight Gooden (1984) and Roger Clemens (1997).

FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference have different calculations for WAR for pitchers, which are detailed here and here. Felix’s FanGraphs WAR is 3.9, the best in the American League by a full win, while Baseball-Reference has him at 2.6, behind two of my other selections.

Other top rankings of note: Felix’s 4.3% HR/FB rate is 3rd in the AL, his 9.48 K/9 is 7th in the AL with all four of my other selections ahead of him. His 22.3% K/BB pct is third behind only Price and Tanaka. Still like your counting numbers? Felix leads the American League in strikeouts with 112. Do you get wary and anxious when your starting pitcher allows fly balls out of fear that they will leave the yard? Felix’s 24.7% FB rate is the best of these five and third in the AL. How great has Felix been lately? He’s allowed only one earned run in the his last two starts and three in his last three starts. Over his last five starts? Felix has a 7.83 K/BB ratio. I’ll stop gushing now…

Yu DarvishTexas Rangers.

darvish

Remember when Yu Darvish came close to no-hitting the Astros? Yeah, well he still had AMAZING stuff that day.

Yu Darvish was sensational last year in his second season in America, and he’s picked up right where he left off. Both FanGraphs ans B-Ref have Darvish as being worth the second most WAR in the American League and Darvish leads the AL in both K/9 (10.65), LOB% (85.7%), and K% (29.2%). He also ranks second in ERA/ERA- (2.11, 51), and FIP/FIP- (2.50,62).

Over his last six starts, Darvish has allowed more than two ER just once, pitching at least 7.0 innings in all six outings and allowing no runs in three of those six. Opponents have had a .534 OPS against him over those last 47.2 IP, and he’s posted an ERA of just 1.51 in that time. This is after opening the season with 16 scoreless innings, 15 K’s and just two walks.

Masahiro TanakaNew York Yankees.

Remember when the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka to a 7-year, $155 million contract? Remember when all we had with Tanaka were questions? Would his stuff translate to MLB? Is he really an ace — and if not, why did the Yankees pay him that kind of money? Was his 24-0 record in Japan a fluke (don’t worry, I won’t rant against the win again)? Could he handle the pressure of not only playing in Major League Baseball, but of playing in New York and being a Yankee?

It’s early still, but through the first 2+ months of the season, Tanaka has established himself as one of the best pitchers in the league. Mr. Tanaka ranks third in WAR on both FG and B-Ref and his 2.02 ERA is the best in the AL. Furthermore, he ranks among the best in the American League in LOB% (85.3%, 2nd), K/9 (9.90, 5th), FIP (2.65, 4th), and K-BB% (24.5%, 1st).

How is Tanaka doing it? As Jeff Sullivan pointed out over at FanGraphs a couple months ago, (relative to other pitchers the last few seasons) he’s not throwing in the zone very much and yet he’s getting a lot of strikes. Oh and that splitter? Yeah, it’s just as nasty as advertised.

Again, this is earlier in the season, but here are a few examples of just how filthy the Tanaka splitter is.

TanakaFSLow.gif.opt

TanakaFSLessLow.gif.opt

So what I’m saying Yankees fans is don’t be afraid to be proud of this guy. He’s amazingly good.

David Price, Tampa Bay Rays.

I’m saying he’s a great pitcher, not that he’s the most likable baseball player. Or the brightest…

It was only two years ago that David Price won the Cy Young Award with a league-best 2.56 ERA in 211.0 innings pitched. Some people will see that Price leads pitchers in homeruns allowed with 13, is tied for the lead with most hits allowed (105), and has a 4-6 record with a 3.97 ERA. Those numbers don’t tell the entire story. Price’s WAR may not be in quite the same league as my other picks (2.2 on FG, 0.4 on B-Ref), but Price’s strikeout and walk numbers have been stellar. Price has struck out batters at a rate of 10.02 K/9 (4th in AL), walking batters at a rate of 0.90 BB/9 (2nd in AL), making for a K/BB ratio of 11.10. That’s more than 2.10 strikeouts for every walk better than Phil Hughes who is in second. His percentage rates aren’t much worse either, as he ranks just behind Tanaka with a 24.3% K-BB%. Furthermore, his xFIP (which is a regressed version of FIP, replacing a pitcher’s home run total with the amount of home runs he should have allowed, given the instability of home run rates) is 3rd in the AL at 2.66, trailing only Tanaka and Felix.

Price’s team has struggled this season and struggled mightily so that’s certainly not helping. Also, Price’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) is .332, more than 30 points higher than any prior season of his and also more than 30 points higher than the league average. His overall fastball velocity and four-seamer velocity are still better than league average and at the end of the day, he can still challenge and mow down batters better than most, as evidenced here against Justin Smoak (technical difficulties embedding the clip, so you can right click and open in a new tab and be fine):

Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians.

I first brought up Corey Kluber a couple weeks ago when he I named him our Upper Deck Chatter AL Pitcher of the Month for the month of May. Kluber has struggled a bit since then, allowing seven earned in 11.1 IP over his last two starts while hitting two batters and allowing two HR, but he has performed well enough on the year as a whole that he still deserves to be recognized on this list. FG places his WAR at 2.6, 4th in the AL, while B-Ref has him outside of the Top 10 and a 1.3 mark. Kluber’s 2.62 FIP is 3rd in the league, his 2.75 xFIP ranks 4th, and he also ranks in the Top 5 in K/9 (10.25, 2nd in AL), K% (26.9%, 4th in AL), and K-BB% (21.2%, 5th in AL).

What has made the difference for Kluber? He credits the development of a two-seam fastball, instructed to him by pitching coach Mickey Calloway in 2012, who wanted him to throw the two-seamer instead of the four-seamer in an effort to work down in the zone and generate more ground balls. Kluber now throws the two-seamer early and often, including on this occasion to Toronto’s Jose Bautista.

klubsink

Kluber relies on great command and control and through the end of last year and the first part of this year, he’s established himself as one of the better starting pitchers in the American League.

Yes, there are pitchers left off of this last who are very talented and who ply their trade in the American League. Sonny Gray, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and Dallas Keuchel are all top quality pitchers. But these are my five selections at the moment and I feel they’re in a class of their own.

– Dylan

Below are the aforementioned charts:

Name HR/9 K-BB% BABIP LOB% ERA ERA- FIP FIP-
Masahiro Tanaka, NYY 0.86 24.50% 0.277 85.30% 2.02 50 2.65 67
Yu Darvish, TEX 0.53 21.40% 0.303 85.70% 2.11 51 2.5 62
Felix Hernandez, SEA 0.25 22.30% 0.295 71.30% 2.29 58 1.96 52
Corey Kluber, CLE 0.69 21.20% 0.336 71.60% 3.35 88 2.62 71
David Price, TAM 1.17 24.30% 0.332 67.50% 3.97 106 2.97 82
AL Average 0.90 11.80% 0.296 72.40% 3.93 100 3.85 100

I’ll also include a table with plate discipline data for the pitchers referenced above. Below the table will be a brief explanation of what each stat means.

Name O-Swing% Swing% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
Masahiro Tanaka, NYY 38.90% 50.50% 86.00% 72.20% 41.20% 61.40% 13.90%
Yu Darvish, TEX 28.00% 43.70% 86.60% 76.20% 45.10% 61.60% 10.30%
Felix Hernandez, SEA 35.30% 47.30% 84.60% 71.90% 43.20% 63.60% 12.80%
Corey Kluber, CLE 34.10% 47.00% 88.90% 75.00% 45.90% 65.00% 11.60%
David Price, TAM 32.90% 49.10% 84.50% 77.60% 48.00% 71.80% 10.90%
AL Average 34.00% 47.60% 86.00% 74.50% 44.70% 64.90% 11.90%


O-Swing%
 – Outside-the-zone swing rate
Swing% – Swing rate
Z-Contact% – Inside-the-zone contact percentage
Contact% – Contact percentage
Zone% – Percentage of pitches within the zone
F-Strike% – First-pitch strike percentage
SwStr% – Swinging Strike percentage

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About Dylan Jenkins

I'm a proud Seattlite currently living in Queens, NY. Outside of sports, I enjoy crime dramas - specifically police procedurals - as well as a wide range of music, everything from Top 40 to Iron & Wine, Bob Dylan & Rogue Wave. I am a cat person, which is to say I'm a human who enjoys felines. I have a tremendous sweet tooth that isn't very discerning, and I refuse to observe a number of unwritten social rules.
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