For years, the mantra hasn't changed much--"Championship teams need pitching," and it's hard to dispute that. What has changed over time is how pitching excellence is defined and recognized. As baseball moves past the archaic measures of wins and ERA and embraces newer and better standards of excellence, there will be pitchers caught between the old and the new.
The basis for this post is a Tableau data visualization that plots a pitcher's FanGraphs Dollar Value (FG$V) on the horizontal axis and his pro-rated 2015 salary on the vertical. Since each point of fWAR is worth around $8 million, the horizontal axis also shows who the leaders in fWAR are. The clear leader should come to the surprise of no one--some of the others might be a surprise. This post focuses on starters and by default will show only those with at least 70 innings pitched. Moving the IP slider to 10 shows more pitchers, but then the graph gets more crowded. Moving the cursor over the data points will show a wealth of information, and I strongly advise looking at this on the biggest screen possible--I don't want to think about what it looks like on a cell phone. Use the other filters to narrow the data as desired, and don't be afraid to play around with it--you can't break anything.
I've always been a fan of Bill James' Game Score, not because it's perfect as much as because it accounts for those items a pitcher can control and ignores those he can't. 50 is the benchmark, and 70 is a very good game, something 409 pitchers have accomplished so far in 2015 (all stats in this post are through Friday, July 17th). Who are the leaders in these super games?
|Chris Sale||White Sox||17||9|
|Clay Buchholz||Red Sox||18||6|
Topping this list is the man who placed one of the biggest bets on himself in recent memory. I have a feeling I wrote almost the same exact words about Scherzer last year, since it takes a very confident man to turn down a contract worth almost $150 million like he was offered after the 2013 season. It clearly paid off for him and for the Nationals, and his stellar pitching is one of the primary reasons why the Nationals have the best cumulative fWAR for their starters in baseball.
I listen to Chicago sports talk radio, so to me Chris Sale is old hat, and real fans of baseball know about him as well. He's had injuries the last couple of years that have prevented him from racking up the counting stats, but he's been injury-free this year (knock wood) and just completed an incredible stretch of eight games with at least 10 strikeouts. Of course, he had the help of free-swinging batters that seem to be all the rage these days, but this in no way diminishes his accomplishment--any time you're on a list with Pedro Martinez, it's something special. The 2015 White Sox are the poster children of the futility of having quality starting pitching (they're #5 on the previously-referenced FanGraphs list) and no offense (#30) to back it up. Pitching wins championships--when coupled with an offense that can score runs.
I don't mention my dislike of pitching wins much anymore since I think it's an old argument that is basically over. I save my vitriol for those kids on my lawn. Corey Kluber reigns supreme as this year's version of Mr. Who Cares About Wins, as his 4-10 record would leave many perplexed and confused. Call me crazy, but having the fourth-worst run support in his starts could be a contributing factor to that record, and there's little he can do about that.
As the trade deadline approaches, teams who consider themselves contenders will be in the market for pitching, and the prime pieces they'll be looking at are the dots in red, the pitchers who will be free agents after this season. David Price and Jordan Zimmermann aren't going anywhere this year, but Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto could. When I listen to Chicago sports radio, I get highly amused at all who suggest the Sox should trade Samardzija for some hitting, since I'm not exactly sure who would replace him in the rotation, as well as who this hitter is. Good hitting is a precious commodity, and there are plenty of teams demonstrating this with solid pitching and floundering in the standings. Having written that, I'd be surprised if Samardzija isn't moved, unless the Sox see him as part of their long-term plan and sign him as a free agent. They could trade him and do that anyway, like the Cubs did with Jason Hammel last year.
Johnny Cueto is an intriguing case, since the Reds clearly aren't going anywhere this year and may not be poised for a resurgence any time soon, particularly in an NL Central that could be extremely strong for quite some time. His velocity has remained steady over time, and every day he stays on the Reds roster lessens his trade value since it reduces the starts he can make for his new team. Just like Samardzija, what Cueto will fetch won't help the Reds this year, and it probably won't be anything near a top-5 team prospect, which is what happens when valuable assets are held on too long.
Every position has aging curves, and every position has players who defy those curves. This year's candidates are A.J. Burnett, who won't be doing it after this year since he's announced his retirement, and Bartolo Colon, who's showing no signs of slowing down. Pitchers like this show the true value in GMs and why staffing a major league roster isn't the same as a fantasy one--one has to know what players might be able to deliver value, and in the case of these two, we're talking value that is probably unexpected. They won't start a trend of throwing huge dollars at pitchers over 35, and both are fairly affordable anyway. For every trend, there are players who defy it--the smart GMs are in the position of being able to recognize it and capitalize on it. Or sometimes just get lucky.
Referring back again to the FanGraphs starting pitching chart, the Cubs are just behind the Nationals in cumulative starting pitching fWAR, and this is perfectly understandable since they signed Jon Lester in the offseason to a big deal, and . . . Wait, what? Jon Lester isn't the best starter the Cubs have?!? Hey, you're right--it's Jake Arrieta, acquired from the Orioles for the high, high price of Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman. The knock on Arrieta was whether he could stay healthy, and after a brief stint on the DL in 2014, he's been the best pitcher the Cubs had over the past two years and one of the most underrated pitchers in all of baseball.
Jon Lester, big bust, right? I mean, he hasn't had a win since May 16th and has gone 0-6 in that stretch until he pitched a 2-hit gem against the Braves on Saturday evening. All is not lost--he did get his first major league hit, and referring back to the run support chart, he's dead last in run support. So what do I hear all day on Chicago sports talk radio and see in no shortage of print? The Cubs need pitching. Sigh . . . In that stretch of games since his last win, Lester has a 3.50 ERA, and hitters are batting .238 with a .691 OPS--he's not exactly getting lit up. If the Cubs need anything (and I'm more than comfortable if they do nothing at the trade deadline), it's hitting, and good luck finding that.
People smarter than me can state how much the state of the game today is one of dominant pitching, weak hitting, or a mixture of both--it's not an either/or situation, but it appears we're in an extended period of dominant pitching, and it's becoming pretty clear there are more stud pitchers than stud hitters. Look at the data viz--there are no shortage of free agent pitchers, and while some of them may re-sign with their teams, I suspect most won't. Contrast that with what free agent plus hitters are out there. In this day and age, they don't reach free agency.
Kris Bryant will be the next good test of this. As a Scott Boras client, the likelihood of him signing a big deal that gives away his arbitration years is low, but it's also an open question if he'll make it to free agency. Pitching is outpacing hitting these days, and that makes the good hitters more valuable and harder to pry away from teams. It's an interesting situation, one that won't be resolved any time soon absent drastic changes.
Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.