As the end of April fast approaches, we can start to get a feel for which teams might contend for the playoffs, and which teams will contend for higher draft slots. As usual, a lot depends on a team's pitching to indicate which group they will fall into.
Some teams seem to be over-performing—we're looking at you, Pirates—and some are underperforming, either due to injury, attrition, or bad luck. We're here to examine the top five pitching staffs in the National League through the month of April, whether or not we'll be able to say the same about these teams later in the season, and examine the biggest pitching disappointments thus far.
1. Pittsburgh Pirates
(11-8; Team ERA of 3.36; 101 Ks, 73 BBs; .235 Opponent Batting Average; 12.0 Baserunners per nine innings)
The Pirates have gotten off to a good start thanks to their starting pitching. They aren't overpowering many people, as their low K-rate will attest. But they have a bunch of starters that are finally growing into their roles, with the help of new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan.
Paul Maholm is 3-0 with a 2.03 ERA with 10 Ks and seven walks in 26.2 innings pitched. He had not allowed more than one run in his first three starts before giving up four to Florida in a victory last Wednesday.
Zach Duke (3-1, 2.43, 16 Ks, 6 BBs in 29.2 IP) won back-to-back road starts this year for the first time since his rookie season of 2005 and has already thrown a complete game shutout. Ross Ohlendorf, acquired in the Xavier Nady trade with the Yankees last season, is 2-2 with a 3.24 ERA and won against Florida and San Diego last week.
Ian Snell (1-2, 4.50, 15 Ks, 14 BBs, 22.0 IP) and Jeff Karstens (1-0, 5.40, 15.0 IP) round out the rotation.
Cloudy. The Buccos are off to a great start, but their track record will haunt them until they can put more than four weeks of good pitching together. The bullpen, with Matt Capps (five saves), John Grabow, and Jesse Chavez, looks to be a strength though.
2. St. Louis Cardinals
(14-6; 3.77; 128 Ks, 60 BBs; .264 Opponent Batting Average; 12.3 Baserunners per nine innings)
Manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan always seem to get more from less, but this year they are really pulling some strings. Things looked better two weeks ago when Chris Carpenter started the season with 10 shutout innings, but he has since gone on the dreaded disabled list once again, this time with a torn left oblique muscle—he's expected to be out until at least late May.
Adam Wainwright is doing his best Carpenter imitation until the ace can return. His 2-0 record in four starts tells part of the story; the rest is the 2.70 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 23.1 innings. Wainwright is blowing people away. Kyle Lohse has been sharp early as well, sporting a nifty 2.42 ERA to support his 3-0 record, and he's striking out more than three batters per walk.
Joel Pineiro is the surprise here. In four starts, he's 4-0 with a 3.76 ERA in 26.1 innings. He isn't striking people out (6 Ks, 6 BBs), but his sinker has been tremendously effective thus far. In his most recent start, 12 of his 20 outs were on ground balls.
Todd Wellemeyer has not been able to duplicate his success from last season yet. His 6.14 ERA is three runs higher than his sharp 2008 numbers.
Partly cloudy. If Carpenter can return by June 1 and give them four months of what we've come to expect from Chris Carpenter, there's no reason to think the Cardinals can't content in the NL Central. The bullpen has been shaky, something to watch for as the spring turns to summer.
3. San Francisco Giants
(9-9; 3.95 ERA; 147 Ks, 72 BBs; .248 Opponent Batting Average; 12.7 Baserunners per nine innings)
Their win totals aren't gaudy, since the Giants are dead last in the National League in runs scored, but their pitching is keeping them in games. Led by a trio of youngsters and supported by a couple of veterans, the Giants have the pitching of a contender.
Any team with the reigning Cy Young winner is going to merit ranking on this list, but Tim Lincecum (1-1, 2.96, 35 Ks, 7 BBs in 24.1 IP) isn't the only good thing going on the mound at AT&T Park.
Matt Cain (2-0, 2.08) seems to be taking the next step from good to really good. He's gone at least six innings in each of his four starts and has given up a total of six earned runs, with no more than two in any game. He easily could be 4-0. Jonathan Sanchez, the fireballing left-hander, walks too many, but is still striking out a batter per inning.
Barry Zito got beat up his first two starts but was sharp in the next two with rookie catcher Pablo Sandoval working for him. Venerable Randy Johnson is struggling right now, as his 6.16 ERA and 13 walks in 19 innings will attest.
Partly sunny, chance of thunderstorms. If Johnson and Zito don't pan out, it won't matter how good the other three are. It speaks to the lack of major league-ready pitching in the Giants' system that San Francisco felt they had to sign the Old Unit this offseason.
Closer Brian Wilson should help out on the back end, but has already blown a save for Zito. In the end, it won't matter since the offense is so horrible.
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
(13-7; 4.11 ERA; 142 Ks, 69 BBs; .223 Opponent Batting Average; 11.2 Baserunners per nine innings)
The Dodgers have been known for their pitching since moving to spacious Dodger Stadium back in the '50s, and this year's collection is no different. They are young (for the most part), talented, and deep. A couple of the youngsters are a little slow getting out of the gate, but that should just be a temporary setback in what should be a strikeout-filled summer at Chavez Ravine.
Chad Billingsley is turning into a beast before our very eyes. He's 4-0 with a 2.05 ERA with 26 Ks and just nine walks in 26.1 IP. His opponent's batting average is a paltry .163, as he's allowed just 14 hits all season. Is that sustainable? Probably not, but it's fun to watch him try.
Opening Day starter Hiroki Kuroda has been out since, with a strained muscle in his side that is still giving him problems. His replacement, Eric Stultz, has been sharp, going 2-0 in his place.
Clayton Kershaw—he of the awesome curveball—and James McDonald both have ERAs over seven, but each had a pair of excellent outings to go with a pair of lousy starts. And veteran Randy Wolf is around to eat innings at his 4.31 ERA pace.
Partly sunny, clearing. Once Kuroda returns, this could be the best pitching staff in the National League. Kershaw, 21, and McDonald, 24, are both on the fast track, but if McDonald continues to struggle a bit, they could leave Stultz in the rotation and let McDonald straighten himself out in the minors. That's a good luxury to have.
5. Atlanta Braves
(10-10; 4.01 ERA; 168 Ks, 77 BBs; .250 Opponent Batting Average; 13.1 Baserunners per nine innings)
For two decades, the Atlanta Braves have meant two things: division titles and strong starting pitching. The jury is out as to how competitive they can be in the tough NL East, but they still have the pitching part. This staff, however, is built mostly from free agency or trade, a departure from the salad days when young starters seemed to fall off trees for the Braves.
Atlanta went out this past offseason and bought two of the more accomplished free agent starters available, Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez.
Lowe (2-1, 3.10) is up to his old tricks, with four of his five starts of the quality variety, including his opening day two-hit shutout of the Phillies. Vazquez has been strong too, striking out 34 and walking just seven in 24 innings, compiling a 2-1 record.
Jair Jurrjens has failed for run support so far, going 2-2 with a miniscule 1.72 ERA, allowing one earned run or less in three of his five starts, but Kenshin Kawakami has struggled adjusting to the National League. He has given up five home runs in 21.1 innings with a 7.06 ERA. Jo-Jo Reyes is the fifth starter but has only made two starts.
Reyes or Kawakami might find their way to the bullpen soon with the Braves expecting to call up Tommy Hanson, an elite pitching prospect, who dominated the Arizona Fall League and is sporting a 2.18 ERA in Triple-A.
Sunny. With Jurrjens taking "the leap," the Braves are as solid 1-2-3 as anyone in the NL. Add Hanson to that mix, and it has the makings of a league-leading staff. The bullpen is diverse and talented as well, with the righty-lefty closer situation of Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez.
Pitching will keep things interesting for the Braves in 2009.
Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies
Ask someone to name the most reliable starters of the last three years, and chances are Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb, and Cole Hamels would be at the top of everyone's lists. Fast-forward to 2009, and suddenly all are vulnerable.
Webb has made one start and been shut down for a strained muscle behind his shoulder. He is out at least until early June. Peavy isn't hurt—not that he'll admit anyway—but he's been rocked hard this season. He hasn't had a start where he's given up fewer than three earned runs.
The defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies have the worst pitching staff in the NL, worse even than the Rockies and Nationals, and it all starts with Hamels. He's getting hammered, giving up an Opponent Batting Average of .365, with a 7.27 ERA in just 17.1 innings.