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Constructing MLB's Mount Rushmore of Active Starting Pitchers

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Constructing MLB's Mount Rushmore of Active Starting Pitchers
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At the rate we keep coming up with ideas, it probably won't be long before the presidential faces on Mount Rushmore finally just get swapped out for athlete faces.

I'd be cool with that. So long as two conditions are met, anyway:

  1. There are awesome rock-carving lasers involved.
  2. The faces are those of Major League Baseball's best starting pitchers.

The faces would have to change from year to year, of course. But if we were to start work on the project right now, the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln would obviously have to be changed to...

Uh, that's actually a good question. There are dozens of great starters in baseball today, but the cream of the crop keeps changing thanks to things like injuries and sudden and horrifying declines.

If we were to narrow things down to healthy guys who are stupendous now and have a track record of stupendousness, though, the first face to be carved would surely be...

 

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

After riding a 1.83 ERA to win his second National League Cy Young and third straight ERA title in 2013, Kershaw would have been the most obvious choice for a spot on Mount Rushmore coming into 2014.

A couple months into things, however, the Los Angeles Dodgers ace lefty looks like a less obvious choice. His month-long stay on the disabled list to begin the year dealt a blow to his aura of indestructibility, and his 3.17 ERA through eight starts isn't especially Kershaw-like.

This is a mirage, friends. Do not be fooled by it.

We must listen to the gospel of metrics like FIP, xFIP and SIERA, whose job it is to estimate what a pitcher's ERA should be by looking past luck and focusing on a pitcher's actual performance.

Here's how Kershaw is doing through the lens of these metrics (via FanGraphs):

Clayton Kershaw's Metrics in 2014
FIP xFIP SIERA
Figure 1.95 1.68 1.79
Career Rank Best Best Best

FanGraphs

Translation: While Kershaw only has a 3.17 ERA, he should have an ERA under 2.00.

Don't look so surprised. These metrics rightfully favor high strikeout rates and low walk rates as well as pitchers who get ground balls. And if we look at Kershaw's strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates in 2014, we find that he's working on three career bests:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

That's a lot of strikeouts and a lot of grounders coupled with very few walks. Kershaw, already baseball's most dominant pitcher, has actually become even harder to hit.

So yeah, he still rocks enough to have his face carved in rock. Next to Kershaw on our Mount Rushmore, meanwhile, is...

 

Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Like Kershaw, Hernandez's track record of excellence hardly needs an introduction.

But here's a quick one anyway: King Felix logged at least 200 innings with an ERA under 3.50 in every year between 2008 and 2013, one of only two starting pitchers to do so. And if you want to take FIP's word for it, there was no better pitcher in the American League from 2012 to 2013.

And thus far in 2014, the Seattle Mariners ace righty has been even more dominant.

Hernandez is currently working on a 2.39 ERA that would be his best since his Cy Young-winning season in 2010. And it's not just ERA that King Felix is rocking either:

Felix Hernandez's Metrics in 2014
FIP xFIP SIERA
Figure 1.93 2.41 2.48
Career Rank Best Best Best

FanGraphs

That all makes sense. Hernandez is inducing plenty of ground balls, and he's also working on career-best strikeout and walk rates.

That all of this is happening while Hernandez's average velocity, per Brooks Baseball, is not what it used to be makes it even more impressive. It speaks to how his game has become more about movement and command, as he probably combines the two better than any pitcher in MLB.

Case in point:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

"I think he was even better than the perfect-game stuff," said Rays manager Joe Maddon after Hernandez's 15-punchout performance Sunday, via Greg Johns of MLB.com. "Better today than when he threw the perfect game in Seattle. His changeup, it was a fastball until the last second, and then it became a changeup. He was really good. His command was outstanding."

Now that we have the NL's top pitcher and the AL's top pitcher, what we need next is a workhorse.

I know just the guy...

 

Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals

Scott Kane/Associated Press

With 100.1 innings logged through his first 14 starts of 2014, Wainwright is on track to top 240 innings for a second year in a row.

That's par for the course, as the St. Louis Cardinals ace is the only NL pitcher to top 230 innings three times since 2009. That's all the more impressive when you remember that he didn't pitch at all in 2011.

Wainwright is not just an innings-eater, mind you.

After posting a 2.94 ERA in 2013, Wainwright has his ERA down to 2.15 in 2014. That's one of the top marks in the National League, and it's backed up by a career-best 2.45 FIP that's coming on the heels of a 2.55 FIP in 2013.

We can put it this way: When Wainwright takes the mound, the odds of him authoring a dominant start are about as high as anyone's.

In fact, they may be even higher. After all, this is a guy with 26 starts of at least seven innings and no more than two earned runs since the start of 2013. Nobody else has topped that mark.

And fear not, as the news that he was going in for an MRI on his right elbow made us all nervous, but the word from Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com is that Wainwright's (already once replaced) ulnar collateral ligament is fine.

As for who goes next to Wainwright, there's no easy answer. There are cases to be made for Masahiro Tanaka, Johnny Cueto, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Cliff Lee, Chris Sale, Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Mark Buehrle, Corey Kluber, Zack Greinke, Julio Teheran, Madison Bumgarner and maybe a dozen others.

But after a workhorse, I figure a strikeout machine is the next logical choice. To that end, who better than...

 

Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers

USA TODAY Sports

If Yu want strikeouts, Yu've come to the right place.

In the process of collecting his first career MLB shutout on Wednesday night against the Miami Marlins, Darvish racked up 10 strikeouts. That gives him 24 double-digit strikeout games since he entered the league in 2012, the most in MLB in that span by 10 games.

Also, there's something historic going on with those 24 double-digit strikeout games:

These are the things you can do when you have an arsenal of pitches that includes arguably the best slider on the planet, mid-90s heat and an assortment of other pitches ranging from two curveballs and a splitter to a cutter and a changeup.

And Darvish's control of these pitches is getting better. After being above the line in 2012 and 2013, his walk rate is now down below the league average. Given that and how he's also still striking out over 10 batters per nine innings, no wonder he's working on a career-best 2.11 ERA and a career-best 2.50 FIP.

The red flag with Darvish is that he's not immune to injuries. He spent some time on the DL with a trapezius injury last year and has been bothered by neck soreness this year.

These injuries amount to mere bumps in the road, however. And in between said bumps in the road, Darvish has had little trouble being baseball's whiffiest pitcher.

Thus, the current starting Mount Rushmore of starting pitchers is completed. There shall be no arguing with it.

Unless you feel like it, that is.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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