MLB Predictions 2011: 13 Pitchers Most Likely To Make A Run At 20 Wins
Ah, the simpler days of baseball.
I remember a time when the number of runs a batter drove in was actually considered a decent measurement of his worth. Just thinking about it makes me feel like an old man sitting on a porch rambling incoherently about the good old days when an RBI meant something, and candy bars cost a nickel.
Of course, the time that I now remember so fondly was also an era in which this was considered a legitimate fashion statement. But hey, no era is perfect right?
In recent years however, a growing community of sabermetricians and advanced statisticians has caused a dramatic change in the way numbers are perceived in baseball.
These days RBI are seen as more of an indicator of lineup depth, rather than individual offensive potency. “Old school” stats like hits and runs have given way to more complex measurements like WAR and BABIP.
But the 20-win mark is a remarkably simple yardstick that has not tarnished with time. It is an oldie but a goodie. A 20-win season means the same thing today that it did 20 years ago—that a pitcher has been really, really good.
It seems almost too simple an explanation that 20 wins equals good pitcher, but that is what's so great about the 20-win mark—it's simplicity is timeless.
Seeing a pitcher win 20 games is like turning the radio dial and randomly coming across Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang or any other old-school jam that rocked your world years ago. It is still so good that even by its 100th listen, coming across it in the midst of newer, more complex developments still seems refreshing.
The following is a list of 13 seriously talented individuals who are either already in this select class of 20 game winners or could make the leap this season.
1. Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies
Any discussion of baseball’s best starting pitchers basically begins and ends with Roy Halladay.
He is a pro’s pro, your favorite pitcher’s favorite pitcher. He is universally respected and admired for his work ethic and relentless drive to improve, which puts him at the top of this list.
Not to mention the fact that he has already achieved 20 wins three times in his career—including a 21-win effort last season.
Halladay has also proven to be remarkably durable, making 30-plus starts each of his last five seasons, throwing over 220 innings in each.
When Doc signed with the Phillies before the 2010 season, the best pitchers in the National League suddenly found themselves competing for second-place Cy Young votes instead of first.
Halladay’s greatness over the last five years has left little doubt about who is baseball’s best pitcher. It speaks volumes about the league-wide respect Halladay has garnered that none of his competitors have a bad thing to say about him, even as he eviscerates their teams on a weekly basis.
Even the most biased proponents of the all-things-AL-trump-anything-NL mindset admit that Halladay’s dominance is a product of talent, not the league in which he plays.
Halladay could win 20 games this year and surprise no one doing it. The way he is going, I don’t think it would surprise anyone if he did it again in five years or in every year in between.
He is the best the game has to offer, and it seems there are few goals too lofty for the long reach of his considerable talent.
2. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels
From one of baseball’s most well established dominators, we move on to one of the game’s most promising young talents.
In each of the last three seasons, Jered Weaver has improved in nearly every major statistical category. His ERA has dropped from 4.33 in 2008 to a tidy 3.01 in 2010. His K’s have consistently risen, and his WHIP has fallen from 1.28 to 1.07.
It seems he has improved nearly every facet of his game.
This year, Weaver’s numbers have been otherworldly. He leads the majors with a sub-1.0 ERA (0.99 to be exact), and has earned six wins through his first six starts. He has earned the lead in all of baseball’s triple crown of pitching categories and has been nothing short of dominant along the way.
While this hot start will likely not extend itself throughout the entire season (let’s face it; no one is finishing a complete year with a 0.99 ERA), Weaver not only has the talent to win 20 games, but he could be the AL’s Cy Young winner in 2011 as well.
The natural comparison to Weaver’s torrid start to the season is the 2010 version of Ubaldo Jimenez, another young talent who seemed to have made a leap similar to the one we are seeing from Weaver.
Jimenez racked up a 13-1 record with an obscene 1.15 ERA through his first 14 starts in 2010, but faltered towards the end of the year, finishing just shy of 20 wins at 19-8.
However, Weaver’s career-long upward trend suggests that his hot start represents more of a natural progression than Jimenez's did, and that his hot start is more of an indicator of the player he really is.
Before last year, Jimenez had a reputation as a supremely talented but inconsistent pitcher. He was one of those guys who would come in, strike out two batters in seven pitches, make you think, “Wow, why don’t I hear more about that guy?” then immediately proceed to give up a big hit or two or three, melt down and leave you saying, “Oh, that’s why.”
Weaver has never had this rap. His development makes more sense than Jimenez's did.
Currently, Weaver must be a leading candidate for a 20-win season, if only because he is the leader in the clubhouse, armed with a head start on his competition.
3. Trevor Cahill, Oakland Athletics
In Oakland’s new version of the Big Three, both Trevor Cahill and teammate Brett Anderson have the talent to put together a 20-win season.
Although both pitchers possess tremendous talent, I give Cahill the edge on this list for two reasons:
1. Cahill was a surprise 18-game winner in 2010. He has proven that he can collect big win totals, even pitching in front of Oakland’s at times anemic offense.
Last year’s 18-8 record may have caught many baseball fans by surprise, but looking at his brief track record as a pro, there are hints that even better days are ahead of him. During his rookie year (2009), Cahill posted a 10-8 record with a 4.63 ERA. Last year, he improved these numbers to 18-8 and 2.97 in only 18 more innings pitched.
In short, Cahill’s 2010 performance seems to indicate that he has learned how to pitch more efficiently at the major league level. He was able to avoid big innings and kill rallies with regularity. It seems that a full year of scouting reports and increased familiarity with his competition (and his own skill set) helped Cahill tremendously.
He will only get better this year.
2. He’s a ground ball pitcher with one of the best sinkers in the game.
Cahill’s sinker is a weapon that not only allows Cahill to have success but to have efficient success. He induces double plays. He shortens at-bats by pitching to contact instead of going for huge strikeout totals. Even with men on base, Cahill is always one ground ball away from getting out of a dangerous inning unscathed.
In looking at potential 20-game winners, Cahill’s ability to eat up innings and get ground balls consistently is invaluable. He may not have the swing-and-miss stuff of other aces, but at the end of the year, he will almost certainly be among the AL’s leaders in wins.
For Trevor Cahill, the ability to induce ground balls may only result in one extra inning pitched per game. Oftentimes however, this extra inning can be the difference between a win and a no-decision.
4. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Clayton Kershaw makes this list based on raw talent alone.
Although Kershaw’s career bests in innings pitched and wins top out at 204.1 and 13 respectively (numbers that don’t exactly suggest a 20-win season is looming), there are times when he looks downright scary.
He looks like he could not only win 20 games but put up a vintage-Pedro-style ERA while doing it.
I mean, you know the boy has skills when even a Giants fan can't deny it.
Any pitch that was nicknamed “Public Enemy No. 1,” as Kershaw’s curveball was in high school, must be a dangerous weapon. But Kershaw’s wicked hook might even be better. It might be the best in baseball.
Any pitcher with the best anything in baseball must be considered a 20-win candidate.
This season, Kershaw has vacillated between dominant and average. In his two wins, he has not allowed an earned run. In his two losses, he has allowed eight.
With Kershaw, it’s all about harnessing his considerable talent consistently. He has the overpowering repertoire that is generally the signature of a 20-game winner and would allow him to run roughshod over the NL were he able to channel it.
If Kershaw can avoid the big innings and then manage the considerable mental challenges posed to a big league starter who is still just 23 years old, he could live up to his preseason hype as an NL Cy Young candidate and make a run at 20 wins.
No one will be surprised if he does.
5. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
Webster’s dictionary does not have a definition for “swing-and-miss stuff”. But if they did, there would be no words, just a picture of Tim Lincecum’s changeup darting filthily out of the strike zone, 10 inches away from a batter’s hastily adjusted swing.
In Lincecum’s first three full seasons with the San Francisco Giants, winning 20 games is just about the only feat he has not accomplished.
Timmy Franchise is a two-time Cy Young Award winner. In his last three seasons he has finished with 18, 15 and 16 wins. In two of these seasons, he managed an ERA under 2.65.
His win totals are especially impressive when you consider the often-lackluster performance of San Francisco’s offense in these years.
This year’s Giants lineup is looking much more potent than it has in the recent past—you might even call it league average. Pablo Sandoval is looking like he has returned to 2009 form, and the offensive legitimacy of Buster Posey, Aubrey Huff and Freddy Sanchez further bolsters Lincecum’s chances at getting 20 wins.
Lincecum has proven that he can do almost anything on a pitching mound. This year, with a newly confident lineup behind him, he finally has all the tools he needs to win 20 games.
6. Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners
In most cases, a rookie pitcher’s first year in the majors is a learning experience.
Rookies learn that mistakes that could be tolerated in the minors will get crushed in the majors. They deal for the first time with advanced scouting, and facing hitters who constantly adjust their approaches in between or even during at-bats.
But for an elite few, the rookie experience is quite different. For those who possess an arsenal that is overwhelming and immediately MLB-ready, the first time through the league can be an advantage. Hitters haven’t seen their dominating stuff before, and are bound to be overwhelmed by it.
The early returns on Michael Pineda indicate that he is one of these select few.
Pineda is built like a horse. He is 6’5" and pumps 98 mph fastballs seemingly with ease. He uses a slider and changeup off of his fastball, and while both pitches seem only average to slightly above average on their own, the life on his fastball is truly something special, which elevates the effectiveness of his secondary tools.
He also plays his home games in one of baseball's best parks to pitch in and has thus far been dominant. Through five starts, Pineda is 4-1 with a 2.01 ERA and 30 K’s.
Pineda will struggle to get to 20 wins simply because of his youth and lack of experience in pitching through a complete MLB season. But he has the look of those rare talents who dominate right off the bat. The Doc Goodens. The Tim Lincecums. The pre-Tommy John Strasburgs.
There is plenty of reason to doubt that Pineda will make a run at 20 wins, the least of which is the Mariners pitiful offense, but it is dangerous to underestimate a pitcher who has already demonstrated that he has the ability to exist in a class with baseball’s elite.
7. C.C. Sabathia, New York Yankees
If Michael Pineda is built like a horse, C.C. Sabathia is a Clydesdale. He is physically impressive, yes, but he is built to work.
In 10 MLB seasons, Sabathia has fallen under 190 innings pitched just twice. He has gone over 230 in every year he has been with the Yankees. In 2008, he threw over 250 innings combined for the Indians and Brewers and appeared no worse for wear (in fact, he got better as the year went on and the innings accumulated).
With baseball’s most potent lineup behind him, Sabathia’s durability and consistency means that he will collect wins, no matter if he is especially sharp or not. In 2009 for instance, C.C.’s first year with the Yankees, Sabathia posted a 3.37 ERA, his highest since 2005. That year he racked up 19 wins, which tied his career high at the time.
Sabathia is a rarity on this list—a player who can make a run at 20 wins not through the intrinsic greatness of his talent but through the consistency of his team’s offense and his durability as a starter.
Even on the days that Sabathia doesn’t have his best stuff, all needs to do is bear down, try to grind through five or six innings and let Mark Teixeira, A-Rod and Robinson Cano do the work for him. On days like these, most starters don’t have the opportunity to collect a W.
Sabathia has an advantage in this regard.
In terms of pure stuff, C.C. can be bad, good or great, depending on the day. Pitching 200-plus innings for the Yankees, he can afford this type of swing in production.
8. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
Felix Hernandez must dream of C.C. Sabathia's career and awaken in a cold sweat, furiously screaming towards the heavens, involuntarily cursing the baseball Gods of karma.
While Sabathia racks up gaudy win totals year after year on the back of a tremendous offense, Felix Hernandez stands in the cold dampness of Seattle, the opposite end of the elite pitcher spectrum in nearly every way.
In each of the last two seasons, Hernandez has posted an ERA lower than Sabathia’s by almost a full run (more, actually in 2009). Last year alone, King Felix threw 249.2 innings of 2.27 ERA ball and finished with a 13-12 record to show for it—well that and a Cy Young Award.
The purpose of this comparison is not to juxtapose Hernandez and Sabathia in terms of individual value. They are both great pitchers in their own rights. It is to highlight just how great Hernandez is, and how capable he is of the 20-win success that Sabathia has enjoyed.
Felix Hernandez is arguably baseball’s best pitcher, who has suffered arguably worse luck than any elite player. He combines the raw talent of teammate Michael Pineda with the precision, polish and experience of Tim Lincecum. His stuff is just as varied and dominant as Lincecum’s and just as overpowering as Pineda’s.
While Hernandez has had some of baseball’s worse luck, talent, it is said, makes its own luck. It is only a matter of time before the quirks and inconsistencies that are inherent to the game tilt themselves in Hernandez’s favor.
And the year that the ball bounces Felix’s way, when he gets a little run support and fewer bad bounces… watch out.
When this time comes, and it assuredly will, fans will not only see a 20-win season from Hernandez, it is probable that we will see the historic season that he is capable of, a true culmination of rare talent and, for once, decent luck.
Who knows? Maybe that year has already begun.
9. Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox
On this list, Lester is like a poor man’s C.C. Sabathia. He isn’t the ultra- durable, innings-eating beast that Sabathia is, but he is a great pitcher working with the added advantage of a great offense.
And like his Yankees counterpart, Lester has been incredibly consistent. Freakishly consistent, even. The kind of consistent that makes you wonder if he is in fact some sort of cancer-beating, no-no throwing machine.
I mean seriously, look at his splits from the last three seasons:
2008: 3.21 ERA/1.27 WHIP/75 ER/152 K
Aside from an increased K rate after 2008, Lester has basically had the same exact season back-to-back-to-back. It’s crazy.
Last year, Lester collected 19 wins. In 2009 he got 15, and in 2008, he ended with 16.
These totals are close enough together, and his statistics from these years are similar enough, to make it safe to assume that with a little improvement from either Lester or the Red Sox offense—something both are undeniably capable of—he could realistically get to 20 wins.
With offseason additions Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez guaranteed to hit their strides at some point in the year, extra run support may be just around the corner.
10. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
If only wins came as easily as strikeouts for Justin Verlander. He would have been accumulating 30- and 40-win seasons for years now.
In four of the last five years, Verlander has won 17 or more games. The only year in which he did not post such a lofty total was 2008, a career-worst effort for the young right-hander and a season that can be reasonably categorized as a statistical anomaly at this point.
The factor that hurts Verlander most in his quest for 20 wins is that he is, at times, completely hittable.
His career best ERA is just 3.37, and he generally hovers around 3.50-3.60—practically elephantine in comparison to other elite pitchers on this list.
However, this hasn’t hurt him so far. Verlander is so capable of striking out the side at any time, of flipping the switch and becoming totally unhittable for an inning or two, that he has been able to limit his damage throughout his career.
Even as elite arsenals go, Verlander’s is something special.
His fastball consistently sits in the upper 90’s, and his power curve and changeup are significant weapons in their own rights. His stuff is so good that not only is he able to win games as a fly-ball pitcher. He has emerged as one of the game’s best.
11. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays
Hidden by the anonymity that is professional baseball in Florida, it may have been easy to miss the fact that David Price was one of the AL’s best pitchers last year.
And like fellow youngster Jered Weaver, Price’s career trends tell us that he is headed for 20 wins sooner rather than later. He almost got there last year, ending the 2010 season at 19-6.
Ever since he entered the big leagues, it has been clear that Price has the stuff to win 20 games. He throws his fastball with surprising zip, cruising at 94-96 and is capable of hitting 100 if he really needs to bump up the velocity.
His slider, though…well that is absolutely filthy. Price’s slider is one of those pitches that you watch and wonder how anyone hits it, ever.
He only throws it at about 88-89 MPH, but the break on it is so sharp and so late, that it often completely breaks down professional swings, making great hitters look silly in the process. His changeup is a work in progress, but that didn’t stop him from dominating last year.
The main concern for Price as a potential 20-game winner that the Rays lost a considerable amount of offense in the offseason, and run support is far from a guarantee. However, with talent like Price has, you don’t need a ton of run support. Most days, a little bit will do.
As the season goes on, and the Rays adjust to life without Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, I expect Price’s run support to increase and for his 2010 dominance to continue.
12. Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles
I know, I know. Putting two rookies on a list of pitchers likely to make a run at 20 wins seems unlikely.
But Zach Britton’s entire 2011 has been unlikely.
Britton was one of baseball’s best pitchers in spring training this year, an honor that means absolutely nothing and has no history of translating to any other form of success, whatsoever.
Still, a 3-0 record with a 1.35 ERA is nothing to sneeze at—even if it is mostly against minor leaguers.
Britton makes the cut for me for the same reason that Trevor Cahill does—he has one of baseball’s best sinkers and is able to use it to shorten innings, go deep into games and give himself chances to collect W’s.
While Britton may not have the experience or proven track record of Cahill, his sinker is perhaps even more dangerous than that of his Oakland counterpart. Although Cahill’s sinker may look so tantalizing that hitters have a hard time laying off it, making him a groundball machine, he is a right-hander, and great though his sinker may be, big league hitters are more accustomed to seeing sinker-ball types throw from the right side.
That Britton is able to match Cahill’s movement and velocity—only as a lefty—makes him completely unique in baseball today. There just aren’t lefthanders who throw with the downward movement that Britton does, let alone do so effectively.
Thus far, major league hitters have been completely baffled by Britton. He has extended his spring training success, starting off 4-1 with a tidy 2.84 ERA. Playing in the AL East against some of the game’s most dangerous lineups, his numbers look even more impressive.
Britton also seems to be enjoying the same first-time-through-the-league advantage as fellow rookie Michael Pineda. AL West hitters have found themselves overwhelmed by facing Pineda for the first time, unable to catch up to his considerable heat.
But those in the AL East have found that facing Britton is more of an exercise in frustration than dominant power, as they ground into double plays and make themselves into easy outs for a pitcher they likely hadn’t heard of before the season started.
Given his unique skill set and relative anonymity, it is entirely possible that Britton shouldn’t be viewed as a long shot on this list but as a legitimate candidate to win 20 games.
13. Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins
Josh Johnson was one of baseball’s best pitchers last year and has continued to tower above his competition in this young season.
In fact, while Johnson was among the games best last season, only baseball’s hottest pitcher, Jered Weaver, has matched his efforts so far in 2011. He has only collected three wins, and his K rate has been (for him) subpar, but he leads MLB in WHIP at 0.65 and is second only to Weaver’s supernatural ERA at 1.06.
Looking at Weaver’s numbers it could be argued that the pace he has set out of the gate is one that he cannot maintain. His numbers are so impressive and such a leap from even his best season, that it seems improbable he will continue his scorching pace. He is a very good pitcher, but the level he is pitching at is great in an all-time sense and is unlikely to hold up all season.
Johnson’s numbers are far easier to buy. While he will not finish the season with a 1.06 ERA, he did finish last season at 2.30, so a miniscule ERA is not something that is out of his reach.
The question with Johnson is health. He has gone over 185 IP only once in his career, and has been famously plagued by injuries since he was drafted in 2002. Also daunting for his 20-win chances is the fact that last year, when he nearly won the Cy Young Award with gaudy ERA, K and WHIP totals, he only finished with 11 wins.
The Marlins offense, it seems, is unlikely to produce a 20-game winner anytime soon.
Still, he is 3-0 so far this year, and if anyone is capable of putting a team on his back and getting to 20 wins all by himself, it is Josh Johnson. That is, of course, so long as he doesn't throw his back out in the process and end up on the 60-day DL.