June 3, 2011
Divide and Conquer, AL West
The Year of the Pitcher... Again?
It's June 3, and baseball's most tightly-clustered division houses not only the worst first-place team (Texas, at 31-26 going into Friday's action) and the best last-place team (Oakland, at 27-30) in the game, but also the best top-to-bottom starting pitching of any single division. Well, sort of. OK, not exactly. Call it the best conglomeration of ballpark-, league-, and luck-influenced starting pitching performance, if you will, because arriving at this conclusion requires the use of old-fashioned earned run average rather than the ubiquitous peripherals-based metrics that better reflect actual pitcher skill, but there it is all the same:
4. Seattle Mariners: 351
Granted, it wasn't so difficult to forecast quality overall run prevention from the starting corps of the three highest-ranked ballclubs here at the outset of the season—that owes to not only the initial quality of each starting rotation, but also the depressed run-scoring environment and the pitcher-friendly nature of the home ballparks in Anaheim and Seattle (both carry multi-year park factors of 95; to my surprise, Oakland-Alameda County/Overstock.com Coliseum sits at 102).
This, though, is close to being off the charts: The Angels' present 623 runs allowed pace would work out to their best single-season mark since 1989 (578 runs allowed), whereas the Athletics' 580 runs allowed pace would represent their finest single-season mark since the AL pennant-winning 1990 Athletics yielded 570 runs. The Mariners, for their part, would set a new franchise best* if they could remain on their present 601 runs allowed trajectory. And the Rangers, a team that entered the season with two upper-tier starters in Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson, a veritable bundle of question marks lined up behind them (Alexi Ogando, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison), and a decent (but soon thereafter injury-ravaged) bullpen, are on pace to allow only 654 runs—their potential best mark since 1983, during the magical era of Charlie Hough, Danny Darwin, and Rick Honeycutt.
[* Of course, even a new franchise record in the low-600s range may still pale in comparison to the 627 runs allowed by the fabled 2001 Mariners once you consider that the latter feat was accomplished in a league where an extra half-run was being scored on average per game, but hey, there you go.]
Not surprisingly, this division-wide run-preventing excellence has been a direct function of some superb individual efforts, as six of the best eight starter ERAs in the American League reside in the West. Four of these—Jered Weaver (2.10 ERA), Trevor Cahill (2.31 ERA), Dan Haren (2.32 ERA), and Gio Gonzalez (2.49 ERA)—obviously transcend far beyond the pre-season forecasts, but also don't constitute absolutely flooring two-month outcomes, as all four had previously experienced varying degrees of success in major-league rotations. The other two in this group, however, are surprising names to find on this list to the extent that neither had logged a single major-league inning as a starting pitcher coming into the 2011 season, with one in particular having started only three games in his entire professional career.
On the one hand, Michael Pineda (2.30 ERA) was nothing short of a dominant, front-line, five-star pitching prospect entering this spring (as Kevin Goldstein asserted on more than one occasion), and to be clear, was somebody you could see pitching well (albeit not this well) from the outset of the season. On the other hand, there was fairly solid agreement that his changeup wasn't yet where it needed to be and that until he acquired a bit more minor-league polish, his overall performance would be undermined—especially against left-handed batters. However, he's in the midst of one of the greatest first-year campaigns ever strung together by a starting pitcher.
Of the 193 pitchers in the live-ball era (1920-present) who (a) amassed enough innings in their first major-league season to qualify for their league's ERA title and (b) started in at least 60 percent of their total appearances, Pineda's strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.65) ranks third behind only Don Sutton (4.02 K/BB in 1966) and Dwight Gooden (3.65 K/BB in 1984). His 162 ERA+ and 554 opponents' OPS rank second behind only Brandon Webb (165 ERA+ in 2003) and, once again, Gooden (.545), respectively. He is, quite frankly, a strike-throwing monster, with a devastating fastball-slider one-two punch that, in my few times watching him, he has been able to locate anywhere within the zone at will. And though I'm certainly dubious as to whether his success against lefty hitters will continue to this degree, their meager .216/.277/.344, 10-walk, and 30-strikeout showing is suggestive of a changeup that's helping far more than it is hindering.
Compelling as the Pineda narrative might be, there's something about the other hurler rounding out that six-man group that I still can't figure out. Now going on 28 years old and a few years removed from his extended stay in baseball purgatory (or a five-year ban from entering the United States as a consequence of his involvement in a Dominican marriage fraud scandal), Alexi Ogando (2.33 ERA) only earned his shot in the Rangers' rotation once Tommy Hunter fell to a strained groin late in spring training, and was trailed closely by questions about his max-effort mechanics (which weren't/aren't thought to be conducive to long-term success in a starting role), his lack of a legitimate third pitch beyond the fastball-slider combo that he wielded so effectively as a setup man in 2010, his durability (having only three pro starts to your name tends to evoke that question), and, in particular, the early-season question of whether he should be sent back to reinforce a struggling bullpen once Hunter regained his health.
As it turns out, the Rangers never did come up with any sort of viable replacement for Ogando, and still haven't, and now, given his performance to date, possibly never will. After experiencing another twinge in his groin during the final days of a medical rehab assignment, Hunter was shut down again, and is reportedly at least a month away. Scott Feldman (knee surgery) backed off from his own rehab assignment after reporting that his knee was still too weak. Brandon Webb (shoulder surgery) has been shut down yet again with shoulder inflammation, and is probably a lost cause as far as the 2011 season is concerned. This has been a most improbable case of an injury to an apparent rotation lock paying huge dividends for the suffering team—and for a pitcher whose entire baseball career seems to be built on the foundation of improbable events.
The thing about Ogando is that his success hasn't been nearly as much a function of brilliant underlying peripherals as Pineda's has. Oh, sure, 6.4 K/9 to just 2.1 BB/9 and around one homer allowed every nine innings is strong, but it's not strong enough to support that degree of run prevention in its own right. The fact that they've been paired with the lowest BABIP (.210) and second-highest baserunner strand rate (86.7 percent) of any starting pitcher in baseball, however, goes much further towards explaining why he's performed like an ace starter to this point—and like Pineda, the fact that Ogando's changeup has been more of a show-me pitch than a truly reliable weapon hasn't precluded an lefty batting line of just .213/.258/.360 with 26 strikeouts against just seven walks.
And in a division where the pitching looks about as strong from top to bottom as it has at any point in the last several decades, I'd dare to suggest that there haven't been two more fun pitchers to watch ply their craft every fifth day than Pineda and Ogando.