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June 14, 2012

Future Shock

Picking Pitchers

by Kevin Goldstein

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On the surface, the question seems like an easy one: if your team were playing in a championship game tomorrow, and you could have any starting pitcher to pitch that game for you, who would it be? Your choice is of any ace in the game, but for some it's not just about statistics, it's about comfort and mitigating risk. The question was posed to 12 industry insiders, ranging from pro scout to general manager, and those twelve generated five different responses.

1. Justin Verlander, Tigers (seven votes)
Verlander was the runaway winner, but some might be surprised to see that he collected just over half the votes. “He just walks to the mound like he owns it,” said an American League scouting official. “You're talking about 95-100 mph to both sides of the plate, a hellacious curveball and a plus change.” A National League scout agreed, while focusing on the thought of just one game. “He's capable of no-hitting anyone at any time, in any place,” he said. “Every time you see him you wonder if you're going to see something special.” A National League front office member also focused on the one-game aspect, but took a different angle: “Verlander has been the most consistent when it comes to maintaining plus-plus stuff deep into games, which for me is really what you ask for when looking for the best player to start one game.”

T2. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (two votes)
One of the two young guns to receive votes, Kershaw is just 24 years old and is already on his fourth straight year of putting up ace-level numbers in the big leagues. “Verlander has more pitches and better stuff, and really he and Kershaw are the only two considerations for me,” said one NL official. “I just think Kershaw is the most likely to dominate in a start tomorrow.”

T2. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (two votes)
Despite being just 23 years old with less than 170 innings under his belt, Strasburg got a couple of nods. “His stuff is just so much better than anyone else's stuff,” said an AL official, while a scouting executive agreed, adding, “He's evolving from a pure flame guy to a pure pitcher that has an assortment of weapons."

T4. C.C. Sabathia, Yankees (one vote)
Sabathia is generally considered an ace despite the fact that he's had an ERA under three just once in his career and struck out over 200 batters only three times. “He's just the man,” said an assistant general manager. “I know it doesn't match up objectively or on the foundation of any evidence. But I think about what he did in Milwaukee and I think about him ripping off win after win with the Yankees and for me this is a question about trust and I trust that guy.”

T4. Jered Weaver, Angels (one vote)
Last year's runner up in the Cy Young voting, Weaver has improved his rate stats this year and one American League executive decided to turn away from the strikeout machines and go for the efficiency. “I was just thinking about power guys, and I still might rather have power,” he explained. “But Verlander is in a bit of a funk right now, so I'll take the guy I know is going to consistently throw strikes.”

Thinking About The Future
But let's mix things up at bit and change the timeframe of this question to three years down the road. Your team is guaranteed a game seven in the 2015 World Series. You can pick any starting pitcher for the game, but you have to choose him today. While one pitcher pulled away with the most votes, options nonetheless went from a handful to a plethora. “There's so much pitching right now,” said an assistant GM. “There are so many kids that are mechanically sound, and with strength and conditioning and the way teams are protecting their arms, everything is going towards an era of pitching. It's hard to be a hitter right now.” Still, the questions left another executive thinking about young hitters. “Can I take Harper and Trout and then not care about what pitcher I get?” he joked.

1. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (six votes)
While Strasburg ran away with the voting, he could have dominated had there not been concern about his injury history. “I'm sticking with Strasburg here, but while my gut says Strasburg, my brain says he might be hurt,” said one scouting director. For others, his injury issues were safely in the rearview mirror. “2015?” asked an NL scout. “He's four years removed from Tommy John surgery and has four Cy Young awards on his mantle.” A scouting official who selected Verlander for the game tomorrow selected Strasburg in 2015, while noting similarities between the two. “He's what Verlander was three years ago,” he said. “He's going to be that monster that shuts you down on any given day.”

2. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (three votes)
Kershaw finished second in both polls, a testament to both his youth and talent. “What is he now? 24?” asked an NL official. “We're talking about a left-hander with dynamite stuff. It could be scary to think about what he looks like in three years.”

T3. Dylan Bundy, Orioles (one vote)
The biggest surprise of the poll was a vote for a pitcher currently in A-ball, but both Bundy's stuff and minor league numbers have been the talk of the first half of the season. “We can agree that he's up next year, and maybe as soon as he clears the service time for super-two status,” explained an assistant GM. “In 2015, we're talking about a 22-year-old with two-and-a-half years of service time, and he could be pretty damn good.”

T3. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals (one vote)
With a walk rate that continues to drop and a strikeout rate that continues to increase, Gonzalez is an under-the-radar pitcher who is slowly but surely working his way to ace status. “I'm taking a 26-year-old who is elite now and has gotten better every year,” said an American League scout.

T3. Matt Moore, Rays (one vote)
Entering the year as the top prospect in baseball, Moore has begun to dominate more in his first full big league season, and he's still years from his prime. “He has the upside everyone is looking for, and he'd just be coming into the prime of his career at that point,” said an assistant GM. “I'll admit Trevor Bauer came to mind, but I just can't go there yet.”

T3. Justin Verlander (one vote)
The winner of the right now vote, one AL official was quick to note that there's no reason to think Verlander shouldn't be in play three years from now. “He'll be 32, it's not like he'll be old,” he said.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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