10 Degrees: The starting pitcher in baseball isn't dead just yet

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Last week, a general manager was considering the starting pitcher. He nearly spoke of it in the past tense. There’s a day coming, he said, sometime in the next five years, when a team is going to run out “a collection of three-inning pitchers throwing 50 pitches” before it yields to the bullpen. This is how baseball works. A team dips its toe in something radical – the five-man rotation, shifting, 13-man pitching staffs – and soon enough the rest of the sport takes the plunge.

This is in its infancy already, as the Tampa Bay Rays fiddle with a four-man rotation and a cadre of long relievers to varying degrees of efficacy. And the eventuality of its evolution by some team into a starting pitcher being simply that – a guy who starts a game and not some standard bearer of manliness whose favorite two letters in the alphabet are CG – saddened the GM. Because baseball, a game that is about a lot of things, is quite often most compellingly about the two men pitching the first inning and trying to stay until the last.

It’s what makes the first six weeks of the 2018 season simultaneously excruciating and edifying to those who believe in the Tao of the Starter. Even as managers yank them quicker than at any time in history, with the average one lasting less than 5½ innings per thus far this season, the starting pitcher is nevertheless having a moment. It’s just a few guys, really, but those few are offering a reminder that for all the marginalization, devaluation and antiquation, a game without the possibility of a starting pitcher shoving for nine innings is missing part of its soul.

Take Sunday. It was typical of a day-game-heavy docket in 2018: In a sport with more strikeouts than hits to begin with, compounding it with the sun’s shadows does batters no favor. Max Scherzer struck out 15 batters in 6 1/3 innings, something no one had done in the more than 400,000 starts over the game’s history. Scherzer’s start, actually, was representative of the rest Sunday. By the end of the day, none of the 30 starters had thrown more than 7 1/3 innings – including Yankees right-hander Domingo German, who in his first major league start threw six no-hit innings. He was one of eight pitchers who went six. Their earned-run totals: 0, 0, 0, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2.

As recently as 2011, starters averaged more than six innings per outing, and they almost reached the mark again in 2014. Then came the precipitous drop that coincided with teams more wary of letting hitters see a starter a third or fourth time: 5.81 innings per start in 2015, 5.65 in 2016, 5.51 in 2017 and 5.46 this year. On Sunday, starters averaged nearly six innings, and it felt like throwback day.

Performance’s like Scherzer’s serve as a reminder that starters still are alpha dogs, the ones with far and away the greatest ability to single-handedly control a game. It’s something that …

1. Clayton Kershaw embodied better than anyone over the last decade, which made Sunday that much more difficult to swallow. His velocity down, his dominance not near what the baseball world has come to expect, the 30-year-old Kershaw hit the disabled list with what the team deemed biceps tendinitis.

It was an intentionally vague description. The biceps muscle connects to both the shoulder and elbow via tendons. In most cases, such a diagnosis refers to the shoulder and specifically soreness and weakness that can be a product of rotator-cuff issues. The Dodgers said there were no such structural problems in Kershaw’s arm. They also did not offer a timetable on his return.

Which, amid all the discussion of the slow demise of the starting pitcher, only exacerbates the melancholy of an all-time great facing a seminal moment in his career. It’s not just the inverse relationship between Kershaw’s age and velocity. It’s the herniated disk in his back that cut his 2016 in half and the lower-back strain that shelved him last year and now this. It’s a thoroughbred unsaddled. It’s seeing …

2. Max Scherzer take over the mantel of Best Pitcher in Baseball – and do so as a 33-year-old no less, a stunning culmination of a decade of improvement that will end up with him and Kershaw sharing plenty of July afternoons together in Cooperstown.

As atypical as the 15-strikeout game Sunday may have been historically, it was decidedly on-brand for 2018 Scherzer. He’s punching out hitters this season at a rate even more otherworldly than usual. His 80 strikeouts in 51 2/3 innings translate to 13.94 strikeouts per nine. Only two starters have ever exceeded 13 per nine while qualifying for the ERA title: Randy Johnson (13.41 in 2001) and Pedro Martinez (13.2 in 1999).

Scherzer is aiming to become the third pitcher, alongside Johnson and Greg Maddux, to win three consecutive Cy Young Awards. (Johnson and Maddux won four straight.) The competition in the National League isn’t nearly as fierce without Kershaw dealing. And it’s not close to what …

3. Justin Verlander is facing in the American League as his renaissance with Houston continues. Since the Astros acquired him, Verlander has made 19 appearances, including during their World Series run. He has thrown 124 innings, allowed 66 hits, walked 24, struck out 151 and posted a 1.45 ERA.

In his 13th full season, Verlander is firing his fastball like he did a decade ago. In his battle against age, the 35-year-old Verlander is in the midst of an early-round knockout. He is striking out more guys than ever (11.74 per nine), walking fewer than ever (1.84 per nine) and giving up a scant amount of home runs despite nearly three-quarters of the balls that wind up in play going in the air.

Since he debuted, nobody has thrown more innings than Verlander’s 2,598 2/3 nor has anyone struck out more than his 2,486. Part of his grandeur is the mundanity of punching that clock: 30-something starts, 200-plus innings, 10 of the past 11 years. It might be the most underappreciated part of Verlander, because so few are capable of combining the luminosity of excellence with the drabness of lunch-pail pitching. It’s why no matter how great …

4. Gerrit Cole has looked – and great hardly begins to describe it – one ought pump the breaks a touch before declaring him and his resplendent six weeks anything more than a resplendent six weeks.

Because admittedly it’s easy to get caught up in Cole’s one-hit, one-walk, 16-strikeout masterpiece against Arizona, the best team in the National League. Only 15 outings in history have gone nine innings and reached 100 in Bill James’ Game Score metric. Six were no-hitters, three perfect games. And the latest was Cole’s start Friday.

His numbers on the season exceed Scherzer’s and Verlander’s, even if the latter does sport an MLB-best 1.17 ERA. Cole’s line: 50 2/3 innings, 26 hits, nine walks, 77 strikeouts, 1.42 ERA. His fielding-independent pitching number – which uses his strikeout, walk and home run totals to offer a predictive metric – is far and away the best in the game. He finds himself surrounded by good company in another area: preying on the launch-angle revolution by inviting – and inciting – flyballs. Verlander ranks third among qualified starters with a groundball rate of 27.2 percent. Cole is eighth at 31.9 percent. Scherzer, long a practitioner of keeping the ball in the air, is 12th at 35 percent.

Now comes the trying part for Cole: doing it again and again and again, building up those 200-inning seasons, embracing the year-in, year-out grind that embodies starting-pitching excellence. It’s what was missing from all of the fulsome …

5. Matt Harvey tributes after the New York Mets designated him for assignment on Friday. Matt Harvey, 29 years old, still hasn’t started 30 games in a season. He still hasn’t thrown 200 innings. He was great in 2013 … and then his elbow ligament gave out. He was awfully good in 2015, too. And since his ill-fated attempt at completing a World Series game, he has been bad, worse and, now, let go in his walk year, which is the greatest indignity of all.

The closest facsimile to Harvey may be Mark Prior, whose flashes of brilliance were undercut by his arm’s unwillingness to cooperate. His star burned out more quickly than Harvey, who will get another opportunity this week, either via trade or, if the Mets can’t work out a deal, then as a free agent. Wherever he goes, Harvey’s new team will inject into its clubhouse a player whose reputation exists in tabloid covers and whispers inside that game that paint a picture worse than the Monkey Christ.

The truth about Harvey is that breaking curfew and partying with models wouldn’t be an issue if he were any good. It wouldn’t matter if Drew Pomeranz, taken two picks ahead of Harvey in the 2010 draft, didn’t have more career Wins Above Replacement than him. As quick as the world is to blame Harvey’s declining fastball velocity for his troubles, the truth is that a slower fastball is no death sentence. The best pitchers adjust. They compensate. Harvey’s average fastball this season is 92.6 mph. Guess what …

6. Chris Sale’s is? Even slower, at 92.4 mph, and he seems to be doing just fine, thank you very much. Sale is doing typically Sale things: 2.02 ERA, 11.57 strikeouts per nine, ho-hum. He’s so good that at 29 he’s officially in the taken-for-granted portion of his career.

Part of that, certainly, is because in his six years as a starter Sale hasn’t won a Cy Young. He’s good for the 30-plus starts and 200-plus innings (four times in five seasons) and for the silly career strikeout rate (10.56 per nine, tops among all active starters). He went behind Harvey and Pomeranz (and Barret Loux and Karsten Whitson and Deck McGuire) in that 2010 draft because scouts saw the pipe-cleaner body and unorthodox arm action and were certain he’d break. And here he is, nearly a decade later, every piece harmonious.

Bill James this week talked about how few superstars there really are in baseball. The same argument can apply to aces. The designation gets thrown around far too frequently, as though an ace is any old jabroni who happens to be the best pitcher in a given rotation. Please do not be that person. Acehood is earned through years upon years of excellence but can be lost in hurry. Sale is an ace, and …

7. Corey Kluber joined him there over the last half-decade. Innings matter, and while they are not the be-all, end-all, the combination of performance and volume connotes acehood more than anything. Kershaw has gotten a pass on the innings because the depth of his excellence so exceeded his peers’. Since 2014, here are the top 3 in innings pitched: Kluber, Scherzer, Sale.

Kluber’s numbers don’t just stack up favorably with Scherzer’s and Sale’s. In many cases, they’re better. His 16 complete games? Best. Six shutouts? Best. ERA+ of 154? Best. FIP of 2.81? Best. Everything else is right there with Scherzer and Sale. Scherzer’s afterburners in the last three years give him the advantage today, though it’s up for grabs every month, it seems.

The hunt for another pitcher of that ilk is ever ongoing, and it could be

8. Luis Severino or Noah Syndergaard or Jacob deGrom or Carlos Martinez or Stephen Strasburg or Trevor Bauer or Patrick Corbin or Sean Manaea or Rick Porcello or James Paxton or, pitching being what it is, probably somebody else, either aforementioned or forthcoming or not even on the list.

Severino and Syndergaard throw harder than anyone. DeGrom has performed better than anyone. Martinez loves eating innings. Strasburg is evermore on the cusp. Bauer can throw more than anyone. Corbin is in the midst of a breakout. Manaea, despite dipping fastball velocity, has been unhittable. Porcello needs consistency. Paxton needs health.

There’s a lot of really good starting pitching right now, and the notion of a baseball world that doesn’t foster it – that seeks to build the next Josh Hader and not the next …

9. Shohei Ohtani – just doesn’t square. Actually, building the next Ohtani may be a little too much to ask.

He stepped back onto the mound Sunday in Seattle, where they booed him because he chose to play for the Angels instead of the Mariners. The thirst was real, and throughout the afternoon they grew even more parched, watching Ohtani, in his first start in nearly two weeks, strike out six over six strong innings.

It wasn’t exactly the April 8 game that seems so long ago, where Ohtani punched out a dozen A’s in seven innings. His two starts after that were iffy and gave way to this one, which ended after his 98th pitch. Ohtani still hasn’t cracked 100 in a game, and he’s probably not going to throw much more than 125 innings this season, and at 23 years old and now entrenched in the middle of the Angels’ lineup, too, not pushing him too far on the mound – particularly with an iffy elbow – is imperative.

It may take a while yet for Ohtani to crack the ace club. In the meantime, at least he offers Southern California something to get excited about until …

10. Clayton Kershaw returns. Because the Dodgers were something of a mess already before Kershaw hit the DL, and now, with Corey Seager out following Tommy John surgery, with Hyun-Jin Ryu tearing a groin muscle off the bone, with Justin Turner and Yasiel Puig still out and with a bullpen set on implode, the one stabilizing force that did exist – the promise of Kershaw going every fifth day – isn’t happening, either.

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw is out indefinitely with biceps tendinitis. (AP)
Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw is out indefinitely with biceps tendinitis. (AP)

Rarely does one injury prompt so many questions big and small. Its severity could prompt Kershaw to reconsider opting out of the final two years of his deal. It could force the Dodgers, already wary of devoting significant money to a player on the wrong side of 30, to face an exceedingly difficult decision if he still does test the market. Would they really consider not bringing back a lifetime Dodger with a career ERA of 2.37 over a decade?

Truth be told, all of these questions were being bandied about even before Kershaw’s injury. The value of a starting pitcher in today’s game simply isn’t what it once was – even after the Astros rode their starters to a title – and the economics matter. Kershaw makes more than $1 million a start. Is that an efficient way for a team to spend its money? Or would that be better spent on, say, a cadre of those cheap three-inning types, whom the arbitration system would undervalue, and a star hitter?

There are executives who would answer those two questions: no, yes. The starting pitcher is still here, still often great, still the embodiment of dominance in a game with so few opportunities for it. He is also fighting against becoming an anachronism. It is a fight he has been losing, and as baseball continues to barrel toward its sabermetric singularity, it will be a fight that grows even harder.

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