The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Best Pitchers of the 21st-Century: Part 3

This is the third and final installment of this series.  If you are just discovering this series, and you want to go back and take a look at prior posts, here’s the link to Part 1 (which also discusses the criteria I used compile this list) and Part 2, which lists players #11-#20.

Now, on to pitchers #21-#25:

English: Mike Mussina

English: Mike Mussina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

21)  Mike Mussina – Yes, here’s another one whom we might not think of as, strictly-speaking, a 21st-century pitcher.  Yet about 43% of Mussina’s career WAR value occurred from 2001 until his retirement after the 2008 season.

Mussina’s career fits neatly into almost two halves.  He spent the first ten years of his career, through the year 2000, with the Baltimore Orioles.  They were generally his best years.

During that span, he finished in the top ten in Cy Young voting five times.  In his tenure with the Yankees (2001-2008), he managed to make the top five in voting just once (with a 6th-place showing in his final season as well.)

As an Oriole, Mussina was often a borderline-great pitcher who compiled an ERA+ of 130 in ten years.  As a member of the Yankees, Mussina was still a very good pitcher who compiled an ERA+ of 114, and a WHIP of 1.212, in his final eight years.

As a Yankee, in the 21st-century, Mussina compiled a WAR of 35.2, and a won-lost record of 123-72 (.631), with an ERA of 3.88.  He made 249 starts with the Yankees, tossed 1,553 innings, and struck out 1,278 batters.

His WAR ranks 10th-best all-time for a Yankees pitcher, and his 1,278 K’s rank sixth-best ever for a Yankee starter.

Mussina’s 4.01 strikeout to walk ratio is the best in the entire history of New York Yankees starting pitchers.

Although Mussina led the A.L. in wins with 19 in 1995 (and he also won 19 games in 1996), the first and only time in his entire career that he won 20 games was in the final season of his career, in 2008, when he posted a 20-9 record, in a league-leading 34 starts, for New York’s A.L. franchise.  Lest you think those 20-wins were primarily about run support, his ERA was 3.37, and his ERA+ was 131.

It’s good to go out on top, and that’s what Mussina did after the 2008 season.  He certainly enjoyed a Hall of Fame-worthy career, and he definitely belongs on the list of best pitchers of the 21st-century.

Dan Haren

Dan Haren (Photo credit: on2wheelz)

22)  Dan Haren – Haren has been about as solid as they come over the past decade.  He has won 129 of 316 starts, and boasts a fine WHIP of 1.186.

Over a seven-year period, 2005-11, he averaged 34 starts per season, leading the league in that category three times, and pitching over 200 innings in each of those seven seasons.

From 2007-09, inclusive, he posted a fantastic ERA+ of around 140.  He made three-consecutive All-Star teams, and finished 5th in Cy Young voting in 2009 while pitching for Arizona.

An excellent control pitcher, Haren has walked more than 50 batters in just three of his eleven seasons.  At the same time, he has been an above-average strikeout pitcher, fanning at least 192 batters five times, and over 200 three times.

Though Haren’s past couple of years have been somewhat below his historic standards of effectiveness, a move to the Dodgers and to the N.L. West could help Haren post a nice comeback season in 2014.

cain

cain (Photo credit: artolog)

23)  Matt Cain – Similar to Haren in that he has not received the press he should have for the many fine seasons he’s enjoyed pitching for the Giants.  Still just 29-years old, Cain has already been a veteran of parts of nine MLB seasons.  One of the unluckiest of pitchers, Cain has received little run support throughout his career, and usually ranks among the leaders in no-decisions for that reason.

Cain’s career record of 93-88 does not accurately reflect how well he has usually pitched since 2oo5.  From 2009-11, for example, Cain won just 39 of 99 starts, and was left with 30 no-decisions.  His record during that period was 39-30, but with proper run support, it could have been closer to 50-25.

Still, Cain has received moderate attention in Cy Young voting in three of his seasons, and he’s  been named to three All-Star teams in his career.

A veteran of eight post-season starts, he has demonstrated poise and effectiveness on that stage, going 4-2 with a 2.10 ERA in 51 innings.

Cain certainly has the potential to accomplish much more in has career, which may just now have reached roughly its midpoint.

Josh Beckett

Josh Beckett (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

24)  Josh Beckett – I saw Beckett pitch twice while he was a Portland Sea Dog (AA-Portland, ME) back in the summer of 2001, in the Eastern League.  He was absolutely dominant on both occasions.  He made 13 starts for Portland, posting an 8-1 record, a 1.82 ERA, and 102 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 74 innings.  At age 21, he pitched like a man among boys.

Beckett had been the Marlins 1st-round pick in the 1999 Amateur Draft (2nd pick overall), and rapidly progressed through the Marlin’s system.  After Portland, Beckett later that season made his debut for the Marlins, making four starts near the end of the year.  In those four starts, he struck out 24 batters in 24 innings, resulting in a 1.50 ERA.

For the next four years in Florida, Beckett’s strikeout rate hovered around one per inning.  But he never stayed quite healthy enough to put it all together.  There were always some sort of blisters to contend with, or one ailment or another that suppressed his starts and innings pitched each season.  It wasn’t until he got traded to Boston in the deal for Hanley Ramirez just before the ’06 season that Beckett finally reached the 200 inning pitched level.

But before we get to his Boston years, let’s back up a bit to the 2003 World Series.  Beckett’s performance in that series provided the Marlins with a competitive edge vs. the Yankees.  The 23-year old Beckett made two starts against the Yankees in that World Series.

In 16 innings, he struck out 19 Yankees, gave up just eight hits, only two earned runs, and posted a 1.10 ERA, along with an 0.796 WHIP.  He shut out the Yanks in Game 6, the final game of the Series, defeating Andy Pettitte 2-0.  For his performance, he was named the World Series MVP.

Josh Beckett then spent his next seven seasons, the prime of his career, pitching for the Boston Red Sox. It was a mixed bag.  At times, Beckett demonstrated the incredible promise he flashed in the minors, and from time-to-time with the Marlins.  At other times, he seemed uninterested, unmotivated, and uninspired.  In alternate seasons, Beckett was either among the better pitchers in the A.L., or one of the biggest disappointments.

In 2007, 2009, and 2011, Beckett posted WAR’s of 6.5, 5.1, and 5.8.  In ’07, he won 20 games and finished second in the Cy Young voting for the A.L.  In ’11, he again finished in the top ten in voting.  In each of those three seasons, he made the All-Star team.

In ’06, ’08, ’10, and ’12, however, he posted WAR’s of 2.7, 3.3, -1.0 and 0.2.  What’s more, in perhaps only one season in his career, 2007, out of 13 seasons, could he be said to have pitched and acted like the ace of his staff.  He generally seemed satisfied to get in his 30 starts per year, not push it to the max, and coast when he was able to.

Finally labeled (fairly or not) an out-of-shape clubhouse cancer, he was shipped off to the Dodgers near the end of the dismal (for the entire Red Sox team) 2012 season.  Apparently, management felt that Beckett (and another pitcher or two) eating fried chicken and drinking beer during games did not set a professional tone in the clubhouse.

Stories regarding Beckett simply not taking the game seriously enough even occurred back in his younger days in Florida.  Manager Jack McKeon used to literally lock the door leading from the dugout to the clubhouse because Beckett and one or two others would simply disappear off the bench during games, go into the clubhouse and start drinking beers during the game.

McKeon actually instituted a hall-pass system for the use of the bathroom during games.  Apparently, he expected Beckett to pay attention during the games even on his “off-days” so he could actually learn something by watching the other team’s hitters.

From his earliest days in Portland, Maine in the minors up until last season, Beckett has always been the Texas stud who has gotten by with his hard stuff, dominating on pure talent and adrenaline in short spurts.  But he’s never appeared to take his craft seriously enough to reach the high level of success predicted for him, or the talent God gave him.

Now, at age 34, whatever Beckett has left in the tank should carry him through another couple of seasons in the Majors.

Bartolo Colon

Bartolo Colon (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

25)  Bartolo Colon – As probably already know, the Mets acquired the portly 40-year old pitcher as a free agent this past off-season.  What you may not know is that Colon has a chance to surpass 200 career victories this coming year.  Currently, he has 189 wins in his 16-year career.

Actually, 138 of those wins occurred in our current century.  Colon threw his first pitch in the Majors at age 24 in 1997.  As recently as last season, he led the A.L. in shutouts with three, while winning 18 games and posting a 2.65 ERA in 30 starts.  The big question is, of course, (especially for Mets fans) how much does he have left in the tank?

To a certain extent, a great deal of Colon’s success will depend on the defense behind him.  He throws strikes (just 29 walks in 190 innings last season), so he won’t beat himself with the free pass.  Not at all a strikeout pitcher, he averaged just 5.5 / 9 innings last season, down from his career high of over 10 / 9 innings in the year 2000 as a member of the Cleveland Indians.

With the Mets outfield defense vastly improved over this time last season (assuming they start the terrific Juan Lagares in center-field on Opening Day), and considering that Citi-Field is basically yet another pitchers park (as is Oakland, where he pitched last season), and figuring in that this season he gets to pitch against the others teams’ pitchers for the first time since he spent a half-season with the Expos about a dozen years ago, there is room for optimism here.

The Mets may have caught lightning in a bottle here with this three-time All Star (who won a Cy Young award for the Angels in 2005), or they may discover to their horror that the carriage has turned back into a pumpkin.  But Colon surprised many with his improbable comeback which began in 2012.  Perhaps he can continue to do it on a larger stage in New York City.

Briefly, Those Who Did Not Make the List:

Barry Zito – Zito has made over 400 starts this century, and only three pitchers have tossed more than his 2,477 innings.  He also has a WAR of 30.5.  So why did he not make the list?  Well, his career ERA of 4.07 is one reason.  Another is his 1.339 WHIP, higher than any of the 25 pitchers who did make the list.  Also, despite the advantage of pitching his home games in favorable parks, his ERA+ is just 105, a little more than a replacement-level pitcher.

Finally, if you remove his fantastic 2002 season in which he won the A.L. Cy Young award, his career record stands at just 142-138, despite pitching for mostly good teams. This is not to say that Zito has not provided the Giants with any real value, just not nearly as much value as they paid for when they signed him to a contract for over one-hundred million dollars.

Tim Lincecum – Despite two Cy Young awards and four quality seasons, Lincecum did not make my list because his career WAR stands at 23.3 after seven seasons.  Consider that Clayton Kershaw has a WAR of 32.2 after just six seasons.  They’ve each won a pair of Cy Young awards, but the difference is that Kershaw has never had a bad year.  Lincecum has now suffered through two very poor years in a row.

Basically, if Lincecum had even just decent seasons in 2012 and ’13, garnering an additional 3.5 WAR per year, for example, he would have made the list and would have probably been slotted in right behind Kershaw.  But two terrible years, during which he produced a combined -2.3 WAR, cost Lincecum anywhere from 7.0 to 10.0 WAR, a significant drop in production.  In fact, few pitchers in baseball history have ever gone from being so very good to so very bad so quickly, unless they were injured.

As far as we know, Lincecum has not been suffering from any serious arm injuries.  He pitched nearly 200 innings last season, and his strikeout rate is still very solid, if not quite where it was a few years ago.  In short, I have no idea why Lincecum’s career has so suddenly all but imploded.  But whatever the reason, it certainly cost him a place on this list.  I do hope, however, that he finds a way to reverse his recent misfortunes, because The Freak at his best is not only good for the Giants, it’s good for baseball.

Randy Johnson – Johnson was a still a great pitcher in the early first couple of seasons of this century and, like Lincecum, actually won a pair of Cy Young awards while some of us still hadn’t quite grasped that the 1900’s were gone for good.  But eight of Johnson’s best eleven seasons occurred in the 20th-century, and Johnson’s last five seasons in the Majors did not add much to his legacy.

Don’t get me wrong, you can certainly make a case that R.J. belongs on this list, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did.  But in compiling this list, I chose to emphasize pitchers whose accomplishments this century would continue to be overlooked if I added nearly every pitcher who began his career back in the ’80’s, but who remained effective through ’01 or ’02.  Therefore, I decided to evaluate each pitcher on a case-by-case basis.  Since over 60% of R.J.’s effectiveness occurred in the last century, I chose to leave him off this list.  You may disagree with my reasoning, and that’s fine.

Roger Clemens –  See:  Johnson, Randy above.

Yovani Gallardo – Despite four consecutive seasons of over 200 strikeouts, and double-digit wins five times, Gallardo annually posts rather low WAR’s.  I was surprised when looking at his career stats that after seven years, his career WAR stands at an oddly unimpressive 13.3.  In fact, he’s never produced a single-season WAR that’s reached even 3.0 in his entire career.

Gallardo, as far as I can tell, lives for the high pitch count, which limits his overall innings pitched, and produces some big innings for the opposition.  For even though Gallardo has struck out nearly a thousand batters over the past five years, his career WHIP is 1.304, which indicates simply too many runners getting to first base, regardless of his live arm and numerous strikeouts.  His career home run rate of around one per nine innings also reduces his overall effectiveness.  And it isn’t simply the home runs that are the problem, it’s that there always seem to be runners on base when they occur.

Gallardo’s career ERA+ of 109 through age 27 either indicates a to-this-point under-achiever, or a he-is-what-he-is preview of his next seven years.  It’s not that Gallardo has been a bad pitcher.  It’s just that he’s sometimes mistaken for an ace, when, in fact, he’s been more of a #3 starter for his entire career. What comes next, entering his age 28 season, will go a long way towards clarifying his probable future.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for you on this topic.  Agree or disagree, I hope it was worth your while to read it.

 
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14 thoughts on “Best Pitchers of the 21st-Century: Part 3

  1. I was thinking of the basic similarity to Higuera being that both were/are overlooked by a lot of people. Being from Mexico and Brewers might help explain why for both of them. I have no idea how good Gallardo is, but I remember Higuera right behind Clemens and Stewart and Saberhagen among top A.L. pitchers in that ’85-’89 time frame.

  2. Great series, Bill. Your knowledge of players is amazing.

  3. Great series, Bill. Always try and wait until it’s complete before commenting, lest I put my foot too firmly in my mouth.
    Haren was, to me the surprise of the list, especially of Lincecum and Johnson. Having read over your commentary, can’t say that I disagree with him making the list and the other two being left out. Heck of a good list.
    v

  4. Mike Cornelius on said:

    Great job as always Bill! I was dismayed by Mussina’s weak showing in the HOF balloting. I certainly didn’t expect him to go in on the first ballot, but those results were just disrespectful. Hopefully as time goes on and the electorate changes, he will get the respect he deserves.

    Well done as always!
    Mike

    • Thanks, Mike. I, too, was surprised that Mussina got just 20% of the vote. Even with a crowded ballot, that was lower than I would have expected. Hopefully, he gains significant ground over the next year or two, and gets in before much longer. He certainly deserves it.
      Thanks again,
      Bill

  5. Easy to overlook Colon and I did, but no denying his consistency and hopefully for the Mets sake; longevity. My first thought was Lackey or Lester, but the numbers prove me wrong. Signing a pitcher on the other side of 40 always gives me the heeeebie jeeeebies, but the Mets signing Chris Young and already with Legares in center field as you mentioned, they seem to have a plan in place.

    It’s interesting how Becket makes it to the list, but you write it more as a lament. It seems fitting. So much hype around him, could a been so much more. Maybe the same for Zito after he left Oakland. Of course San Francisco was pissed off, but he’s still been effective there.

    The Gallardo pitch counts are part of his deal; gets in front of the batter and can’t put them away, but he does put them away…all those k’s. I think he gets greedy and wants to strike everyone out. So much extra labor, labor, labor. Oh well, he likes strikeouts and he’ll do anything to get them. Gallardo once predicted a 20 win season for himself. He only added to the expectations surrounding him, but the Brewers were never sold on it and went out and got Greinke and then Lohse and now Garza so that pressure is off. Gallardo just needs to keep doing what he’s been doing and what the hell! He snuck into the TTDNML those that did not make list honorable mention.

    Anyway, enjoyable series here. Keep em’ coming. Now for no reason at all, I’m thinking about Billy Hamilton and what he might do on the basepaths this year, if he can get on.

    • Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. And I agree with you that Hamilton could be the most exciting base-runner in decades once he becomes a full-time presence in the line-up. It would be kind of cool to see an 80-steal a year player again.
      Take care,
      Bill

  6. My main thought reading this was that Haren and Gallardo are far and away the two least-known pitchers in this post. I don’t even know what Gallardo looks like. He’s kind of like Teddy Higuera 25 years ago.

    • I’m glad, then, that I included them (though Gallardo made the outside-looking-in list.) Haren has had a sort of unsung career, though he’s not exactly a great pitcher. Gallardo may yet some day deliver his finest seasons. A move out of Milwaukee to either a large-market team and / or one where the fences are much deeper, would help.
      Take care, and thanks for reading
      Bill

    • Sorry to intrude here, but Arne, I think that comes with Milwaukee being the smallest TV market in all of baseball. The Brewers get next no national coverage so unless you subscribe to Extra Innings or mlb.tv, you would never see Gallardo and as far as Haren. He’s been stuck on the west coast his entire career

      Higuera was a southpaw and much more dominant and in control than Gallardo has shown so far. It’s too bad Higuera’s career was cut short, but then again he started in the MLB at 27 years old. Over a short period, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball.

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