As a baseball player of nearly 16 years who took the hill on occasion and a fan of a Baltimore Orioles team that has a recent history of mediocrity in the starting pitching department, I can confirm the old adage that “good pitching beats good hitting” just about every time. Sure, the batter gets his way every now and then, but the man on the mound is largely in control of the game. A pitcher who knows his way around the strike zone and has some movement on his pitches wins about three-fourths of his battles. It’s statistically proven.
With that in mind, there are plenty of pitchers around the league who have the potential to nudge that 75 percent success rate closer to 80 but instead find themselves pushing 70, burdened by lackluster defense behind them, a little bit of bad luck, or simply not performing up to expectations. For reference, last year’s bookends were Jake Arrieta, who had a .185 opponent batting average (81.5 percent success rate) and Mike Pelfrey, whose opponents hit .304 against him (69.6 percent success rate). Bases on balls bump these numbers a bit, though my point remains that hitting major league pitching is one of the hardest things to do in all of professional sports.
It would be easy to take it team by team and give you a slideshow of the most important pitcher on every team’s staff going into the season but, let’s be honest, you want to click through a thirty-page slideshow about as much as Goose Gossage wants to see more bat flips. Instead, I’ll narrow it down to ten pitchers who could make or break their respective team’s 2016 campaign.
Kevin Gausman, RHP, Baltimore Orioles
Any of the Orioles could be listed here and I say that both as a bitter fan and as an unbiased observer. Chris Tillman needs to return to the All-Star form he had in 2013 and carried into 2014. Miguel Gonzalez had a three-year run of success from 2012-2014 during which he posted an impressive 3.45 ERA in 435.2 innings but regressed badly in 2015 and needs to avoid another down year. Yovani Gallardo needs to prove that he is worth the $22 million contract the O’s gave him last month. Ubaldo Jimenez won’t find himself in Cy Young contention like he did in 2010 but could certainly help the club if he pitches anything like he did in the first half of 2015.
Gausman, though, is the most likely candidate to take the reigns as the leader of the O’s staff. This will be the first season in which the former fourth overall draft pick will spend all of his time in the big leagues. He has been flip-flopped between Triple-A and the majors over the past couple seasons as the Orioles looked to utilize his options to the maximum. After his final call-up in July last year, Gausman posted a 3.86 ERA in 79.1 innings. Hopefully, a solidified spot in the rotation will allow him to garner a bit of confidence and pitch to the ability that made him a first-round draft pick in 2012. A consistent routine is key for a starting pitcher and Gausman is certainly a better pitcher when he finds a groove.
Not only would an ace-like Gausman bring O’s fans a bit of comfort after watching former farmhand Jake Arrieta win 22 games and a Cy Young Award last year with the Chicago Cubs, it would give the O’s a much needed rotation anchor in a division in which good pitching is paramount. Granted, it will take a lot more than just Gausman pitching well for the Orioles to compete, as I mentioned above, but it would certainly be a good start.
It should also be noted that Gausman, who admitted to struggling with his eyesight and wore prescription goggles for much of last season, underwent a LASIK procedure in October. So, although he won’t resemble Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn anymore, Gausman certainly might pitch like the the “Major League” character.
On Sunday, Gausman received a cortisone injection in his shoulder. He missed six weeks last season due to shoulder tendinitis, so this recent flare is certainly a cause for concern. Should Gausman miss the beginning of the season, the O’s will certainly feel the pain as well.
Marcus Stroman, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
After an impressive rookie campaign in which he posted a 3.65 ERA (2.84 FIP) over 130.2 innings, 5-foot-8 Jays hurler Marcus Stroman tore his ACL in the spring of 2015 and was told he would miss the season. “The return shall be legendary” said Stroman, via Twitter, and sure enough, the youngster fought back and returned in time to make four starts (all of which he won) in September and pitch in the playoffs.
Stroman has been great in his limited time in the majors. Now, with the departure of David Price to the Boston Red Sox, the Jays faithful expect Stroman to step up and become the ace of the staff and there is absolutely no reason to believe that he is not capable of doing so. He has one of the strongest work ethics in the game and even trademarked “HDMH,” an acronym meaning “Height Doesn’t Measure Heart,” fitting for one of the shortest guys in the league. The results are there for Stroman, who appears ready to assume the role of ace in Toronto.
Boasting a lineup that scored the most runs in baseball by a long shot last season, the Jays’ strong suit is clearly their offense. They are one of the few teams that can take “good pitching beats good hitting” and turn it into a completely invalid argument. That said, they need to pitch well unless they plan on scoring touchdowns every game. Stroman shutting down the opposing offense every fifth day would bode very well for the reigning AL East champions.
Carlos Rodon, LHP, Chicago White Sox
The South Siders quietly had one of the best three-headed beasts last season in their starting rotation. Chris Sale has proven himself as one of the most dominant pitchers in the game and Jose Quintana is not very far behind. The third, Carlos Rodon, is the baby of the bunch and has just one year of experience under his belt. His sweeping slider is one of the best in baseball but his control is an issue. Rodon allowed a staggering 71 walks in 139.1 innings pitched last year, including at least one free pass in all but two of his starts.
A former third overall draft pick, Rodon sped through the minor leagues and quickly found himself in the mix as one of the key elements of the White Sox pitching staff. Good left handed pitchers are hard to find nowadays and the Sox are lucky enough to claim three of them as their own in Sale, Quintana, and Rodon. Young pitchers tend to struggle with control, as was the case with Rodon last year. If he can locate his fastball and appropriately mix in his slider while consistently hitting his targets, his numbers will improve as he compliments Sale and Quintana in that rotation.
It was an active offseason for the White Sox, who bolstered their infield with the acquisitions of Todd Frazier, Brett Lawrie, and Jimmy Rollins. They will struggle to compete with the defending champion Kansas City Royals but hope to be good enough at least for a Wild Card spot. A huge part of that will depend on the success of guys like Rodon and Mat Latos, who the Sox signed to a one-year, $3 million deal this offseason. It is always tough to tell whether or not a good team on paper will mesh on the field but the White Sox appear to be in a position to compete in 2016.
Chemistry is a key element to success in every team sport. The White Sox clubhouse seems to be a bit divided right now in light of the debacle with Adam LaRoche and his son, Drake. It will be interesting to see how the guys in the locker room handle the turmoil and if they will be able to click as a unit once the regular season gets started.
Andrew Heaney, LHP, Los Angeles Angels
Andrew Heaney was acquired by the Angels as part of a three-team deal in December of 2014 and split his time in 2015 between Triple-A Salt Lake and the Angels. He actually pitched better in the majors than he did in the minors, posting a 3.49 ERA in over 100 innings as part of the big club. His emergence as the type of pitcher that has made him a top-50 prospect in the past three years would be huge for an Angels club struggling to keep up with the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros.
With Jered Weaver losing velocity at an alarming rate and the injury bug’s fascination with C.J. Wilson and Tyler Skaggs, the Angels need someone to back Garrett Richards and Hector Santiago in the middle of their rotation. Matt Shoemaker was very good in 2014 but struggled last season and is having a rough spring so far. Heaney could emerge as the Angels’ second best pitcher or even their ace if he reaches his ceiling soon.
The former ninth overall pick will not blow hitters away with any of his pitches but he locates well and has good fundamentals. He repeats his delivery well, which is something that has helped keep him healthy. There is no denying he’s a talented kid but young pitchers are highly unpredictable in terms of development. If the Angels staff continues to do a good job with polishing Heaney, he should turn out alright and help the Halos significantly.
Yu Darvish, RHP, Texas Rangers
Tommy John surgery kept ace Yu Darvish absent from a 2015 Rangers team that won 88 games en route to the American League West title. The trade deadline acquisition of Cole Hamels helped push the Rangers over the hump and give them the firepower they needed to take the division from the star-studded Astros. Another huge factor in the team’s success was the unexpectedly impressive seasons put together by Rougned Odor and Delino DeShields. They also got good years from Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, both of whom under-performed in 2014.
Darvish is expected to return to the Rangers rotation sometime in May, according to reports. He has been doing some bullpen work during spring training but has yet to see any live game action. He will continue throwing for the next few weeks as the Rangers monitor his progress.
A quick return to the rotation would be beneficial for the Rangers, who expect to compete with the Astros and Angels this season. Darvish has been an All-Star in each of his three full seasons in the majors and will hopefully return to that form once he is ready to come back. A Hamels-Darvish duo at the top of the rotation sounds like a poor man’s Kershaw-Greinke and I’m sure the Rangers would be perfectly alright with that.
Wei-Yin Chen, LHP, Miami Marlins
The Marlins dished out a hefty chunk of change for a very average pitcher in Wei-Yin Chen. The five-year, $80 million deal for the lefty shows just how inflated the starting pitching market has become. The Marlins, however, were in dire need of some solid starting pitching and they went out and got their man.
The National League East division is tricky for the Marlins because of the clear separation in talent between the other four teams. The New York Mets are the clear frontrunners with the Washington Nationals not far behind and the Atlanta Braves are fighting for last place with the Philadelphia Phillies. That leaves the Marlins somewhere in the middle. While they likely will not compete for the division title this year, there’s a small chance they could compete for a Wild Card spot, especially if they get full, healthy seasons from Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez.
Consequently, a big part of their success lies on Chen. A solid one-two punch at the top of the rotation is more than beneficial for a major league club. If Fernandez can stay healthy and pitch like everybody knows he can, having a solid guy behind him will be huge for the Fish. They have lots of talented guys on offense who appear ready to take the next step. Chen was not cheap but he has the opportunity to prove that he was worth the big bucks. As someone who has watched Chen develop over the last few years, I can vouch for his ability to go deep into games and keep his team close.
The Marlins, on Sunday, named Wei-Yin Chen their Opening Day starter, which surprised many people around baseball who expected Jose Fernandez to get the nod. It will be interesting to see how the Marlins choose to handle the two guys at the top of their rotation.
I’m also very curious to see how he adjusts to a new ballpark. He has had the benefit of pitching with a very good Orioles defense behind him. We will soon find out how much of Chen’s success was related to having that strong support system.
Tanner Roark, RHP, Washington Nationals
Roark started 31 games in 2014 and won 15 of them, posting a 2.85 ERA in nearly 200 innings. He was relegated to the bullpen for much of 2015 due to a logjam in the Nationals starting rotation. This year, after the departure of Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, Roark appears to have solidified a spot in the rotation and will have the benefit of returning to a normal schedule.
The Nationals have one of the best rotations in baseball, featuring Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez. Young phenom Lucas Giolito appears ready to crack the rotation and that likely leaves Roark in the fifth spot after the injury to Bronson Arroyo. Top to bottom, that rotation looks good enough to compete with the young guns of the New York Mets.
Despite having one of the most all-around talented teams in baseball over the past few seasons, the Nationals have yet to make it past the first round of the playoffs and won just 83 games last season as the Mets took control of the NL East. A solid Tanner Roark at the bottom of the rotation would be huge for the Nationals and allow them to boast a rotation whose fifth starter is better than many teams’ second or third.
Returning to old form is a common theme for many of these “pitchers to watch” but part of the intrigue with pitchers is finding out whether or not they can pitch like they once did, especially after a bump in the road. For Roark, that bump was his move to the bullpen. For many others, it’s injury. Roark can count himself lucky in that regard.
Carlos Martinez, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals seem to have found a gem in Carlos Martinez, whose first contract (which he signed as an international free agent) with the Red Sox was voided due to complications with his visa. In fairness, though, the Cardinals find gems just about everywhere they look. (See: Kolten Wong, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal… need I continue?)
Martinez compliments a rotation anchored by four-time 20-game winner Adam Wainwright, who is on the wrong side of 30 but was still pitching at a high level before a ruptured Achilles ended his 2015 season. Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia solidify the middle of the rotation. That leaves Martinez and newly acquired Mike Leake at the bottom of the rotation, filling the void left by Lynn, who underwent Tommy John surgery and will miss the entirety of the season.
There’s no doubt Martinez’s stellar 2015 performance was inspired at least in part by the tragic passing of his best friend, Oscar Taveras. Martinez was vocal about how much his teammate meant to him and honored Taveras by wearing his number, 18. Martinez posted a 3.01 ERA in 179.2 innings, punching out 184 batters. On the anniversary of Taveras’ big league debut, unofficially dubbed “Oscar Taveras Day” by the Cardinals, Martinez pitched seven shutout innings featuring eight strikeouts and only one hit allowed.
Martinez solidifies a rotation that, top to bottom, is better than that of their division rivals in Pittsburgh and Chicago. Whether or not he can continue his dominance remains to be seen but he certainly has the “stuff” and the poise to develop into a stud on the mound. And, let’s face it, the Cardinals have an uncanny knack for turning just about anybody into a stud.
John Lackey, RHP, Chicago Cubs
The Cubs added Lackey to fill in a rotation led by reigning Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, who in 2015 put together one of the best individual seasons we have seen in recent years. Known for their young, potent offense, the Cubs’ biggest question is their starting rotation. The addition of Lackey helps round out a rotation featuring a couple of other guys in Jon Lester and Jason Hammel who certainly aren’t getting any younger.
It’s expected that the Cubs will compete with the St. Louis Cardinals for the division title, which would be their first since 2008. There is no doubt that the Cubs are a very talented team but so many question marks exist nonetheless. Many are left wondering if the Cubs’ magical 2015 season is repeatable. Potential sophomore slumps loom large and some think Arrieta’s performance may have been a bit of an anomaly.
Lackey’s 2.77 ERA with the Cardinals in 2015 was his best as a professional. Although 37 years old, he is still pitching at a fairly high level. Father Time is generally unkind, though, and it will be exciting to see how long Lackey holds up as a dominant pitcher.
Zack Greinke, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
A lot of people were surprised when Greinke elected to leave the Los Angeles Dodgers and sign with the division rival Diamondbacks. More people were surprised when the Dbacks went on to send a package including their top prospect, shortstop Dansby Swanson, to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Shelby Miller. These moves left the Dbacks, whose offense ranked second in the National League in runs scored last season, with a strong one-two punch at the top of their rotation.
We all know what Greinke is capable of – after all, he finished second in NL Cy Young voting last season. The big question for the Diamondbacks is whether or not they will be able to compete with the beasts of the division. The Dodgers and San Francisco Giants are considered the top forces in the NL West but the Diamondbacks think they have a good enough team to hang around with the big boys.
Transitioning from one team to another is nothing new for Greinke, who is entering his 13th season on what will be his fifth major league club. He is expected to continue dominating opposing hitters with his new team but the largest benefit for the Diamondbacks could potentially be what their young staff can learn from the veteran. Archie Bradley and Patrick Corbin are two guys who have shown flashes of brilliance in their brief careers and could improve greatly by watching someone like Greinke on a regular basis. If Greinke can help polish the youngsters and turn them into solid pitchers, the Diamondbacks could be a real force.