Tuesday, July 8, 2014

AL Final Vote: Choose Chris Sale

Chicago's sale is having a Cy Young caliber season (TheSportsPost)
Not surprisingly, in a year where offense continues to take a back seat to pitching and defense, all five of the American League's candidates for the final roster spots are men who make their living on the mound. And with the exception of Chris Sale, none of them have been All-Star before. They're not quite household names just yet, but one of them could become one depending on how the voting turns out.

Well, at least having a quintet of pitchers to choose from makes the comparisons easy. Here are my rankings in descending order, from least deserving to most deserving.

5. Rick Porcello
Porcello hasn't been this good since 2009, when he was a 20 year-old rookie making a name for himself in a rotation featuring Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson (when he was good), and Armando Galarraga (pre-near-perfecto). But don't let his shiny record (11-5) fool you; he's the least deserving candidate. Not only is his 3.53 ERA the highest of the five, but he also has the fewest strikeouts and lowest bWAR score. He's having a good season, don't get me wrong, on track to post the best numbers of his career and possibly win 20 games. But he's a middle of the rotation guy, not an ace, as his 3.94 FIP and 3.85 xFIP suggest. Porcello's closer to an average pitcher than his luck-suppressed ERA would suggest. Put him on a lesser team, without the bats of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler to back him, and his record is closer to .500 and we're not even having this conversation. Pass on Porcello, please.

4. Dallas Keuchel
Keuchel's transformation into an All-Star caliber starter has been one of this year's most pleasant surprises for the Houston Astros. After putting up a 5.20 ERA through his first two seasons, which included 38 starts, Keuchel did not appear to have a bright future as even an average starting pitcher. This year, however, he's been a revelation, sporting a 3.06 ERA through his first 16 starts, a mark supported by his 3.14 FIP. He's lowered  his WHIP--over 1.5 in 2012 and 2013--by trimming his walk rate to 2.2 BB/9--almost a full batter better than last year's mark--and limiting his hits allowed to fewer than one per inning (which, based on his .304 BABiP against, does not appear to be linked to good fortune or helpful defense).

Keuchel's been a bit lucky with his strand rate, but has been doing a much better job of inducing ground ball outs and keeping the ball in the park (only six home runs allowed on the season). Keuchel doesn't dominate batters and is an average strikeout pitcher at best, which might explain his recent troubles. The lefty's ERA, which stood at 2.38 in the middle of June, has ballooned to 3.06 since after he allowed 13 earned runs and 39 baserunners (walks plus hits plus hit batters) in his three most recent starts. Keuchel was a much stronger candidate before then, and as it stands now he's not quite good enough to merit that final roster spot.

3. Garrett Richards
In Richards' case, his phenomenal W-L record (10-2) accurately reflects how well he's pitched this year. Save for a brief hiccup at the end of May, he's been phenomenal since day one. In addition to having the league's lowest H/9 rate, he also ranks among the AL's top five in wins, winning percentage, WHIP, home rate rate, and FIP. On top of that, he's also in the top ten for strikeouts, K rate, pitching WAR, ERA, and adjusted ERA.  Enjoying his finest season to date, the 26 year-old has a great case. Since the calendar flipped to June he's been unbeatable, compiling a 1.45 ERA over his most recent seven starts--all quality--with 55 strikeouts against 14 walks in just under 50 innings. The Angels have won every won of those starts as Richards has emerged as their ace, outshining LA's more established (and expensive) starters Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Richards wouldn't be a bad choice: he's just not the best choice.

2. Corey Kluber
Like Richards, Kluber's quietly made the leap to great pitcher this year--his third as a starting pitcher--following last season's breakout. He's already surpassed his strikeout total from last year in 22 fewer innings, and with 137 (fourth-most in the AL) is on pace to sail past 200. After a slow start he's come on strong lately, lowering his ERA almost half a run from 3.35 on midway through June to 2.86 after his most recent start--a masterful turn against the Royals on Sunday. His numbers are excellent across the board, from his 2.65 FIP (second best in the American League!) to his 9.81 K/9 rate (fifth-best) and his 4.57 K/BB ratio (sixth). He's been reliable too, leading the majors in starts with 19 and racking up more innings than any American League pitcher not named David Price or Felix Hernandez. His record (8-6) just isn't that great because he plays for a mediocre Indians club. Is Kluber having an All-Star season? Absolutely. But there's someone better on this list.

1. Chris Sale
Sale, who authored one of the season's best starts on the Fourth of July versus Seattle, is clearly the best pitcher of this bunch and deserving of his third straight All-Star nod. Ignore the fact that he missed over a month with an elbow strain and marvel at his otherworldly statistics. Such as his 2.16 ERA, which would rank second to only Felix Hernandez if he had enough innings to qualify. Or his six strikeouts for every walk. Or his 0.87 WHIP, which would be the best in the American League. He's barely thrown 87 innings, 21 fewer than any other candidate listed here, but those 87 and one-third frames have been more valuable according to BR's pitching version of WAR. In fact, only Masahiro Tanaka, Mark Buehrle, and King Felix have been more valuable among American League pitchers in terms of WAR, and they've all completed approximately 50 percent more innings than him. On a per-inning basis, Sale's been arguably the best pitcher in the Junior Circuit this year. That's why I'm overlooking his missed time and taking him for the final roster spot.

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