Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 16, 2008
BASEBALL: The Best Pitcher In Baseball?

Best in the business is a fleeting title, but it's also one that's earned over at least some period of time. I've been thinking lately about whether Johan Santana, for a few years now pretty much the undisputed best pitcher in the game, still deserves the title. Let's start by looking back over the past two years to get a sense of who has been the top of the game in that time; you will see just three pitchers who have averaged 200 innings a year since June 16, 2006 with an ERA below 3.47:

Jake Peavy6331160.660412.1328136131301314342.869.472.860.65
Johan Santana6735190.648451.0375167151581074623.
Brandon Webb6737190.661462.1402189165251293773.217.342.510.49

If you think slicing at mid-season too arbitrary, we can go all the way back to the start of 2006, raising the bar along the way to 450 innings. This gives us five pitchers below 3.39:

Brandon Webb8145200.692567.0501217189311424513.
Johan Santana8141230.641547.1457200183691235663.019.312.021.13
John Lackey7235210.625486.0455195170371324013.157.432.440.69
Jake Peavy7635230.603490.1407179174421505193.199.532.750.77
John Smoltz7333190.635465.2442179169431104443.278.582.130.83

Of course, Smoltz is no longer part of this discussion, given that he's out for the rest of the season. Lackey really doesn't quite measure up either, although he has come back quite better than expected this season from an early injury.

Peavy looks impressive at first, but over the longer period his ERA advantage evaporates despite pitching in a great pitcher's park, and he's 60-80 innings behind the leaders. Realistically, it really is a two-horse race between Santana and Webb at this stage. Santana strikes out more batters and thus is less dependent on good defense, as you can see from his lower rate of unearned runs (if you include those, Santana bests Webb 3.29-3.44), while Webb allows far fewer home runs and thus gives his defense more chances to help him. On that evidence, I'd be disinclined to hand off the title to Webb, since Santana's better-equipped to do it all on his own.

On the other hand, if you go back just a year, you get seven pitchers below 3.48:

Brandon Webb342380.742233.019786739571872.827.222.200.35
Tim Hudson3417100.630222.2223837714521343.115.422.100.57
Adam Wainwright3215100.600216.1201867516601483.126.162.500.67
Carlos Zambrano3519100.655227.2194828016951753.166.923.760.63
Johan Santana3316110.593220.2194857831502163.188.812.041.26
Roy Halladay3417110.607250.22421019016471713.236.141.690.57
Felix Hernandez341680.667231.1231948521721883.317.312.800.82

When you look at the numbers that way, Webb begins to take a decided advantage; he's gaining on Santana and pulling away from the crowd. And for one reason: despite playing in a great HR park, Webb has allowed the fewest HR/9 of any pitcher in baseball with 200 innings over the past year (Chien-Ming Wang is the only one close), while Santana is sixth from the bottom (although with just 1 HR allowed in his last 5 starts, there are signs he's getting the problem under control). I don't know if that's quite enough time to crown a new king, but with Santana's velocity off this season from past years, I think if I had to make the call right now, today, I'd take Webb.

It's early yet to start looking at Webb through the prism of great pitching careers, but you'll note that his comps through age 28 (i.e., the end of last season) already include three Hall of Famers (Jim Bunning, Gaylord Perry and Bob Gibson), plus David Cone, and Webb's ERA relative to the league is much better than any of theirs.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:33 PM | Baseball 2008 | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)

Don't mean to go all Red-Soxy on you here but if you leave out the post-season, which you conveniently have you leave out Josh Beckett. His numbers since the beginning of 2007 are:

31-11, 3.24 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 9.04 k/9, 1.69 BB/9, .80 HR/9.

This despite pitching mostly in a hitters' park where his regular season ERA was over 4.10 last year. He also has a stack of post-season MVPs to go along with this all.

Sorry, Santana's the most talented, Halladay is the work horse on a team that is over-reliant on him, Webb is clearly coming into his own, Peavy may have the best stuff, Hernandez has the greatest upside, Hudson and Zambrano don't belong in the discussion. Best pitcher. Josh Beckett.

Posted by: jim at June 16, 2008 5:19 PM

On this topic also paint me suspicious of the greatness of Brandon Webb. Last year against the Astros, Nationals, Dodgers, Padres and Giants (5 of the worst offensive teams in baseball) he had 16 starts and was:

11-2 with a 2.18 ERA

He was 7-8 against everyone else.

In the past 2 years of interleague ball he is 2-4 in 7 starts with a 4.63 ERA.

I am not convinced his success is not largely a product of pitching a high percentage of his games against teams that are unusually crappy offensively. I've seen him a few times. He has good stuff but the idea that he is in HOF pitcher territory right now is ludicrous. He closes down teams that are subject to being closed down by good pitchers and is essentially league-average against everyone else. This is a candidate for "Best Pitcher in Baseball"? I don't think so.

Posted by: jim at June 17, 2008 4:43 PM

I didn't even look this up before but to further reinforce this point this year against the Rockies, Pirates, Padres, Giants and Nationals he is 8-0 with a 1.85 ERA. Against everyone else he is 3-2 with 1 4.10 ERA.

I realize great pitchers are going to really dominate poorer teams and he is to his credit. However he is not even above average against the rest of baseball.

Let me know when Webb starts doing stuff against teams with BAs over .245 with winning records and I'll start paying attention to him as a great pitcher. Right now? He's a good pitcher and if you are a bad team he's going to smoke you. Nothing wrong with that profile but there is no way this guy is any sort of discussion of the best in baseball.

Posted by: jim at June 17, 2008 4:52 PM

Peavy has fewer innings pitched partly because of the strength of the Padres bullpen. He has only had to get to the 7th inning for the past several years.

Posted by: FJ at June 17, 2008 5:07 PM

Okay, to further belabor this point take a look at Santana.

In 2006 against the Red Sox, Indians, Tigers, Yankees and A's was

6-2 with a 2.80 ERA.

If you take out the Indians in 2007 he was 15-8 (look at what the Red Sox do to Rivera based largely on rivalry and familiarity).

This year against Atlanta, Yankees, Phillies, Marlins and Arizona he is

4-2 with a 2.74 ERA.

Brandon Webb can't carry Santana's jock. Give him the sad ass set of teams Webb gets to pitch against because of the horrifically awful division he is in and Santana is 22-5.

Posted by: jim at June 17, 2008 5:11 PM

Jim you cant be serious about Beckett. Sandwiched around his oustanding 2007 are a mediocre-at-best 2006 where he gave up homers like McCain gives up evanglicals sponsors, and this year where he's nothing special. Yes he dominated in the postseason, yes he kicked the Yankees butt on short rest in Game 6 in 2003, yes he's a fine pitcher, but we're talking about the best here over a period of seasons not the cherry picked 2007. Crank is right to limit it to Webb and Santana, although I believe Santana's k rate gives him higher upside going forward. As a sox fan you can love Beckett all you wish, but the best he aint.

Posted by: seth soothsayer at June 19, 2008 5:38 AM

Crank's field eventually limited down to over the last year (he started at at 2006 but worked it down-who cares what someone did 2 years ago?). I expanded to the start of 2007. Look at the numbers. He has the highest K rate, lowest walk rate, his ERA is nearly the same as the 2 other AL pitchers (Santana and Halladay) and is WHIP is as good as any of the other's listed. On top of that he was 4-0 in the playoffs with an ERA of 1.20, won all 3 games 1s he pitched and won a massive game 5 in Cleveland with the Sox down 3 games to 1. He is universally regarded as the best big game pitcher in baseball. His 2006 season was an aberration not unlikely caused by moving from the NL to the AL and being caught up in living up to heightened expectations.

Look at Webb's numbers. He feasts on the dredges of the league and is below average against everyone else. I am unimpressed by someone who's numbers are padded by kicking the crap out of teams with BAs of .236. Webb has done nothing to justify being classified as a great pitcher other than beat teams that stink. Santana is the only other guy on the list you could make a justifiable claim with.

Posted by: jim at June 19, 2008 12:05 PM

Also, right, he's nothing special this year.

7-4, 3.87 ERA, 9.31 k/9, 1.77 bb/9, 1.13 ERA

While that may not be completely awesome (while still being pretty damn good) if you take into consideration that he missed ALL of spring training and that in his past 5 games his ERA is 2.25 he looks like he'll be just fine when he needs to be.

If you would like to contrast this to Webb's 11-3 3.27 I would submit the seasons look somewhat similar given the plethora of crappy teams Webb pitches against and the fact that in his past 9 games Webb is 4-3 with an ERA of 4.19. Brandon Webb is nice but he's not Santana and he's not Beckett.

Posted by: jim at June 19, 2008 12:51 PM

The 1.13 is WHIP not ERA.

Posted by: jim at June 19, 2008 12:52 PM

Brandon Webb is better than Beckett by all measures except 2007 performance where they are about even. Actually in 2007 Webb pitched 36 more innings than Beckett with an ERA 56% below league to Beckett's 48. So the case can be made that Webb was even better that year too. However, if you take into account Beckett's postseason AND assume that his league was tougher, it pulls them about even. But when you expand the discussion beyond 2007 to include 2008 and prior seasons Webb pulls far ahead, with an ERA 45+% better than his leagues compared to Becket's 16%. Webb has won a cy and finished 2nd, so its not just Crank and I making the case that Webb is better. None of this is to say that Beckett sucks, or that he wasnt money in the postseason. But Webb's been the better pitcher.

Posted by: seth soothsayer at June 19, 2008 8:43 PM

Now if you asked the question a slightly different way; which of the two is more potentially dominant on any given day I'd say Beckett because of the k rate and ability to blow people away without relying on defense. But Webb is both more durable and consistent at harnessing his top game over the course of the season, as Webb's sinker still works to limit the damage on an "off day" whereas Beckett can be ruinously tateriffic when off.

Posted by: seth soothsayer at June 19, 2008 8:49 PM

Any pitcher would be better than league average if HALF the games he pitched were against 5 of THE WORST offensive teams in baseball. Last year Webb ptiched 16 of his 33 starts against arguably the worst line-ups in baseball. When he pitched against anyone and I mean ANYONE else he was average at best (losing more than half his decisions with an ERA over 4). This year the trend has continued. Over his first 8 -9 starts he pitched, almost unfailingly, against last place or otherwise offensively challenged teams. His last start, which happened to come against an AL team, SLAUGHTERED bringing him over the past 2+ years to 2-5 with an ERA close to 6 against AL (better) competition. He pitches in a division with no one else over .500, Beckett pitches in one with no one under .500. You can argue raw numbers all you want but if you look inside those numbers a different story is told. Beckett pitches against better competition on a game in game out basis yet has a similar ERA, better K rate and better walk rate. He gives up more HRs because teams like the Yankees, Angels, Indians, Tigers, etc. are more likely to hit them than are the Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Pirates, Nationals, etc.

You even admit if you had one game to decide something you'd rather have Beckett. Fat Bartolo Colon won a Cy Young a couple years ago too. So what? Sandy Koufax (I am not comparing Beckett to Koufax) was not as durable as Gaylord Perry. Who would you rather have had pitch on your team? If you want to throw Santana in there I am fine with that but until Brandon Webb beats good team instead of cupcakes on a regular basis I will be inclined to see him as nothing more than a good pitcher, not a great one.

Posted by: jim at June 20, 2008 12:00 PM

I'll further be-labor this point with Webb losing (again) to an AL team making him, over the past 2+ years in interleague ball, a very Not-Best Pitcher in Baseball 2-6 with a 5.53 ERA and 1.11 HR/9. Sorry, this guy is, at this point, a product of the NL West's ineptitude.

Posted by: jim at June 23, 2008 3:47 PM
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