Okay, so he's a freak. And he smokes pot. And he's got weird-looking hair. But damn he's good at throwing that small white sphere.
I was exploring the Fangraphs leaderboard the other day, and it really struck me just how incredibly talented the arms in the NL West are. Yeah, people are going to always gush about the more well-known (and deservedly so) pitchers in the NL East, in particular the triumvirate of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels with the Phillies. But Halladay and Lee are getting up there in age, and do people realize, that as of today, the NL West holds six of the top twelve pitchers as measured by Fangraphs WAR?
Follow me after the jump, as we take a look at just how scary NL West pitching actually is right now, and how much potential the future holds.
Tim Lincecum (7th in fWAR) - You can't start a discussion about NL West pitching without discussing the feared Giants rotation, and you can't start a discussion about the San Francisco Giants without first bringing up "the Freak." In this day and age, where pitching arms are valuable commodities because of how volatile they can be, and pitching mechanics get dissected to figure out what arms will work and what arms will simply end up exploding, Timmeh pretty much stands alone as a unique arm. Since his first full season in 2008, Timmeh has posted fWAR's of 7.5, 8.2, and 5.1, and he's well on us his way to another 5+ WAR year. He's done it by being the NL strikeout leader the past three years, while also being a very efficient wormburner (career 47% groundballer). I doubt the Giants lets Lincecum go after he hits free agency, as he has become the face of their franchise, so we can expect Timmeh to continue to torture NL West bats for years to come.
Matt Cain (12th in fWAR) - The Robin to Timmeh's Batman, it's tough being Matt Cain. Not only are you constantly being overshadowed by your pot-smoking rotation mate, but you were often criticized by scouts for having less than overpowering stuff. Those types of criticisms have fallen by the wayside, as Matt Cain has posted five consecutive years of fWAR between 3.5-4.0. However, what makes him one of my favorite pitchers in all of baseball, is the fact that Matt Cain (notice how he's got one of those names where you just can't say the last name alone) is that rarity among baseball pitchers to continuously outperform his peripherals. Matt Cain wrote the book on beating his FIP and xFIP, and at this point I've been made a believer. He's done it by having some of the best command in the game. Watching him carve up Dbacks hitters with pinpoint location in the zone has been a traumatic experience the past few years, and yet, I can't help but marvel at the almost artistic way with which he beats hitters. Against Matt Cain, it's just a matter of tipping your cap and moving on.
Madison Bumgarner (10th in fWAR) - I hate to admit it, but I was wrong about Bum. I was one of those prospect followers who thought Bumgarner was one of those finesse arms that would end up getting toasted in the majors. He's only got around 200 innings under his belt, but every indication has been that he's just another in a long line of Giants homegrown pitching prospects with top-of-the-rotation potential being churned out to terrorize the rest of the league. Exceptional control, combined with good enough bat-missing ability and reasonable groundball rates from the left side will do that to you. I still hope for my ego's sake that Bumgarner eventually fizzles. But I'm not betting on it.
Clayton Kershaw (3rd in fWAR) - Kershaw has always been a very good pitcher. This year, he's turned into an elite pitcher, and possibly the class of the NL West. Kershaw epitomizes what scouts like to call "raw stuff." His stuff is simply overpowering, in a way that defies description. Seriously. If you haven't seen it, go watch MLB.com highlights on the 11 K complete game against the Angels. Fastball that sits 93 mph and can ride up to 95-96 mph from the left side. A wipeout slider that hitters can't seem to even touch. The dig on Kershaw in the past has always been that he couldn't harness his stuff enough to limit the walks, which in turned limited his innings, and thus his value as a starting pitcher. Not anymore. He's shaved the walk rate down to 2.47 per nine innings, and considering that he currently leads the NL in strikeouts, it doesn't seemed to have affected his bat-missing ability at all. I hate to say it, because I despite the Dodgers more than any other baseball team in the NL West, but we're probably looking at the best pitcher in baseball the next few years in Kershaw.
Chad Billingsley (19th in fWAR) - Billingsley was a part of that heralded 2006 class of Dodgers prospects, and in fact, led the pack as he was ranked #6 overall by Baseball America that year. Since then, he's played second-fiddle to Kershaw as much as Matt Cain has to Timmeh, but in many ways, Billingsley is the anti-Cain. He's got pretty good raw stuff, as his career strikeout rate of 8.17 per nine innings would indicate, but he's never been able to harness it the same way Kershaw has this year. The lack of command and control has hurt him, and in fact, the past three years Billingsley has managed to underperform his peripherals. Despite this though, Billingsley is still one of the top talents in baseball. He's already pretty good, and if he ever managed to figure out how to cut down his walk rate, he'd be a dangerous pitcher indeed.
Daniel Hudson (5th in fWAR) - Anybody who has ever read any substantial number of my comments on the 'Pit probably knows how much I have a mancrush on Huddy. The guy is simply a beast. He's got great raw stuff. A fastball that sits 93 mph that he can command high for popups and low for groundballs. A slider that he can command for a strike that locks up your knees, or bury it in the dirt for a swinging strike. A changeup that ... well ... is just filthy. No other way to describe the feeling from watching a hitter futilely swing at his crazy changeup's tailing motion. Add all this together with his impeccable control and improving groundball rates, and I honestly think Hudson is one of the best pitchers in the NL. I seriously just love watching Huddy pitch.
Ian Kennedy (11th in fWAR) - Ian Kennedy has been a revelation this year. No seriously. I know it probably seems like I'm too harsh on him sometimes, but I really like him. He's managed to improve his control a lot this year. I don't know whether that will stick or not, but nothing I've seen yet so far has given me pause to wonder if he'll start pitching wildly in the future. And perhaps equally importantly, he's starting to look like another one of those rare types who can somehow consistently beat his peripherals, due to an ability to keep his BABIP down. Again, I don't know if that will stick either, but nothing has given me any indication it can't. Which is why regardless of the debate on whether IPK is a mid-rotation starter or a top-of-the-rotation starter, we can all agree that IPK is a great talent that allows us to have one of the best 1-2 punches in the NL.
Jhoulys Chacin (37th in fWAR) - Yeah, remember when I said I was wrong about Bum? Well, so far at least, it looks like I'm going to be wrong about Chacin as well. I know. Probably shouldn't be listening to me rambling on about pitchers when I seem to be always wrong. But eh, what can you do? I remember seeing mediocre strikeout rates and non-stellar walk rates in the minor combined with an exceptional groundball rate and thinking "well, groundball rates are difficult to translate....we'll see how this noob actually fares at Coors Field." We'll see indeed. That groundball rate has translated completely in his second year in the majors, and they look disturbing. He's currently generating around 60% groundballs. Remember that Brandon Webb guy? Yeah he was pretty good at generating groundballs. Webb was a career 64% guy, so Chacin isn't quite there yet. But Chacin is still very young and potentially his groundball rate could actually improve. The key to Webb's success was that in addition to groundballs, he was very successful at limiting walks. If Chacin ever manages to develop Webb-like control.....*shudder*. Watch out NL West.
Ubaldo Jimenez (29th in fWAR) - Okay, so Ubaldo has had a down year. We all know the story. Some early random finger injuries, and all of a sudden a huge velo drop, that he's yet to regain. That being said, this was a guy who was pumping fastballs at an average velo of 96 mph for the past two years. I'm not willing to just write him off yet. I think with the way Ubaldo pitches, the walks will always be a problem in his career. But if he can regain the stuff he possessed last year, even with the walks, the more than decent groundball rates will compensate for that.
Mat Latos (50th in fWAR) - Okay, so he's had a down year, and is getting tanked by Fangraphs's rankings. But I just can't leave him off after last year, when he was generating Cy Young votes. I'm attributing part of his struggles this year to some arm fatigue after making a huge innings jump last year. Since there doesn't seem to be any lasting damage to his arm, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Padres fans don't need to be too concerned about this previously top-of-the-rotation arm. Once he figures out the control that made him an elite pitcher last year, he'll be right back on track.
The Future: NL West Pitching Prospects
The quick and dirty on near locks to be among the top 100 prospects in baseball by year's end, and who also should be in the majors before the end of the 2013 season:
Trevor Bauer (AZ) - Easily the best pitching prospect in a deep NL West class of prospects, throws five or six different pitches depending on how you are counting, most of them above average, including a plus curveball. Tim Lincecum 2.0? We can only hope.
Jarrod Parker (AZ) - Some reports have said Parker has some of the best stuff out of all right-handed pitchers in the minors. He's been derailed by TJ surgery though, and has yet to rediscover his above average pre-surgery control. If that ever clicks into place, then he's easily a top-of-the-rotation starter.
Tyler Skaggs (AZ) - He's not Matt Moore, but he's still a pretty damn good left-hander. Among the up and coming top young pitching prospects at High-A (Skaggs, Odorizzi, Wheeler, and May), one Baseball America analyst has him at the top of it all. A low-90s fastball, devastating curveball, improving changeup, and plenty of projection left. What's not to love?
Zach Wheeler (SF) - He's got control issues, but most young pitching prospects with elite stuff do. He's got the elite strikeout rates to suggest top-of-the-rotation potential, and he's in one of the best systems for developing pitching prospects if not the best. I'm guessing he'll turn out to be alright.
Juan Nicasio (COL) - It's a testimony to the Rockies's international scouting team that all of their top pitchers seem to come from Latin America. Nicasio is one of those that just seemingly appeared out of nowhere. He always had the stats, but this year began throwing consistently in the mid-90s. Getting his major league lumps this year, but if he becomes the pitcher scouts think he's capable of being, the Rockies would have a three-headed Latin beast at the top of their rotation.
Rubby De La Rosa (LA) - Very young, and still somewhat raw. Arguably rushed to the majors too quick, perhaps another casualty of the hapless Dodger management. Still, scouts say the stuff is elite and the strikeout numbers back it up. Give him another year or so to develop in the minors, and Rubby could make some splashes in the NL West.
The Padres are clearly the weak link of the bunch, and even they have prospects like Simon Castro and Casey Kelly, as well as head-turners like Tim Stauffer to dream on. The best of the NL West pitching though clearly lies with the Giants and Diamondbacks. I can't wait until 2012 and 2013 roll around, when it's actually conceivable that nearly every game played between the Giants and Diamondbacks consists of a pitching duel between top-of-the-rotation starters. The gauntlet has been thrown. The NL West arms race has begun. Let the games begin!