MLB – WHICH NL PITCHERS WERE THE BOSSES ON THE MOUND IN 2016?

In this next column of a new off-season series exploring noteworthy players in the game last year, I’ll take a look at who the best pitchers were of 2016.

Let’s start with the National League.  In no particular order:

Max Scherzer, RHP, Washington Nationals

2013 may have been the 32-year-old’s best career year so far, but 2016 was a pretty darn close 2nd.

In both seasons, Scherzer had 20+ wins, the best WHIP in his league and won the Cy Young Award, making him the 6th pitcher in history to earn the honor in both leagues.  He’s also the only National to pick up the accolade.

This past season, he was the NL’s only 20-game winner with a 2.96 ERA and an MLB-leading 284 strikeouts in 228.1 innings pitched (most in the NL).  And, he had the best WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for NL pitchers.

But what makes 2016 slightly inferior to 2013 for Scherzer was the amount of home runs he allowed: 31.  That was the most in the NL by any starting pitcher.

It’s not like he is unaware that this area of his game is an issue.  He’s been consistently giving up a disproportionate amount of longballs during his career: (29 – 2011; 23 – 2012; 18 – 2013; 18 – 2014; 28 – 2014; 27 – 2015).

It’s just that the Nationals haven’t felt the effects of this disparity… yet.  As a team, Washington starting pitchers gave up 155 HRs total in 2016, the 3rd least in MLB.  They also had the 3rd best WHIP over all other teams.

Still, Scherzer needs to address that flaw if his team wants to make it deeper into the post season this year, where every little misstep matters.

Kyle Hendricks, RHP, Chicago Cubs

This 27-year-old impressed in 2016 as he finished the season with a 16-8 record, the lowest ERA in the majors (2.13), the 2nd best WHIP (0.98) and became a NL Cy Young finalist.

What made him so great was a combination of splendid command, incredible variety of tricky pitches, mix of low velocities and ability to make all pitches look the same which resulted in “more soft contact”.

According to brooksbaseball.net, Hendricks has an 88mph sinker that is “so slow” it results in “many more groundballs” than average, an 81mph change that has a “surprising cut action”, along with an 89mph four-seam fastball, both of which generate more “whiffs/swings” comparably, and a 76mph curve that is “basically never swung at and missed compared to other pitchers’ curves”.

But, it seems to me that Hendricks’ major contribution to the team was his consistency through the middle of the season compared with his Cubs teammates who hit major rough patches.  For example, Hendricks finished July with a 1.16 ERA.  The other 4 starters combined averages: 5.65 ERA (Arrieta – 4.88; Lackey – 5.06; Hammel – 5.33; Lester – 7.36).

Who knows what would have happened (or not happened) if Hendricks didn’t hold the line midseason?

Jon Lester, LHP, Chicago Cubs

Another Cubbie that looked sharp last season, Lester finished with a 19-5 record and a 2.44 ERA (2nd best in MLB) in 32 starts and 1.02 WHIP (5th best in MLB).

Even better was his stellar performance in the post season (3-1, 2.02 ERA in 6 games, 0.93 WHIP and post season MVP).

This ability, to be a “big game pitcher”, is why I chose him for this list over teammate Jake Arrieta who went 18-8, 3.10 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, but was 2-1 in the post season with a 3.63 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 4 games.

It’s also why the Cubs acquired Lester in 2014 for $155 million over 6 years in the first place.   They hoped he would help them break the 108-year-old World Series drought, evidenced by Cubs President Theo Epstein who while in pursuit of Lester created a video for him and included a fake World Series winning call by the real Cubs announcers.

What also sticks out about the 4 time All Star is his endurance.  In every season since 2008 Lester started 31+ games and pitched for a combined total of 1859.1 innings.  And at age 33, there are no signs that he is slowing down.

Noah Syndergaard, RHP, New York Mets

Since he debuted with the Mets at age 22 in 2015, the 6’6/240 pound ace has been referred to as a “physical freak” because his average fastball is around 99 mph and his slider comes in around 93 mph.

According to SI’s Tom Verducci, “Nobody is even close to [him]” with these kind of numbers.  Apparently, “it’s hard to find anybody in recent memory who threw a fastball and a slider at such extreme velocities.”

Verducci added that Syndergaard is “the modern pitching equivalent of a 1961–62 Wilt Chamberlain, a ’68 Bob Beamon, a 2000 Tiger Woods and an ’01 Barry Bonds.”

Syndergaard’s 2016 results substantiated his incredible arm talent.  He ended last season with a 14-9 record, 2.60 ERA (3rd best in MLB), 218 strike outs (4th best in NL), and 1.15 WHIP in 31 games.

Things may have just gotten harder for his 2017 opponents, too. Over the winter, Syndergaard (also referred to as “Thor” by teammates) added 17 more pounds of muscle with hopes of adding more endurance and a few more mph to his fastball that topped out at 102 mph last season.

Johnny Cueto, RHP, San Francisco Giants

Consistency was a bit of an issue for Cueto early in his career when he played for the Reds (2008-2015), but over the years he emerged as one of the top NL starters.

In 2015, after he was traded to the Royals, he seemed to struggle down the stretch and into the playoffs with his new team.

It wasn’t until he signed a $130 million, 6-yr contract with the Giants in 2016 that he settled down and returned to being elite again (18-5, 2.79 ERA, 198 SO, 1.09 WHIP, 5 CG and 5.6 WAR (4th best) in 32 games and 219.2 innings pitched.)

Right from the start, Cueto said he felt comfortable in the City by the Bay, but he also probably benefitted from facing NL batters again, playing in the league’s most pitcher-friendly park (AT&T Park), pitching to catcher Buster Posey, (considered one of baseball’s best framers) and had an excellent defense to back him up.

Whatever the reason(s),he never seemed to get credit for returning back to greatness because the Giants went into the All-Star break with the best record in baseball, but became memorable for being the worst team in MLB in the second half of the season (statistically speaking).

As for 2017, several issues will continue to plague the Giants including the health of Hunter Pence, holes in their lineup and rebuilding a bullpen that bore the brunt of the blame for their total meltdown last season. (Signing Melancon should help).

But, at least they have Johnny Cueto as one of their bright spots…

Madison Bumgarner, LHP, San Francisco Giants

Yet another casualty of San Francisco’s second half collapse last season was this gigantic 27-year-old lefty ace.  He still did a fine job as a 7th year veteran starter for the Giants (15-9, 2.74 ERA, 4 CG, 251 SO, 1.028 WHIP in 34 G and 226.2 innings pitched).

Bumgarner also maintained his record of consistency making it 6 years in a row that he struck out at least 190 batters and pitched 200+ innings.  2016 was also the third year in a row in which he pitched 4 complete games.

The question that will follow him this season is the issue of a contract extension to keep the elite pitcher in San Francisco.  While the Giants “want him around for a long time”, the salary cap collectively bargained in the new CBA has complicated a potential resolution in the near future between the parties.

Essentially, Bumgarner signed a $35.56 million, six-year deal through 2017 that includes $12 million club options for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.  But, 10 different Giants players have a higher average salary than him currently.  Based on the salaries elite pitchers are making for his caliber, he is entitled to a much bigger payday.

Word is that nothing will likely happen this spring, but the Giants shouldn’t wait too much longer for the privilege of locking up one of the greatest post-season pitchers in MLB history.

NL/AL RELIEVERS:  Zach Britton, LHP, Baltimore Orioles

Yes, this will be a controversial pick for some.  But, the 29 year old topped my list of 2016 closers over Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen & Jeurys Familia because he had the highest number of saves (47) without blowing one, achieved an 80% ground ball rate, a 17% swinging strike out rate, and his extremely low ERA (0.54) was the best among pitchers with 50+ innings.  It certainly has nothing to do with the fact that my brother is a crazy Orioles fan… 😉

 

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