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

In this article, I’ll continue where I left off from last week’s examination of NL Pitchers that impressed in 2016.

This time, I’ll consider which American League pitchers excelled last season.

Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit Tigers 

During his 12-year career (all with Detroit), Verlander has consistently been one of the leading starters in the American League.

He won the 2006 Rookie of the Year Award,  was an All Star 6 times, pitched 2 no hitters (2007, 2011) and won the “triple crown of pitching” in 2011 when he led the league in wins (24), strikeouts (250), and ERA (2.40). He also achieved the Cy Young Award that year and named MVP.

All told, the 34-year-old only had 3 seasons so far that could be considered “down” years.  And, 2014 and 2015 were 2 of them due mostly to injuries.

That’s what makes 2016 even more special for the Virginia native.  He rebounded and regained his elite status with a 16-9 record, 3.04 ERA (2nd best in AL), 1.00 WHIP (best in AL), 6.6 WAR (best in MLB), 254 SO (best in AL) in 34 starts and 227.2 IP (2nd most in AL) and became an AL Cy Young finalist.

Verlander’s keys to success over the years has been his work ethic and “flawless pitching mechanics”.  These qualities are also why he continues to endure, even as he is approaching his mid-30’s.  (200+ innings in 9 of 13 seasons; 30+ starts in 10 seasons).

Moving into 2017, there is a general optimism for Verlander’s success, even if many were pessimistic that he would ever return to the greatness he exhibited prior to 2014.

Rick Porcello, RHP, Boston Red Sox 

It is fitting that we follow up discussion about Verlander’s excellent 2016 season with that of Porcello’s.

Besides the fact that the 2 right-handers were teammates when Porcello pitched for the Tigers from 2009-2014, there was a controversy of sorts about last year’s AL Cy Young Award when Porcello eked out Verlander by the smallest margin of victory since 2009.

Some were not too pleased about the results, including Verlander’s model/actress fiancée (Kate Upton).

In a Twitter rant, the soon-to-be Mrs. Verlander complained that because Justin received the most 1st place votes, he should therefore have won the Cy Young.  (The award is finalized as a cumulative vote by the BBWAA as shown below):

AL Cy Young Award Voting Results

Pitcher, Team  1st  2nd  3rd  4th  5th  Pts. 
Rick Porcello, Red Sox  8 18 2 1 1 137
Justin Verlander, Tigers  14 2 5 4 3 132
Corey Kluber, Indians  3 6 12 8 1 98
Zach Britton, Orioles  5 3 2 5 9 72
Chris Sale, White Sox  1 4 9 6 40
J.A.Happ, Blue Jays  3 2 1 14
Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays  1 3 6
Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees  1 4 6
Andrew Miller, Yankees/Indians  1 3
Michael Fulmer, Tigers  1 1
Jose Quintana, White Sox  1 1

Regardless of who should have taken home the prestigious award, Porcello had one heck of a year and ended 2016 with a 22-4 record, 3.15 ERA, 189 SO, 1.01 WHIP and best SO/BB ratio (5.906).

And, similar to Verlander, Porcello’s 2016 was a resurgent year for him after a miserable first season with the Red Sox when he finished 2015 with a 9–15 record in 28 starts and 4.92 ERA (tying his career high).

Corey Kluber, RHP, Cleveland Indians 

This 30-year-old Indians’ ace also had a stellar year in 2016 (18-9, 3.14 ERA, 227 SO, 1.06 WHIP, 2 shutouts, and a 6.5 WAR (2nd best) in 32 games and 215 IP), along with a 3rd place finish in the CY Young race.

Of course, these stats alone are exceptional, but Kluber earned even more respect when he carried the load consistently for the ailing Indians starting rotation heading into the postseason.

In the playoffs & through the World Series, Kluber continued his heroism and went 4-1 in 6 games, 1.83 ERA, 1.05 WHIP all on short rest and with strained quadriceps he sustained during the final week of the season.

Indians outfielder Rajai Davis spoke about Kluber to the NY Times in October: “He’s been our rock. He’s been our foundation. He’s been our everything.”

Chris Sale, LHP, Boston Red Sox 

Arguably one of the best unknown pitchers before December when he was traded to the Red Sox from the White Sox after 7 seasons, Sale will surely be a great addition to what people are now calling Boston’s “super-rotation” for 2017.

The 27-year-old finished 2016 with Chicago 17-10, 3.34 ERA, 233 SO, 1.037 WHIP, 6 complete games (best in league) in 32 starts and 226.2 IP.

He also has been an All Star and Cy Young candidate every year since 2012.

What will be fascinating now is how Sale adjusts to playing in Boston.

According to the Boston Globe, “every one” of the Red Sox starters added to the rotation since 2004 saw a major drop-off from prior career standards that first playing year.

Some attribute the poor transition(s) of these players to Fenway, considered the 4th most hitter friendly park in the league despite its “quirky features like The Triangle, Pesky’s Pole and the Green Monster”.

Still, Sale’s addition to the Red Sox should make them a lock to win the AL East and possibly beyond.

Aaron Sanchez, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays

2016 was a breakout year for this 24-year-old who finished with a 15-2 record in 30 starts, 3.00 ERA (best in AL), 161 SO, 1.17 WHIP and allowed the least HRs per 9 IP (15) in the AL.

Granted, the Blue Jays tried to slow Sanchez’s pace during the regular season and kept his workload light by limiting his innings.  But, bigger things are predicted for this talented Californian, including a possible Cy Young season in the near the future.

He told Sportsnet last week: “I feel like I’m just scratching the surface with what I’m capable to do.  There’s so much more I can get better at and it’s just about sitting down and being real with yourself, understanding what you’re trying to accomplish, what you need to get better at and that’s how I approach this.”

Last season, Sanchez’s 3rd with the club, he pitched 70 more innings than he had previously when he was used mostly as a reliever.

Going forward, Sanchez said he is eager to implement the experience he gained in 2016 by putting more action on his pitches, mixing in more curveballs and trying to get his fastballs up, which will open “many [more] options” for him.

Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, New York Yankees 

Despite concerns over his partially torn ulnar collateral ligament sustained in 2014 (and which many thought would require Tommy John surgery), the 28-year-old Japanese import exceeded expectations in 2016 and put himself in the Cy Young mix.

In 31 starts, he went 14-4, 3.07 ERA, 165 SO, 1.08 WHIP, had a 5.4 WAR (3rd best in AL) and 199.2 IP.

By these stats, it proves Tanaka is an ace and one of the top 25 pitchers in baseball. The question remains how that elbow will continue to hold up.

The Yankees starting pitching staff looks weak heading into 2017 and without Tanaka, the team will assuredly end up on the bottom of the division (or close).  Luckily, NY brought back reliever Aroldis Chapman in the off-season to help buttress the bullpen.  But, it may not be enough.

Then there’s the question of Tanaka’s contract.  He has an opt-out clause at season’s end and which would make him a free agent.

Given the need for elite starting pitchers around the league, it is fair to think that teams on the open market would pay a premium to have him.  Both Tanaka and the Yankees claim they have not yet broached that topic, however.

This is definitely a wait and see situation on multiple fronts for the New York Yankees.

Michael Fulmer, RHP, Detroit Tigers 

Fresh from winning the 2016 Rookie of the Year Award almost unanimously, the 23-year-old Fulmer has decided to keep a part-time off-season job he’s had for 2 years – as a professional plumber.

In the fall of 2014, he started working for a friend’s Uncle “digging ditches looking for sewer lines & fixing faucets” as a way to supplement his minor league salary and get a good workout.  He had spent most of the baseball season in Double-A for the Mets.

In July 2015, Fulmer was traded to the Tigers.  He excelled that summer playing in the Eastern League and the Tigers added him to their 40 man roster.  Fulmer was also given a raise to the league minimum of $507,000.

At the start of the 2016 season, he spent the first few weeks in the minors and was brought up on April 29.  He had a few shaky starts in May, but he was advised by his coaches to stop trying to overpower hitters and find his 3rd pitch (the change-up) to help complement his fastball and slider.  It “turned his season around”.

Between May 21 and July 17, Fulmer went on the 2nd longest rookie streak in history when he pitched 33 1/3 straight scoreless innings.

He then finished the season with an 11-7 record in 26 starts and 159 IP with a 3.06 ERA, 132 SO, and 1.119 WHIP and became the first Detroit ROY in 10 years since Verlander snagged the honor in 2006.

In the meantime, Fulmer enjoys the physical labor of the plumbing job and apparently, utilizes it as a way to help keep himself “grounded”.

His high school varsity coach, Ron Moore, has said of the talented right-hander from Oklahoma that he has a “down-home, humble personality”.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has said the kid reminds him of the former ace Roy Oswalt and his first year: “It’s the mentality — he’s not intimidated by who’s stepping into the batter’s box. The environment doesn’t seem to bother him. I just think it’s his makeup. And he’s got good stuff”.

Perhaps it’s time Fulmer put the wrench aside and focus on what seems to be a budding career as a brilliant Tigers starting pitcher…

 

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