One area that is notably weak for many teams entering this year’s World Baseball Classic is the starting rotation. In general, pitchers get injured more often than position players and, as a result, are usually treated more cautiously. Therefore, it is no surprise that many organizations are hesitant to allow their pitchers to throw in games that don’t affect the win-loss record of their particular clubs. However, despite the general trepidation, Team USA has managed to assemble quite an impressive WBC starting rotation.
At the top of the rotation is newly acquired Blue Jay’s knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Dickey is coming off a career year, winning the NL Cy Young award, but was also very good even before last season. Over the past three years, Dickey has posted 2.73, 3.24, and 2.84 ERAs while throwing an average of 205 innings per season over that span. In fact, R.A. Dickey’s 2.95 ERA over that span is good for 11th best of all major league starters. While his fielding independent number’s aren’t quite as good (generally an indicator of luck one way or another), it should be noted that fielding independent statistics don’t generally work as well with knuckleballers as they do when evaluating traditional starters. R.A. Dickey is neither a product of luck nor is he a one-hit wonder, he is a fantastic ace for the USA pitching staff. R.A. Dickey should be feared by opposing countries, as his Karate Kid headband in the picture at right clearly indicates.
What shouldn’t be lost among all the PED allegations around Gio Gonzalez this offseason is that he had a very good 2012, and is more of a 1-a than a number 2 pitcher on this staff. Last season, Gonzalez struck out over a batter an inning and posted a 2.89 ERA for the Nats. The real area of improvement for Gonzalez last year was his walk rate. He went from walking 4.05 batters per 9 to 3.43, and the results followed. Also, Gio’s homerun rate was nearly half of what it was the previous season. Though drastic changes in homerun rates aren’t generally sustainable, improvements in walk rates do generally come with age, so that aspect could certainly be repeated or even improved. If Gio Gonzalez is anywhere close to the pitcher he was last year for the Washington Nationals, he should be a great compliment for R.A. Dickey at the top of this staff.
Ryan Vogelsong, a one-time journeyman pitcher, has turned into a very good major league starter. Before the 2011 season, Vogelsong hadn’t pitched in a major league game since 2006. Since then, he’s had two very good major league seasons for the Giants, with ERAs of 3.37 and 2.71, respectively. He is a guy who fielding independent statistics haven’t necessarily been crazy about, indicating that he may have been on the receiving end of some good luck. However, it’s been two full seasons in a row in which he’s outpitched those numbers, so he should be given some benefit of the doubt. Considering the lack of starting pitching talent among many of the teams in the WBC this year, Vogelsong is likely the best #3 starter in the bunch.
This is where the rotation for Team USA starts to get a little thin. The good news, though, is that even the better pitching staffs among the other countries start thinning out far sooner than #4. Despite a lackluster 2012, Holland was actually better than league average in 2010 and 2011. The raw talent is there. His fastball averaged 93 mph in 2012 and 94.2 mph in 2011, as opposed to a league average of about 91.6 mph. However, fastball velocity doesn’t tell the whole story about the effectiveness of a pitcher’s repertoire. Last season Holland got batters to chase at pitches outside the zone and also induced swinging strikes at rates below league average, indicating that his stuff might not be as nasty as a quick glance at velocity may have indicated. Still, Holland has been about a league average major league pitcher over the past three years, which equates to a very good #4 starter in WBC terms. It should also be noted that Holland goes by the nickname “Dutch Oven,” giving him a significant advantage over competitors in terms of hilariousness.
The 6’5 lefthander was the 6th overall pick in the 2007 draft, and made his major league debut later that same season. Still, despite being a highly-touted, tall lefthander with above average velocity (92.7 mph average fastball last season), Detwiler doesn’t strike many batters out. Rather than racking up Ks, what Detwiler excels at is inducing groundballs, inducing them last year at a rate of 50.8%. Though not a great starting pitcher relative to some other candidates for the roster, the high groundball rate should play extremely well with the excellent USA infield defense. Like Holland, Detwiler has an awesome nickname, National Det (clever, right?). But also like Holland, Detwiler can’t necessarily measure up to the first three pitchers in this rotation. Still, with the dearth of starting pitching in the tournament overall, Detwiler could very well be the better pitcher in most matchups he finds himself in.
Team USA’s rotation is very noticeably without the likes of Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Stephen Strasburg, and Clayton Kershaw. Still, the top two pitchers in the rotation represent the first and third place finishers in NL Cy Young voting last season, and pitchers 3-5 are quality major league starters. In a tournament that includes many staffs made up of lower-echelon major leaguers and developing minor league prospects, this group of USA pitchers is more than adequate. The starting rotation should be a strong point for the USA squad come tournament time.