Thursday, December 3, 2009

Backdoor Slider Pitchers of the Decade

Last time, I ran down my list of the best position players of the Aughts. Now, I present to you my picks for the best hurlers of the last 10 seasons. I've decided to combine starting pitchers and relievers in one post instead of doing separate ones. Hopefully you know my feelings on relief pitchers. They don't deserve their own post on being the "best" of anything.

As for the starters, I'm doing an All-Decade Starting Rotation, the five starters you'd most want to take the ball this decade. Like with my position players, I required these guys appear in at least seven-and-a-half seasons over the last ten, which meant they needed to pitch at least 1,500 innings (Pedro Martinez missed by 32 innings. Sorry, man). The statistics are 162-game averages. I had to adjust the years I included for one pitcher in my rotation, and I'll explain that shortly.

For the relievers, you're getting three and that's it. See if you can guess who they are.

The Backdoor Slider Pitchers of the Decade:


NO. 1 STARTER: Johan Santana (1580 IP in considered seasons) 17-8, 2.89 ERA, 1.064 WHIP, 229 K, 57 BB, 4.07 K/BB, 1.0 HR/9, 9.3 K/9 - 2x A.L. Cy Young Winner, 4x All Star, '07 Gold Glove

Before I get to describing the awesomeness of Johan, an explanation is in order. These stats are collected from '02 through '09. Since Santana was primarily a reliever during his first two seasons in Minnesota, I elected not to include them for this ranking. He started 14 of 27 appearances in '02 and 18 of 45 appearances in '03. I did decide to include those, especially since he threw 158 innings in '03. Anyway, Johan became Johan in '04, when he compiled 265 punchouts in 228 innings, led the league in ERA (2.61) and WHIP (a positively insane 0.921), ran away with the Cy Young Award and allowed just one run in two ALDS starts against New York. The '04 season began a three-year run of Santana leading the A.L. in strikeouts, ERA+, WHIP, hits per nine and K per nine three times, ERA twice, wins and innings pitched once, and got a second Cy in '06. Outside of Pedro Martinez from '97 through '00, this was the best stretch for a starting pitcher over the last 20 years. I can't say this emphatically enough: during that period, Johan's change-up was the single greatest off-speed pitch I've ever seen. It didn't matter who he was facing, what the count was or what park he was in. That change-up was certain death. No one could hit it. After '07, he forced the Twins hand and left for Queens, signed a mega-deal and did not disappoint in his first N.L. season, predictably leading the league with a career-low 2.53 ERA in a career-high 234.1 innings. He finally broke down late in '09, but should be healthy and ready to go at the dawn of a new decade. I hope Santana has the opportunity to shine in the postseason before he loses his effectiveness, God knows he's earned it. He was simply the finest pitcher I saw over the last ten years. Nothing about him would suggest otherwise.

NO. 2: Randy Johnson (1885 IP) 18-10, 3.34 ERA, 1.114 WHIP, 262 K, 57 BB, 4.51 K/BB, 1.0 HR/9, 10.4 K/9 - 3x N.L. Cy Young Winner, 3x All Star, '01 World Series Co-MVP

What a career for the Big Unit. Johnson wasn't nearly as consistent over the last 10 years as he was the previous 10, and his position on this list is predicated on his unreal performance from '00 through '02 for Arizona. Unit's averages: 255 innings, 21 wins, 351 K, 4.83 K/BB and an eye-bulging 12.5 K/9. He also compiled 19 complete games and nine shutouts, in addition to two each in the postseason. Johnson famously earned three victories during the epic '01 World Series and shared MVP honors with Curt Schilling. Between the NLCS and World Series that year, RJ was 5-0, allowed five ER in 33.1 innings, struck out 38 and walked just six. Unit never regained his previous dominance after getting hurt in '03, but did toss a perfect game in Atlanta and finished second in Cy balloting in '04, pitched solidly in two tumultuous seasons in New York, won 11 games at age 44 back in Arizona, and won his 300th game last summer for the Giants. For so many reasons, we'll never see another Randy Johnson. At 6', 10", he was the most intimidating pitcher of his generation, with that mean, mustachioed stare and a mess of arms and legs coming at the hitter. I've heard it described that when RJ released a pitch he looked like he could reach out a grab the opposing batter. During his Arizona prime, his 100 mph fastball was complimented so well by that hard, diving slider. How lefty hitters even made contact on him always amazed me. His tough demeanor on the mound was backed up by a surly attitude off it, but Johnson was never in baseball to make friends. He just wanted to strike people out. Part of the dying breed of "give me the ball and I'll give you nine" pitchers, Unit might be the last to ever win 300 games and belongs with Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax on the Mt. Rushmore of Southpaws.

NO. 3: Roy Halladay (1883 IP) 18-9, 3.40 ERA, 1.171 WHIP, 176 K, 47 BB, 3.74 K/BB, 0.7 HR/9, 6.7 K/9 - '03 A.L. Cy Young Winner, 6x All Star

Halladay has been the definitive workhorse of his era, throwing at least 220 innings each of the last four seasons, and his 266 innings during his '03 CYA season was the most by any pitcher in the Aughts. It's one thing to be a workhorse and another to be a transcendent starting pitcher, and Halladay is both. After showing so much promise in '98 and '99, Halladay was a disaster in '00 for Toronto, sporting a 10.64 ERA in 67 MLB innings. As a result, the Jays sent him to Single-A to essentially start over. In '01, he pitched at every level of the minors, employed his uber-deceptive three-quarter delivery, started sinking his fastball and began his run of excellence in the A.L. East. Halladay is part of that dying breed I mentioned above, throwing a whopping 47 complete games in the Aughts with nine each the past two years, as well as 14 total shutouts for the decade. Even though his reputation comes as a ground ball artist, Halladay's actually become more of a strikeout guy as his career's progressed, going over 200 the last two years. His control is another calling card, finishing with a K/BB over five on four occasions. Like Unit, Halladay is physically imposing at 6', 6", and each in his wide array of pitches are deadly. The biggest injustice for Halladay is the fact that he's never pitched in the playoffs, and really hasn't come close. With one year remaining on his contract in Toronto, he'll either be traded to a contender this winter or walk after '10 for a big deal. He was nearly part of Philadelphia's run to the N.L. pennant in '09, but had to settle for fourth place in Toronto yet again. Still, I have little doubt he'd be excellent on a good team, and I'd feel confident giving him the ball in a Game 7 situation.

NO. 4: Roy Oswalt (1803 IP) 17-9, 3.23 ERA, 1.202 WHIP, 181 K, 51 BB, 3.58 K/BB, 0.8 HR/9, 7.4 K/9 - 3x All Star, '05 NLCS MVP

You probably didn't expect to see Oswalt here. But looking at the numbers, he's been so ridiculously consistent that it would have been impossible to keep him off. Yet Oswalt's never really stood out besides a few well-known flashes of brilliance. His sterling rookie season in '01 (14-3, 2.73 ERA, 144 K in 141.2 innings) was overshadowed by Albert Pujols and his own historic rookie campaign. A few years later, his efforts were again overlooked by the high-profile tenures of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte in Houston. Since going to the World Series in '05, the Astros have struggled, and Oswalt's accomplishments have flown under the radar. Not that Oswalt particularly cares about recognition. He hails from tiny Weir, Mississippi, is married to his high school sweetheart, and when his career ends he'll probably go back there in quiet anonymity. But that's the way Oswalt likes it, a simple Southern man with incredible gifts. His small, six-foot frame surprisingly supports that demonic fastball. Like his former teammate Clemens, Oswalt mastered the rising heater to put hitters away. He's always depended primarily on that fastball, but his hard, biting curve can be equally lethal. Oswalt had everything going in the '05 NLCS against St. Louis. Remember when everyone and their brother said the Cardinals would win the final two games in St. Louis after Pujols' devastating blast off Brad Lidge in Game 5? I knew better. Oswalt had dismantled the Cards in Game 2 with steely confidence, and I knew he'd do it again. He did, allowing one run, striking out six and walking one in seven innings, securing the most important victory in franchise history at its most crucial juncture. That, my friends, is what we call an ace.

NO. 5: CC Sabathia (1889 IP) 16-10, 3.62 ERA, 1.232 WHIP, 188 K, 70 BB, 2.69 K/BB, 0.8 HR/9, 7.6 K/9 - '07 A.L. Cy Young Winner, 3x All Star, '09 ALCS MVP

Sabathia should be higher on this list. After winning 17 games and putting up a league-best 7.4 H/9 his rookie year, this hefty lefty spent the next five seasons showing touches of his potential but never reaching it. It wasn't like Sabathia sucked, posting a 3.87 ERA and throwing over 188 innings each year. We just knew he could be an ace. Finally, in '07, he reached the top of the mountain. He led the Indians to baseball's best record by going 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA and walking just 37 with an ungodly 5.65 K/BB in 241 innings, by far the most of his career to that point. Blown out from carrying the load, Sabathia bombed in the playoffs, allowing 12 runs on 17 hits in two ALCS starts against the Red Sox. Both the Indians and Sabathia got off to a lackluster start in '08, so the impending free agent was shipped north to Milwaukee. The results were astonishing. No pitcher in the Aughts was ever as dominating over a short stretch as Sabathia against National League hitters. Seven of Sabathia's 17 regular season starts for the Brewers were complete games, three for shutouts. He wound up going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and threw 253 innings total for the year. He actually came in sixth in N.L. MVP balloting. Once again, however, he was wiped from pitching the Brewers into the playoffs and struggled in his only NLDS start. The Yankees came calling that winter, and he signed the biggest contract ever for a pitcher at $161 million. In '09 Sabathia pitched like an ace all regular season, and for the first time, the playoffs as well, bringing home a World Series title. He's got another six years in New York to continue being that ace we knew he'd be.


Mariano Rivera - 42 SV, 2.08 ERA, 0.960 WHIP, 70 K, 15 BB, 4.88 K/BB - 9x All Star, '03 ALCS MVP

Trevor Hoffman - 46 SV, 2.77 ERA, 1.043 WHIP, 52 K, 12 BB, 4.22 K/BB - 5x All Star

Billy Wagner - 35 SV, 2.40 ERA, 0.990 WHIP, 70 K, 17 BB, 4.11 K/BB - 5x All Star

Did you guess right? If you've been paying attention at all over the last 10 years, you should have. I'm sure you at least got Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history who just turned 40 and is showing no signs of wear or rust, that cutter still as unhittable as ever. Sure, he provided two of the decades' most prominent collapses ('01 WS Game 7, '04 ALCS Game 4), but you can't argue about his October dominance. Mo pitched an incredible 85.2 postseason innings during the Aughts and allowed just nine earned runs for a 0.95 ERA, not to mention 26 saves. Hoffman hasn't been nearly as decorated, but just about as great. The change-up guru had a mini-renaissance in '09 with Milwaukee after 16 years in San Diego, finishing with a 1.83 ERA and 37 saves at age 41. Just three years earlier, Hoffman was second in the Cy voting after putting up 46 saves and a 0.968 WHIP. Not too shabby for the all-time saves king. As for Wagner, fans in several cities know how frustrating he can be in big spots, but the lefty flamethrower is reliable over the long haul. He's never put up worse than a 2.85 ERA in a full, healthy season and whenever he pitches his love for competing is palpable. I'd also like to thank him for signing with the Braves and giving Boston the 20th pick in the '10 draft.

Please let me know what you think of this list, or the previous one. Next up in this series will be the best teams of the decade. I'll likely have a Winter Meetings post before then.

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