MLB Handicapping: Aces Who are Tough to Judge
by Trevor Whenham - 2/21/2015
When it comes to judging pitching staffs, there is no guy who gets more attention - or is more important to bettors as a result - than the ace. The public pays the most attention when he is on the mound, and in many cases the team responds better behind him than other pitchers, too. There are some aces out there that are easy to judge - Felix Hernandez can be counted on to be Felix Hernandez, for example. Others, though, are more challenging for handicappers to understand.
Here's a look at four aces who, as we head into spring training, are tough to really know what to expect from:
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Madison Bumgarner, Giants: Bumgarner's postseason last year was one of the more remarkable things I have seen in sports. Truly incredible. In a couple of weeks he was vaulted from a very good pitcher to a true superstar - in the eyes of the public, at least. He is obviously capable of carrying on like he has, but there are at least two reasons for serious concern here. First, the public is heaping such massive expectations on him that it will be very tough for him to live up to them and deliver value as well. Second, and of much more concern, the 270 innings Bumgarner threw last year is the heaviest workload that a pitcher aged 25 or under has thrown in a season since 2000. Can he hold up under that strain, and carry his team on his shoulders, or, like a certain pint-sized teammate of his with two Cy Young awards, will he fall from his peak because his body can't hold up?
Justin Verlander, Tigers: In 2011 and 2012 Verlander was as impressive and nasty as any pitcher in recent memory. In 2013 he wasn't as sharp, and clearly was struggling compared to his former greatness, but he was still solid. Last year he was a shell of himself. His ERA was up over two runs per game last year from his peak, his WHIP was up more than 50 percent, and his velocity fell off a cliff. It's easy to assume that he is done and that he will never again be a great pitcher. That's certainly what the public has done. It might not be that simple, though. A weight room injury in December uncovered some deeper core injuries, and he has now had surgery to repair it. That will limit his preparations heading into the season, but if the injuries were at the root of the problems then he could rediscover at least some of his lost form. How quickly will he come back? What will he look like when he comes back? Like 20014 again? Like 2013? Better than that? Worse than ever? The public will underestimate him, so there could be value, but only if he really is poised to bounce back well.
Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees: Tanaka was a really big deal when he arrived from Japan last year, and the Yankees invested heavily in him. At the start of the year he largely lived up to the hype, but then a partially torn ligament in his elbow derailed his season from July on. He came back for two starts at the end of the season, but they didn't go particularly well. Elbows are terrifying for any pitcher, never mind a guy who is just 26 and throws like Tanaka does. Tanaka was also used to much more rest between starts in Japan than he will get here in the U.S., so there is a real concern about whether he can adapt and handle the pressure over the long term - even if he is healthy. The rotation behind him isn't exactly poised to ease a lot of the pressure on him. CC Sabathia is coming off knee surgery. Ivan Nova had Tommy John surgery last year. And Michael Pineda gets hurt when someone looks at him.
Matt Harvey, Mets: Harvey was one of the most promising youngsters in the game a couple of years back. Now, though, he is 25, hasn't pitched in well over a year, and is coming back from Tommy John surgery. Will he be fine, or will he struggle to find his form and his confidence? Will he be the same pitcher he was before, or will his game have changed? For the better or the worse? If he does return to form then how long will it take? Will the Mets let him do his thing, or will they protect him to a concerning extent - like the Nationals did with Stephen Strasburg? Harvey says that he is fine and feeling good, but I just don't trust that - at least not until I can see it for myself. The best part of this, though, is the comic relief. Mets' GM Sandy Alderson has said that he would be fine with Harvey pitching 200 innings - including the playoffs. Because the playoffs are such a huge concern for this team. That would be like the Titans saying that they are fine with Jake Locker playing in the playoffs.
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