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The Baseball Notebook


June 24, 2010 9:33 PM

The AL's Best Arm

If I told you the best pitcher in the American League comes out of the AL East and is someone we haven't generally thought of as an ace, it probably wouldn't surprise you. After all, the young guns of David Price, Clay Bucholz and Phil Hughes are having big years in Tampa, Boston and New York respectively. But what if I told you the best year, not only in this division, but the entire AL, comes from outside the Big Three entirely? When you go beyond the hype and look at cold, hard performance, the #1 pitcher in the American League is Toronto's Ricky Romero.

A 2.85 ERA is always impressive and it's especially so in the brutal AL East. But for a pitcher from Toronto (or Baltimore for that matter, if it ever becomes relevant), it's even more so, because they have to face all three of the brutal lineups of the Big Three. Whereas a Bucholz, for example, does not have to face his own lineup in Boston. Nor is Romero doing this on short stints either. He's logged 104 innings, one of the few AL pitchers to beat 100 and ahead of renowned Yankee horse C.C. Sabathia. Romero doesn't have a high volume of decisions, but he's won two-thirds of them, going 6-3. For all of these reasons, he'd get my vote as the top starting pitcher in the American League if the season ended today.

Like the Notebook did yesterday for the National League, let's fill out the rest of an All-Star rotation. The next three picks were easy and all came from the East's Big Three. Bucholz and Price join the list, but from New York, it's veteran Andy Pettite rather than young gun Hughes. All three choices have strong W-L records, as befits a good pitcher from a top team, but also ERAs below 2.50 and innings pitched in the low 90s. It's the fifth and final choice that's the tough call. Hughes has the dazzling 10-1 record, but a 3.17 ERA is high for this level of competition. Seattle's Cliff Lee beats him by a substantial margin, at 2.39. For those who protest that Lee missed time early in the year, it must be pointed out that he's still pitched more innings than Hughes, 86-82. And at 6-3, Lee's winning a good chunk of his decisions for his lousy team. I give him the final spot.

Hughes leads the group of pitchers who are close enough that they could move into the All-Star group on everyone's next run through the rotation. Another Mariner hurler, Jose Vargas is on the board, and honorable mention can also go to Jon Lester (Boston), Shawn Marcum (Toronto) and Jered Weaver (Toronto). The inestimable Sabathia has a too-high ERA of 3.68, but if his traditional late-summer surge happens, he's poised to move back into the elite as well.

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Texas is scorching hot right now and just not in terms of weather. The Rangers have won 10 of their last 11. Because the Angels are playing well, Texas hasn't been been able to pull away in the AL West, still holding a 3.5 game lead. But they have moved passed both Tampa and Boston and now have the second-best record in all of baseball, behind only the Yankees. They're finally getting the pitching they've always needed and their deep from top to bottom in the batting order, especially now that Nelson Cruz is off the DL and back in the house.

The improved pitching comes in spite of a poor showing from Rich Harden. The injury-prone hurler has now made his usual visit to the disabled list, but after a 5.68 ERA, it's safe to say he won't be missed. Texas is getting good work from surprising youngster Colby Lewis, along with C.J. Wilson. After a late start to his season, Tommy Hunter has also won his first three decisions and has a 2.31 ERA. Thus far, the 4-5 spots have been weak links, but both Scott Feldman and Derek Holland have shown the ability to pitch better than they have thus far. Texas has enough pitching right now to win its division and at least be a dark-horse threat in the playoffs and they at least have the potential to become truly outstanding.

And the reliable bats are still there. Six regulars have on-base percentages higher than .350. Even though the power isn't there like it's been with Ranger teams of the past, Vlad Guerrero, Michael Young, Josh Hamilton and Cruz ensure this will never be mistaken for a singles-hitting team. Still, it bears noting that this Texas team is having success founded on solid pitching and a steady stream of runners on base, and those are far more likely to sustain themselves than simply bashing the ball.

When the game's over, the bullpen's been reliable. A trio of setup relievers, Darren O'Day, Darren Oliver and Chris Ray have been excellent. And Neftali Feliz adds his name to the list of very reliable closers, with a 20-for-22 close rate and 2.78 ERA. The Rangers will never really take away attention from the Cowboys and UT football in their home state. But this fall, they should at least give locals a brief pause before they change the channel.

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