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 ESPN Insider, baseball: Opening Day starter tiers: Clayton Kershaw ... and then everybody else

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PostSubject: ESPN Insider, baseball: Opening Day starter tiers: Clayton Kershaw ... and then everybody else   Sat Apr 01, 2017 9:22 pm

Opening Day starter tiers: Clayton Kershaw ... and then everybody else
Mar 31, 2017

Bradford DoolittleESPN Staff Writer

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The pitching probables look the same as they will on every other day between now and October. Yet when we look at them on Opening Day, we know those scheduled starters are anointed with something special, some kind of magical spring dust. Or something like that.
How our tiers were determined

Pitchers have been rated according to their start-by-start performance over the last three seasons for the following traits:

PERFORMANCE: This is based on a combination of FIP and game scores. Results are park-adjusted and more recent outings carry more weight.
CONSISTENCY: Based on percentage of quality starts.
DOMINANCE: Based on percentage of dominant starts, defined as any park-adjusted game score that ranks in the top 10 percentile of all starts over past three years.
DURABILITY: Based on percentage of all possible starts made, as well as average innings per start. Results are calculated from the population of all starting pitchers, not just those scheduled for Opening Day.
ACE: This bottom-line metric combines ratings in the traits above. It is based on how each pitcher compares to the average Opening Day starter for each category, and the distribution of results in that category.

For each pitcher, it's an honor to be tabbed as his team's Opening Day starter. Baseball scribes start snooping around on the topic as soon as spring training opens, with every team's manager quoted in some story or other as "not having made up my mind" -- until he does finally make the announcement and yet another story is generated.

In a 162-game season, the importance of the Opening Day starter isn't that high. Yet, for fans, the identity of your team's first pitcher says something, whether it's about what a long-beloved hurler has done, or maybe what a young up-and-comer might do. And for some teams, the name of the pitcher on the mound for that first game ... well, it can be disheartening.

Today, we present all of the starters for the first game of the 2017 season, separated into tiers. It's part of a new rating system, explained in the accompanying box, but for this exercise, we're just slotting Opening Day starters against other Opening Day starters.

And if your favorite pitcher isn't here, blame the injury muse, or blame your manager. Chances are, if your favorite hurler is a star who didn't draw the first assignment, your team's rotation is in pretty good shape anyway.

TIER 1: The Clayton Kershaw tier
Clayton Kershaw's Opening Day start against the Padres will be his seventh consecutive for the Dodgers. He's 4-0 with an 0.93 ERA in his previous six starts. AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Dodgers Clayton Kershaw 100 100 100 99 9.05

Originally, there were going to be just five tiers. But when I plotted out the distribution for ACE scores, one thing was crystal clear: Clayton Kershaw is on a tier by himself. His four-year ERA (1.88) would not be out of place in the dead ball era. In fact, if you look at just the years since 1920, when the livelier ball gave birth to the modern game, only one pitcher has had a better four-year stretch -- Sandy Koufax -- and it's close. Koufax had two four-year periods during his amazing career-ending run that were a tick better (1.85 and 1.86, respectively). Dodgers fans old enough to remember that had to think they would never see another period of dominance like the one Koufax enjoyed in the 1960s. Well, you're seeing it, and by another Dodgers lefty, no less.
TIER 2: The aces
Jon Lester will make his second Opening Day start for the Cubs. His first was in 2015. He also made four straight for the Red Sox from 2011-2014. AP Photo/Paul Beaty
Indians Corey Kluber 98 96 98 100 5.89
Giants Madison Bumgarner 98 96 98 99 5.73
Cubs Jon Lester 95 100 97 98 5.13
Astros Dallas Keuchel 95 98 96 98 4.58
Mariners Felix Hernandez 80 93 98 97 4.56
D'backs Zack Greinke 94 99 97 96 4.54

One on the rise: Jon Lester

One on the way down: Zack Greinke

One thing interesting about this group is that the last three -- Dallas Keuchel, King Felix and Greinke -- are all coming off down years. The ratings are based on three years' worth of data, and even when weighting their pitching logs for recency, that trio had a good enough track record to retain No. 1 starter status entering the season.

Indeed, not only are all three taking the ball on Opening Day, but there isn't really any argument that any of them shouldn't. Keuchel is young enough that a bounce-back season seems like a good bet. Meanwhile, Hernandez didn't recover his old velocity this spring, but he did appear to adapt to his new reality in a dominant fashion. We'll see if it carries into the season. Greinke's stuff took a dip as well, and that concern was not assuaged by good spring results. The Diamondbacks have 172 million reasons ($$$) to hope he figures it out.

Also, it might seem odd to list the well-established Lester as "on the rise," but everyone in this group is a known quantity, so this is more of an acknowledgment that Lester has never been better than he was after the All-Star break last season.
TIER 3: The just-a-step-behind aces
Noah Syndergaard led the majors in 2016 with the fewest homers surrendered per nine innings with 0.54. Kathy Willens/AP
Mets Noah Syndergaard 97 91 98 80 4.01
Yankees Masahiro Tanaka 93 97 96 94 3.94
Tigers Justin Verlander 96 96 91 96 3.61
Braves Julio Teheran 89 92 95 97 3.60
Nationals Stephen Strasburg 95 90 95 90 3.46

One on the rise: Noah Syndergaard

One on the way down: Stephen Strasburg

As noted in the explainer, the tiers used here just reflect a comparison of the Opening Day starters against each other. If you look at this tier and think there isn't that much to differentiate them from the previous tier, you'd be right. Among the entire universe of active starting pitchers, these pitchers are also Tier 2 performers. Strasburg and Syndergaard both get dinged for durability, the latter partly because he's been in the big leagues for only two years. After ramping up to 183 2/3 innings last season, Thor seems poised to join the primary challengers to Kershaw's throne.
TIER 4: Almost there ... but not quite
The Cardinals' Carlos Martinez, making his first Opening Day start, had a 16-9 record and 5.4 WAR in 2016. Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports
Rangers Yu Darvish 94 92 95 76 2.91
White Sox Jose Quintana 93 98 81 97 2.88
Cardinals Carlos Martinez 93 87 93 84 2.65
Rays Chris Archer 92 86 87 96 2.63
Red Sox Rick Porcello 90 95 79 97 2.46
Twins Ervin Santana 87 88 87 92 2.22

One on the rise: Carlos Martinez

One on the tumble: Ervin Santana

Darvish spends time on the DL every season, the main thing that separates him from the top tier of starters. As he heads into free agency, he can make himself a lot of extra money by staying on the hill for a full season. Though, let's face it, he's going to earn plenty of dough either way.

Quintana's profile is also of particular interest as his name sits atop the baseball rumor mill. There is a noticeable split in his showing between the dominance and consistency categories. Over the past three years, he's put up quality starts in 72 percent of his outings, about 22 percent above the big league average. However, his rate of dominant starts (10.4 percent) is just a nudge over the mean. In other words, Quintana isn't as likely as some others on this list to shut a team down, but day in, day out, few pitchers are as steady.
TIER 5: The potential is there, but something is missing
The Royals' Danny Duffy set a career high in wins (12), innings (179 2/3), strikeouts (188) and WAR (4.2) in 2016. AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
Pirates Gerrit Cole 91 95 77 90 2.01
Brewers Junior Guerra 91 88 89 63 1.47
Blue Jays Marco Estrada 83 85 77 88 1.20
Royals Daniel Duffy 78 68 82 83 0.78
Reds Scott Feldman 70 92 71 77 0.63
Marlins Edinson Volquez 56 78 66 95 0.61
Orioles Kevin Gausman 80 76 70 81 0.44

One on the rise: Danny Duffy

One on the way down: Scott Feldman

If Duffy continues his showing from the last half of last season, he could jump two tiers in 2017, and in the World Baseball Classic, he certainly looked poised to do so. His past issues with consistency are certainly reflected in these measures.

Cole has a surprising low dominance score, and for him to operate as a legit ace for the Pirates, you'd like to see that number come up. He had just two such outings last season.
TIER 6: Well, someone has to start on Opening Day
San Diego's Jhoulys Chacin has made one other Opening Day start in his career: for the Rockies in 2013, and gave up one run in 6 2/3 innings. Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Phillies Jeremy Hellickson 75 63 73 79 0.09
Angels Ricky Nolasco 80 53 72 76 -0.04
Athletics Kendall Graveman 69 68 50 75 -0.60
Rockies Jon Gray 75 60 57 62 -0.96
Padres Jhoulys Chacin 44 49 72 61 -1.40

One on the rise: Jon Gray

One on the way down: Jhoulys Chacin

Kendall Graveman isn't supposed to be on this list. The Athletics' Opening Day nod almost certainly would have gone to Sonny Gray if he were healthy. Gray's ACE score (3.02) would have put him just above Darvish in these ratings.

Meanwhile, the other Gray -- Colorado's Jon -- is a riser. Each pitcher's outing was adjusted for the park in which it appeared, so theoretically the Coors Field factor should be accounted for. Still, as exciting as Gray's rookie season was, his overall ERA was still 4.61 and his ERA on the road (4.91) was actually worse than his ERA at Coors (4.30). So we're talking about potential over production in these early days for Gray, but the potential is immense.
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