There are two positions on any given baseball team in any given inning that comprise the host of the action. The batter and the pitcher. It’s the great duel of American sports, a battle between a player throwing a small leather ball very quickly and very precisely, and another person trying to hit it. Everyone else is reacting accordingly.
But while batters cycle through to become baserunners, the pitcher remains constant, at least for about 100 throws a game. They’re the most visible players in the stadium — they’re in the center of the diamond. Why do you think Charlie Sheen’s character in Major League was a pitcher? Why is a no-hitter so awesome? Why is a pitcher blowing the game just as exciting in a completely different way?
It’s a complicated thing, the compelling nature of the major league baseball pitcher. However, fans know when they’re doing well, and fans know when they’re worth watching. Here are the four pitchers who put forth a claim as the best in the business over last season, and look to hold on to that crown as the 2014 season springs to life.
4. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
Looming over the mound standing 6’6? and weighing in at 180 pounds, Chris Sale definitely qualifies as lanky. According to The New York Times, there’s only been one player that tall to make more starts than Chris Sale — a guy nicknamed Slim who played back in the halcyon ’20s.
Needless to say, Sale stands out — if you’ll excuse the pun — but not just for his height. The Condor throws left-handed and has finished in the top 6 for the Cy Young Award over the last two years, as well as 417 strikeouts (against 350 hits) and a 3.06 ERA. Oh, and he finished 4th in Wins Above Replacement for pitchers last year. He’s only 24. His college recruiter described him as “a baby giraffe” in The New York Times piece.
Check out some of his highlights from the 2013 season below. Unfortunately for Sale, the Sox finished 63-99 despite his efforts.
3. Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle Mariners
From Chicago to Seattle and the new school to the old school, Iwakuma, the 32-year-old pitcher for the Seattle Mariners, was shot down with a sprained tendon in the middle finger of his right hand (yeah, his throwing hand) back in February. He’s started being able to toss things again, according to The Seattle Times. The All-Star, who finished third in Cy Young voting last year, started 33 games in 2013 for the Seattle ball club on his way to a career 67 percent win-loss percentage with the team.
The Mariners, who had a dismal 2013 (finishing 79-91), could use a good recovery from Iwakuma. They’ve had two other pitchers, Taijuan Walker and Stephen Pryor, spend Spring Training rehabbing injuries. While “none of three are likely to be ready for opening day,” The Times noted, “the Mariners can at least envision them being in uniform by May.” Iwakuma played in the Nipon Professional Baseball league from 2000-2011 before signing with Seattle. You can see his 2013 highlights below.
2. Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
Another seasoned vet, Cliff Lee’s well-traveled MLB career has seen him put in stints with the Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, and Philadelphia Phillies (twice.) The four time All-Star made his second stay in Philadelphia count, notching three straight top-10 WAR rankings (2nd, 8th, and 2nd, respectively) since 2011 for the club that as the team went 256-230, even though they’ve missed the playoffs the last two years.
Impressively, the 35-year-old pitcher shows no signs of slowing down. “The veteran left-hander made his penultimate spring start in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with the Red Sox,” wrote The Reporter, “working six innings so efficiently that he needed to throw a dozen pitches in the bullpen afterward just to get his pitch count extended.” Lee did not throw a single pitch outside the strike zone for the first five innings. Here are, you guessed it, some of his 2013 highlights (check out the difference in pitching style between these guys, it’s crazy.)
1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
No one’s got more riding on the 2014 season than Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw — the highest paid pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball (and his $30.7 million yearly salary is the highest for any player ever) with a contract worth $215 million dollars over 7 years, per ESPN – is going to have to put his glove where his money is and help the Dodgers back into the post-season.
Of course, with a league leading WAR of 7.9 (for pitchers), Kershaw is the best man for the job. With the Dodgers committed to making him the premier player of the franchise, Clayton responded admirably during the season opener; a game against the Diamondbacks in Australia that saw the pitcher open for 6 2/3 innings in a 3-1 victory. With that win, Kershaw extended his undefeated opening-day start streak to four games. Lastly, check out some of his best moments from 2013 below (there’s a lot of ‘em.)