MLB Players Of The Decade: Starting Pitcher Offers Host Of Candidates

SAN FRANCISCO - NOVEMBER 03: (L-R) San Francisco Giants pitchers Tim Lincecum Matt Cain and Brian Wilson speak to fans outside San Francisco city hall during the Giants' victory parade and celebration on November 3 2010 in San Francisco California. Thousands of Giants fans lined the streets of San Francisco to watch the San Francisco Giants celebrate their 2010 World Series victory over the Texas Rangers. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The list of candidates for PItcher of the Decade begins with Tim "the Freak" Lincecum ... but is that where it ends?

Rob Neyer is predicting who will be the best players of this decade at each position. You can view all his previous selections here as he makes them.

This isn't easy. Figuring out which starting pitchers are going to be excellent six, seven, eight years down the line is almost inherently impossible, simply because throwing a baseball 90 miles an hour is a risky activity.

Let's give it a shot, though.

Roy Halladay is probably the best pitcher in the universe at this moment. He also turns 34 this spring, which essentially knocks him out of the running for the title of Pitcher of the Decade.

CC Sabathia is an outstanding pitcher, but there's simply never been another great pitcher built like him, so it's practically impossible to guess at the shape of his career over these next nine seasons.

Cliff Lee is brilliant, but he's 32 and his medical history is not exactly impeccable.

With those pitching geniuses out of the way, let's turn to the serious candidates: Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, Adam Wainwright, Josh Johnson, John Danks ... the list does go on, doesn't it? I will promise you that right now, someone's cursing me for omitting his favorite young pitcher from that list. Jered Weaver, perhaps, or Cole Hamels. Matt Cain.

Which of these fellows will still be pitching brilliantly toward the end of this decade?

Nearly 30 years ago, Bill James wrote, "It is my belief that that which most identifies the pitcher who can be successful over a long period of time is intelligence."

I don't know if Bill was right. Even if I knew, it wouldn't do me much good because I don't have these guys' test results.

So I'm going to rely instead on something else Bill wrote, also nearly 30 years ago: "Whatever the logic, the correct answer is that a power pitcher has a dramatically higher expectation for future success than does a control pitcher of the same age and ability."

Before you say anything ... Yes, yes, I know ... Greg Maddux. At his best, Greg Maddux probably struck out more hitters than you think, plus he was a freak when it came to preventing home runs. Also, there's only one of him.

Okay, and yes there's Tom Glavine, too. I don't even know what to say about him, except that if you can look at the current crop of young pitchers and guess which one is going to win 300 games while striking out 5.3 hitters per nine innings, you should apply for my job because you deserve it.

Considering only pitchers with at least 600 innings in the last three seasons -- there's something to be said for being healthy enough to average 200 innings per season -- there are 10 pitchers in their 20s (though last season) with strikeout rates higher than 8 per nine innings: Lincecum, Verlander, Lester, Haren, Greinke, Jimenez, Hamels, Weaver, Hernandez and Sabathia.

There are 10 pitchers in their 20s with strikeout-to-walk ratios higher than 2.5: Haren, Greinke, Hamels, James Shields, Lincecum, Sabathia, Weaver, Verlander, Lester, and Felix Hernandez.

Unfortunately for me, those lists are basically the same. Shields and Jimenez appear on just one and we've already disqualified Sabathia because he's unique. But that still leaves eight strong candidates.

Next? Well, Bill James didn't write about this (as far as I know), but in addition to walks and strikeouts, it's worth considering home runs. 

I was surprised to find that Ubaldo Jimenez is the champion in this category, giving up just 0.48 home runs per nine innings over the last three seasons. And there are certainly a lot of reasons to like Jimenez.

There are more reasons to like Tim Lincecum, though. 

Lincecum's home runs per nine innings is fantastic, just slightly higher than Jimenez's.

Lincecum's 3.32 strikeout-to-walk ratio is excellent, eighth best in the majors over the last three seasons.

Lincecum's 10.25 strikeouts per nine innings is phenomenal; there's roughly the same gap between him and the No. 2 man (Verlander) as between the No. 2 man and the No. 14 man on the list.

All that said, when we look at three-season numbers we're ignoring trends, and we can't help noticing that Lincecum wasn't quite as brilliant in 2010 as he'd been in 2008 and '9. We can't help noticing that as well as he pitched last season, and into November, Lincecum wasn't throwing as hard last season as he used to.

That worries me. If Lincecum's loses another mile or two off his fastball, he'll still be a fine pitcher but he probably won't be a perennial Cy Young candidate. Maybe the shelf life of 5'11", 170-pound pitchers just isn't what we might wish. 

When I began this exercise, I expected to find that Tim Lincecum is the correct answer.

I'm not convinced, though. And considering Felix Hernandez's last two seasons -- in which he posted a 2.38 ERA in 488 innings while facing American League hitters -- I must fill in the circle next to his name.

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