Last night in Miami, Marlins rookie José Fernandez started against Mets right-hander Matt Harvey, making for a highly attractive duel between two young pitchers with outstanding talents. This prospect inspired the folks at MLB Now, yesterday afternoon, to run through a list of "notable starting pitchers under Age 25".
It was a solid list, except for missing at least two deserving notables:
24 Stephen Strasburg
24 Chris Sale*
24 Matt Harvey
23 Madison Bumgarner
23 Matt Moore
23 Tony Cingrani
23 Patrick Corbin*
22 Shelby Miller
20 José Fernandez
I added Sale and Corbin because they belong in the conversation as much as most of the others. But I think their list resulted from a quick scan of the ERA leaders, with Fernandez tacked on because he was pitching last night and Strasburg added because he's Strasburg.
Okay, so this is the point at which I mention arbitrary end-points. Why younger than 25 rather than 26? Clayton Kershaw is only eight months older than Strasburg, twelve months older than Harvey. I might argue that anything under 27 should qualify as "young" ... but this is a completely subjective thing, and I suppose that "younger than 25" makes as much sense as anything else.
In response to the question, "Which pitcher under 25 would you take?" Brian Kenny gave the answer you would probably expect: "I'm not going to get cute. Stephen Strasburg. The strikeouts. The walks, right? The ground balls. The overall run prevention... I go obvious: Strasburg."
Verducci didn't go obvious:
I'm going Matt Harvey. And Strasburg I love. How do you not like that package of pitches that he has. My issue here with Strasburg, he's made 50 starts in the big leagues. He has yet to see the eighth inning. He has not gotten an out in the eighth inning yet. Part of that's because they treated him with kid gloves early on. He has not gotten to ace level yet. Ace stuff, but an ace pitcher takes the ball deep into games.
Bumgarner has done that 21 times already, and he's a year younger than Strasburg...
My No. 1 is Matt Harvey; 1-A is Bumgarner. Harvey because of his body type, and his clean mechanics. He is the closest that I've seen to Roger Clemens in a long, long time. I really love the way the ball comes out of his hand.
Where do I go? Obvious: I don't want to decide! Because it's really hard.
Strasburg's phenomenally talented. He's also suffered a serious injury, and has now pitched 289 innings in the majors. Bumgarner has thrown 558 innings in the majors. And you know, while Bumgarner's adjusted ERA isn't nearly as good as Strasburg's, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is right there. Where Strasburg beats up Bumgarner a little is home runs; the latter's given up 49, the former only 23. The difference is significant once you consider that AT&T Park is an exceptionally difficult park for power hitters.
Aside: Harvey is an idiosyncratic choice. He's thrown just 100 innings in the majors, and history is littered with big strong pitchers with clean mechanics who spent a year on the Disabled List before reaching 200 innings. Harvey's obviously brilliant, but your first pick in our imaginary draft simply must be a pitcher who has demonstrated some ability, statistically speaking, to avoid major surgery for the next two or three years. There's no such thing as a sure thing, but Harvey's one of the farthest things from a sure thing on this list. And so you can have him.
As for Strasburg and Bumgarner, though ... I'm having a real tough time with this one. But considering Strasburg's stuff and the encouraging history of young pitchers and Tommy John Surgeries, I'm going to suggest that we've not yet seen his best, while Bumgarner's numbers suggest that he's exactly this good; but not, when you adjust for the context of his pitcher-friendly home, truly great.
So yeah, maybe it's closer than we might have thought. But in this case, the obvious answer is the right answer.