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2010 - The Year of the Pitcher? (AL)

In my previous article I talked about how this season has already treated us to some truly great performances by starting pitchers in the National League. Now we’ll take a look at some of the top starters in the American League.

Starting pitching in the American League has long been regarded as a tougher job. You don’t get the “break” of facing your rival in the lineup, and most AL teams have tough, professional veteran hitters in the Designated Hitter role. DH’s typically add $5-10 million dollars to an AL team’s payroll.

As a result, over the years the AL generates about a half-run a game more than in the NL, so gaudy statistics in the AL are always noteworthy and AL pitchers have often prospered when they go over to the other league, almost like people who have grown up on a planet with heavier gravity who can jump higher and run faster than mere Earthlings. As a result, the AL pitchers I will highlight today don’t have the eye-popping statistics their counterparts have, but they’re having a great impact on their teams’ success in the early going nonetheless.

Let’s talk about Matt Garza of the Tampa Bay Rays. Garza was one of the emerging stars on the Rays’ American League champion team of 2008, but he disappointed in 2009 going 8-12; his 3.95 ERA was not bad for the AL, though, indicating he pitched in what is called “tough luck” along with the rest of his underachieving mates. This year is different for Garza and the Rays. They have stormed out to a 21-7 record in the toughest division in MLB, the American League East. Garza has been their ace, going 5-1 in his first six starts with a fine 2.09 ERA and 1.07 WHIP that has him tied for seventh in the league. Matt is really starting to assert himself as the anchor of a terrific young staff that includes “Big Game James” Shields, who is also 4-0.

Francisco Liriano of the Minnesota Twins is a certain candidate for Comeback Player of the Year in the AL. The Twins have opened their fabulous ballpark Target Field and Mother Nature has smiled with clement weather. Liriano has also been blessed with a 4-0 record in his first five starts, a 1.50 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. Liriano emerged in 2006 with a 12-3 record, a 2.16 ERA and an astounding 144 strikeouts in 121 innings pitched, but he blew out his elbow, underwent “Tommy John” ligament replacement surgery, and struggled to a 5-13 mark in 2009 with a woeful 5.80 ERA. This year he is back, and the Twins are atop the AL Central Division. For fans in the Twin Cities, only homeboy Joe Mauer’s long-term contract has been better news.

Then you have the Yankees. Ah, the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers have their surgeons on staff and of course they are in a sea-chase with the Rays to see who will capture the AL East crown and who will get the Wild Card consolation prize. Venerable Andy Pettitte (who left his start on Wednesday May 5 with tightness in his elbow), A.J. Burnett and C.C. Sabbathia have roared out to a combined 12-1 record with the sole loss resting on C.C.’s massive head. A.J.’s 1.99 ERA puts him among the leaders, and Andy’s 2.08 is also very fine. C.C. is not much behind at 2.74. Plus, the Yankees have young Phil Hughes, off to a 3-0 start with an even-better 1.44 ERA.

Meanwhile in Seattle the arrival of Cliff Lee was expected to create the best top-two in the AL when he was joined with young “King” Felix Hernandez, but Lee’s debut was delayed due to injury (although he tossed seven shutout innings in his first outing), and Felix has been sabotaged by the non-existent Mariner’s offense; he is off to a disappointing 2-2 start with a so-so (for him) 3.10 ERA. But there is yet time!

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