Should Jair Jurrjens be next week’s All-Star Game starting pitcher for the National League? Could he be? This might sound like the start of an argument for argument’s sake, especially if you’re already a convert to the faith that this is Roy Halladay’s world and everybody else should just be happy to be here, but Wednesday night, Jurrjens won his league-leading 12th game of the season for the Braves as Atlanta put the boot down on the Rockies in a 9-1 win. Between that and his league-leading ERA, it’s a sign of the times -- for good and bad -- that we’re having this conversation.
Keep in mind, passing Halladay by in wins was no easy feat. Beyond Halladay being dominating and just 20 wins away from 200 and overwhelming and all that, he also got a three-start lead to his season because Jurrjens was initially shelved with a strained oblique. Yet since coming off the DL to take his first turn on April 16, Jurrjens has been reliably excellent. Wednesday’s win was the 13th game in 16 in which he threw six innings or more while allowing three runs or less. The guy leads the league in 12 wins and an 1.89 ERA -- why are we even having this conversation?
On the other hand, for all the long-term and big-picture reasons, Halladay is the best pitcher in his league, a two-time Cy Young winner and perhaps the best pitcher in baseball. He’s the established thoroughbred who usually laps the field over the season’s long race. He leads the league in complete games, and he’s tied for the league lead in quality starts with teammate Cole Hamels. He’s Roy Halladay, All-Star now and All-Star later, while Jurrjens is somebody who gave up almost five runs per nine as long ago as the 2010 season -- so why are we even having this conversation?
This is where the decidedly fuzzy criteria for what it is that makes an All-Star: Is it the sum of his career, or just his recent career, or his performance over the first three months of the season? It manages to be all of those things simultaneously, to the despair and entertainment of voters, viewers and writers. But if you make any allowances for the three-months man, you’ve got a gap more than big enough to make a winning case for Jurrjens. It isn’t like Jurrjens’ wins are the product of absurd run support, not coming from this banged-up Braves lineup. Per Baseball-Reference.com’s Run Support per 27 outs, Halladay is the one getting a little more help from his friends, as the Phillies are giving him 4.6 runs to work with per 27 outs against Jurrjens’ 4.1.
Of course, run estimators such as SIERA or xFIP will tell you that Jurrjens is pitching “over his head” because he’s “supposed” to allow more home runs per fly ball or he doesn’t induce enough ground balls or a host of other factors that tell you he should be pitching worse than he is. But the nice thing about run estimators like this is that they work to describe the track records of all pitchers collectively, not every pitcher individually.
Get into what Jurrjens is doing on the mound to win, and you get into why he isn’t getting beat, and why he’s a great choice for an All-Star Game starter. If pitching is the art of upsetting timing, Jurrjens has become a master of upsetting hitters as well as analysts. He’s significantly cut his walks allowed from three per nine innings to two this season. Jurrjens also isn’t getting hit hard -- his Isolated Slugging allowed (or ISO) of .083 is almost identical to Halladay’s .080, and both men are among the major leagues’ top 10 among starting pitchers.
You might question how sustainable Jurrjens' performance will be. After all, right-handers with fastballs below 90 mph aren’t supposed to be this good. But is that really a valid criterion, what you think one man’s future is predicted to be? Jurrjens has already changed his game and beaten that expectation. There’s no real genius required to acknowledge that, yes, strikeouts are more compelling as a descriptor of pure stuff, more useful as a predictor of a pitcher’s likely future. It also isn’t reasonable to expect Jurrjens to keep his ERA in Bob Gibson territory indefinitely. To be a very good pitcher in the major leagues, he won’t have to.
Between his track record and his durability, history favors Halladay yesterday, and it will favor him tomorrow; no pitcher active today has a better shot at 300 wins. But maybe, just maybe today belongs to Jair Jurrjens -- and so does this Tuesday’s start.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.