So now that the full All-Star rosters have been announced, let’s acknowledge the snubs and get into the next subject of controversy: Who should be on the bump? Today we'll run through the cases for manager Ned Yost’s options for the American League, then turn to the NL on Wednesday.
Yost made this somewhat simpler by selecting just six starting pitchers for his AL All-Star roster. Consider it a case of complimenting these half-dozen pitchers, in particular, while leaving room for a sweet stable of relievers. But who among these six should get the honor of starting an All-Star Game?
1. Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays: His 2.18 ERA is third-best in the league, his 11.0 K/9 and 31.2 percent strikeout rate both rank second in the league, and he’s the obvious best player on a surprisingly competitive Rays team (with a 3.7 WAR). When he’s on, Archer's stuff is some of the most fun to watch; between his 96 mph fastball and one of the league’s best sliders, he puts on a show. But he’s a first-time All-Star who has taken his game to a new level in just his third full year, you might want more of a slam-dunk case as your starter.
2. Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics: Gray is the current ERA leader in the league, and -- thanks in part to the Coliseum’s heavy air -- the hardest starter in the AL off which to homer (0.4 HR/9), a skill you might want to put to the test in the homer-happy Gap in Cincinnati. He has a strong four-pitch mix, as his mid-90s heat and sweet sinker complement his slider and curve. But ERA leader or not, starting Gray over anyone else in this six-pack wouldn’t appeal to fans or ratings. And as good as he is, he isn’t the best starter available.
3. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners: History’s choice, because if you want to ask “what constitutes and All-Star?” and look beyond first-half numbers, King Felix has the most career wins (135) in the group, two ERA titles, a Cy Young award and the starting assignment in last year’s All-Star Game -- in his fifth All-Star invite -- to his credit. And if your definition of an ace includes making every start count, no matter how little help he gets from his teammates, Hernandez qualified there too: He has 10 wins despite getting some of the worst run support in the league, just 2.8 runs per game, which ranks 67th out of 71 qualifiers. On the other hand, he has the highest ERA in this group, with the lone mark above 3.00.
4. Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros: The league leader in wins, with 11, Keuchel is the workhorse powering Houston’s bid for a division title, and that comes with the features you’d expect from a yeoman’s résumé: He’s thrown a league-leading 130 1/3 innings and spun a league-leading 14 quality starts in 18 turns. But he has more than just that going for him; Keuchel's 2.14 ERA is second in the league, although his FIP ranks ninth. Per FanGraphs’ assessment of PitchF/X data, his slider is the best in the AL so far this season. And this isn’t a new development: Keuchel was awesome last season as well, posting a 2.93 ERA and a winning record for a losing, but improving, Astros club.
5. David Price, Detroit Tigers: Per FanGraphs, Price’s fastball ranks as the best blazer in the league, and he has the lowest walk rate of any of these six. His historical résumé is a little weaker than the King’s (one Cy Young and one ERA title, and 95 career wins), as well as a starting assignment in 2010 among his four previous All-Star appearances. He’s a bit of the Steady Eddie in this crew, a 29-year-old veteran having a better year than the other “old” man, King Felix.
6. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox: His recent run of eight straight double-K starts just put an exclamation point on the observation that Sale remains the most dominant starter in the league, a hurler at the height of his power. He’s leading the league in strikeouts, K/9 and strikeout rate. His FIP was already the best in the league before his complete-game win over the best offense in baseball Monday night. Because he pitches in the Cell, which helps right-handed power hitters, the Gap won’t represent a dauntingly difficult challenge for Sale. The cons, as far as they go, are a relatively modest 7-4 record (but he’s not getting a ton of run support) and the fact that Sale missed the start of the season thanks to the Sox’s understandable conservatism regarding his arm and his health.
With all of that in mind, ask yourself if you want to indulge some recency bias and reward first-half performances of this or any single season, or if you think it’s the All-Star Game and not merely the all-first-half team. Even if it’s “just” a first-half team, you can scratch Archer and Gray right off the bat -- good as they've been, they haven't been as good as Sale or Keuchel. Among the more established pitchers, arguments for Hernandez or Price have merit, but neither is pitching as well as Sale among the multi-time All-Stars. It really comes down to Sale’s pure dominance every fifth night versus what Keuchel has meant to the Astros in terms of delivering wins, winnable games and a whole lot of innings.
Considering all of this, Sale is the pick here. Keuchel's wins are an expression of support from his defenders, as well as run support -- things Sale doesn't get much of. To Keuchel's nice ERA you can answer with Sale's FIP, suggesting that when it comes to the things a man on the mound has control over, really, nobody is better than Sale. He’s at his best right now and has the track record that extends beyond this past April. This is his fourth All-Star appearance, so his being here is nothing new or surprising. He has little left to prove -- unless it’s seeing if he can strike out the side in the bottom of the first inning in Cincinnati next week.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.