When piecing together a major league pitching staff, I've always maintained that team management first and foremost must "count to 1,450" -- roughly the number of innings a staff can be expected to log. To get there, or get even close, a team better have multiple guys qualifying for the ERA title, putting up at least an inning per game played; the magic number is 162.
With the complete game (from a starting pitcher) virtually extinct and clubs focusing more and more on power bullpen arms who can't be relied upon for multiple-inning stints, the ERA qualifier just might be more valuable than ever. Just look at some of the pitching contracts bestowed upon pure "innings guys" in this year's free-agent market -- I'm looking at you, Mike Leake; it's clear that there's a ton of money to be made by starting pitchers, but to get into the game, you need to clear that 162-inning hurdle for the first time.
In 2015, 74 starting pitchers qualified for the ERA title, the lowest total since the strike year of 1995 (70). Excepting that one fluky season, the 2015 total is the lowest in the divisional era, back to 1969. Historically, about a quarter of ERA qualifiers in any given season are clearing that 162-inning barrier for the first time. Last season featured 18 first-timers, right in line with those norms. What was different about the 2015 first-timer crop, however, was the quality from top to bottom.
In essence, you can separate the job of the pitcher into two distinct categories: K and BB optimization, or contact management. Looking at first-time ERA qualifiers through a K/BB lens, let us set a combined total of a full standard deviation above the league-average K/BB ratio and K/9 IP as a standard. That's a pretty tough bar, considering that NL ERA qualifiers averaged 8.06 K/9, with AL qualifiers right behind at 7.61. These figures have mushroomed in recent years.
Six of those 18 first-timers in 2015 cleared this fairly lofty standard: Jake Arrieta, Carlos Carrasco, Jacob deGrom, Danny Salazar, Gerrit Cole and Taijuan Walker. With all due respect to Collin McHugh, Trevor Bauer, Marco Estrada, Kyle Hendricks, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, among other members of the Class of 2015, we're going to focus on the first six as the standard-bearers of the group.
Going back to 1969, only two other classes of first-time qualifiers, 1984 and 2008, matched the 2015 total of six pitchers clearing this well-above-average K/BB and K/9 standard. The 2008 group comprised Scott Baker, Jered Weaver, Tim Lincecum, Ricky Nolasco, Chad Billingsley and Edinson Volquez, while the 1984 group was loaded, with Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, Mark Langston, Mike Moore, Oil Can Boyd and, well, Mike Mason.
Anyway, let's take a more in-depth look at the 2015 group, examining some key K/BB and contact-management metrics and identifying some historical comps at each pitcher's current age.