Which NL Southpaw Is Greatest?

There are undoubtedly some great pitchers in baseball right now, but the ones who generally command the most attention — Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, and Tim Lincecum i- are all right-handed. Those three have each won a Cy Young Award in the past two years, and are usually the first names mentioned in a discussion of the best pitchers in baseball. However, there are some pretty terrific left-handed pitchers in baseball as well, and in particular, there are four spectacular southpaws in the National League right now.

If you look at the lowest xFIPs in the NL, you’ll see Halladay and Lincecum, but you’ll also see Cole Hamels (2.50), Cliff Lee (2.51), Clayton Kershaw (2.84), and Jaime Garcia (2.98) — they are each one of the six pitchers in the NL with an xFIP below 3.00. While all four have been excellent in prior seasons, each is doing something new this year that has made them even better than they were previously.

For Garcia and Kershaw, they have significantly cut their walk rates this year while maintaining the rest of their strengths, allowing them to establish themselves as legitimate front-of-the-rotation starters. Lee has decided to walk more batters, but has exchanged the extra walks for a drastic increase in strikeout rate, as well. As for Hamels, he’s transformed into a ground-ball pitcher while still missing just as many bats as before, eliminating the home runs that had kept him from greatness in the past.

At this point, it’s hard to find flaws with any of them. You could pick on Lee’s .345 BABIP if you wanted, but there’s no reason to believe that’s going to continue. Kershaw has only pitched past the seventh inning twice, but part of that is getting pinch-hit for when his line-up spot comes up. I actually can’t even come up with anything negative to write about and then explain away for Garcia or Hamels — they’re just too good.

And perhaps most importantly, none of them are going away anytime soon. Kershaw is 23, Garcia is 24, Hamels is 27, and while Lee is the old guy at 32, he only has 1,500 Major League innings on his arm. These guys are all fantastic, and you would have to seriously split hairs to say that one is definitively better right now than the rest.

But, hey, let’s try anyway. Kershaw would probably be the hardest to argue in favor of at this very moment. Even with his improved command this season, he’s still posting the highest walk and lowest ground-ball rate of the quartet. Even if you use selective endpoints to date his improved command back to June of last year, then you also have to cede some of his prior strikeout rate. This season is the first time he’s really put it all together, and while he’s the youngest of the group, he has the shortest track record of pitching at this level. So, while he certainly has the talent to keep this up, we’ll penalize him just enough for a short peak to date. Like I said, hair splitting, but let’s put Kershaw aside for now.

That leaves us with Garcia and the two boys from Philly. Unfortunately for Garcia, everything I just said about Kershaw is also true with him, only his track record is even shorter. He’s also the one with a significant arm surgery in his past, and while he looks to be completely healthy at the moment, we’re looking for any little nitpick we can to separate these guys, and so we have to at least consider his prior arm problems. We also have to consider that he’s been even better in St. Louis than he was in the minors, and while some players legitimately do improve after getting to the big leagues, he doesn’t have the pedigree that Kershaw or Hamels do, nor does he have the sustained success of Cliff Lee. So, while Garcia is obviously fantastic, we also have to apologetically eliminate him from contention.

That leaves Lee and Hamels contending for the title, which should help explain why the Phillies have the best record in baseball right now. Lee has the longer track record, but it’s hard to ignore what Hamels is doing right now. He’s running the same xFIP as Lee this year, but he comes without the caveat about a BABIP regression coming — he’s actually getting results that match his peripherals. They both throw the same four pitches, they both pound the strike zone, they both generate a lot of strikeouts…

I don’t think I can do it, honestly. Lee or Hamels, the hairs are too thin to split. I don’t know that I can declare that either is better than the other. The only thing we can say is that the Phillies probably have the best left-handed pitcher in the National League — it’s just impossible to say who it is.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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I wonder who will have the bigger contract in 2 years. Hamels is gonna get $PAID$