It’s high noon in the NL West. Into a deserted clearing step Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Madison Bumgarner. A breeze rolls tumbleweeds across the ground.

What happens next?

Clearly there’s going to be a damn good fight for the not-so-official title of the division’s best ace. Kershaw, Greinke and Bumgarner have been three of the National League’s top pitchers over the past three seasons, and are certainly head-and-shoulders above all other NL West pitchers.

As for which of them will be the last ace standing, that part is complicated. Let’s break it down.


The Case for and Against Madison Bumgarner

On either side of his historically awesome postseason in 2014, Bumgarner has been remarkably consistent. Since 2013, the San Francisco Giants ace is the only pitcher to top 200 innings with an ERA under 3.00 each year.

What’s more, Bumgarner is still just 26 and seemingly only getting better. As I highlighted last week, he’s gained complete control over his unusual delivery and has further baffled hitters with an approach that calls for fastballs up and off-speed pitches down. As a result, he’s improved as a strikeout artist and as a walk artist.

So, color us unsurprised that the projections expect more of the same from Bumgarner in 2016. At FanGraphs, for example, Steamer and ZiPS both see another season of 200-plus innings with an ERA under 3.00 in his future.

The thing is, though, the left-hander hasn’t started 2016 off on the right foot.

Bumgarner was slowed by injuries in spring training, and he posted an 11.12 ERA in four starts. The hard times continued in his 2016 debut at the Milwaukee Brewers, as he surrendered three earned runs on five hits (including two home runs) and five walks in five innings.

Since Bumgarner was supposedly battling the flu, his poor performance may prove to be a one-and-done affair. In particular, better health could help his fastball velocity, which was roughly two miles per hour below its 2015 norm in his debut.

Unless said velocity loss is something that’s about to be unveiled as permanent, that is. According to this Brooks Baseball chart of Bumgarner‘s velocity over the past year, it’s a distinct possibility:

Ever since it peaked last June, his velocity has been on a downward slope. And though he’s still plenty young, research by Bill Petti at FanGraphs suggests Bumgarner is right around the age when he would start losing velocity.

Because Bumgarner still has a delivery that makes it incredibly tough for hitters to track the ball as well as an approach to pitching that further ups the difficulty level, he should still be able to pitch like an ace even if this velocity loss is for real. But since smaller velocity readings tend to mean a smaller margin for error, it’s fair to wonder if his ceiling for 2016 only goes so high.


The Case for and Against Zack Greinke

In case anyone missed it, Greinke is no longer a Los Angeles Dodger. They were open to bringing him back this winter, but instead he followed the scent of a $206.5 million contract to Arizona.

The Diamondbacks aren’t wrong to view Greinke as the ace their rotation sorely lacked in 2015. He’s posted a 2.30 ERA across 602.2 innings over the last three years, culminating in an MLB-best 1.66 ERA in 222.2 innings last season.

Sure, the 32-year-old Greinke isn’t young anymore. In a related story, the electric stuff he had in his Kansas City Royals days is long gone. But without his best stuff, he’s basically become Greg Maddux. Through pinpoint command and expert sequencing, Greinke is in control of hitters at all times.

Or most times, anyway. Greinke wasn’t in a lot of control in his 2016 debut against the Colorado Rockies. He lasted only four innings, giving up seven runs on nine hits, three of which exited the park.

The bright side, such as it is, is that Greinke has the same excuse as Bumgarner for his poor debut. As Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports found out from his sources, Greinke was also battling the flu:

Another bright side is that Greinke‘s stuff didn’t suffer as much as Bumgarner‘s did. His fastball velocity was only down 0.8 miles per hour from where it was in 2015. To boot, his velocity in his debut was actually better than where he was last April.

With this being the case, Greinke is probably right in thinking that subpar command is to blame for his poor first impression.

“I know I probably threw too many pitches away early in the game and didn’t throw in enough,” he told Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic. “Sometimes that’ll let the other team feel more comfortable in the box.”

Another thing that didn’t help is that Greinke didn’t get many called strikes outside the strike zone. That’s something he excelled at in 2015, as Baseball Savant reports that 10.9 percent of his balls were called strikes. Only four of his 53 balls, or 7.5 percent, got that treatment in his debut.

But just as Bumgarner‘s lesser velocity may be a trend in the making, Greinke struggling to get favorable calls could be in the same boat. As noted by Brad Johnson at FanGraphs, Greinke is making the switch from an elite strike-framer in Yasmani Grandal to a mediocre strike-framer in Welington Castillo.

The odds of Greinke posting another 1.66 ERA are slim no matter what. But if Castillo’s catching doesn’t allow him to pitch like he’s used to, Steamer and ZiPS may be right about his ERA being likely to fall in the 2.75-3.00 range.


The Case for and Against Clayton Kershaw

HOT TAKE INCOMING: Kershaw is really good. 

As in, really good. The Dodgers ace led the majors in ERA each year between 2011 and 2014. And even in breaking the streak in 2015, he still posted a 2.13 ERA, struck out 301 batters and was rated as baseball’s top pitcher by several advanced metrics.

And where Bumgarner and Greinke began 2016 with a thud, Kershaw did this to the San Diego Padres:

Seven shutout innings? Only one walk and one hit allowed? A sharp 93-95 fastball? A disappearing high-80s slider? A mind-bending curveball? 

Yup, that all sounds like Kershaw.

And there’s more! Though it’s not pictured above, Mike Axisa of CBS Sports captured a look at a changeup that Kershaw used to make Alexei Ramirez look silly:

That’s something you don’t see often, as Kershaw‘s changeup has accounted for less than 3 percent of the 28-year-old’s career pitches. And for the most part, his changeups haven’t been good.

That one sure was, though. And that may not be an accident. Though Kershaw has struggled to master the pitch, he hasn’t given up on learning the changeup. And this spring, he sought advice from a guy who had a great changeup in his day.

“He came up to me and asked how I threw my changeup,” former Dodgers closer and Cy Young winner Eric Gagne told Ken Gurnick of “He’s never satisfied with whatever his numbers are. He just wants to get better. That’s the difference between a good pitcher and one-of-a-kind.”

If the changeup that Kershaw broke out in his 2016 debut is the result of his one-on-one with Gagne, hitters may be screwed. He’s only needed a fastball, slider and curveball to become the best pitcher of modern times. If he now has a changeup too, he might literally morph into Superman.

As for the catch…well, that’s actually a good question.

Kershaw is still in his prime years, and it’s hard to spot red flags. His velocity is fine. He’s gotten good at pounding the strike zone. Between that and his stuff, it makes sense that he excels at walksstrikeouts and contact management.

The only concern may be whether Kershaw will be hurt by the Dodgers defense. With an offense-first shortstop in Corey Seager and older defenders at first, second and third, Kershaw‘s tendency toward ground balls might not be an automatic recipe for success.

But since that’s basically it, it’s hard to disagree with Steamer and ZiPS projecting Kershaw for well over 200 innings and an ERA in the low 2.00s. That’s just what he does.


The Grand Conclusion

Let’s return to our homage to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. If it’s a shootout that Kershaw, Greinke and Bumgarner are getting into this season, who’s the man to beat?

Here’s how I’d rank ’em:

  1. Kershaw
  2. Greinke
  3. Bumgarner

Shocking for a guy who just ranked them the exact same way a week ago, I know. The only difference this time is that I’ll admit that Bumgarner vs. Greinke is probably a push. If Greinke regresses from last year’s 1.66 ERA as much as he should, his production will end up looking a lot like Bumgarner‘s.

But regardless, it’s difficult to imagine either having a better year than Kershaw. He’s been dominating more than any other pitcher for a half-decade now. And going into this season, you practically need a microscope to find nits to pick with his potential.

Put another way, the best pitcher in baseball can probably handle being the best pitcher in the NL West.


Stats courtesy of and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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