There’s an old saying in baseball that, if you throw left-handed and can get the ball anywhere near the plate at a decent velocity, you’ll have a job. And that probably explains why, on both sides of town, we’ve seen an endless cavalcade of left-handed hurlers over the years. Some have lasted an inning, others a season … maybe two, if they were lucky. Those who do manage to stick have a good chance of becoming, at least, beloved players and, in some cases, straight-up legends.
So who are the Top Five lefties in Chicago right now? (I’m limiting this discussion to pitchers currently on the Cubs and White Sox 25-man rosters.) Sure, both teams are struggling to some extent – the Northsiders much more than the Southsiders, who, as of this writing, have won nine of their last 10 and made it back to the .500 mark. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some Chi-Town southpaws deserving of recognition. Here are my Top Five:
1. Mark Buehrle
Did someone mention a legend? When we look back on the first decade of the 21st Century, there’s little doubt that Buerhle should be at or very near the top of the list of Chicago pitchers on either team – left-handed or not. Incredibly, Buehrle made 30 or more starts between his first full season in 2001 and 2009, pitching more than 200 innings every single year. He won at least 10 games a season during that span, and his WAR generally sat around 4.0 – falling to as low as 1.9 during a down 2006 season but rising to a career high of 6.5 during the glorious 2005 championship campaign. Oh, and did we mention a no-hitter in 2007 and a perfect game in 2009? And you saw his defensive gem early this season, right?
It’s hard to say where Mark’s numbers will end up this year – he's struggled in many of his 2010 starts. It’s even difficult to determine whether he’ll finish his career with the White Sox. Buehrle is due to become a free agent in 2012, so the Sox could trade this long-time workhorse this season or next to a contender. Many speculate that the Missouri native could end his playing days with the St. Louis Cardinals. For now, however, Mark is undoubtedly Chi-Town’s No. 1 southpaw.
2. Ted Lilly
Unlike Mark Buehrle, Ted isn’t a hometown product nor has he garnered any of Mark’s historic honors. He’s never pitched a no-no, though he’s come darn close a couple times. And, sadly, he’s never helped pitch the Cubs to a World Series championship. In fact, many fans still harbor some resentment that Ted never saw action in the disastrous 2008 NLDS.
And, yet, there’s something about Ted. If you listen to Cubs games on WGN Radio, you’re guaranteed to hear Ron Santo refer to Lilly, at least once, as a "bulldog." I refer to Ted as one of the stalwart examples of a certain kind of southpaw: The Lefty Battler. He’s not a power pitcher (a la Randy Johnson) and he’s not really a finesse guy (a la Barry Zito). He just goes out there and battles with every pitch in his arsenal.
Ted has pitched 175+ innings in his first three full seasons with the Cubs so far, getting himself to double-digit wins in 2007, 2008 and 2009 and a WAR of 3.6, 2.7, 3.7, respectively, during that period. He’s overcome injuries (even an off-season shoulder cleanup), taken the extra base and even taken out a certain Molina brother at the plate. Because of his gutsy, impassioned performances, Theodore Roosevelt Lilly has earned the No. 2 spot on my list.
Sadly, Ted’s future with the Cubs is in doubt. His outings thus far in 2010 have been inconsistent and his free agent deal runs out after this season. With a number of young starters poised to make the team’s rotation, it’s uncertain as to whether the Cubs will offer him another deal. He may even be traded mid-season to a contender. But, no matter what the future holds, Ted is a beloved pitcher who will likely always have a place in the heart and soul of every Cubs fan.
3. John Danks
For better or worse, baseball is filled with underrated, under-discussed players. Enter John William Danks. Quietly and unobtrusively, after a difficult debut season in 2007, Danks has established himself as one of the better left-handed pitchers in the American League. In 2008 and 2009, John started over 30 games a season and was credited with double-digit wins and a WAR of 5.2 and 2.9, respectively.
Like Ted Lilly, he’s a Lefty Battler, who doesn’t always strikeout a lot of hitters but never backs down. More important, like Mark Buehrle, he’s a product of the White Sox farm system who stands fully capable of supplying plenty of quality innings for seasons to come. In fact, in John Danks, the Southsiders may have another lefty legend in the Buehrle mold.
4. Matt Thornton
Again, many more casual baseball fans might say, "Who?" But more serious fans (and likely more than a few fantasy baseball enthusiasts) will tell you one simple truth: Matt Thornton is filthy. Unlike Lilly and Danks, Thornton is not a Lefty Battler – he’s a full-bore power pitcher who brings the heat in a manner that very few lefties in major league baseball can match. (He’s also, of course, a relief pitcher.) In fact, Fangraphs recently dedicated an entire article to delving into the brilliance of Matt’s white-hot speedball.
Naturally, the key to Matt’s success is control. In his first couple seasons with the White Sox, his walk rate (BB/9) was rather high: 3.50 in 2006 and 4.15 in 2007. But, in 2008, he figured something out and the Ks began to pile up to the tune of 10.29 K/9 in 2008 and 10.82 K/9 in 2009. So far this season, he’s cutting down hitters to the tune of an outstanding 13.35 K/9. And, again, this is no sneaky left-handed specialist we’re talking about. Matt Thornton fears no hitter and is poised to assume the closer’s role for the White Sox when righty Bobby Jenks finally relinquishes his hold on that coveted position.
5. Sean Marshall
It’s been a long road for the pitcher who Hall of Famer Greg Maddux nicknamed "Tall Smooth." Sean Marshall was rushed into the Cubs starting rotation during the disastrous 2006 season, when no starter was safe from injury and a bevy of rookies got thrown in the fire, some never to be heard from again. (Where have you gone, Juan Mateo?) I still remember Sean’s debut against the arch-rival St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday Night Baseball. Every out seemed like a victory and, suffice to say, I became an instant fan.
Since then, Sean’s Cubs career has featured many twists and turns. Just when it seems he’s found his place in the starting rotation, something happens to lead him elsewhere. Maybe it’s a relatively minor injury. Or maybe it’s just the fact that, as mentioned, a left-handed pitcher who can throw strikes and get batters out is so often in short supply in any team’s bullpen. And it’s been that bullpen role that, slowly but surely, Sean has settled into. Long-man, LOOGY, setup guy – you name it, Tall Smooth can do it.
This year, though Marshall pitched well enough in spring training to earn a spot in the Cubs rotation, manager Lou Piniella sent Sean to the bullpen yet again. A sad twist? Hardly. Marshall appears to have truly come into his own in 2010 as, potentially, one of the premier left-handed set-up guys in all of the National League. As of this writing, his K/9 sits at a pretty 10.74 and his ERA and FIP are both under 2.0. His 2010 WAR up until now: 1.9 -- a highly impressive number for a relief pitcher. With a big, sweeping curve ball that buckles knees and a well-spotted fastball, Sean Marshall could wind up being one of the better rushed call-ups in Cubs history.