The All-Star Game is almost upon us, and we're not surprised by some of the new names under the banners of the American and National Leagues, particularly in the starting pitching department.
First-half phenom Matt Harvey will be there and might start the game in his home park of Citi Field. Breakout stars Patrick Corbin of the D-backs and Jose Fernandez of the Marlins will be there, too.
Shelby Miller of the Cardinals didn't make the squad for the Senior Circuit, but he's one of the first mentions on the snub lists and, as a top prospect heading into this year, figures to be in play for many Midsummer Classics to come. Julio Teheran of the Braves isn't an All-Star, either, but he is starting to pitch up to the potential many believed he held as one of the game's top prospects.
Now look closer, and not just at the All-Star rosters. Look down the 25-man lists for each Major League club and you'll see starters who are making huge differences this season when no one thought they'd make a difference at all.
In the process, these men haven't just solidified their pitching rotations for their managers and fans. They've made statements that they're starters to stay.
Jeff Locke is one. The Pirates left-hander had made a total of 10 Major League starts combined over 2011 and '12, but he was more of a Minor League mainstay, particularly last year while improving at Triple-A Indianapolis. He came into Spring Training camp in Bradenton, Fla., sparkled throughout the Grapefruit League schedule with a wicked changeup as his out pitch, and battled for and eventually won the fifth rotation spot. It's safe to say he was not the first name bandied about around Pittsburgh as a potential All-Star or an NL Cy Young Award candidate.
Check him out now.
Through Tuesday, Locke was a newly minted member of the NL All-Star team. He was 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA and 109 innings pitched. Most important, the Pirates are winning, and Locke knows he belongs at this level.
"You look at him, he's not afraid to pitch inside," reigning AL Manager of the Year Bob Melvin of the Oakland A's said after watching his hitters flail at Locke in the southpaw's last start. "He throws his changeup whenever he wants. He's got a breaking ball that he can bounce and throw for a strike. He really commands and bullies both sides of the plate with the way he pitches inside to righties."
Locke suffered a rough loss in his first start of the season but has turned it around so much that he's now an All-Star -- something he never would have predicted in April.
"I'd have called you a liar," Locke said. "But it goes beyond the numbers; the confidence level is something I did not have before. I got a little edge on the mound."
Jeremy Hefner has it, too. Imagine what it must have been like for the Mets right-hander. Hefner didn't debut in the Majors until last year at the age of 26, pitched to a nondescript 5.09 ERA and seemed earlier this year to be one of the first candidates eligible for demotion to Triple-A Las Vegas upon the smallest slipup.
Fast-forward to early July, and Hefner's indispensable in the banged-up Mets rotation, and for good reason. He didn't make the All-Star team, but he's right up there with Harvey in importance to his team's pitching staff.
Through Tuesday, the right-hander has a 3.39 ERA, a 1.198 WHIP, has thrown 101 innings, had a 1.80 ERA in June and is 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA in July.
"I know that I'm good enough to be here," Hefner said. "I know I'm good enough to beat these hitters. If someone does beat me, I know I can get the next guy."
The consistency he's showing of late is bearing that out. Hefner has logged at least five innings with no more than two earned runs in each of his last seven starts and has eight quality starts in his last nine outings.
"Maybe the motivation for Jeremy Hefner at one time was for fear that he was going to get sent out," manager Terry Collins said. "Maybe that was motivation enough to step up and do the job that he's done."
The same can be said for another first-time All-Star in 2013, Chicago Cubs left-hander Travis Wood.
Wood, a thinking-man's lefty, a la Locke, made a career-high 26 starts for the Cubs last year after being promoted from Triple-A Iowa in May and also lost a career-high 13 games with a 4.27 ERA. Not awful, but certainly not upper echelon.
This year, Wood earned his rotation slot in Spring Training and kept the momentum going. He's got a 2.69 ERA through Tuesday, a 0.979 WHIP, and he's on pace to get close to 200 innings. Wood is the only Cub on the NL All-Star roster so far. No longer does he have to fight for a spot in the rotation.
"It's really remarkable when you think about where his command is now compared to 15 months ago -- it's night and day," said Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. "He deserves a ton of credit."
Added Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio: "This guy pitches like he's 6-foot-6, 230 pounds out there. He's got a presence about him. He may be 5-9, 5-10, but he pitches a lot bigger than he is, and that's because he has confidence."