Now that we’ve done our top ten lists for all the position players, it’s time to take a look at the most controversial list of them all: the top ten starting pitchers. There is so much talent on this lists that several terrific pitchers did not make it. Notable omissions are AL Cy Young award winner Blake Snell, who had a 1.89 ERA last season, and Clayton Kershaw, a three-time NL Cy Young award winner. Though it was tough to have those two, amongst others, off the list, I still am confident that I have selected the top ten starting pitchers heading into the season. Who are those ten starting pitchers? Let’s discuss.
#10 Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros
Projected Stats: 3.41 ERA, 3.28 FIP, 195 IP, 10.86 K/9, 2.67 BB/9, 1.08 HR/9
The Houston Astros have a reputation for turning solid pitchers into stars. That’s exactly what they did with Gerrit Cole after acquiring the 28-year-old from the Pirates last offseason. Cole had been a fine pitcher with Pittsburgh, posting a 3.81 xFIP in 2017, but he became an ace level pitcher with Houston. His FIP improved to 2.70, increasing his K rate dramatically to 12.4 K/9, as well as lowering his HR/9 to 0.85. How did he do so? By altering his pitch usage. Cole ditched a useless sinker, throwing it just 3% of the time last season. That allowed him to increase his fastball usage to 53.4% and his curveball rate to 19.3%, which clearly benefited him. Cole also increased his whiff rate to 28.5%, while opposing hitters struggled to make contact on pitches out of the zone (50.2% O-Contact Rate). All of these numbers are elite, and it looks like Houston has untapped the potential that Cole has possessed since he was drafted first overall in the 2011 MLB Draft. By throwing his effective pitches more often, Cole has turned into one of the top pitchers in baseball. There’s no reason to expect any sort of regression this season, and with just one season before free agency, Cole should continue to drive his price tag up with another outstanding season.
#9 Trevor Bauer, Cleveland Indians
Projected Stats: 3.24 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 182 IP, 10.61 K/9, 3 BB/9, .9 HR/9
Cole’s teammate in college and apparently his rival, Trevor Bauer checks in one spot ahead of him at #9. The 28-year-old Bauer had shown flashes of excellence in the past, posting a 3.60 FIP in 2017, but 2018 was when he finally put it together. He had a 2.44 FIP in 175.1 innings, improving in practically every category. Notably, Bauer increased his K rate to 11.34 K/9, increased his whiff rate to 29.6%, increased the opponent’s chase rate to 31.4% while lowering their outside contact rate to 45.5%. Similar to Cole, Bauer also altered his pitch usage, lowering his sinker usage to 5.4% and increasing his slider rate to 14.1%. That would seem to explain Bauer’s progression, but he may have had a couple of factors playing in his favor. His HR/FB rate was extremely low at 6.2%, despite his hard contact rate allowed actually increasing to 35.9%. Assuming Bauer isn’t able to avoid home runs at such a lucky rate, he’s likely more of a low to mid 3.00 ERA pitcher than a mid 2.00 ERA pitcher. That’s fine though; Bauer is a fine #2 starter and is more than deserving of this spot. Still, it will be very interesting to see if he can replicate his success in 2019, as he could be a Cy Young contender if he does.
#8 Luis Severino, New York Yankees
Projected Stats: 3.15 ERA, 3.10 FIP, 194 IP, 10.43 K/9, 2.31 BB/9, .98 HR/9
In the first half last season, it looked like Luis Severino was bound to claim the AL Cy Young award. The 25-year-old had a 2.27 FIP over the first three seasons, but had a 4.68 FIP between July and August, though he did rebound with a 1.98 FIP in September. Overall, Severino finished with a 2.95 FIP, which is terrific but not yet Cy Young level. Could he take the next step in 2019? It certainly looks like he can. A major reason for Severino’s decline over the season was a huge spike in BABIP. Though his peripherals and velocity remained the same, his BABIP rose to .360 during that two-month struggle. Therefore, there’s no reason to be concerned about Severino’s issues during the latter half of the season. Rather, we should be acknowledging him for what he is: an up and coming ace. Though he may miss his first couple starts due to a shoulder injury, he still looks to be on his way to becoming an elite starting pitcher, and he’s someone to watch out for as a possible Cy Young award winner this season.
#7 Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
Projected Stats: 3.00 ERA, 2.75 FIP, 171 IP, 9.67 K/9, 2.22 BB/9, .64 HR/9
There may be no pitcher with as nasty of a pitching arsenal as Noah Syndergaard. The 26-year-old is known for throwing a fastball near triple digits with ease, but he complements it with both a tremendous slider and a devastating change-up. Still, Syndergaard seems to go under the radar. Maybe it’s an issue with his durability; Syndergaard pitched just 30.1 innings in 2017 with a lat injury and just 154.1 innings last season. Maybe it’s an issue with his team; the Mets have posted back to back seasons with a losing record and have a stacked pitching rotation. Syndergaard is an elite level starting pitcher, however, and needs more recognition. He’s posted a 2.13 FIP over the past three seasons, which actually leads the MLB in that span. Though his strikeout rate (9.04 K/9) was not outrageous last season, he did a fantastic job limiting hard contact (21.9%), as well as inducing ground balls with that soft contact (49%). Syndergaard’s walk rate (2.27 BB/9) was also exceptional last season, making him a very complete pitcher rather than the usual high velocity, zero command type of pitcher. There’s nothing with Syndergaard’s production to suggest he isn’t a top-notch starting pitcher when he’s healthy. “When he’s healthy” is a major caveat, however, and the durability issues prevent him from ranking higher. Still, if there’s any pitcher on this list that could make the biggest jump, it’s Syndergaard. I have no doubts that this ranking is simply a placeholder spot for him; he’ll be top five on this list next season after a Cy Young worthy season.
#6 Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
Projected Stats: 2.85 ERA, 3.00 FIP, 209 IP, 10.12 K/9, 1.59 BB/9, 1.02 HR/9
Though most players on this list are on the rise, Corey Kluber may be the exception to that. The 32-year-old did have another solid season with a 3.12 FIP, but there are some concerning signs that regression may be coming. For starters, Kluber’s fastball/sinker velocity was down to 92.4 MPH, causing some extremely worrying relapses. His whiff rate dropped to 25.2% last season, while his hard contact rate allowed jumped up to 36.6%. Sticking with the backslide, Kluber’s K rate dropped to 9.29 K/9, and it seems like he may running out of gas after being relied on so heavily in several postseason runs. So why is Kluber still ranked high at #6? As mentioned, Kluber’s 3.12 FIP was still well above average last season. Plus, he’s pitched over 200 innings in each of the past five seasons and still has a walk rate (1.42 BB/9) that is elite. Therefore, he’s still a very valuable asset at the front of the Indians’ rotation, and even if he takes a step back this season, he’ll still be an All-Star caliber pitcher. While his age and major red flags prevent him from ranking in the top five, it wouldn’t be right to drop Kluber farther down the list after putting together yet another terrific season, though this may be the highest he ever ranks on this list moving forward.
#5 Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
Projected Stats: 3.12 ERA, 3.22 FIP, 195 IP, 9.65 K/9, 2.57 BB/9, .92 HR/9
Now back with the trend of young aces, Aaron Nola comes in at #5 on this list. The 25-year-old broke out in a big way last season, posting a 2.37 ERA with a 3.01 FIP, finishing 3rd in NL Cy Young voting. However, this wasn’t as much of a breakout as it seemed like; Nola had a 3.23 FIP in his first two full seasons prior to 2018. His style has been very consistent; he’s a three-pitch pitcher (FB, SL, CH) that can utilize any pitch at any time. He also does a terrific job inducing ground balls (50.6%) usually not at hard contact (25.1%), and also has maintained a solid K-BB ratio of 3.86. Though his .251 BABIP allowed is on the low side and may point to regression, Nola’s ability to induce ground balls and soft contact means that he may be able to constantly have a low BABIP allowed. He may not be the superstar pitcher that Phillies fans believe him to be, but he’s a high 2s to low 3s ERA type of pitcher and has been extremely consistent. Therefore, while he doesn’t quite compare to the pitchers ahead of him on this list, he has earned a spot in the top five, and likely won’t relinquish it anytime soon.
#4 Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
Projected Stats: 3.10 ERA, 3.18 FIP, 208 IP, 11.09 K/9, 2.34 BB/9, 1.19 HR/9
As mentioned with Gerrit Cole, the Astros do a tremendous job of bringing in pitchers and transforming them into stars. Though Justin Verlander had been a star with the Tigers, he seemed to be more like a mid-rotation pitcher when the Astros acquired him at the 2017 August trade deadline. The 36-year-old won a World Series with Houston two months later, and then shined in his first full season with the club last season, posting a 2.78 FIP and finishing second in AL Cy Young voting. Though he didn’t alter his pitch usage, Verlander’s breaking balls were much effective last season, leading to him dramatically improving his K rate (12.4 K/9), while his walk rate also improved (1.56 BB/9) in a huge way as well. There’s nothing to suggest that Verlander’s age will cause him to fall off anytime soon. In fact, he appears to be simply getting better. It’s fair to expect another Cy Young caliber season from Verlander, meaning that he more than deserves this ranking.
#3 Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
Projected Stats: 2.70 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 211 IP, 12 K/9, 2.28 BB/9, 1 HR/9
Another veteran pitcher with multiple Cy Young award winners, at #3 is Max Scherzer. Scherzer signed a massive seven-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals prior to the 2014 season, a contract that many saw as an overpay at the time. It’s same to say the Nationals have gotten their money’s worth. In his four seasons with the club, he has a 2.89 FIP and has won two Cy Young awards. Last year was no different for the 34-year-old; he posted a 2.65 FIP and finished second in the NL Cy Young voting. As usual, Scherzer was elite in striking batters out (12.24 K/9), and also maintained his exceptional command (2.08 BB/9). Both his fastball and slider remain elite pitches, and despite his age, his fastball velocity was slightly up at 94.7 MPH. Scherzer also has eclipsed 200 innings in each of his past six seasons, despite the fact that being a power pitcher that has led the league in strikeouts the past three seasons should cause his pitch count to rise quicker than most. There may be no pitcher more fun to watch than Scherzer; he can be simply unhittable at times. He received serious consideration for the top spot on this list, though there are two pitchers who are both younger and just a bit more effective.
#2 Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
Projected Stats: 2.61 ERA, 2.70 FIP, 209 IP, 10.94 K/9, 2.23 BB/9, .8 HR/9
Up until 2018, Jacob deGrom seemed to be under the radar and not getting the recognition he deserved. In his first four seasons, he had a 3.05 FIP, yet did not make one All-Star appearance. That changed last season, when deGrom dominated with a 1.99 FIP, making him the easy choice as the NL Cy Young award winner. He improved on both his strikeout and walk rates, helping him post an unworldly 5.85 strikeout to walk ratio. He also decreased his hard contact allowed (26.6%), and increase his opponents’ chase rate to 36.7%. So what caused that incredible progression? For starters, deGrom threw more pitches up in the zone; he noted that he had been ambushed on pitches lower in the zone the seasons prior. His sinker usage was cut in half to 9.5%, while his fastball and changeup rates increased. His fastball velocity also spiked up to 96.7 MPH, allowing him to have a career-high fastball runs above average of 23.9. There’s absolutely nothing that would point to deGrom’s breakout season having any sort of luck inflicted into it, and therefore another season of elite production should be expected from the 30-year-old. Obviously, another Cy Young caliber season would likely be enough for him to earn the #1 spot on this list, but not if the current #1 starting pitcher has anything to say about that.
#1 Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
Projected Stats: 2.54 ERA, 2.37 FIP, 193.2 IP, 12.9 K/9, 1.92 BB/9, .86 HR/9
Somehow, Chris Sale has not managed to win an AL Cy Young award. The 30-year-old has a career FIP of 2.86 and has finished in the top five in the Cy Young voting in each of the past six seasons. Could this be the year he finally takes home the hardware? I’m a huge believer, and for good reason. He’s coming off arguably his best season yet; he had a 1.98 FIP and would have been the easy choice as Cy Young had he not been limited to 158 innings dealing with injuries. Notably, Sale had career bests in strikeout rate (13.5 K/9), home run rate (.63 HR/9), whiff rate (33.1%), and Skill-Interactive ERA (2.27 SIERA). His average fastball velocity of 95.7 MPH was also a career high, and a .283 BABIP allowed combined with a 27.1% soft contact rate allowed suggests that there isn’t anything suspicious about Sale’s success last season. The narrative that Sale is injury prone is also false. Before last season, he had eclipsed 208 innings in each of the past three seasons, starting at least 30 games. As long as Sale stays healthy this season, as he should, he looks to be the clear favorite for the AL Cy Young award just a year away from free agency. There’s not a lot to say about Sale, other that than he’s simply on another planet, and is well deserving of this top spot, a spot that he should continue possess in the future.