We’re No. 1s

Ranking the top 30 starters in baseball

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One of the great mysteries of baseball is this: Just how many No. 1 starters are there anyway? You might assume, with there being 30 teams, that there must be 30 No. 1 starters. But nobody in the game sees it that way. Whenever I’m in a town, I ask the GM, the manager, a player or someone in the local media to name the No. 1 starters in the game. I’ve now done this 25 or so times around baseball, and based on the responses it appears there are only 10 or so No. 1 starters in the game at any given time.

Give you an example: St. Louis’ Lance Lynn. Would you consider Lance Lynn to be a No. 1 starter? He has never received even a single Cy Young vote. He was selected for just one All-Star Game, and that was three years ago after he got off to a hot start. He is on a three-year, $22 million contract, meaning he’s getting paid less over three years than eight different pitchers this year.

Is Lance Lynn a No. 1 starter? Absolutely he is. It’s not even close — right now, I rank him as the 13th-best starting pitcher in baseball. That’s not just a No. 1 starter, but it makes him one of the better No. 1 starters in the game.

How did I come up with this ranking? Well, I would tell you, but to be honest it has so many working parts that even I’m not sure anymore. I can tell you that I ranked every starter in the game based on several categories — wins, wins above replacement (WAR), fielding independent pitching (FIP), strikeouts, walks, and so on. I used last season and this season’s performances, and I place a heavier emphasis on this year. I also borrowed from Bill James’ World’s No. 1 Starting Pitching Rankings, which he updates on his site. Mine’s a mishmash system, I admit.

Still, when it was done, I had what I think is a pretty good list of the 30 best starters in baseball. And when you rank pitchers 1 to 30, here’s what you find: There are a lot of pitchers out there you would not call No. 1 starters. But they are anyway.

Group 1 — the obvious choices.

Here are the top 10 starters, the ones most around baseball would concede are No. 1 starters:

1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

— I was in Los Angeles last year for Game 1 of the Division Series … and it was perhaps the most inexplicable thing I’ve ever seen in baseball. Through six innings, Kershaw was Kershaw. He did give up a home run in the first inning to Randal Grichuk, and he gave up an other solo shot to Matt Carpenter in the sixth, so that was a little bit unusual. But that was it. He dominated the Cardinals otherwise. He struck out eight — five in a row in the fourth and fifth innings — and seemed master of the world, like usual.

And then, it was like an unforeseen storm rolled in. It wasn’t just that he gave up four singles in a row, then a strikeout, another single, a strikeout and a double before getting yanked for Pedro Baez (who gave a walk and homer to complete the eight-run Dodger nightmare). It was the way those hits looked; the Cardinals just teed off on Kershaw like he was a pitching machine. Every one of those hits was absolutely crushed. It was like, between innings, Kershaw had been replaced by his twin brother Ozzie.

There has been speculation that Kershaw was tipping his pitches, and maybe he was (though one scout told me that Kershaw stopped mixing his pitches and was just suddenly throwing everything over the middle of the plate). But the larger point is this: Clayton Kershaw is the best starter in the world, no doubt about it, and he’s one of the best in baseball history. Even so: His playoff ERA is 5.12, his teams have lost eight of the 11 games he has started.

You can come up with your own theories about WHY Kershaw’s postseason performances have been so disappointing but it just shows the conundrum of the No. 1 starter. General managers believe they need a No. 1 come playoff time. But will a No. 1 starter pitch like that in October? Who knows?

2. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals

— You know, Scherzer is only a year or so younger than his former teammate Justin Verlander. And in 2011 when Verlander had his MVP season — winning pitching’s Triple Crown and dominating as few have, Scherzer had a 4.43 ERA. The league slugged .455 against him.

Who then would have bet that four years later, Scherzer would be the megastar and Verlander would be fighting just to save his career? Pitching — especially starting pitching — is such a fickle business.

3. Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers

— Another favorite Greinke story: He was fairly new to the Kansas City Royals, and he was sitting on the bench when teammate Jeremy Affeldt gave up a home run. After the inning was over, Affeldt came to the bench, and he was steaming. He was grumping to the people around him about how it really wasn’t that bad a pitch; the guy had guessed right but it wasn’t that bad a pitch.

“No, actually, it was a bad pitch,” Greinke said.

Affeldt looked over at Greinke. You have to understand, there are few nicer people than Jeremy Affeldt. He said, “Thanks, Zack.”

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“No,” Greinke said. “Really. It was a terrible pitch. I went back and looked at it on the video. It was right over the middle of the plate. It was a really bad pitch.”

Affeldt looked over at Greinke again and kind of smiled a bit.

“Thanks, Zack,” he said again.

4. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

— Sale this year is striking out 11.6 batters per nine innings; if he can bulk that up a little bit he has a chance to join Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson as the only pitchers in American League history to strike out 12 per nine innings.

And he might need to bulk it up because right now the league is hitting .323 against him on balls in play, meaning that he’s getting little defensive support, he’s getting unlucky or both.

5. Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians

— Kluber leads the American League in pitcher losses this year, and his ERA is a full run worse than it was last year, so it’s easy to assume that he’s having a brutal follow up to his Cy Young season. But in truth, he’s pitching almost exactly the same. His strikeout to walk ratio is better, his WHIP is almost exactly the same, the league is hitting about the same against him as last year.

The differences seem to be that he is giving up a couple more home runs, the Cleveland defense behind him has been brutal and the Indians are scoring less than three runs per game for him.

6. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

— It’s not entirely clear what has happened to Hernandez the last couple of months. He went through a terrible stretch in June and in his last time out gave up seven runs in 6 2/3 innings. But the guy has been such a consistent force that you have to believe that it’s just a blip.

7. Johnny Cueto, Kansas City Royals

— The Royals have gone on this incredible two-year run without a dominant starting pitcher. This year, they have the best record in the American League with their top two starters (Edinson Volquez and Chris Young) being  journeymen they picked up in unnoticed offseason deals.

General manager Dayton Moore still believes in the power of the No. 1 starter in the postseason, especially after he watched Madison Bumgarner tear his team apart in the World Series. That’s why he got Cueto. Right now, Cueto looks like a three-month rental (though it’s not impossible the Royals will try to sign him), but he will be entertaining for Royals fans — he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball to watch. Will he be a difference-maker in October? That’s a harder question to answer.

8. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants

— Maybe he should be higher on the list based on his postseason performance last year. I suspect that if Bumgarner was available, Dayton Moore would have traded for him before Johnny Cueto.

Bumgarner gets it done with a heavy low-90s fastball while mixing in good sliders and curveballs. There’s really nothing tricky about facing him. He comes at you, throws strikes, challenges you at every turn. He overpowered the Royals in the World Series last year in every sense of the word. They knew EXACTLY what was coming. They just couldn’t hit it.

9. David Price, Toronto Blue Jays

— The Jays are all in now, having picked up Price and Troy Tulowitzki in deadline deals. On the surface, it seems like a good bet for Toronto. The Yankees lead the American League East and it does feel like they are being held together by old yarn and twine. The Blue Jays have scored nearly 60 more runs than any other team in baseball and that was BEFORE they added Tulo. And with Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey, they have a couple of starters who (believe it or not) are in the conversation for being No. 1 starters.

But just because it SEEMS like the time to go all in doesn’t mean it’s going to work. The Blue Jays’ bullpen is poorly constructed, they don’t play especially good defense, and they were exactly .500 through 100 games. Price is sensational and he’s having his best season since the 2012 Cy Young campaign. The Blue Jays probably need to play .650 baseball the rest of the way to guarantee a playoff spot. Can Price get them there?

10. Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros

— Here you go, a dominant starting pitcher who tends to throw his fastball in the high 80s. It’s that middling fastball that made people consistently overlook him, and I guess many people still do. He was a seventh-round pick out of Arkansas, he never did too much in the minor leagues, and he has never shown much ability to get the strikeout, this in the age of the strikeout.

But he developed this devastating slurve/slider/sinker/sledgehammer pitch that nobody seems able to hit in the air. Hitters are hitting 63.5 percent of Keuchel’s pitches on the ground, by far the highest percentage in the American League (King Felix is next at 55.9 percent), and when you hit the ball on the ground you are (A) not hitting home runs; (B) not often getting extra-base hits; (C) not hitting anything close to .300.

The league has hit .211 against Keuchel with only eight homers all year. He doesn’t walk hitters so they can’t count on that either. He’s also a Gold Glove-winner, so they can’t plan on bunting an awful lot. It’s like Keuchel surrounds hitters and gives them no escape routes.

Group 2

The next 10 are pitchers that people in baseball will argue about as No. 1 starters.

11. Jon Lester, Chicago Cubs

— He’s one of the highest-paid pitchers in baseball and one of the highest paid athletes in the world, but baseball people seem mixed when I ask if he’s a TRUE No. 1 starter. I think this is in part because baseball people put a lot more emphasis on won-loss record than I do. Lester’s won loss record since 2012 is 46-41. His 3.58 ERA over the time doesn’t get baseball people too excited either.

But Lester is a terrific pitcher, striking out a batter per inning, maintaining a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk, keeping the ball in the ballpark and rarely missing a start.

12. Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics

— The A’s motto: Pitch Sonny Gray and for rain you must pray.

13. Lance Lynn, St. Louis Cardinals

— If you want to talk about the most underrated player in baseball, Lance Lynn would probably not be in the discussion. That’s because he’s too underrated to even be viewed as underrated. Somehow, though, the last two years, the Cardinals have won 31 of the 52 games he’s started.

He doesn’t fool around out there; Lynn throws his fastball 85 or so percent of the time, the highest in baseball. But it has enough movement that he has only given up seven homers all year. You will see some bigger names below him — including Cole Hamels — and think that this ranking is too high. But the numbers are pretty clear. Lance Lynn is one of the best pitchers in baseball.

14. Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals

— People who watch Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg pitch on a regular basis are consistently astounded at the different approaches. Strasburg futzes a lot out there, seems uncomfortable, does not exude the confidence that a 6-foot-4, 230-pound man with a 95-mph fastball should have.

And Zimmermann just seems to pitch with all the confidence in the world. He doesn’t strike people out (though he does throw in the low-90s), he doesn’t have a killer pitch (though he does have an effective slider), he doesn’t have the imposing physical stature of a guy like Strasburg. He just goes out, throws his best stuff and doesn’t overcomplicate matters.

A former major-league pitcher named Al Fitzmorris once told me that whenever he would get too many doubts in his head, he would watch hitters take batting practice. And what you watch batting practice, you find that they don’t hit every ball over the fence. They don’t hit the ball on a line every time. They hit plenty of ground balls and pop-ups and bloopers. And that’s against BATTING PRACTICE pitching.

The point being: Hitting is hard. Sure, sometimes hitters will beat your best stuff. But other times, they’ll whiff on ordinary stuff. Zimmermann’s great strength seems to be that, unlike Strasburg, he doesn’t try to be Superman. Clark Kent can get outs too.

15. Cole Hamels, Texas Rangers

— We talked a little earlier about the Blue Jays’ gamble in the American League East. The Rangers’ gamble in trading for Hamels seems even riskier. The Rangers are just not a very good team. They have the highest ERA in the league. The lineup is pretty good but not sensational. And, unlike the American League East where only the Yankees are playing well, the Astros and Angels are both pretty good. To be perfectly honest, I don’t get it.

I’m also not sure how well Hamels will pitch in the American League and in that hitters ballpark in Texas. Nothing about that move seems well-considered to me. The Rangers are desperate to get back into the big baseball conversation, and this is a bold move. As my old friend Bob Dutton used to say when the Kansas City Royals made curious moves back in the 2000s: “Hey, it COULD work.”

16. Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays

— In 2008, the Cleveland Indians traded Archer to the Cubs for Mark DeRosa. That was dumb. In 2011, the Cubs traded Archer to Tampa for Matt Garza. That was dumb too.

Archer has a 95-mph fastball, a ridiculous slider that ranks with Keuchel’s for the league’s best, he strikes out 11 per nine innings, hardly walks anybody, and the league is hitting .206 against him. But his record this year is 9-8, and his record last year was 10-9, and so few seem to realize that this guy is a force of nature.

17. Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs

— How many of these guys in the second 10 are you looking at and thinking: “Oh yeah, he’s a No. 1 starter?” And look, we’re only on No. 17.

Arietta came over to the Cubs in what seemed a minor trade-deadline deal with the Orioles, and ever since then he has been sensational. He has a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and he has allowed 14 home runs since the beginning of the 2014 season.

18. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

— How does a 6-foot-4 pitcher with a 95-mph fastball and nasty slider go in the ninth round of the draft? Well, heck, even HE did not know he was a pitcher until his junior year at Stetson University. He’d been a shortstop with a good arm and not much of a bat. His junior year at Stetson, he was informed that he was now also a relief pitcher, and when he got people out he became a starting pitcher. The Mets scout liked the way the ball jumped out of his hand or something like that. That’s why they took him the ninth round.

And you know what? The scout was right. The ball does jump out of his hand.

19. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals

— Wasn’t sure where to rank him because of the injury. But no list of No. 1 starters is complete without him

20. Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates

— He was the first pick in the 2011 draft, so everyone suspected that this was coming. But it might have taken a little longer than expected. Florida’s Jose Fernandez and Oakland’s Sonny Gray were taken below him in that draft and became superb major-league starters before Cole did.

He’s pitching like a No. 1 starter now for Pittsburgh. Like most of the other top guys he has the 95-mph fastball, but the key to his success seems to be the absurd movement he gets on his pitches. He’s had guys swing at pitches that end up two feet outside the strike zone. His slider is one of the hardest and best in baseball.

Group 3

And the next 10 … well, I suspect you’ll be surprised to see who might technically qualify as a No. 1 starter.

21. Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox

— He’s 6-9 with a 3.52 ERA. Last year, he was 9-11 with a 3.32 ERA. How in the world could he be considered one of the best starting pitchers in the game? Well, the won-loss record is an illusion, the White Sox have only scored three runs a game for his this year — he had quality starts in six of his losses and has four other quality starts where he got no decision.

And he does what you want a pitcher to do. He has 116 strikeouts against only 28 walks, he keeps the ball in the ballpark, he tends to go deep into games, and he endures pitching in front of one of the worst defenses in baseball.

22. Jeff Samardzija, Chicago White Sox

— Can the White Sox really have three No. 1 starters (with Sale and Quintana) and be under .500? Answer: Absolutely. The Royals, as mentioned, have had zero No. 1 starters and have the best record in the American League. Starting pitching just doesn’t mean what it used to mean. When it comes to regular season baseball in 2015, if you gave me a choice of the league’s best rotation or the league’s best bullpen, I think I’d take the bullpen.

The last five years Samardzija has a 32-44 record, so nobody I asked in baseball considers him a No. 1 starter. But I’ve added up the numbers (and I included won-loss records in there just to satisfy the baseball purists) and I’m telling you that when you look at everything — his excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio, his ability to go deep in games — there’s no way he’s NOT one of the 30 best starters in baseball.

23. Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins

— He has made 13 starts in the last two seasons, so it’s kind of absurd to include him on this list. But he has been so dominant in his injury plagued three seasons that it would be even more absurd not to include him on here. When healthy, he’s one of the 10 best starters in the game for sure. And he’s only 23 (as of Friday).

24. John Lackey, St. Louis Cardinals

— He’s having his best season since the mid-2000s. It really is true: Something happens to veteran starting pitchers when they come to St. Louis.

25. Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh Pirates

— By Fangraphs numbers, he has the most effective slider in baseball. And because of this, he has the lowest contact percentage in baseball; more people swing and miss at Francisco Liriano pitches than any other.

With Liriano, health is always an issue. Control is always an issue. Consistency is always an issue. But when he’s healthy and right, he might be hitters least favorite pitcher to face.

26. Scott Kazmir, Houston Astros

— Another trade deadline acquisition. He leads the American League in ERA. What a wild career it has been. He led the league in walks at 21, led the league in strikeouts at 23, was out of baseball at 27, and now at 31 has a 2.10 ERA and is allowing just 6.5 hits per nine innings.

27. Shelby Miller, Atlanta Braves

— The Braves have scored just 2.71 runs per game for Miller, which explains the poor won-loss record (5-8) but he has a 2.44 ERA, he has thrown two shutouts, and he attacks hitters with perhaps the game;s best cutter.

28. Tyson Ross, San Diego Padres

— He’s still trying to figure things out. He’s got a quick, but straight, fastball that hitters tend to hit. He’s got a crazy slider that moves so much even he doesn’t know quite what to do with it (he leads the league in walks). He plays for a mediocre taem that doesn’t score many runs for him or play especially good defense behind him.

But he strikes out 10 per nine innings — only Liriano, Kershaw and Sale get more swings and misses than him — he almost never gives up a home run and he seems virtually indestructible. If you’re looking for the next breakout star, it might be this guy.

29. James Shields, San Diego Padres

— It hasn’t been a good season for Shields, but in my system he still ranks as one of the 30 best starters in the game. He is actually striking out a career high 10 per nine innings — no doubt this is boosted by his move to the National League — but his walks are also up and he’s giving up the long ball.

30. Mark Bueherle, Toronto Blue Jays

— What’s left to say about Buehrle? He doesn’t strike out anybody and doesn’t walk anybody. He throws an 84 mph fastball, and a 79 mph changeup. He gives up loads of hits because everybody puts the ball in play against him. He fields his position brilliantly and nobody even tries to steal a base against him because of his insane pickoff move.  And somehow it all adds up to a guy who throws 200 innings a year and wins games. Buehrle now has 210 victories in his career, which is more than Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Don Drysdale, among others.

No one I know considers Buehrle a No. 1 starter. And, to be honest, he didn’t have to make the Top 30. There were others with similar credentials — Phil Hughes, Chris Tillman, Edinson Volquez, Garrett Richards, Mike Leake, Yovani Gallardo and others including his teammate R.A. Dickey But Buehrle came up 30th on my list, and I think he proves the point: A No. 1 starter might not mean what you think it means.