Ranking the Best Pitchers in Major League Baseball
If we would have asked the question, "Who is the best pitcher in baseball?" last season, a chorus of a million people deep would have screamed in unison, "It's Clayton Kershaw, you dingus!"
That chorus would have been absolutely correct, with Kershaw winning both the NL MVP and Cy Young Award thanks to a 21-3 record, an ERA of 1.77, a FIP of 1.81, a league-leading fWAR of 7.6 and a strikeout rate of 10.85 batters per nine innings that also was the best in baseball.
But this year, things are a little different. Kershaw has become a bit more human, with a 4-3 record, a 3.73 ERA and a FIP of 2.68, all while other pitchers have raised their game a bit, too. So, let's break down some of the most important pitching statistics and see if maybe someone has knocked Kershaw off his throne (acknowledging, of course, that two months of a baseball season is a small sample size).
The table below has the 10 pitchers this year ranked by their Wins Above Replacement (WAR) according to Baseball Reference (rWAR).
Next, the table below has pitchers ranked according to FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement (fWAR).
The main difference between the two numbers is that Baseball Reference uses ERA to calculate their WAR, while FanGraphs uses Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). FanGraphs values the areas a pitcher has more control over, such as home runs allowed, strikeouts and walks. Baseball Reference values the results on the field, how many runs a pitcher actually gave up, etc.
This is why the two lists look so different from one another. And while I have always tended to side with BBRef's take on pitcher's WAR, the FanGraphs list would seem to be a more accurate collection of the very best pitchers in baseball.
This next table ranks the pitchers this year based on our own nERD stat, which determines the number of runs per game a pitcher would save his team over a 27-out performance. This list has a lot of the same names that you see in the fWAR table.
One of the most important areas when ranking pitchers is strikeout and walk rate. Pitchers who have a tendency to miss a lot of bats are often able to stay out of trouble and control their own destiny. It's not an end-all, be-all stat, as evidenced by Danny Salazar leading the list, but most of the names above are, again, among the very best in the game.
|Chris Sale||White Sox||27.7||5.9|
So parsing those stats, let's rank these guys.
First is Houston's Dallas Keuchel, who has pitches that do things like this.
Keuchel has emerged as a true ace with the Astros, 7-1 with a 1.76 ERA and a 2.90 FIP 81.2 innings.
Tampa's Chris Archer is a legitimate AL Cy Young candidate with a 6-4 record, 2.01 ERA and 2.29 FIP in 76 innings, complete with a 32.7% strikeout rate and a 12.7% swinging strike rate. He's perhaps the best pitcher no one talks about.
How about Oakland's Sonny Gray? He's 7-2 with a 1.65 ERA and a 2.65 FIP in 82 innings, owner of a slider that is one of the most devastating pitches in the game.
And New York's Michael Pineda has emerged as one of the best young strikeout pitchers in baseball. His ERA is higher than those mentioned above (3.33) but his FIP of 2.41 and his K/9 of 9.73 is among the highest in the American League.
And what about National League arms? A couple names jump out.
There's Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole, who is having a breakthrough year for the Pirates, sitting at 8-2 with a 1.90 ERA and a 2.43 FIP in 71 innings, striking out 10.01 batters per nine. Look at what this kid can do.
And New York's Matt Harvey also has to be under consideration. He's 5-3 with a 3.11 ERA and a 2.98 FIP, striking out 9.59 batters per nine. However, he hasn't been as dominant as he was in 2013, when he put up a 6.5 fWAR and a 2.27 ERA in 178 innings. And Miami's Jose Fernandez would be in the conversation too if he wasn't hurt, although his return is about a month away.
The Old Faithfuls
But so far all we've done is look at just the first two months of the season. In order to get a better idea on just who is the best, we should be looking beyond the first two months. How about the last two years?
|Chris Sale||White Sox||9.9|
Here is where we get a real good sense of who has been doing it over the long haul. Last year's Cy Young Award winners, Kershaw and Corey Kluber, have been terrific over the last two calendar years, with Kershaw's 14.1 fWAR the most among all MLB pitchers and Kluber's 11.6 fourth. Surprisingly, Detroit's David Price has the second-highest fWAR among all Major League pitchers in that time at 11.8.
Washington's Max Scherzer has been worth every penny for the Nationals this year. He's 6-4 with a 1.85 ERA and a 2.18 FIP, striking out 10.43 batters per nine and walking just 1.39. He has carried a Nats rotation that hasn't been as good as everyone expected.
Seattle's Felix Hernandez has been doing it for years, with a 10.5 fWAR over the last two calendar years, and he's also been dominant once again this year, with an 8-2 record, a 2.63 ERA and a 3.46 FIP. He's simply been one of the most dominant pitchers over the last half-decade.
Chicago's Chris Sale is a ridiculously good left-handed starter, although he's struggled a bit this year with a 3.27 ERA in 66 innings, however, he's still striking out 10.77 batters per nine. What about walking trade rumor Cole Hamels, who often gets overlooked but has a 2.88 ERA and is striking out 9.30 batters per nine this year, after a slow start?
And let's not forget veteran arms like the Cubs' Jon Lester, Washington's Jordan Zimmermann, L.A.'s Zack Greinke, and the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright, who although he is injured, has to be a part of this conversation.
Man, this is not an easy question. Depending on the stat, you can make an argument for so many of these guys. But here's my personal list, counting down from 10 to 1, based on all of the information above. Feel free to debate in the comments section below.
10. Dallas Keuchel
9. Cole Hamels
8. Matt Harvey
7. Zack Greinke
6. Adam Wainwright
5. Chris Sale
4. Max Scherzer
3. Corey Kluber
2. Felix Hernandez
1. Clayton Kershaw
And the best pitcher in baseball still has to be Clayton Kershaw. His track record over the last few years is undeniable, and even though his stats aren't as gaudy as last year's, and even though he's been outperformed by a handful of starters so far this year, I'm not prepared to let two months override what we've seen over the last few years.
If there was one pitcher you could choose to start the biggest game of your life, you'd choose Kershaw, even knowing he has had his share of postseason struggles in the past. And established starters like Kluber, Hernandez and Scherzer should probably still get the nod over the up-and-comers like Archer, Keuchel, Cole and Harvey.
But there's no doubt that, even with a slew of numbers at our disposal, ranking them after Kershaw is pretty much a free-for-all.