Tonight MLB Network will continue the 2013 iteration of their “Top 10 Right Now” series at each position capped off with a “Top 100 Overall”. They will air both the relief and starting pitcher shows on Friday evening. I always enjoy this series and generally look forward to it after the New Year since I eat up just about any fresh baseball content I can as we wait for pitchers & catchers to report. Instead of putting up my lists after they air their selections, I’ll post mine ahead of time and then compare notes after the shows air.
This is not a fantasy list!!
(Ed. note: I swore my DVR said the reliever episode was first which is why I posted that list first. Sorry about that!)
This list was even harder than the relievers one as I just want to include so many guys. To spare you, the reader, I’m only going to include a few of honorable mentions.
Roy Halladay (PHI) – Since it is “right now”, I couldn’t justify his inclusion coming off of an injury-marred season that was easily his worst since 2004. From a fantasy angle (which isn’t entirely relevant in this NON FANTASY list) I still think he’s being criminally underrated early on in mock drafts and rankings I’ve seen, but he’s not a top 10 guy right now.
C.C. Sabathia (NYY) – This has a lot more to do with how deep the top of the starting pitcher pool is than anything Sabathia hasn’t done. There are no obviously flaws in his games, he’s absolutely amazing, but there are only 10 spots, so he’s on the outside.
Yu Darvish (TEX) – I couldn’t just play favorites and put Darvish in ahead of more deserving candidates. He took a while to get his feet under him last year and while I think he will show his top 10 worthiness this year, this list is about right now as opposed to projection. So it is with great pain that I leave Darvish out.
Also: Adam Wainwright (he was great coming off of TJ, but not great enough to include just yet.)
10. Matt Cain (SF) – See what I mean? Leaving Cain off would’ve felt silly yet that’s what I would have to do to get Darvish included. Track record doesn’t weigh heavily on a “right now” list, but even just the 2012 track record favors Cain in terms of pure results. He’s awesome and he’s getting better each year. He doesn’t post the gaudy strikeout totals I drool over, but he’s proven you can be great with just a solid 20ish percent rate.
9. Gio Gonzalez (WAS) – If you think this rating is crazy, you haven’t watched him pitch enough. He keeps adding to his strikeout rate going from 20 percent in 2010 to an NL-best 25 percent last year. Meanwhile he made his first real dent in his walk rate last year dropping it a full percentage point to nine, which isn’t great, but easier to overlook when a quarter of the guys you face are walking back to the dugout after three strikes.
8. R.A. Dickey (TOR) – Absurd. Just completely absurd. His 2012 season was so freaking incredible. Seemingly out of nowhere, he ups his strikeout rate from 15.3 to 24.8 percent while actually incrementally improving his walk rate from 6.2 to 5.8 percent. Just bananas. He deservingly won the NL Cy Young and now gets to peddle his wares in the AL East with Toronto. I basically had Dickey and the next two guys neck and neck so I used track record as the tiebreaker. I’d still take these next two over him in a one-game situation.
7. Cole Hamels (PH) – When you factor out how much I’m responsible for myself, Hamels just doesn’t get enough love as an ace-level pitcher. Part of it is that he’s obscured by his rotation mates, but part of it is just that I think some fail to recognize how great he’s been the last three years. He had the 8th-best strikeout rate (24.9 percent) in the majors last year among qualified starters and only Dickey bested his 6.0 percent walk rate among those eight and it was by 0.1 percent.
6. Cliff Lee (PHI) – How did he win six games and fan 207 batters last year? I know wins and strikeouts don’t exactly go together, but the point is that he was just too good to be saddled with such a lame record (6-9). He walked a laughable 28 guys in all last year, too. His 3.3 percent walk rate was baseball’s best by nearly a full percent over Bronson Arroyo and Joe Blanton (4.2) and then of course there is the fact that he was also light years better than them in every other skill-based metric.
5. Felix Hernandez (SEA) – The top five were pretty easy for me in terms of who belonged in it. You can quibble over the order, but the group should be pretty consistent among anyone making such a list. Listing Felix fifth just doesn’t feel right, but I don’t see how I could get him any higher even as he continues to dominate. A career-best six percent walk rate accompanied fifth straight spike in strikeout rate, though just a small bit from 23 percent in 2011 to 23.8 last year. Oh, and he threw a perfect game.
4. Stephen Strasburg (WAS) – There is little doubt in my mind that he could’ve gone well past his innings limit without issue, but the Nats painted themselves into a corner. In the 159 innings he did throw, he was simply amazing. If he had qualified (requires 162 innings), his 30.2 percent strikeout rate would’ve topped Max Scherzer’s gaudy 29.4 mark for baseball’s best. He has three excellent pitches that he uses to devastate hitters. His changeup might be the best of the bunch generating a ridiculous 29 percent swing-and-miss rate. It was accountable 53 percent of his 197 strikeouts, too.
3. Clayton Kershaw (LAD) – As I mentioned earlier, I thought Dickey was a deserving Cy Young winner, but he wasn’t the only deserving candidate. Kershaw was right there and you can probably argue that wins and a great story are the only things that cost Kershaw a repeat. He led baseball in ERA for a second straight season, posted the same 6.7 H/9 mark which not only led the NL like it did in 2011, but all of baseball this time, and he led the NL in WHIP for the second straight season 1.02. His 14-9 record plus not being a knuckleball journeyman likely did him in.
2. David Price (TB) – Price showed flashes of greatness in 2010, though his 2.72 ERA was probably a bit more favorable than his numbers seemed to “deserve”. Then in 2011, he went the other way improving his underlying numbers and likely should’ve ended up with a result better than his 3.49 ERA. He finally found the right potion in 2012 repeating his 2011 base skills (24% Ks, 7% BBs) while adding a crapton of groundballs (moving 44 to 53% groundball rate) and sharpening up with runners on (moving from 73 to 81%, second to only Jeremy Hellickson at 83%) to turn in a Cy Young performance. His curveball was the driving force yielding a meager 368 OPS and generating 44 percent of his 205 strikeouts.
1. Justin Verlander (DET) – Verlander had an amazing follow up campaign to his Cy Young/MVP season in 2011 and like Kershaw, he had a very strong case for a repeat at Cy Young, but it wasn’t to be for him. He lost out by four points (whereas Dickey inexplicably crushed Kershaw, whose repeat case was probably stronger than JV’s). He again paced the entire league in innings and total strikeouts, but dropped seven wins off that flashy 24 count from last year dropping below the famed 20-mark.
By the way, Verlander is an instructive case for why I’m referencing strikeout percentage a lot more these days. He had an 8.96 K/9 in 2011 and 9.03 K/9 last year so there’ll be plenty of analysis stating that “he even raised his strikeouts!!!”, but he didn’t actually do that. He fanned 25.8 percent of batters in his dream season of 2011, compared to a flat 25 percent last year. Small difference, but important nonetheless.
Despite not winning any end of season awards, I doubt you will get much argument on Verlander as the best pitcher in the game, though the latest chic thing to do is to project a 2013 injury for him based on these recent workloads. It’s the most risk-less “bold” prediction you can make, so don’t fall into the trap of doing so to appear ballsy. Predicting any pitcher to get hurt is like guessing that Lindsay Lohan will be arrested soon. Both are ticking time bombs. Always.