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If I Wanted to Win in 3 Years, I’d Choose…


by Joe Caputo 
A question asked by many: If I want to win a World Series within the next 3 years, who would I want the ace of my staff to be?  Not many know the answer.  Luckily for you, I’ll share mine.  Starting pitching, far and away the most important part of any baseball team, is a very touchy and fickle subject that, for the most part, lacks consistency.  However, I have spent numerous hours trying my best to decide the 10 most reliable guys, that, game in and game out, you can count on for a quality start.  I have eliminated first-year starters from my list of possibilites (sorry Matt Harvey) to make to process of using experience to evaluate pitchers a little easier.  In parentheses next to the player’s name, you can find his last 5 season’s worth (6 if you include 2013 YTD) of statistics.  Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up.

10. CC Sabathia (3.10 ERA, 8.32 K/9, 2.38 BB/9)
First of all, take note that I have not listed Wins/Losses.  That’s because that stat is absolutely meaningless.  It means nothing.  So stop looking for it now.  Sabathia has been one of the most consistent pitchers over the past 4 seasons since showing up to the Bronx, and to be honest it was difficult to list him this low on the list.  He is a workhorse, but that could work against him the next 3 years.  A man with as many innings as he has logged over his career is bound to wear down, which is why I have him at 10.  I am legitimately worried about his declining fastball velocity, but still, the guy hasn’t posted an FIP over 3.50 since 2005.  Very reliable and solid.
9. Max Scherzer (3.89 ERA, 9.41 K/9, 2.99 BB/9)
ABSOLUTELY OUTRAGEOUS, right?  Not so fast with your criticism here, please.  If you’ve read my stuff before, or listened to my podcast, you know how much I love this man.  Therefore, I grew a pair and put him in my top 10.  He is the only pitcher in the American League to average a 9+ K/9 in the last 5 full seasons, and he just continues to get better.  Who cares about his past ERA, it’s all about future ERA indicators, and they are spectacular.  Scherzer has always had excellent stuff, but control was once an issue for him.  We have seen his walk rate steadily decrease over the past few seasons, and a 3 strikeout per 9 spike from 2011 to 2012.  The improvement from ’11 to ’12 was astronomical, and he has shown in the very early part of 2013 that it was not a fluke.  He ended 2012 with an FIP, xFIP, and SIERA all under 3.30, while posting a respectable tERA of 3.71.  I might be back next year putting his name in the top 5.
8. Cole Hamels (3.30 ERA, 8.35 K/9, 2.09 BB/9)
When thrown correctly, the changeup is the deadliest pitch in baseball.  Why?  Because it neutralizes hitters on the opposite side of the plate.  Cole Hamels has one of the best changeups in baseball, and controls it with ease.  Want evidence my theory works?  Over the past 3 years, righties are hitting a mere .229 off Hamels, actually worse than lefties.  His control is impecable, but that does not take away from his strikeout numbers.  He has maintained an 8+ K/9 over the past 5 seasons, and was able to post a sub 17% line drive rate over 2010 and 2011.  Absurd.  Now, with all pitchers comes concern.  Well, most.  Cole Hamels is off to a shaky 2013 campaign, but I’ll chalk that up to the abnormally low Left On Base rate of 59%.  When that returns near his normal 76% career number, Cole will be just fine.
7. Cliff Lee (2.86 ERA, 7.92 K/9, 1.32 BB/9)
No WONDER I picked the Phillies to win a Wild Card spot in the National League, right?  Cliff Lee has the type of control that I have never seen.  It’s actually not human.  It has propelled him to post the highest WAR of any pitcher in the past 5 seasons, and although his K/9 is the lowest of anyone you will see in this top 10 list, the 1.32 BB/9 makes up for it.  Talk about advanced numbers… The advanced numbers LOVE this man.  His last 5 seasons of FIP: 3.13, 2.60, 2.58, 3.11, 2.83.  Not only outstanding, but consistent.  Will age be an issue?  Down the road it may, but for the next 3 seasons, I’m rolling with Cliff Lee at number 7.
6. Adam Wainwright (2.97 ERA, 7.96 K/9, 2.27 BB/9)
Here’s another guy that’s not a big fan of walking people.  He has … umm … HOLD ON LET ME COUNT… oh, 0 walks so far in 2013.  Yea, you read that right, Z-E-R-O.  Now, I’m not here to suggest that will stand (just yet), but the way Adam Wainwright has come out of the gate in 2013 has to be scary for National League hitters.  Normally, less than 1 month of performance isn’t close to enough to indicate how good a player is, but I already knew how good Wainwright was.  Before he underwent Tommy John Surgery in 2011, Wainwright was about to be one of the top pitchers in baseball.  Last year, I saw flashes of brilliance.  But this year, all I needed to see was a slight rise in fastball velocity (89.9 to 90.3 mph), and the ability to maintain that velocity late into games.  Wainwright showed me both in his dominant complete game shutout over Milwaukee two weeks ago.  This man is good.

5. Madison Bumgarner (3.17 ERA, 8.08 K/9, 2.09 BB/9)
Talk about the most underrated pitcher in baseball.  His teammate, Matt Cain (who is not in my top 10, and it’s not even debatable), gets all the publicity, while Maddy goes out every fifth day and throws up his usual 7 IP, 8 K, 2 BB stat line with ease.  It’s amazing to me how someone this consistent, on a WORLD SERIES CHAMPION TEAM, can fly this far under the radar.  His opponent’s line drive rate is on a steady decline from his breakout season in 2011, while his strikeout and walk numbers remain eerily consistent.  Does anyone actually know how good this guy was back in 2011?  Oh yea probably not since he was 13-13.  Well, all he did was rank in the top 5 in FIP, tERA, and SIERA. His company in those categories?  Only Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke… NBD.  There you go again, letting those wins and losses get in the way of an objective analysis.
4. Clayton Kershaw (2.92 ERA, 9.28 K/9, 3.22 BB/9)
Well, here we go.  As great as the first 6 I just listed were, these next four are in their own league.  These next 4 are so good they make good people look… not good.  Let’s start with Kershaw.  The only problem I have with Kershaw is that his numbers are similar to the next 2 guys, but he pitches in the National League.  His numbers should be even better if he wants to surpass them (like the number 1 guy’s are).  When he first entered the league, Kershaw, like Scherzer, had some control problems.  But he saw a drastic improvement in in 2011 and hasn’t looked back.  His line drive rate has been consistently under 20% over the course of his career, which is extremely impressive, and he has posted a K/9 over 9 in EVERY ONE of his full season in the MLB.  He’s consistently a top 5 pitcher in all advanced statistics, making him an easy pick to be one of the 4 elite pitchers in baseball.
3. Justin Verlander (3.26 ERA, 8.92 K/9, 2.64 BB/9)
Verlander at THREE!???!?!?!?  Yes, at 3.  There are 2 pitchers I’d rather have over the next 3 seasons than Justin Verlander.  Why?  Not because he’s bad, just because the others are better.  Verlander hasn’t posted an FIP over 3.00 since 2008.  Yes, two thousand and eight.  His 40% ground ball rate is a little low for an elite pitcher, but the fact that he pitches in Comerica Park makes up for the extra fly balls.  Since 2009, yes, Justin Verlander has probably been the most dominant pitcher in baseball.
2. Felix Hernandez (2.91 ERA, 8.34 K/9, 2.65 BB/9)
Well, now that the 2 guys you thought would be the top 2 are gone… who’s left? Well Felix is not to shabby himself.  His numbers from 2009 to 2012 are nearly identical each year.  Mid-8s in K/9, mid-2s in walks/9, FIP in the low 3s, but what puts Felix ahead of Verlander and Kershaw for me is his ability to keep the ball on the ground.  What does this mean?  Well, it limits the chance for home runs against.  The law of MLB regression assumes that no matter how good a pitcher is, if he is giving up a lot of fly balls, some of them will be home runs.  However, Felix’s fly ball rate is significantly lower (28.7%) than that of Justin Verlander (39.7%) and Clayton Kershaw (37.8).  Like I said earlier, the fact that Verlander pitches in a gigantic ballpark helps him keep his ERA down despite that high fly ball rate, however, in terms of raw talent, on an average-sized MLB field, I’m taking Felix Hernandez over Justin Verlander, by an ever so slight margin.
1. Stephen Strasburg (2.94 ERA, 10.90 K/9, 2.42 BB/9)
It’s hard to compare him to the 3 preceding pitchers just because this ranking is based on raw talent and potential rather than proven statistics.  Yes, Strasburg’s statistics are amazing, but the argument can be made that he’s done it over a much shorter period of time.  Here’s why I have him at number 1.  You have to look at his first full season compared to Felix’s, Justin’s and Clayton’s.  Hernandez, in his first full year, was 12-14 with a 4.52 ERA, 3.91 FIP, and struck out 8.29/9.  Verlander, in his first full year, was 17-9 with a 3.63 ERA, but posted only a 6.00 K/9 and a 4.35 FIP.  Finally, Kershaw, in his first full season, was 5-5 with a 4.26 ERA and a 4.08 FIP.  Now, compare those three guys to Strasburg’s 15-6, 3.16 ERA, 2.82 FIP, and 11.16 K/9.  It’s not even close.  Now, I know just because he did much better than the other three in his first full season doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll end up being better than them for his career.  BUT, the strikeout numbers that Strasburg has posted throughout his career in the Minors and so far in the Majors, along with his pretty spot-on control is mind-boggling.  If Strasburg can stay healthy, I 100% believe that for the next 3 seasons he will be the best pitcher in baseball.
Other “also-rans” include:

  • David Price
  • Matt Cain
  • Yu Darvish
  • Gio Gonzalez
  • Zack Greinke
  • Chris Sale

So there ya have it.  Have any comments?  Make sure you leave them, and make sure you continue to checkout The Brunch every Wednesday and Sunday for all of the latest sports news.  Have a good one.

Leave a Comment

  • Ryan Gaydos

    Hard to argue with this. Not a fan of CC really, I feel like he’s declining a bit. I also don’t like the Cliff Lee pick either. Surprised you didn’t mention David Price. Good list nonetheless.

  • collegebrunch


  • collegebrunch

    Makes sense the two you pointed out are the two old guys. Tough to tell when they’re gonna run out of gas.