I haven't updated this list since last season, so this post is long overdo. Before I get to the actual rankings, it's important that I specify the criteria:
(1) This is NOT based entirely upon this year. The 2009 season is given the most weight, but the previous two seasons are also considered. I'm not putting all of my eggs in one basket, so to speak.
(2) If it's extremely close between two pitchers, I'll give the guy with the proven track record the nod. I value consistency over time (particularly the past three seasons), so the younger hurlers have to prove their worth to me.
(3) I'm looking at a combination of numbers and stuff, and I'm considering ballpark, league, and division. Stuff is the ultimate tiebreaker.
(4) For time's sake I'll list 20-11, and then provide explanations for 10-1.
(5) Excluded due to injury: Brandon Webb and Jake Peavy.
That's basically it, so let's go...
20. Chad Billingsley, RHP-Los Angeles Dodgers
19. Adam Wainwright, RHP-St. Louis Cardinals
18. Mark Buehrle, LHP-Chicago White Sox
17. A.J. Burnett, RHP-New York Yankees
16. Roy Oswalt, RHP-Houston Astros
15. Josh Johnson, RHP-Florida Marlins
14. Javier Vazquez, RHP-Atlanta Braves
13. Chris Carpenter, RHP-St. Louis Cardinals (inability to stay healthy and age factor hurt his ranking)
12. Justin Verlander, RHP-Detroit Tigers
11. Jon Lester, LHP-Boston Red Sox
10. Matt Cain, RHP-San Francisco Giants
Cain's numbers are simply too good for me to keep him out of the top 10, but I'm not exactly buying his success. He's the only "elite" starter in the top 15 in walks, he doesn't give his club as much depth as the other stars, and his strikeout rate is unimpressive at 108 in 131 innings.
But here are the numbers that are "simply too good":
12-2 (best winning percentage in MLB) with a 2.27 ERA, good for fourth overall. He combines with Tim Lincecum to form the premier 1-2 punch in baseball.
9. C.C. Sabathia, LHP-New York Yankees
This is a career-achievement award of sorts for C.C., who has been a bit of a disappointment for the Yankees and their faithful this season. Has he been good? Sure. Has he been worth the outlandish investment? Probably not, though it would be awfully difficult to live up to that dollar amount.
Let's not forget that after Cliff Lee, C.C. was likely the best pitcher in baseball just one year ago. He does have 10 wins, an ERA under 3.70, and over 100 K's this season as well.
8. Felix Hernandez, RHP-Seattle Mariners
He's always had the natural ability and the bulldog mentality, but he's never been completely healthy. That has changed this season (and yes, I'm knocking on wood for you, Mariners fans), as "King" Felix is running over the American League with an 11-4 record, 139 K's, and a 1.15 WHIP. His 145.1 innings pitched are good for fourth in the majors. He has no statistical weaknesses, and his stuff is electric.
7. Cliff Lee, LHP-Cleveland Indians
This is a controversial ranking, I know. People will undoubtedly complain about Lee's 7-9 record, but we have to bare in mind the fact that his teammates have been awful. The Cleveland Indians have been one of the worst teams in the major leagues this season -- there's no denying it.
Despite Cleveland's struggles as a unit, Lee has quietly maintained a better ERA than both Sabathia and Lester, two of baseball's premier left-handed pitchers. Lee's at 3.14, while Sabathia's at 3.67 and Lester's at 3.79. And here's a number you wouldn't expect:
Lee has more strikeouts than Sabathia. In addition, Lee is leading baseball in innings pitched. That's the definition of a true workhorse, and that statistic shows that Lee will take the ball and battle regardless of his team's situation in the standings.
Above all, we musn't ignore Lee's magnificent Cy Young season in '08. One of the best pitching years of the decade, for sure.
6. Johan Santana, LHP-New York Mets
He's still the best left-handed starter in the game, but barely. If you wanted to make arguments for Sabathia, Cliff Lee, or Jon Lester, I'd have a difficult time stopping you. They are all very close at this point in their respective careers.
Santana's been one of the most consistent, and as you know, I value that. His 11 wins are tied for the second-most in the bigs, and that's especially impressive given the Mets' incredible struggles with injuries and poor defense this season. Johan also has a 3.12 ERA and 120 K's. For more about him, read No. 5.
5. Zack Greinke, RHP-Kansas City Royals
He's always had a bundle of hype attached to his name, and now we are seeing why. But you might ask, how has he proven that he's better than Johan Santana, given their track records?
Well, for starters, Greinke's numbers are obviously better this season, and if you recall, I said the '09 season gets the most weight. His 2.04 ERA is the lowest in all of baseball -- an outstanding achievement to this point in the year. His 146 K's are good for fourth in the majors.
"But that's only one season; that's not fair to Johan!" you say.
And you're right -- that's why I look specifically at their stuff. As a die-hard Mets fan, I've been watching Santana closely all year. He's still successful because he works fast, takes away the middle of the field with his defense, and features a world-class change-up, but his fastball just isn't what it used to be. Johan's four-seamer has been in the 88-90 range consistently, as opposed to the 92-95 of his past. As a result, he's just not quite as dominant, and won't be going forward.
Conversely, Greinke has no weaknesses in his stuff. Santana is a three-pitch pitcher (fastball, change-up, slider) while Greinke is a five-pitch pitcher (fastball, slider/cutter, change-up, and two very different curveballs). Santana's fastball and slider have weakened, while all of Greinke's offerings can be considered "plus" pitches.
I watched Greinke last year, before he had proven himself to the world, and all I could think was:
How does anyone hit this guy?
Well now, a year later, it doesn't seem like anyone can.
4. Josh Beckett, RHP-Boston Red Sox
As I said in the opening, I'm often going to give the proven pitcher the benefit of the doubt. With that in mind, few have proven more than Beckett, who has a World Series MVP to his name, as well as an incredible all-around performance in the 2007 postseason. He's the best playoff pitcher in the game right now, with two World Series rings and the numbers to back it up. Unlike Santana (who ranked behind Greinke), Beckett hasn't shown deterioration in his stuff. His two-and-four seam fastballs are still explosive, and his breaking ball remains one of the nastiest.
After a slow start to the regular season, Josh has been virtually unhittable. He's settled into a 12-4 record with a 3.44 ERA and 127 strikeouts. He's the ace of one of the top rotations in the league.
3. Dan Haren, RHP-Arizona Diamondbacks
Here's a guy who has quietly been one of the top starters in the bigs...for quite awhile now. He's only starting to get his due credit of late, as people have begun to notice his National League leading 2.14 ERA. His major league leading 0.84 WHIP (Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched) is even more astounding.
Danny has impeccable control and a devastating splitter. His success is all the more impressive given Arizona's offensive woes.
2. Tim Lincecum, RHP-San Francisco Giants
The reigning National League Cy Young award winner continues to be the class of the National League. Sure he pitches in the NL West -- something that has also helped Jake Peavy in recent years -- but I can't punish Tim for a division that sometimes struggles to score. Instead, I have to give Lincecum some of the credit.
The Giants' diminutive right-hander has explosive stuff, a statement that is backed up by his 168 strikeouts to this point in the season. Javier Vazquez, who is second in the NL in the category, is currently 18 strikeouts off Lincecum's pace. That's right, the second-place man is nearly twenty K's behind. Talk about dominance on Lincecum's part.
1. Roy Halladay, RHP-Toronto Blue Jays
The American League East is a minefield. Even the Baltimore Orioles, who bring up the rear of the division, have an explosive offense. The Blue Jays play 19 games apiece against the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, and Orioles, which means there are a significant number of Halladay starts sprinkled throughout the 76 games. What's the point?
Any starter who has been as successful as Halladay's been over time, in this division, has to be the best starting pitcher in baseball. Elsewhere in the division there are high-quality starters with nasty stuff, like Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett, who have really struggled in the AL East in the past. Beckett's ERA was 5.01 in 2006, Burnett's was around 5.00 at the midway point last year.
Halladay, on the other hand, never seems to struggle. He has it all: the statistics, the stuff, and the mindset. He changes speeds, he prepares for the opposition, and he's confident enough to throw any of his pitches on any count. And can you really blame him for his confidence?
I know I can't.
Honorable Mention (in no particular order): Yovani Gallardo-RHP, Milwaukee Brewers, Wandy Rodriguez-LHP, Houston Astros, Jair Jurrjens-RHP, Atlanta Braves, Edwin Jackson-RHP, Detroit Tigers, and Carlos Zambrano-RHP, Chicago Cubs.
I look forward to your opinions and comments below. Thanks for reading.
(The Red Sox are the new Yankees. How did they make the transition? "JFro," aka John Frascella, is the author of "Theo-logy: How a Boy Wonder Led the Red Sox to the Promised Land."
It's the first full-length book centered on Boston Red Sox's popular
general manager Theo Epstein. Preview or purchase it online at Amazon.com, Barnes
and Noble or Borders. It's currently stocked in Barnes and Noble stores
throughout the U.S. Also, check out John on Twitter.)