What is happening!
We launched Pitcher List 4.0 today and officially pulled back the curtain for the 2019 season. As is tradition, today marks the beginning of our preseason rankings, with the first week featuring my personal starting pitcher ranks, working our way to our first official edition of The List. Enjoy today’s Top 20 Starting Pitchers, followed by 20 ranks each day, concluding with a massive Top 200 Starting Pitchers article over the weekend. Yes, Top 200. Because why not.
Tier 1: Triple-Threat Triad
1. Max Scherzer (Washington Nationals) – I can see a bit of a debate here, and what you should know out of the gate is how I approach starters in drafts. If I’m going early, it’s all about the floor—200+ innings, sub-3.00 ERA, 30%+ K rate, etc. I want to feel as secure as possible in a starter if I’m grabbing him in the first three-four rounds, and I’m willing to sacrifice a little ceiling for that. With Mad Max, you get everything you want. Sure, Jacob deGrom had a better ERA last year, but Scherzer has performed at this level for longer than deGrom, and that holds plenty of weight. Don’t let deGrom’s career year make you take a risk you shouldn’t take.
2. Jacob deGrom (New York Mets) – I remember when it was a shock to rank deGrom above Noah Syndergaard, and now it may surprise some that I’m buying into deGrom as the No. 2 option entering 2019. Chris Sale is the sexier arm, but deGrom’s volume for two straight years at 200 frames, with a repertoire that supports a 2.50 ERA and sub 1.00 WHIP makes him the better floor option. The fact that his four-seamer—a pitch he throws over 40% of the time—registered a 16% swinging-strike rate is mind-blowing for a starter, especially when he also had another pair of pitches (slider and changeup) that each registered above a 15% swinging-strike rate. The man has options galore, as long of a leash as you want, and pristine command. He’s destined for 15-20 wins despite last year’s personification of Roy Sullivan, especially as the offense has improved. He’s a legit ace.
3. Chris Sale (Boston Red Sox) – I expected to have Sale at No. 2. The man is dope and makes you feel dope, carrying the ceiling of 300+ strikeouts, a 2.00 ERA, and sub-1.00 WHIP for a winning ballclub, while deGrom comes with expected regression after his Cy Young season. I simply have hesitation paying full price on Sale (don’t say that out loud) when there are enormous fears for his innings in 2019. Even with deGrom’s injury history, I’m more concerned about Sale’s playing time in September as the Sox could easily baby him once again like they did last season. Given the same innings, I want Sale, and unfortunately, that’s not the case. I still anticipate 180 innings or so, and that keeps him in the top tier, just not the overwhelming volume of deGrom.
Tier 2: B-Listers
4. Justin Verlander (Houston Astros) – This second tier is up for debate, though I feel strongly that the first three should be valued higher than the rest. If you have major qualms with these, that’s fine like dope sand. I expect them all to go a round or two between each other, making me likely to wait until one or two are left to grab one, but if I have to take one early in the third or late second, I’m taking Verlander. His velocity stayed up at 95 mph, his slider improvement we saw in the second half of 2017 stuck for a full year, and his curveball looked like the hook of old. I’m all for questioning old starters if I begin to get a whiff of the wheels falling off (You can smell that?!), but there’s nothing here setting off alarm bells. More so, the other pitchers in this tier have questions of their own, and Verlander’s age (35) seems like the least concerning of the bunch. He has the durability to escalate to 200 frames again and even hint at 250 strikeouts after last year’s ridiculous 290 mark. This is the right move.
5. Trevor Bauer (Cleveland Indians) – If you’ve been following Pitcher List for a bit, you’ll know that we did a good amount of mocks this offseason. One of the bigger surprises to me was the lack of trust in a Bauer repeat following his incredible 2.21 ERA, 31% K rate, and 1.09 WHIP. He tinkers too much. He’s never thrown 200 innings. It’s just one year! All of these things are blegh to me. A man tinkers when he doesn’t trust performance is at its peak. I think a 2.21 ERA and 31% K rate is peak enough. A total of 200 frames never happened prior to 2018 because the Indians never let him do it as A) They had other options and B) Bauer simply wasn’t doing well. Bauer averaged 6.2 frames last year as a starter, not including the 1.1-inning game he got hurt in and his following DLH game. (For those wondering, his ERA, K rate, and WHIP were near identical even excluding his relief appearance and these 5.1 frames.) The man was closer to seven full innings than six, which would have resulted in about 220 frames had he not gotten a comebacker to the foot. The man is built for 200+ innings. Speaking of which, dating back to July 27, 2017, through the game before his injury—yes, returning to the second half of his previous season—Bauer holds a 2.29 ERA, 30% K rate, and 1.13 WHIP. In other words, Bauer has been doing this for a season-and-a-half, presenting a notable line in the sand (hey, another sand reference!) when he switched from a cutter to a loopier slider. So what? So what? It’s a pitch that held a 21% swinging-strike rate last year, helping boost his overall swinging-strike rate four points to an excellent 13.3% mark. The biggest concern is the 0.46 HR/9 and 6.2% HR/FB regressing, but that’s fine, I’ll take a 2.75 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 200 IP, and 30% K rate any day. The man has hit his plateau, and keep your smile hidden as your leaguemates let him fall to the fourth.
6. Gerrit Cole (Houston Astros) – One of the best parts of making rankings every year is being wrong. Like really wrong. As the hype surrounded Cole when he became an Astro, I was one of the dissenters, which meant anyone listening to me never drafted Cole in a league. My bad, y’all, my bad. I’m not one to stick to my guns blindly (more on that later), and I’m all for grabbing Cole, but maybe slightly later than others. I’m not going to take away his hot start, but there should be a discussion about those initial six weeks of the year when he called Scherzer to tell him a new sheriff was in town. A discussion about them where we say, “What if they didn’t exist?” Wow Nick, riveting. Those 24 games post-ultra dominance returned a 32% K rate, 6 IPS, 1.15 WHIP, and 3.45 ERA. That’s still dope. Well, like Carlos Carrasco dope and a far cry from the “what-if-prime-Carter-Capps-threw-seven-innings-per-game” dope. I think this is a lot closer to the real Cole, as his HR/9 stuck at 1.00 with a near 9% walk rate. That walk rate seems about right when—get this—Cole doesn’t have a strong third pitch. GASP. His curveball goes in and out, with a rare changeup that’s good but not consistent enough to trust often. Yes, his fastball is the A’s knees (Oakland’s hitters buckle so often), and that is great ‘n’ all, but for someone in a lot of Top Fives, I need that emergency option when something isn’t working. That lack of third option paired with a six-week peak that may be creating an illusion of a higher ceiling across a full year, and I have to lower Cole more than I expected.
7. Corey Kluber (Cleveland Indians) – I want to say that the three above are in their own mini-tier to me. From here through Luis Severino, go with your gut ultimately, but we’re called Pitcher List, and that means I gotta make a list. With Kluber, I’m worried. I’ve seen him go as high as the No. 3 SP in mocks, and I think we’re overlooking the possibility of a big decline for Klubs in 2019. That’s a little weird to say after a sub-3.00 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP, and 26.5% K rate season with 200 IP for the fifth straight season, but hear me out. Kluber’s style has been “fastball bad, cutter/curveball dope” for a while, but it’s getting near that precipitous point where he just may not be able to get over it like he used to. As he moves almost exclusively to sinkers, its velocity has fallen consistently through the years, dipping to sub-92 mph consistently in the second half. He throws the pitch 40% of the time (at least not 60%!), and allowed a horrid .295 BAA, with batters making contact over 92% of the time. In other words, batters don’t miss the pitch and make great contact against it constantly. Meanwhile, his supreme dopeness that is his curveball/slider/breaking ball/thing? It dropped its swinging-strike rate over eight full points in 2018, though it still sits at a pristine 20% clip. Maybe his changeup gets more usage and works, while his cutter keeps doing ridiculous things and life is fine. Declining velocity with a signature breaking ball missing fewer bats is sure to make me have concerns for a soon-to-be 33-year-old, yet Kluber still demands Top 10 status. His cutter/breaker combo will still be crazy-good, and while it could be an ERA closer to 3.50 than 3.00, you’re still getting a solid floor with Kluber in 2019.
8. Blake Snell (Tampa Bay Rays) – No. 8 belongs to Snell, even with his concerns of massive regression (1.89 ERA vs. 3.30 SIERA) and innings cap, as the Rays love to turn to their pen early for Snell, especially when he returned from injury in the final two months last year. Still, I think Snell’s skill set of his fastballs with breakers down is as beautiful as it gets, especially when he has a solid changeup in his back pocket as a fourth option. His strikeout rate should still hover around 30% with stellar ratios—he just won’t have a Cy Young repeat. That HOTEL with a .241 BABIP and 88.0% LOB rate was seriously dumb, but adding a full point to his ERA still means a happy owner. You’ll notice larger warts on the next five guys, and a cataclysmic regression isn’t in the cards with his shift on the rubber and pitch-mix shakeup. Snell will be one of the best southpaws in the majors for a long time.
9. Noah Syndergaard (New York Mets) – Each year there’s a new feel of Syndergaard. I loved him immensely during and after 2015, was slightly low after 2016, then my whole BABIP argument had me avoiding him in 2018. Is there much cause to feel otherwise entering 2019? Kinda? Enough so that among this mini-tier I feel more confident with Syndergaard’s flaws than the others. The crux of last year’s argument was that Syndergaard is a thrower not a pitcher, i.e. he doesn’t work his pitches effectively around the zone but instead hurls it to the plate and gets results based on their velocity and movement. It’s not exclusive, but he’s missing the craft of someone like Scherzer or Sale, and it prevents him from taking that leap we all expect. That lack of polish returned a .320 BABIP (high again!) and 24% K rate, a strikeout mark that seems exceptionally low for his 13.6% swinging-strike rate. Assessing Thor for 2019 presents two questions: Do I expect him to be healthy, and do I expect him to make adjustments to squeeze out all his potential? For the first, I think you have to expect some headache, but 180 innings should be fine. The second is obviously trickier, but I’d take this gamble over the others behind him. Syndergaard hasn’t had the smooth development time thus far to tinker properly and figure out his approach. After watching deGrom excel with four-seamers last year, I think we’ll see fewer contact-heavy and BABIP unfriendly sinkers with more swing-and-miss up in the zone, with sliders/curveballs down and changeups to counter everything. That’s the craft we want, and his BABIP was elevated based on his lack of time getting to figure it out. It’s in there, his injury scare and tumultuous 2018 are behind him, and if he’s falling into the late third/early fourth, he’s worth it, but I’d hold off for other options if it means I have to jump earlier.
10. Aaron Nola (Philadelphia Phillies) – I love Aaron
Nova Nola. Our shirt is one of my personal favorites (Live Every Day Like It’s Nola Day), and I’ve been rooting for him since he was called up in 2015. I call him Easy A because he’s just that fun to root for. Unfortunately, I think this is the year I need to be low on Nola. I know, SACRÉ BLEU! That’s French for “THAT’S YOUR BOY, BLUE!” and it seems so wrong. But listen, I’m not allowed to be emotional, I have to hide them better than Michael Pineda’s pine tar as I need to give you the most objective ranks possible. And those ranks see an arm that is relying too heavily on grounders (51%) in a terrible infield defense, held a 3.40 SIERA as his HOTEL of .251 BABIP, 82.5% LOB and 10.6% HR/FB suggest closer to a 3.00 ERA, if not worse. Then his 27% strikeout rate is great and he could repeat it, though his overall repertoire suggests it’s his peak, without a level of 30% in his future. Maybe it’s 27% again, maybe it’s 25%, but then we’re looking at a 3.15 ERA, 25% K rate and 1.10 WHIP at…wait. How many innings? Nola hit 212 frames last year, though there is injury concern like a decent amount of arms here (first season above 170 IP!), and those anticipating another 200 are going to be a little disappointed. I love Nola (duh) and think he’s still an ace on the hill. I just think we saw a career year and not a plateau.
11. Luis Severino (New York Yankees) – Are you decided on Severino? I’m not. Sorry, through all of these long, long nights without baseball, trying to predict Severino’s 2019 year has kept me up the most. We know he can be as elite as they come, boasting a 1.98 ERA, 30% K rate, and 0.95 WHIP in his first 18 starts. That was with a 6.6 IPS! Then his slider started to falter, leading to a seven-game stretch that often ends veterans’ careers—11 HRs and a 7.50 ERA in 36 innings. That’s nearly double the amount of long balls Severino had allowed in the first 118.1 frames he threw last year. Funny story, though, Severino was actually kinda amazing after those seven starts: 3.89 ERA (but a 2.13 FIP!), 30% K Rate (just like before!), and 1.22 WHIP. I looked more into his slider and fastball and changeup, and while I was expecting to see bigger indications of poor whiff rates, bad sliders, or lower velocity, what I found was…kinda nothing. The more I dug, the more I started to believe this was smoke and mirrors. Now do I see a sub-3.00 ERA season from Severino? I think it’s certainly possible. I also see his 3.30 ERA from last year and a near 30% K rate with a 1.14 WHIP and bounce like a bobblehead. It’s not a bad gamble to chase a 2017 + first half 2018 repeat from Severino, as it really was a ghastly seven-game stretch—the first real adversity as a prime starter and now he’s on the other side!—that held back Severino from universal advocacy.
12. Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers) – I feel like Ms. Imbruglia talking about Kershaw, and I think a lot of you are sounding Aussie and standing 5’3″ as well debating one the greatest pitchers of all time for 2019. Wanna know what makes me so torn? It’s a mixing pot of tugging collars—a fastball that has declined in velocity for the third straight year to a horrid sub-91 mph mark, a massive 10-point drop in swinging-strike rate on his slider, and, duh, his nagging back that is sure to force Kershaw out for an extended period of time for the third straight season. All of these issues would be OK if Kershaw’s command was right in line with where it used to be…but it wasn’t. If you watched his playoff starts, you’ll remember his fastball missing locations, his lack of precision on sliders, and a massive wave of mortality for a legend in the game. It was scary. Uncomfortable, like hearing Raffi drop an F-bomb. What’s wild is that Kershaw, among all the blegh, was still dope for your team in 26 starts and 161 innings. Yes, with all his disappointment, Kershaw returned a 2.73 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 24% K rate. It could get worse if he’s forced to throw his slider as a strike pitch instead of a playing it off an 0-1 painted heater, but it’s been suggested that with health, Kershaw should reclaim some velocity and command, bringing back stud numbers when he’s on the hill. Slotting him here at No. 12 is understanding that chance—just grab the guys ahead of him and rest easier.
13. Carlos Carrasco (Cleveland Indians) – I’d be surprised if I found myself with shares of Carrasco for 2019. There’s nothing inherently wrong about owning him, though for the most part, I’d rather just wait the few rounds to grab one of the youngins in the third tier. Would I be upset with a 3.30 ERA, 28% K rate, 1.15 WHIP in 2019? Not at all! Those are great numbers…across 30 starts. Carrasco is also a major Cherry Bomb, in that over one-third of his starts came in under six frames. That volatility mixed with a capped ceiling (no season under a 3.15 ERA as a full starter) means I’m taking him after the rest of the exciting aces. It’s a boring blurb—I know—but there isn’t much more to say. Y’all know his fastball is bad, and maybe he continues to lower its usage and maybe pulls off that ridiculous year. That would be cool ‘n’ stuff, but it’s just not something I’m betting on when it’s my pick on draft day.
Tier 3: Four Score
14. Walker Buehler (Los Angeles Dodgers) – We have a tier of youth(ish), and if you have any problems with their order, that’s cool. I took ages to sort this one out, and this is what I settled on for whatever reason. Get the right value in your drafts (cough *Jameson Taillon and Mike Clevinger* cough) and call it a day. Anyway, how many starts will Buehler make in 2019? His inherent skill set is well deserving of a No. 14 rank (if not higher!), but I just can’t put my finger on how many starts Buehler will make. #Dodgeritis is a real thing because nightmares come true, which means we’ll most likely deal with Buehler missing starts here and there in order to keep his workload down, even if his 137.1 regular-season frames get expanded to 177 including the minors and playoffs. That means he can hit 200 this year! Ha! No way the Dodgers do that. It’s just not what they do, as much as I want to believe that. But 180 innings? Now that sounds right and wonderful. I love that Buehler’s approach begins with an amazing four-seamer, as you’ll see that the heavy majority of aces feature an elite four-seamer (Scherzer, Sale, deGrom, Verlander, Cole, etc.). Buehler still needs to take a step forward with either his slider or curveball to miss bats, but I can see that adjustment coming this year as his curveball and cutter find the zone more often, allowing his slider to take a different role as an O-Swing machine. Pair that with solid command and control, and what do you know, you have an arm that could even scratch the Top Five if he hits 200 frames. It just won’t happen this year, sadly.
15. Jameson Taillon (Pittsburgh Pirates) – Maybe I’m too high on Taillon, as I don’t quite believe he has the ceiling of Clevinger or Patrick Corbin (or even Zack Wheeler!) behind him. However, his floor is firmly elevated, as his command is phenomenal. It has been for a bit, but his repertoire was lacking with just a curveball to keep batters of his pair of heaters. Now with a dope slider that I’ve talked way too much about this offseason (14% swinging-strike rate, 50% O-Swing and 47% Zone rate!), Taillon has the tools to walk few, strikeout 25% or more, and go deep into games. Think sub-3.00 ERA, sub-1.15 WHIP and 200 frames with a K per inning (or slightly under). He doesn’t have that 30% strikeout upside, but those ratios have a much better chance at excellence. In the days of few sturdy 200-inning pitchers, Taillon is a rare gem.
16. Mike Clevinger (Cleveland Indians) – Speaking of 200-inning arms, Clevinger hit that number on the nose in 2018 and has zero reasons to miss the mark in 2019. As we expected, he pulled his walk rate down from a nervous 12% mark to 8.3%, turning his “just missed” fastballs to nibble strikes. Seriously, his four-seamer zone rate raised 4.5 points, with his O-Swing jumping 5.5 points—that’s a lot of new strikes! It’s helping him go deeper into games, while setting batters up for strikeouts, and as long as he doesn’t sputter with his breaking pitches in the opening weeks, he could push 200+ strikeouts again easily. There’s a bit of shakier floor here than Buehler and Taillon given he has the worst fastball of the lot, but armed with a slider and curveball both over an 18% swinging-strike rate, Clevinger hints at a higher ceiling. You want this.
17. Patrick Corbin (Washington Nationals) – Some will have him above Carrasco, some past the No. 20 mark, and I understand both arguments. Like a good moderator, I’m here to split the difference. The ceiling is clear, fueled by a slide piece that ranks among the best in the majors, earning an unreal 51.6% O-Swing, as it induced a near 30% swinging-strike rate. It was stupid good, especially considering it was thrown over 1,300 times. Jeeeeeeez. Corbin was able to put his heater on the inside corner to right-handers, helping set up the pitch constantly, and it worked oh-so well. There was worry in May as Corbin’s velocity dropped dramatically from 92/93 to 89/90, yet Corbin powered on, holding a 3.38 ERA and near 30% K rate when the velocity dipped and after his dominant April. Velocity questions aside, Corbin’s lack of a strong third pitch (even if he’s squeezing everything out of his slider by intentionally lowering its velocity on occasion) makes him susceptible to a disappointing 2019. If he loses the feel of that slider even just a bit, you’re looking at an SP3 or so. That’s still great, and he should perform well in the NL Easy(er), though I’d rather ride the growth of Buehler/Taillon/Clevinger than a double-down on Corbin.
TIER 4: Damaged Goods
18. Zack Wheeler (New York Mets) – I really wanted Wheeler in the third tier. He certainly has the talent for it, and his IPS was ace-like when he clicked last season, Wheeler threw at least seven frames in 12 out of his final 16 starts. Whoa. It was built on the foundation of an excellent four-seamer up in the zone, while his three-headed secondary beast of sliders, split-changeups, and curveballs held their own to push Wheeler through starts constantly. He fanned at least seven in 11 of those starts, despite none of his secondary pitches carrying a swinging-strike rate above 15%. As I mentioned with Buehler, I love when a pitcher’s No. 1 pitch is a four-seamer, which goes to show how Wheeler succeeded despite not having that big breaker. So why isn’t he in the third tier? Because I have to carry heightened concern of injury—Wheeler tallied just 87.1 innings total in his three prior seasons, amassing nearly all of them just in 2017. It’s not as high of a concern as the next three (while producing close to the same numbers!), which has me at the top of this tier, just a slight step down from the other youts.
19. James Paxton (New York Yankees) – If you haven’t watch Paxton pitch, you’re missing out. Heavy heaters high-and-tight, a devastating cutter into ankles, and a knuckle curve that falls off the table outline Big Maple as he often overpowers batters left and right. His 3.76 ERA last year was plenty more elevated than we wanted…and I believe he deserved, boasting a 2.96 SIERA. His 1.10 WHIP and 32% strikeout rate (14.3% swinging-strike rate!) made him comparable to the elites; it’s just that blasted 1.30 HR/9 that did him in, and I understand the worry that it won’t fade, moving from Safeco to Yankee Stadium. I’m willing to wager it will actually decrease closer to 1.00 for the year (I think his home runs were a product of mistake pitches that would be long balls anywhere and correctable, and a lefty at Yankee Stadium nullifies the short right-field porch a bit), which means a 3.00 ERA with that WHIP and K rate are certainly attainable. The problem is how 200 frames are not. Paxton’s 160 innings in 2018 were a career high, as he’s battled with injuries every year of his career, and it would be foolish to imagine 2019 as an exception. Still, his innings will be of elite quality when he’s on the bump, which alone makes him a solid No. 2. It’s a weird floor when you’re anticipating fewer innings, but I prefer the confidence I have starting Paxton over those ranked lower.
20. Stephen Strasburg (Washington Nationals) – It makes sense to group the three enigmatic volume pitchers together, right? They all have ace-like ceiling; it’s just about weighing that elite ability with expected playing time. Strasburg doesn’t excel at either end, though, making him my least favorite of the trio. With Wheeler, we know his repertoire, built on a fantastic four-seamer and solid secondary pitches. Paxton has a three-pitch mix that overwhelms batters constantly. But Strasburg? Well, it’s a bit muddier. It used to be a strong four-seamer backed by a big curveball, with his changeup getting chases late. But last year, his four-seamer was horrible. Seriously, Strasburg’s heater returned a -8.8 pVal after dominating in previous years, giving up more long balls and raising its BAA to a bleeeegh .280. With his slider taking a step back as well, Strasburg got enough from his dope changeup and curveball to return a 3.74 ERA, but, man, was it constantly stressful. That’s not including the injury-laced June 8 start, followed by the horrid July DLH that sent Strasburg back to the DL, and 2018 was a bit of a mess. I’m painting Stras as a worse pitcher than he actually is—he’s more like a 3.30 ERA/1.12 WHIP arm with a 28% K rate—but it won’t be a smooth road. That means a lot of middling starts with a lot of injury concern (just one season above 150 IP in his last four!), and I’d prefer to sit this one out. He’s not the sturdy No. 2 you’re looking for.
(Photo by Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire)