With baseball’s Spring Training under way and the regular season opener less than a month away (Seattle versus Oakland on March 28) it’s high time we rank the best pitchers, by league. First up, is the American League.
A couple of notes before we start. Just like the offensive players were ranked last week, there are several factors involved as this is a projection of 2012. Age obviously matters as does consistency and venue. Pitching in the thin air of Colorado or the small confines of Fenway Park is a little more difficult than the more spacious parks in Kansas City or San Francisco.
Also, for purposes of this list, relievers, closers, and starters are all available for inclusion. With such a broad base to choose from, mentioning just 10 here doesn’t seem to do everyone justice, though. So, here are a few that were considered, but just fell short of the cut: Clay Buchholz (Boston), Jeremy Hellickson (Tampa Bay), Derek Holland (Texas), Michael Pineda (NY Yankees), Ervin Santana (LA Angels), James Shields (Tampa Bay), Joakim Soria (Kansas City) and C.J. Wilson (LA Angels). Onto the list:
10. Ricky Romero, Toronto Blue Jays, 27 years old; 2011 Pitching stats: 15-11 record, 2.92 ERA, 225 innings, 7.1 strikeouts/nine innings, 3.2 walks/nine innings, 1.14 walks/hits per inning. Career full-season average: 15-11 record, 3.60 ERA, 224 innings, 7.2 strikeouts/nine innings, 3.5 walks/nine innings, 1.30 walks/hits per inning—Romero has quietly put together back-to-back high-quality seasons as a starter in the toughest division in baseball, previously going 14-9 with a 3.73 ERA in 2010 as a 25-year old. The sixth-overall pick in the 2005 draft, who finished 10th in the Cy Young Award voting last year is just now entering his prime and looks to be a good bet as one of the better pitchers around.
9. Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox, 31 years old; 2011 Pitching stats: 13-7 record, 2.89 ERA, 193 innings, 8.2 strikeouts/nine innings, 2.4 walks/nine innings, 1.03 walks/hits per inning. Career full-season average: 15-10 record, 3.84 ERA, 211 innings, 8.5 strikeouts/nine innings, 2.7 walks/nine innings, 1.22 walks/hits per inning—If this were a list of best postseason pitchers in the American League, Beckett’s credentials would be second only to Mariano Rivera’s October numbers. Beckett’s best regular season (20-7 record, 3.27 ERA in 2007) in a hitter’s ballpark give him the slight nod over Romero.
8. Dan Haren, Los Angeles Angels, 31 years old; 2011 Pitching stats: 16-10 record, 3.17 ERA, 238.3 innings, 7.3 strikeouts/nine innings, 1.2 walks/nine innings, 1.02 walks/hits per inning. Career full-season average: 14-11 record, 3.59 ERA, 221 innings, 7.6 strikeouts/nine innings, 1.9 walks/nine innings, 1.17 walks/hits per inning—Haren is consistently one of the best pitchers in the league having won 12 or more games seven straight years and having an ERA under 4.00 in six of those seven seasons. Though his and Beckett’s numbers are similar, Haren’s average 34 starts a year during that time compared to Beckett’s 29.
7. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels, 29 years old; 2011 Pitching stats: 18-8 record, 2.41 ERA, 235.7 innings, 7.6 strikeouts/nine innings, 2.1 walks/nine innings, 1.01 walks/hits per inning. Career full-season average: 16-9 record, 3.31 ERA, innings, 7.8 strikeouts/nine innings, 2.4 walks/nine innings, 1.17 walks/hits per inning—Weaver has finished in the top-five in the Cy Young Award voting each of the last two years. In 2010 he led the league with 233 strikeouts and 34 games started—his fourth straight season with 30 or more starts.
6. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays, 26 years old; 2011 Pitching stats: 12-13 record, 3.49 ERA, 224.3 innings, 8.7 strikeouts/nine innings, 2.5 walks/nine innings, 1.14 walks/hits per inning. Career full-season average: 15-10 record, 3.38 ERA, innings, 8.1 strikeouts/nine innings, 3.1 walks/nine innings, 1.20 walks/hits per inning—Price was the top pick in the 2007 draft and in just three years was voted runner-up in the Cy Young race, going 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA and 188 strikeouts. Price gets the slight edge over Weaver as he’s three years younger, though both have put up similarly impressive numbers thus far.
5. Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox, 28 years old; 2011 Pitching stats: 15-9 record, 3.47 ERA, 191.7 innings, 8.5 strikeouts/nine innings, 3.5 walks/nine innings, 1.26 walks/hits per inning. Career full-season average: 17-7 record, 3.53 ERA, 211 innings, 8.4 strikeouts/nine innings, 3.4 walks/nine innings, 1.29 walks/hits per inning—Lester has won 15 or more games, posted an ERA below 4.00, and started better than 30 games each of the past four seasons—something no other pitcher on this list besides C.C. Sabathia can boast.
4. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners, 25 years old; 2011 Pitching stats: 14-14 record, 3.47 ERA, 233.7 innings, 8.6 strikeouts/nine innings, 2.6 walks/nine innings, 1.22 walks/hits per inning. Career full-season average: 14-11 record, 3.24 ERA, 230 innings, 8.2 strikeouts/nine innings, 2.7 walks/nine innings, 1.22 walks/hits per inning—Hernandez had an ‘off’ season last year after winning the Cy Young in 2010 (13-12 record, 2.27 ERA, 222 strikeouts) and finishing runner-up in 2009 (19-5 record, 2.49 ERA, 232 strikeouts). Still young, when Hernandez is at his best he’s probably the best in the league.
3. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees, 42 years old; 2011 Pitching stats: 44 saves, 1.91 ERA, 61.3 innings, 8.8 strikeouts/nine innings, 1.2 walks/nine innings, 0.90 walks/hits per inning. Career full-season average: 39 saves, 2.21 ERA, 78 innings, 8.3 strikeouts/nine innings, 2.0 walks/nine innings, 1.00 walks/hits per inning—Though he’s more than 10 years older than any pitcher on this list, age probably won’t catch up with him until after he retires. Rivera’s incredible, consistent greatness puts him just ahead of “King” Felix Hernandez here. The game’s all-time leader in saves in both the regular season and postseason, ‘Mo has posted an ERA under 2.00 in eight of the last nine seasons and his 2.21 career ERA is currently the best of any player who retired before 1930.
2. C.C. Sabathia, New York Yankees, 31 years old; 2011 Pitching stats: 19-8 record, 3.00 ERA, 237.3 innings, 8.7 strikeouts/nine innings, 2.3 walks/nine innings, 1.23 walks/hits per inning. Career full-season average: 17-9 record, 3.51 ERA, 226 innings, 7.7 strikeouts/nine innings, 2.8 walks/nine innings, 1.23 walks/hits per inning—Sabathia won the Cy Young in 2007 and has finished in the top-five in the voting four of the past six seasons. The big lefty gets the nod over Rivera due to his pitching four times as many innings as the workhorse staff-ace of the league’s annually-best team.
1. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers, 29 years old; 2011 Pitching stats: 24-5 record, 2.40 ERA, 251 innings, 9.0 strikeouts/nine innings, 2.0 walks/nine innings, 0.92 walks/hits per inning. Career full-season average: 18-10 record, 3.54 ERA, 225 innings, 8.3 strikeouts/nine innings, 2.8 walks/nine innings, 1.19 walks/hits per inning—A tough call over Sabathia’s consistency, Verlander did something last season Sabathia has never done, capturing the pitcher’s triple crown (leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts). So good was Verlander that not only did he capture the Cy Young, he became the first starting pitcher in 25 years (Roger Clemens) to win the MVP.