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MLB Power Rankings: The 50 Best Pitchers in the Game Entering 2012

Doug MeadCorrespondent IMarch 13, 2012

MLB Power Rankings: The 50 Best Pitchers in the Game Entering 2012

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    Over the past couple of seasons, it has certainly seemed like Major League Baseball has been dominated by pitchers.

    Certainly the numbers would support such an argument, although the dominance doesn't quite measure up to the "Year of the Pitcher" that would aptly describe the 1968 season.

    Still, with the wealth of talent out there right now on the mound, combined with the use of specialty pitchers that have given managers more options for match-ups, it's hard to argue that pitchers don't have the advantage right now.

    Entering the 2012 season, here is a ranking of that wealth of MLB pitching talent.

    Note: Rankings are based on numbers posted in 2011. While historical numbers are indeed important, this article is about pitcher rankings heading into 2012 based on last year's performance.

Honorable Mention: Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays

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    The excitement surrounding 22-year-old Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Matt Moore heading into the 2012 season is certainly warranted, considering what the youngster did on a grand stage last year.

    Moore shut down a potent Texas Rangers offense in Game 1 of the ALDS, allowing just two hits in seven innings in Tampa Bay's only postseason victory. With a 95-97 MPH fastball and excellent secondary pitches, Moore will supplant either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann in the Rays' rotation, and will absolutely be looked upon as a favorite for AL Rookie of the Year honors.

Honorable Mention: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

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    It's hard to look at Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg and not think he's special, despite just 17 starts in the majors and coming off major surgery.

    Strasburg came back last season following Tommy John surgery and posted five starts to the tune of a 1.50 ERA, 24 strikeouts and just two walks in 24 innings.

    Strasburg will be monitored closely this season by Nats' trainers and will likely be confined to a 160-innings limit before being shut down. But none of that dims hopes of fans and Nationals officials alike.

50. Brandon McCarthy: Oakland Athletics

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    With the trades of Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, Oakland Athletics pitcher Brandon McCarthy is now the staff ace by default, however, his numbers last season clearly show a pitcher capable of dominating.

    McCarthy posted a 9-9 record in 25 starts, with a 3.32 ERA, 1.131 WHIP, 3.30 xFIP and 4.92 K/BB rate.

    The main concern for McCarthy is keeping his shoulder intact. McCarthy has been plagued by shoulder issues in the past, including a stress fracture that caused him to miss a month and a half last season. Still, McCarthy is blessed with a terrific array of pitches and will be called upon to lead the A's rotation this season.

49. Alexi Ogando: Texas Rangers

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    Last year, Texas Rangers pitcher Alexi Ogandi traveled the same path taken by former teammate C.J. Wilson the previous year, transitioning from the bullpen to the starting rotation. It would be difficult to assume anything but a success.

    Ogando was 13-8 with a 3.51 ERA in 29 starts, stretching out to 169 innings in his first year as starter and earning a selection to the AL All-Star team as a result. Ogando transitioned back to the bullpen during the postseason and was a key figure for the Rangers in both the ALDS and ALCS before imploding in the World Series, more likely by being overused by manager Ron Washington.

    This year, Ogando could find himself back in the bullpen. With guaranteed slots for Colby Lewis, Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz, Ogando is left fighting for the final slot with Matt Harrison and Scott Feldman. Washington likely will favor Ogando's skillset in the bullpen, with the ability to stretch Ogando out again if injuries strike.

48. Kyle Farnsworth: Tampa Bay Rays

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    Last year for the Tampa Bay Rays, Kyle Farnsworth reinvigorated his career, establishing himself as the closer with a solid season.

    Farnsworth posted 25 saves with a 2.18 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, .211 BAA, .250 BABIP and 3.21 xFIP. Together with Joel Peralta, the duo teamed for an outstanding back end to complement a terrific starting rotation.

47. Ryan Vogelsong: San Francisco Giants

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    If anyone said they predicted at the beginning of last season that San Francisco Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong would emerge as one of the best hurlers in the league, they likely would have been called a liar.

    However, that's exactly what happened. After being out of Major League Baseball for four seasons and not even notching a win since 2005, Vogelsong won 13 for the Giants, earning a selection to the NL All-Star team and placing 11th in voting for the NL Cy Young Award.

    Overall, Vogelsong was 13-7 with a 2.71 ERA over 28 starts, adding quality to a Giants rotation that already featured stars Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, and emerging star Madison Bumgarner.

    Vogelson was slowed by a strained back early in spring training, however, he recently completed a bullpen session without pain. Vogelsong is expected to make three starts this spring and should be ready before the team heads north in April.

46. Michael Pineda: New York Yankees

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    It's not often in baseball when two top-tier prospects are traded straight up for each other. However, the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners saw an opportunity for specific needs, and the deal was done.

    For the Yankees, adding starting pitcher Michael Pineda helped answer the biggest question concerning the team's lack of rotation depth. Giving up catching prospect Jesus Montero was obviously a huge price to pay, but GM Brian Cashman sees Pineda as an ace in the making.

    Cashman attempted to take pressure off Pineda in recent comments, but it was clear that he regards Pineda as a future stud in the Yankees rotation.

    “It’s about allowing Michael to grow as a pitcher and focus on being ‘The Man’ down the line in future years instead of one of the difference-makers in the front half of 2012,” Cashman said. “He’s developing a third pitch, a changeup, and we’re still getting to know him.”

    Pineda was an All-Star in his rookie season with the Mariners based on his tremendous first half (8-6, 3.03 ERA, 113 Ks in 113 IP), however, his second half was a dropoff, with a 1-4 record in 10 starts and a 5.12 ERA. Much of that could well be attributed to Pineda not being accustomed to throwing that much, so he will likely turn those numbers around as he builds stamina.

45. Shaun Marcum: Milwaukee Brewers

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    When the Milwaukee Brewers reached out to the Toronto Blue Jays in December 2010, they inquired about starting pitcher Shaun Marcum. GM Doug Melvin gave up a lot to get Marcum, sending blue-chip prospect Brett Lawrie to Toronto, but for Melvin, the deal was worth making.

    Marcum delivered for Milwaukee last season, posting a 13-7 record in 33 starts with a 3.54 ERA and 158 strikeouts in 200.2 innings. Not bad for a classic junkball pitcher who generally thinks changeup first before fastball.

    Marcum will again be counted on for the Brewers in 2012 alongside fellow starters Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo as they make their way through a very competitive NL Central Division.

44. Daniel Hudson: Arizona Diamondbacks

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    The Arizona Diamondbacks were clearly the surprise of the National League last season with their surprising title in the NL West Division and giving the Milwaukee Brewers fits in a hard-fought NLDS.

    Much of the success for the D-Backs last season can be attributed to their starting rotation, led by Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson.

    Hudson emerged as a star last season after being acquired in July 2010 in the trade that sent pitcher Edwin Jackson to the Chicago White Sox. Hudson was 16-12 with a 3.49 ERA in 33 starts, posting a solid 3.79 xFIP and raising his GB/FB rate to 1.07.

    Hudson is just 25 and is under team control through the 2016 season, so expect the D-Backs to work on a long-term extension to keep Hudson in Phoenix for the foreseeable future.

43. Jon Lester: Boston Red Sox

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    Boston Red Sox southpaw Jon Lester took a bit of a step back last season after three stellar seasons, but certainly not enough to take him out of this list.

    Lester was 15-9 in 31 starts with a 3.47 ERA, certainly not bad numbers when taking a view from overhead. However, his xFIP was 3.62, almost a half-run higher than 2010, and his K/9 rate dropped below 9.0 for the first time since 2008.

    Lester also dipped below 200 IP after topping that number for three seasons. While the numbers may be low according to standards set by Lester, most pitchers in baseball would kill for those same numbers. In any event, Lester is an elite pitcher with the third-highest won/loss percentage of any pitcher in baseball history with at least 1,000 innings pitched.

42. Mat Latos: Cincinnati Reds

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    Much like Ervin Santana before him on this list, Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Mat Latos had a win-loss record in 2011 that was completely out of line with his overall statistics.

    Latos posted a 9-14 record in 31 starts for the San Diego Padres last season. However, Latos posted a 3.47 ERA, gave up only 168 hits in 194.1 innings, posted a 3.52 xFIP and 3.2 WAR despite the losing record.

    Critics have pointed to Latos' performance being aided by pitcher-friendly Petco Park, however his road numbers aren't all that dissimilar, with a road ERA of 3.57 and home ERA of 3.11 and all other peripheral numbers nearly identical.

    Latos will form a nice 1-2 punch at the top of the Reds' rotation along with Johnny Cueto.

41. Ryan Madson: Cincinnati Reds

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    Last year, Ryan Madson assumed closer duties full-time for the first time with the Philadelphia Phillies, and the results were impressive.

    Madson notched 32 saves in 34 opportunities, posting a 2.37 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 60.2 innings. In 2012, Madson takes his talents to the Cincinnati Reds, replacing long-time closer Francisco Cordero. Along with Sean Marshall, who was brought over from the Chicago Cubs, the Reds will feature an excellent back end bullpen mix.

40. Jonny Venters: Atlanta Braves

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    In his first two full seasons with the Atlanta Braves, 26-year-old southpaw Jonny Venters has emerged as one of the elite setup men in the National League.

    Last year, Venters posted a 6-2 record in 85 games with a 1.84 ERA, 35 holds and 96 strikeouts in 88 innings. Together with closer and NL Rookie of the Year Award winner Craig Kimbrel, the Braves feature one of the strongest back-end bullpen tandems in all of baseball.

39. Hiroki Kuroda: New York Yankees

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    In late January, New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman answered all of the question surrounding the Yankees during the offseason regarding their depth in the starting rotation, trading for young right-hander Michael Pineda and adding crafty veteran Hiroki Kuroda.

    Kuroda posted terrific numbers during his four years with the Los Angeles Dodgers—a 3.45 ERA, 3.62 xFIP, a career 48.6 percent groundball rate and outstanding 1.52 GB/FB rate.

    Adding Kuroda to a Yankees' rotation that already features CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Pineda and Phil Hughes was a nice touch by Cashman, and further cements his Yankees as a serious contender for the American League pennant.

38. Heath Bell: San Diego Padres

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    If closer Heath Bell had his druthers, he would have preferred to stay in San Diego with the Padres, with whom he became one of the elite closers in the National League over the past three years, with three straight 40-plus save seasons.

    However, Bell now takes his talents to South Beach after signing a three-year, $27 contract with the Miami Marlins.

    Bell will anchor a bullpen that will help support a terrific starting rotation, and along with the additions of Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle will make the Marlins a threat in the highly competitive NL East Division.

37. Mike Adams: Texas Rangers

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    One would be hard-pressed to argue the fact that Texas Rangers setup man Mike Adams isn't one of the best at his craft.

    Over the past four seasons, Adams has become one of the most reliable and consistent relievers in all of baseball, posting a nifty 1.71 ERA over that time span.

    Adams will continue to make his mark this year, his first full season with the Rangers, and together with new closer Joe Nathan the duo will give opposing hitters fits in the late innings.

36. Jeremy Hellickson: Tampa Bay Rays

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    It took Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson to make it to the big club after five-plus years in the minors, but he certainly made the wait worth it.

    Hellickson was the easy winner of the American League Rookie of the Year Award after posting a 13-10 record and 2.95 ERA in 29 starts.

    What was so impressive about Hellickson's season was that he allowed just 7.0 hits per nine innings while only striking out 5.6 batters per nine. Since 2000, only six other pitchers have thrown at least 150 innings while allowing 7.5 hits or less per nine innings and fewer than six strikeouts per nine. Hellickson also featured a .223 BABIP, the lowest among all starters in the majors.

    Hellickson's stuff works because he is benefited by a great defense behind him as well, but even when he did get in trouble, he featured an 82 percent left-on-base percentage, second in the American League to Jered Weaver.

    Hellickson won't blow anyone away, but he has shown he can work out of trouble and will pitch to contact, allowing his fielders to do their job behind him.

35. Tim Hudson: Atlanta Braves

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    Over the past two seasons, Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson has been outstanding, notching 33 victories and a combined 3.02 ERA and 1.145 WHIP.

    After undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing almost the entire 2009 season, Hudson won Comeback Player of the Year honors in 2010 and followed up with an equally stellar season in 2011.

    Because of offseason back surgery, Hudson won't be back on the mound until early April, but judging from his return in late 2009, this most recent setback won't slow him down one bit.

34. Zack Greinke: Milwaukee Brewers

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    During last year's offseason, it was obvious that the biggest concern for Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin was the starting rotation. Melvin went to work, picking up Shaun Marcum from the Toronto Blue Jays and acquiring Zack Greinke from the Kansas City Royals.

    The cost for Melvin and the Brewers was indeed high for both—giving away prospects Brett Lawrie and Lorenzo Cain, and budding shortstop Alcides Escobar—but it's hard to argue the results.

    Greinke was excellent in his first season in Milwaukee, posting a 16-6 record and 3.83 ERA in 28 starts, and along with fellow starters Marcum, Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf helped lead the Brewers to their first division title since 1982.

    Greinke, the 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner, posted an outstanding 2.56 xFIP and featured a 1.54 GB/FB rate, the highest of his career.

33. Madison Bumgarner: San Francisco Giants

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    One look at 22-year-old Madison Bumgarner's generic stats just don't tell the full story of the impact Bumgarner had for the San Francisco Giants in 2011.

    Bumgarner, the second of five Giants pitchers on this list, posted a 13-13 record in 33 starts with a 3.21 ERA.

    However, his xFIP was a tidy 3.10, his WAR was 5.5, he posted a GB/FB rate of 1.37 and a K/BB rate of 4.15. All of these numbers indicate a pitcher who dominates with sharp command and enough movement on his stuff that gets hitters topping the ball. At such a young age, Bumgarner has shown the stuff to be elite for some time to come.

32. Joel Hanrahan: Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Since taking over as closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates late in 2010, Joel Hanrahan has taken the ball and run with it, so to speak.

    Last year, Hanrahan posted 40 saves in 44 tries, notching a tidy 1.83 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, giving up just 16 walks against 61 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. In addition, Hanrahan only gave up one home run for the entire season.

    Hanrahan features tremendous late movement, as evidenced by his 1.83 GB/FB rate. With a fastball that averages 97 MPH and a sharp mid-to-high 80s slider, Hanrahan certainly has presented as nasty.

31. Jonathan Papelbon: Philadelphia Phillies

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    Now that closer Jonathan Papelbon is with the Philadephia Phillies, and with his new four-year, $50 million contract safely tucked away, he'll have to find a new walk-up song that represents his swagger.

    Papelbon has no shortage of critics concerning his salary, however, it's hard to argue the results in his career thus far. With six straight seasons of 30-plus saves, Papelbon is one of the elite closers in the majors. Papelbon was back to his nasty self last season, posting a 12.17 K/9 rate, the second highest of his career, and a 2.16 xFIP.

    Papelbon will anchor a stellar bullpen in support of one of the best starting rotations in baseball.

30. Tyler Clippard: Washington Nationals

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    Over the past two seasons, reliever Tyler Clippard has been the workhorse in the Washington Nationals bullpen with 150 appearances. However, last season, Clippard was just plain nasty.

    In 72 appearances last year, Clippard posted a 1.83 ERA, 0.838 WHIP, a miniscule 4.9 H/9 rate and struck out 104 batters in 88.1 innings.

    Clippard was selected to the NL All-Star, a rarity for a setup man, and was rewarded this offseason with a 400 percent raise for his efforts.

29. Yovani Gallardo: Milwaukee Brewers

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    Yovani Gallardo represents the third starting pitcher from the Milwaukee Brewers to make this list, giving a clear indication as to why the Brew Crew will once again be competitive in the NL Central Division.

    Gallardo is entering his sixth season with Milwaukee, and is still only 26 years of age. Last season, Gallardo set career highs in wins (17), ERA (3.52) and strikeouts (207), helping to lead the Brewers to the NL Central Division title.

    Gallardo continues to get better with each season, lowering his walk rate and seeing a decrease in his xFIP (3.19 in 2011) in each of the last four seasons.

28. David Robertson: New York Yankees

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    It would be pretty tough to match the kind of season that setup man David Robertson had last year for the New York Yankees.

    In 70 games, Robertson posted a 1.08 ERA, struck out 100 batters in 66.2 innings, a .289 BABIP, a .170 BAA and an All-Star selection.

    Robertson's season was so special that he placed 11th in American League Cy Young Award balloting. pretty high praise for a guy who doesn't start or close.

27. Gio Gonzalez: Washington Nationals

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    Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo had a pair of young pitchers featured in his starting rotation that are already pretty good—in late December, he added another one to the mix.

    Rizzo reached out to Oakland and grabbed 26-year-old left-hander Gio Gonzalez, giving the Nationals a front three in their rotation along with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann that rivals many in baseball.

    Last season, Gonzalez posted career-bests in wins (16), ERA (3.12) and strikeouts (197). His xFIP of 3.73 was a career-low as well. Gonzalez signed a five-year, $42 million contract after his trade as well, and with two additional option years figures to be a fixture in the nation's capital for several years along with Strasburg and Zimmermann.

26. Drew Storen: Washington Nationals

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    While Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo sought to strengthen his starting rotation this past offseason, he had no such worries with the back end of his bullpen, not with setup man Tyler Clippard and closer Drew Storen in place.

    Storen notched 43 saves last year, posting a 2.75 ERA, giving up just 57 hits in 75.1 innings and holding opponents to a .204 batting average.

    With the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to the rotation, along with Brad Lidge to the bullpen, the Nats' pitching staff is certainly well-served and well-stocked for the 2012 season.

25. Jose Valverde: Detroit Tigers

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    When closer Jose Valverde broke into the majors with the Arizona Diamondbacks back in 2003, he was a flamethrowing reliever who averaged over 12 strikeouts per nine innings.

    While Valverde doesn't quite reach those numbers today, his game is still more than good enough to dominate. Valverde led the American League in saves last season with 49, the third time in his career he has done so.

    Valverde's ERA+ was 183, the second-highest of his career, and zero blown saves represents a pretty special mark as well.

24. C.J. Wilson: Los Angleles Angels

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    When C.J. Wilson begged Texas Rangers GM Jon Daniels to give him a chance to be a starter two years ago, it was definitely a risk.

    Wilson had never started during his career, save for six games in 2005 that led to disastrous results, and it was an acknowledged risk.

    Wilson became the ace of the Rangers staff, posting a 33-15 record over the past seasons, including a 16-7 record and 2.94 ERA last season, leading him to land a five-year, $77.5 million contract this past December with the Los Angeles Angels.

    No longer an ace, Wilson will be the No. 3 starter on an Angels staff that already features Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. Returning to his roots in Southern Calfornia, Wilson gives the Angels a formidable punch that will help them to attempt to reclaim the AL West Division title from the very team he just left.

23. David Price: Tampa Bay Rays

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    Yet another example of a pitcher with a win-loss record that belies the overall picture.

    Tampa Bay Rays starter David Price was 12-13 last season, however, he posted a 3.49 ERA, a 7.7 H/9 rate, a 3.46 SO/BB rate (career-best), 1.137 WHIP (also career-best) and a 3.32 xFIP.

    Price represents as solid a No. 2 starter as there is in the majors, and would likely be an ace on many staffs throughout MLB.

22. Jonny Cueto: Cincinnati Reds

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    The 2011 didn't start swimmingly for Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto, but when he finally got onto the mound in early May, the results were special.

    After starting the season on the DL with inflammation in his right shoulder, Cueto posted a 9-5 record in 24 starts, posting a stellar 2.31 ERA with an equally impressive 1.09 WHIP and 7.1 H/9 rate.

    A lat strain on Sept. 14 ruined Cueto's chances of capturing the NL ERA title, however, he is clearly showing a maturation process, with a year-after-year decline in ERA, WHIP and H/9 rate, and his .249 BABIP was among the lowest in the National League.

21. J.J. Putz: Arizona Diamondbacks

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    In December 2010, new Arizona Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers gave pitcher J.J. Putz a chance to resurrect his career as a closer, signing him to a two-year, $10 million contract. Putz responded with an outstanding season.

    Putz posted a career-high 45 saves, cementing the back end of a bullpen that helped carry the D-Backs to a surprising NL West title.

    Putz, who last closed full-time in 2008 with the Seattle Mariners, struck out 61 batters in 58 innings with a 0.91 WHIP and 5.08 SO/BB rate.

20. Doug Fister: Detroit Tigers

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    What a difference a new team makes.

    That was the story of the 2011 season for starting pitcher Doug Fister, who was wallowing with the Seattle Mariners at the beginning of the season and thriving with the Detroit Tigers at the end.

    Before the late July trade that sent Fister to the Tigers for Casper Wells and Charlie Furbush, he was 3-12 with a respectable 3.33 ERA, indicating a complete lack of run support.

    However, following the trade, Fister was on fire, posting an 8-1 record in 10 starts, with a 1.79 ERA, a 0.839 WHIP a 6.9 H/9 rate and an other-wordly 11.40 SO/BB rate.

    Fister showed his worth in the postseason as well, picking up the win in Game 3 of the ALCS against the Texas Rangers.

19. Felix Hernandez: Seattle Mariners

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    Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez suffered a bit of a regression last year after winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2010, but it was just that—a bit.

    Despite a 14-14 record, Hernandez still posted a 3.47 ERA and 222 strikeouts. His 3.15 xFIP was a better indicator of his overall performance, and he received the third-worst run support in the American League, behind Jered Weaver and former teammate Doug Fister.

18. John Axford: Milwaukee Brewers

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    When John Axford was called up by the Milwaukee Brewers in May 2010, he established himself as the closer with 24 saves in 27 chances and a respectable 2.45 ERA.

    In 2011, Axford stepped it up in a major way, posting 46 saves in 48 chances, and no blown saves after mid-April. Despite the trade that brought Francisco Rodriguez on board in late July and could have caused an issue, Axford kept on going, getting stronger as the year went along.

    Axford finished with a 1.95 ERA, 86 strikeouts in 73.2 innings, an ERA+ of 200 and gaining both Cy Young and MVP votes.

17. Mariano Rivera: New York Yankees

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    At the tender age of 41 last season, New York Yankees long-time closer Mariano Rivera was vintage Mo.

    Rivera posted 44 saves, the eighth time in his illustrious career he has surpassed the 40-save mark, with a tidy 1.91 ERA and 0.897 WHIP, and just for good measure surpassed Trevor Hoffman for the all-time mark in career saves.

    Not bad for an old man, eh?

16. Tim Lincecum: San Francisco Giants

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    Ah, another example of a pitcher with a losing record who makes this list.

    Two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum posted a 13-14 record last year for the San Francisco Giants, yet finished with the fifth-lowest ERA in the National League (2.74), the seventh-highest WAR (4.4), the fourth-lowest H/9 rate (7.4) and the fifth-highest K/9 rate (9.124).

    Not bad for a losing pitcher. Just goes to show what happens when you receive the lowest run support (3.82 per nine innings) of any pitcher in all of baseball.

15. Brian Wilson: San Francisco Giants

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    After an absolutely stellar 2010 campaign, San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson regressed a bit in 2011, but it's now apparent that he was battling through injuries and still managed to post some pretty solid numbers.

    A balky elbow shut Wilson down for over a month, but he still managed to post 36 saves while pitching for much of the second half in pain.

    Wilson appears healthy once again, and more svelte as a result of a rigorous offseason conditioning program, ready to once again be called one of the elite closers in Major League Baseball.

14. Ricky Romero: Toronto Blue Jays

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    Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Ricky Romero is fast becoming one of the elite pitchers in the American League, and his 2011 season provides a perfect example as to why.

    Romero was sixth in the AL in ERA (2.92), 12th in WHIP (1.14), second in GB/FB rate (1.29), third in BABIP (.232) and sixth in BAA (.216).

    Top 10 placings in most major pitching categories certainly puts Romero in elite status.

13. Dan Haren: Los Angeles Angels

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    On any other team...

    That sentence always seems to come up in reference to discussions concerning Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Dan Haren. Of course, the end to that statement would be that he would be an ace for many other staffs.

    Haren is the 1-A to Jered Weaver's 1 with the Angels, however, and that's not a bad thing whatsoever. In 2011, Haren was 16-10 with a 3.17 ERA, placing 11th in the American League, third overall in the AL in WHIP (1.02), 10th in strikeouts (192), third in innings pitched (238.1), and a bevy of other Top 15 finishes in sabermetric pitching categories.

12. Josh Beckett: Boston Red Sox

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    Just about everyone in Red Sox Nation is still suffering from the aftershocks of the epic September collapse suffered by their local nine, and of the allegations regarding clubhouse shenanigans that pinpointed several players on the Red Sox pitching staff, including Josh Beckett.

    However, despite all of the background noise, Beckett put together a pretty spectacular season. Beckett posted a 13-7 record in 30 starts, finishing ninth in American League Cy Young Award balloting.

    Beckett was fifth in the AL in ERA (2.89), fourth in BABIP (.236), fourth in WHIP (1.03), third in BAA (.211) and fourth in WAR (6.2).

    Beckett has been outstanding in his spring appearances thus far, posting five shutout innings, and together with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, the trio seems bound and determined to put the shame of last year's finish behind them.

11. Matt Cain: San Francisco Giants

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    The last of five San Francisco Giants pitchers to appear on this list, Matt Cain is approaching the final season of a three-year, $27.25 million contract and is poised to become one of the prizes of next year's free agent class.

    Cain, like his other teammates in the Giants' rotation (Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner), posted a pedestrian 12-11 record in 2011, but again, the record belies the stats.

    Cain had the eighth-best ERA in the National League (2.88), the fifth-lowest WHIP (1.08), the sixth-lowest BABIP (.257), the third-lowest BAA (.217) and an outstanding H/9 rate of 7.187, third-best in the NL.

10. Craig Kimbrel: Atlanta Braves

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    In 2011, Craig Kimbrel's first full season with the Atlanta Braves, he put together a year that will in all honestly be extremely tough to match again.

    Kimbrell was the landslide winner in his unanimous selection as the NL Rookie of the Year Award winner, posting 46 saves, a 2.10 ERA, 1.039 WHIP and an astonishing 127 strikeouts in 77 innings.

    Kimbrel's 5.6 H/9 rate and 14.8 K/9 rate clearly make him one of the outstanding closers in all of baseball and at just 23 years of age will no doubt give the Braves a great option at the back end of the bullpen for years to come.

9. Cole Hamels: Philadelphia Phillies

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    The first of three Philadelphia Phillies pitchers to crack the top 10 on this list, southpaw Cole Hamels put together a 2011 season that put him in the top 10 in almost every major pitching category as well.

    Hamels finished with a career-best ERA (2.79), WHIP (0.986), H/9 rate (7.0) and complete games (3). In addition, Hamels finished with the second-lowest BAA (.214) in the National League, a league-best BABIP (.248) and fifth-best WAR (5.4).

    Like Matt Cain, Hamels will be a free agent at the end of the season after signing a one-year, $15 million contract, and could very well be in line for a $100 million payday.

8. Ian Kennedy: Arizona Diamondbacks

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    A main reason for the Arizona Diamondbacks’ surprising NL West Division title was its starting pitching, led by Ian Kennedy.

    Kennedy put it all together in impressive fashion in 2011, posting a 21-4 record, 2.88 ERA, 1.086 WHIP, 7.5 H/9 rate, 198 strikeouts and a fourth-place finish in NL Cy Young Award balloting.

    As part of the three-team trade between the New York Yankees and Detroit that sent Kennedy to the D-Backs, Curtis Granderson to the Yankees and Edwin Jackson and Austin Jackson to the Tigers, Kennedy has certainly made the trade look great for Arizona.

7. James Shields: Tampa Bay Rays

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    Last year, James Shields earned a new nickname—James “Complete Game” Shields.

    Shields had a miserable 2010 campaign, ending the year with a 13-15 record and 5.18 ERA, leading the American League in hits allowed. However, the 2011 season was a complete turnaround. Shields finished at 16-12, posting career-bests in several categories, including wins (16), ERA (2.82), complete games (11), shutouts (4), WHIP (1.043) and H/9 rate (7.0).

    Shields was sixth in the American League in BABIP (.244), seventh in BAA (.217), sixth in WAR (6.1) and second in innings pitched (249.1).

    Shields hasn’t just established himself as a workhorse, but also as an elite right-handed pitcher in MLB.

6. CC Sabathia: New York Yankees

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    Armed with a new five-year, $122 million contract that keeps him in pinstripes through 2016, New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia will now look to add a few shiny rings to his collection.

    Now the only pitcher in Major League Baseball to have signed two $100 million contracts, Sabathia has certainly proven his worth to the Yankees, with a 59-23 record and 3.18 ERA in three seasons.

    Sabathia was 19-8 last season with a 3.00 ERA, the second-lowest of his career. Sabathia also struck out 230 batters in 237.1 innings, and finished fourth in AL Cy Young Award balloting, the fifth top-five Cy Young finish in his career.

5. Jered Weaver: Los Angeles Angels

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    In early September, the Los Angeles Angels finalized a five-year, $85 million contract extension with starting pitcher Jered Weaver, and contrary to claims that Weaver accepted a hometown discount, he offered this bit of reality.

    "If $85 (million) is not enough to take care of my family and other generations of families then I'm pretty stupid, but how much money do you really need in life?" Weaver said. "I've never played this game for the money. I played it for the love and the competitive part of it. It just so happens that baseball's going to be taking care of me for the rest of my life."

    How’s that for refreshing?

    Weaver has clearly backed up his contract with his stellar play since joining the Angels in 2006, and the 2011 season was his best. In 33 starts, Weaver posted an 18-8 record, was narrowly beaten out for the AL ERA lead by Justin Verlander (2.41 to 2.40), posted the league’s fifth-lowest BABIP (.241), fifth-lowest BAA (.212), third-lowest WAR (6.6) and seventh-lowest SO/BB rate (3.536).

    Now teamed with Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana, all of whom are on this list, the Angels are well-stocked with Weaver at the top to give the Texas Rangers a battle in the AL West.

4. Cliff Lee: Philadelphia Phillies

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    The Philadelphia Phillies featured three pitchers who finished in the top five in Cy Young Award balloting last year, a rare feat indeed in Major League Baseball. Any one of their top three starters would be aces on any team in baseball, including southpaw Cliff Lee.

    Lee, the 2008 American League Cy Young Award winner, was 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA in the first season of his five-year, $120 million contract for the Phillies in 2011.

    Lee was the NL Pitcher of the Month in both June and August, was third in the NL in ERA, sixth in BAA (.229), third in WAR (6.9), third-lowest WHIP (1.03) and posted a career-best 2.68 xFIP.

3. Roy Halladay: Philadelphia Phillies

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    In his two seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, it's safe to say that starting pitcher Roy Halladay has been all that plus a bag of chips.

    Halladay posted his sixth consecutive top-five finish in Cy Young Award balloting in 2011, backing up his Cy Young Award win in 2010 with a runnerup finish to Clayton Kershaw.

    Halladay was 19-6 with a 2.35 ERA, leading the league in complete games (8) for the fifth straight season. In addition, Halladay's ERA+ of 164 led the NL, and his 1.04 WHIP was a career-low.

2. Clayton Kershaw: Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Before the 2011 season got underway, everyone in Los Angeles knew just how good Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw was. Now, everyone in the baseball world knows as well.

    Kershaw put up a season for the ages, capturing the Triple Crown of pitching categories with 21 wins, a 2.28 ERA and 248 strikeouts, earning the NL Cy Young Award for his efforts.

    Kershaw's 0.977 WHIP also led the league, as did his 6.7 H/9 rate. Opponents batted only .207 against Kershaw, also leading the league. Kershaw signed a two-year, $19 million contract in early February, and it's likely a long-term extension will be negotiated to keep Kershaw in Dodger blue for a very long time.

1. Justin Verlander: Detroit Tigers

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    There honestly aren't nearly enough superlatives or sabermetric statistics that can aptly describe the type of season that Justin Verlander had for the Detroit Tigers in 2011.

    A 24-5 record, 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts gave Verlander the Triple Crown in pitching categories to match his counterpart in Los Angeles, Clayton Kershaw, and without Verlander's performance, the Tigers were simply just an average team.

    The first starting pitcher to capture both the Cy Young Award and the MVP since Roger Clemens pulled off the feat in 1986, Verlander is in rarified air among pitchers in history.

     

    Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle. Follow Doug on Twitter, @Sports_A_Holic.

     

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