Since the conclusion of the steroid era, every year seems to be the new year of the pitcher. The 2012 season is no different, as Philip Humber and Matt Cain have already thrown perfect games, and a slew of pitchers seem to be capable of coming close every time out on the mound.
I didn’t solely focus on the ’12 season for the pitchers on this list. If that were the case, you wouldn’t see Cliff Lee or Tim Lincecum, but I’m not going to completely withhold them simply because they have struggled so far in half a season. But I did factor this year heavily into the discussion, along with what the pitchers have done in recent years.
I focused primarily on the statistics of earned run average, WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio. I tried to all but ignore wins since they are much more derived from the team’s overall performance, but I did focus intensively on sabermetrics like batting average on balls in play and wins above replacement.
I may be jumping the gun on Johnny Cueto considering he still hasn’t had a full season as a starter. But he’s only gotten better every year of his career and he’s off to his best year ever in ’12.
He is 9-5 with a 2.35 ERA, which gives him a 2.33 ERA since 2011, the best of any NL pitcher in the game. And his adjusted ERA has gone up every season of his career.
Cueto is one of the top All-Star snubs for this season, as he is remarkably consistent. He has thrown a quality start 15 times in 17 starts, and he’s given up two or fewer runs 11 times.
While he’s been slightly off base in 2012, Jon Lester has been extremely consistent during his major league career. From 2008 through 2011, he averaged 16 wins, a 3.33 ERA, and 196 strikeouts, making two All-Star teams and finishing as high as fourth in the league Cy Young award voting.
Lester is just 5-5 with a 4.33 ERA this season, but he’s striking out just as many hitters as always and walking just as few hitters.
After missing all of 2011, Adam Wainwright hasn’t rebounded in 2012 the way he wanted. He is 6-8 with a 4.75 ERA and he’s giving up an additional two hits per nine innings over what he did last time he pitched (2010).
Despite his ERA being twice as high as it was when he was a 20-game winner in ’10, Wainwright has peripheral statistics right on par with his seasonal averages—2.6 BB/9, 8.5 K/9, and a 3.25 K:BB ratio. He has given up at least four runs seven times and seven runs three times, but he’s been good enough overall since 2007 that I still ranked him in the top 25.
After winning the NL Cy Young award in 2007, Jake Peavy struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness early on with the Chicago White Sox before breaking out again in 2012.
Peavy is 6-5 with a 2.96 ERA in 16 starts, and he has already thrown more complete games (4) in half a season than he’s ever thrown in a full season in his career. He has a career-best 4.21 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 0.994 WHIP, and Peavy is cashing in at the right time, as he’ll be a free agent after this season.
Madison Bumgarner has had a remarkable career since he debuted as a 20-year-old in 2009. Bumgarner is 30-24 in his three years as a starter with a 3.14 ERA, and he’s 10-5 with a 3.27 ERA thus far in 17 starts in 2012.
Bumgarner has remarkable control, having walked just two batters per nine innings for his career, and he’s given up just one earned run or fewer in eight of his 17 starts this season.
Part of being a great pitcher is staying healthy, and Chris Carpenter drops off because he will miss all of 2012 after undergoing shoulder surgery. Carpenter has struggled his entire career to stay healthy, and he has missed the majority of four different seasons since debuting in 1997.
Carpenter was extremely effective when he did pitch in 2011, going 11-9 with a 3.45 ERA while leading the National League with 34 starts, 237.1 innings pitched, and 996 batters faced. He threw four complete games, two shutouts, and registered a 3.47 strikeout-to-walk ratio. From 2009 through 2011, Carpenter was 44-22 with a 3.02 ERA and was one of the game’s elite pitchers.
After consecutive 15 and then 16-win seasons for the Texas Rangers in 2010 and 2011, C.J. Wilson capitalized on free agency with a five-year, $77.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Wilson has followed that up with his career-best campaign in 2012. He is 9-4 with a 2.33 ERA through 17 starts, and he is leading the American League in home runs allowed per nine innings (0.4). Wilson walks way too many batters for a pitcher of his caliber (4.0 BB/9), but he is still a top-20 pitcher in the game.
Josh Johnson hasn’t quite returned to the form he displayed in 2010 when he led the National League with a 2.30 ERA and gave up just seven home runs in 183.2 innings pitched. He missed most of 2011 recovering from right shoulder inflammation, his second major surgery since debuting in the major leagues back in 2005.
Johnson is 5-5 with a 4.06 ERA in 2012, but all things considered, he’s pitching pretty well. He is averaging 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings, giving him a 2.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and he’s thrown 10 consecutive quality starts, posting a 5-2 record and 2.47 ERA during that span with a .629 opponents OPS allowed.
Even before his breakout 2012 campaign, Gio Gonzalez was one of the game’s most underrated pitchers. He has 42 wins since 2010, more than every other pitcher in the game except Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, and Roy Halladay. That’s pretty good company.
Gonzalez is 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA in 16 starts, and he’s leading the National League by giving up just 0.4 home runs per nine innings. Gonzalez strikes out a ton of hitters—although he also walks too many—and he and Stephen Strasburg are going to help the Washington Nationals compete for the division title for years to come.
Chris Sale has been off-the-charts good so early in his career, and he’s still just 23 years old. In 197 career major league innings, Sale is 14-5 with a 2.38 ERA and 209 strikeouts. He had never started a game until this season, posting ERAs of 1.93 and 2.79 as a reliever before breaking out in 2012 as a starter.
Sale is 10-2 with a 2.19 ERA and a fabulous 3.92 strikeout to walk ratio. His fastball has been significantly slower this year than ever before but he’s getting his usual high supply of swing-and-miss strikes, so he’s clearly making it work with his slider and changeup.
I don’t want to rate Sale over guys that have been excelling for a handful of seasons already, but Sale has all the potential in the world to rise up this list rapidly.
I’m not really sure how to rate Tim Lincecum given the kind of year he’s having. Based strictly on his 2012 numbers (3-9, 6.08 ERA, 1.554 WHIP, 4.7 BB/9, leading the NL in losses, earned runs allowed, and wild pitches), he’s been arguably the game’s worst pitcher.
But I can’t overlook Lincecum’s career so far, as he’s won a pair of Cy Young awards, three strikeout titles, and gotten a ring in addition to four All-Star appearances. Time will only tell if Lincecum is just having a rough season or if he is on the decline of his career already.
Zach Greinke is having a strong season in 2012, and he will be in the market for a mammoth contract once the winter hits. If Matt Cain got six years, $127.5 million, Greinke can expect something similar to that.
Greinke has been slightly inconsistent since winning the AL Cy Young award in 2009 (16-8, 2.16 ERA), posting a 10-14 record and 4.17 ERA in 2010 and then a 3.83 ERA in 2011. He’s been terrific this year, with a 9-2 record and 3.08 ERA in 17 starts, plus a phenomenal 4.42 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Imagine three years ago if you had found out R.A. Dickey would be the front-runner for the 2012 NL Cy Young award. Dickey has reinvented himself with a knuckleball, one that has helped him go 12-1 with a 2.40 ERA and league-leading totals like three complete games, two shutouts, and a 0.93 WHIP.
Dickey is averaging over a strikeout per inning, which is remarkable for a knuckleball pitcher, and since 2010, he has the seventh-best ERA of any pitcher in the business.
Johan Santana isn’t quite the same pitcher he was back from 2004 through 2008 when he led the league in WHIP four times and ERA and strikeouts three times each, but he’s still a terrific pitcher and one of the top 15 in the game.
Santana has rebounded from shoulder surgery in 2011 that forced him to miss all of the season, and he’s still effective in ’12. He is 6-4 with a 2.76 ERA in 16 starts, and some of his numbers are just a small step off of his ’10 numbers—he has a 1.092 WHIP, a 2.82 strikeout to walk ratio, and he is leading the National League with two shutouts, including a no-hitter.
David Price went from first overall draft pick in the 2007 MLB amateur draft to recording that huge strikeout in the 2008 ALCS to beat the Boston Red Sox. Price has been one of the game’s top lefties since debuting that year, and he is having another terrific season in 2012.
Price is 11-4 with a 2.82 ERA, and he’s leading the AL in wins (on pace for 22). Price strikes out a high percentage of hitters, walks a low amount, and he’s still just 26 years old.
Cliff Lee has one win in his 14 starts this year but that’s not enough to drop him down more than a spot or two, considering for the most part he’s pitched well in 2012.
Lee in his first nine starts: 2.92 ERA, 66 strikeouts to 11 walks, and a .653 opponents OPS. Lee in his last four starts before his win on the Fourth of July wasn’t so sharp (7.30 ERA, 2.88 strikeout to walk ratio, and .861 opponents OPS), but that’s not enough to discredit all he’s done over the last several seasons.
Lee can be scarily inconsistent but he’s also flat out dominant when he’s on. He has fashioned a tremendous 2.95 ERA and 5.53 strikeout to walk ratio since 2008, and according to wins above replacement, there has been just one pitcher in the game (Roy Halladay) who has been better than Lee since ’08.
Cole Hamels is going to be on the market for one of the largest contracts in the history of the game once he hits free agency this winter. He is 10-4 with a 3.08 ERA this year, plus 111 strikeouts in 111 innings pitched.
Hamels is a 28-year-old left-handed pitcher with a World Series ring, a Fall Classic MVP award, and a remarkable injury-free career. He is unbelievably consistent and he is likely on track for the Hall of Fame, thanks to a devastating fastball-changeup combination and a new cutter.
Jered Weaver is extremely similar to Cole Hamels but I put him a notch higher because he’s been slightly better as of late.
A comparison of the career numbers for Jered Weaver and Cole Hamels:
Weaver: 91-48, 3.22 ERA, 1220.1 IP, 1.148 WHIP, 3.18 K:BB
Hamels: 84-58, 3.37 ERA, 1272.1 IP, 1.137 WHIP, 3.76 K:BB
Weaver is having his best year yet in 2012, at 9-1 with a league-best 2.13 ERA plus league-best marks in WHIP (0.936) and hits allowed per nine innings (6.3). He was 18-8 with a 2.41 ERA last year, finishing second in the league in Cy Young award voting, and he has an outside chance of joining the game’s five best pitchers by the end of this season.
Matt Cain has been largely under the radar over the past several seasons because he’s been the second-best pitcher on his own team. This year however, with Tim Lincecum struggling so much and Cain having thrown a perfect game and in the midst of his best year, he’s gotten his due.
Cain is 9-3 with a 2.53 ERA in 16 starts and his 4.96 strikeout to walk ratio is substantially higher than his single-season average. Cain has posted ERAs of 2.89, 3.14 and 2.68 the last three years, and he’s been remarkably durable since 2006, having started at least 31 games for six straight seasons.
For a long time, it seemed as though Felix Hernandez and Tim Lincecum would be neck-and-neck on this list, but Hernandez has passed him due largely to the awful season Lincecum is having.
Hernandez is 6-5 with a 3.26 ERA in 17 starts in 2012, and he’s struck out 122 hitters in 116 innings pitched. Hernandez is a former Cy Young award winner (2009) and a runner-up (2008), and he’s one of the game’s premier strikeout pitchers.
CC Sabathia has long been one of the game’s most consistent pitchers. He, Roy Halladay, and Justin Verlander have been the best pitchers since 2007, and Sabathia leads the three in wins (104), games started (185), innings pitched (1,306) and batters faced (5,346) during that span.
He has won a Cy Young award, carried the Brewers to the playoffs and helped the New York Yankees capture the World Series title in 2009. Sabathia has finished in the top five in the league in Cy Young award voting five years running and this year (9-3, 3.45 ERA, 105 K in 107 IP) will probably be his sixth straight.
If I were starting a baseball team, Clayton Kershaw might be the first pitcher I would select. He’s still just 24 years old and he’s a top-five pitcher in the game.
Kershaw is coming off a Cy Young award season in 2011, having won the NL pitching triple crown and led the league in numerous categories—wins, strikeouts and ERA plus WHIP and hits allowed per nine innings. He strikes out over a batter per inning and his lifetime earned run average is nearly half a run lower than Roy Halladay.
I don’t normally like to put young players so high on lists until they’ve had a fair chance to prove themselves. But there’s really not much more Stephen Strasburg could do.
Strasburg is 15-7 with a 2.68 ERA in 33 lifetime starts at the major league level, and he has 238 strikeouts to just 46 walks in 185 innings pitched. That would likely win Strasburg a Cy Young award if he did it over a full season, and he’s done that at the age of 21 through 23 while still learning major league hitters.
By the time he’s finished his major league career, his numbers are going to be off the chart. Strasburg will likely have multiple Cy Young awards in the books with a slew of strikeout crowns.
Roy Halladay isn’t having his best season in 2012 as he’s struggled with injuries, but that’s not enough to drop him down from No. 2 on the list.
Halladay has averaged 19 wins and 213 strikeouts per year since ’08 and he’s peaked in his mid-thirties. Halladay has remarkable control, having led the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio four straight seasons and five times total. He’s made eight All-Star teams, won a Cy Young in each league, thrown a perfect game and a no-hitter, and finished in the top five in the league in Cy Young award voting seven separate times.
If Roy Halladay had been having the year in 2012 that he had in 2010 or 2011, he would probably be number one on this list. But Justin Verlander takes the No. 1 spot because of the terrific season he is having once again.
Since 2009, Verlander leads all major league pitchers in wins (69), starts (119), innings (839), strikeouts (859) and WAR (25.3). He’s won a Cy Young award and a league MVP award, and he has made four consecutive All-Star teams.
Verlander is just 29 years old and he’s well on his way to the Hall of Fame. He has thrown two no-hitters and he’s an absolute workhorse, having led the league in innings three times in the last four seasons.