I recently wrote an article titled The 30 Best Players Baseball Fans Don't Know. It's gotten great responses, and I had a great time writing it. So with spring training here, I decided to do a series of these about different aspects of the sport. Enjoy.
There's an old saying in sports that goes "offense wins games, but defense wins championships." In baseball, however, that saying should be "pitching wins championships."
It is essential for teams that want to be in playoff contention to have good pitching, and having good pitching starts with an "ace" No. 1 starting pitcher to anchor the pitching staff. Here is a countdown, from 30 to 1, of the best aces in baseball.
(Note: These are the projected No. 1 starters according to the SPORTING NEWS 2009 BASEBALL YEARBOOK).
Twos and Threes Disguised as No. 1s
No. 30 Jeremy Guthrie, Orioles (2008: 10-12, 190.2 IP, 120 Ks, 3.63 ERA)
Guthrie is last on this list, not because he's not a decent pitcher, but because he would not be a number one starter on any other team other than the pitching-strapped Orioles. In his second year as a starter, Guthrie did post a sub-.500 record but did finish ninth in the AL in WHIP and 14th in ERA. He's more of a solid number two or very good number three.
No. 29 Kevin Millwood, Rangers (2008: 9-10, 168.2 IP, 125 Ks, 5.07 ERA)
Millwood has always been an up and down pitcher. He'll have one or two good years followed by one or two not-so-good years. At age 34, he seems to be on the decline, having not had a winning record, 200 innings or an ERA under 5.00 since 2006. Still he doesn't walk batters and is a great guy to have in the clubhouse, but he is now a pitcher more suited as a second or third starter and not an ace.
No. 28 Jeff Suppan, Brewers (2008: 10-10, 177 IP, 90 Ks, 4.96 ERA)
The Brewers' rotation went from being dominant to being not very good in a matter of a few months. Suppan went from a good third starter to a weak "ace". He is a serviceable veteran who has pitched well in big spots, but he definitely is on the down side of his career, posting the his worst ERA since 2002 and the lowest strikeout total of his 14 year career. His 90 K's in 31 starts is the worst on this list.
No. 27 John Lannan, Nationals (2008: 9-15, 182 IP, 117 Ks, 3.91 ERA)
2008 was Lannan's first full season in the majors, so he has a lot of upside and could move up this list quickly, even if he does play in Washington. He pitched 182 innings and posted a sub-4.00 ERA in 31 starts, not bad for a 23 year old pitcher at the time. His 15 losses were third in the league, but that happens to even the best pitchers on bad teams.
No. 26 Gil Meche, Royals (2008: 14-11, 210.1 IP, 183 Ks, 3.98 ERA)
If Zack Grienke continues to improve, he could push Meche to the number two spot in the rotation, a roll better suited for him. Meche is a serviceable pitcher. He'll lose some games but give you a winning record. He'll eat up innings and get his share of strikeouts. He also has posted an ERA less than 4.00 the past two seasons while pitching in the American League. He's not a sexy name, but he's decent.
No. 25 Francisco Liriano, Twins (2008: 6-4, 76 IP, 67 Ks, 3.91 ERA)
You can't help your team if you're not on the field, and that is the only reason Liriano is 25th on this list. Liriano has all the stuff in the world, but he missed the later part of 2006, all of 2007, and most of 2008 due to injuries. In three big league seasons, he has pitched what the top tier pitchers pitch in one. Still, those numbers are very good. 34 starts, 220 innings pitched, 244 strikeouts, a 3.14 ERA and a won-loss record of 19-9. If Liriano stays healthy, with those type of numbers, he's a top five pitcher.
No. 24 Paul Maholm, Pirates (2008: 9-9, 206.1 IP, 139 Ks, 3.71 ERA)
Still only 26, Maholm had a breakout year in his third season with the Pirates. Despite his 9-9 record, Maholm was the only Pittsburgh starter to start at least 30 games and have an ERA under 4.00. He also led the staff in innings with 206.1, and strikeouts with 139. Maholm has great upside, even if the Pirates as a whole do not.
No. 23 Ricky Nolasco, Marlins (2008: 15-8, 212.1 IP, 186 Ks, 3.52 ERA)
Nolasco is another young pitcher to have a breakthrough season last year. He step into the role of Marlins ace nicely, winning 15 games and posting a 3.52 ERA. He's still only 26 so he has great upside, but he's still hasn't proven enough to be higher on this list. He'd be a great number two starter, and if he continues to put these numbers up, then he will be a great number one.
No. 22 Justin Duchscherer, A's (2008: 10-8, 141.2 IP, 95 Ks, 2.54 ERA)
Duchscherer was on his way to a great season in his first as a starter until a second hip surgery ended his all-star season. Duchscherer is in the same boat as Francisco Liriano going into 2009. If he stays healthy he could be one of the top aces in the AL, but at this point, that's a big "if". The A's are really making it known that they will try to win this year, and Duchscherer's health will go a long way towards dictating how far Oakland will go.
No. 21 Adam Wainwright, Cardinals (2008: 11-3, 132 IP, 91 Ks, 3.20 ERA)
After a very good first year as a starting pitcher in 2007, Wainwright got bit by the injury bug in his first as the Cardinals' ace, and made only 20 starts. Armed with a knee-buckling curve (just ask Carlos Beltran), Wainwright won 11 games and lost only three. He gets the nod ahead of other injury-plagued young aces because he has proved he can pitch in the big spot, helping the Cards to their 2006 World Series title.
Steady as They Come
No. 20 Aaron Cook, Rockies (2008: 16-9, 211.1 IP, 96 Ks, 3.96 ERA)
Historically, Coors field has been a place where pitching careers have gone to die (remember Denny Neagle ?), but in 2008, it was the scene of a breakthrough season for Aaron Cook. The numbers look good, but to a pitcher in Colorado, that's one of the best pitching seasons ever. Sure he didn't strikeout many batters, but he pitched in over 200 innings, won 16 games and, here's the most amazing stat, an ERA under 4.00. Cook could move up this list and be the ace the Rockies have needed for years.
No. 19 Derek Lowe, Braves (2008: 14-11, 211 IP, 147 Ks, 3.24 ERA)
Since Lowe became a starter in 2002, there have been few pitcher who have been as consistent. He is basically a lock for double digit wins, 30 starts, 200 innings and an ERA under 4.00. He's also won a world series. He moves back to the NL east in 2009 after signing with the Atlanta Braves. He is the epitome of an innings eater, the only knock against him may be his age. Lowe will turn 36 this season, but looks to still be going strong.
No. 18 Justin Verlander, Tigers (2008: 11-17, 201 IP, 163 Ks, 4.84 ERA)
If this list was made before 2008, than Verlander would definitely be in the top 15, and maybe even the top 10, but 2008 proved to not be Verlander's (or the Tigers') year. He pitched hurt at time, and struggled with his control at others, walking a career high 87 batters and leading the AL in loses with 17. He started off slow, pitched better during the summer and the totally fell apart after the All-Star break. Verlander is still only 26, and if he can rebound, he could be a top 10 ace again.
No. 17 Mark Buehrle, White Sox (2008: 15-12, 218.2 IP, 140 Ks, 3.79 ERA)
No ace in baseball get's less love than Buerhle. He's not flashy, but he defines reliable, making at least 30 starts and pitching 200 or more innings every season since 2001. He's a three time all star and has a career ERA of 3.80, almost a whole run below the league average. Throw in his World Series ring in 2005, and you have one consistent ace.
No. 16 Chad Billingsley, Dodgers (2008: 16-10, 200.7 IP, 201 Ks, 3.14 ERA)
Billingsley had a great season for the Dodgers in 2008, his first as a full-time starter. Billingsley finished the season in the top 10 in wins (16), ERA (3.14), and Strikeouts (201). The Dodgers felt so comfortable handing the role of ace over to Billingsley that they let last season's ace, Derek Lowe, sign a free agent deal with the Braves. Billingsley will get to prove in 2009 that he can build upon his great 2008 season. If he does, he will be considered a top 10 pitcher.
The Border-line Top-Tier
No. 15 Scott Kazmir, Rays (2008: 12-8, 152.1 IP, 166 Ks, 3.49 ERA)
Kazmir was acquired by the Rays in 2004, in one of the worst trades in baseball history, and was almost immediately brought to the big show. He finished '04 with a 2-3 record in 8 games. Since then, Kazmir has never posted a losing record and never lost more than 9 games in a season, not even while pitching for the pre-World Series Rays. He's also finished in the top 10 in K's in three of those four seasons, leading the league once (2007). His problem with walks, and the fact that he always seems to spend at least some time on the DL, keeps him from being ranked higher.
No. 14 Edinson Volquez, Reds (2008: 17-6, 196 IP, 206 Ks, 3.21 ERA)
In his rookie season in 2008, Volquez took the National League by storm. He finished second in the league with 206 K's, and 9.46 K/9 innings, third in the league with 17 victories, fourth in the league in ROY voting and he made the all star team. He does tend to be a bit wild, finishing in the top fourth in walks, sixth in wild pitches and first in hit batsmen. Still, after only one season, Volquez has emerged as the Reds ace, and may have the best upside of any pitcher in the game.
No. 13 Felix Hernandez, Mariners (2008: 9-11, 200.2 IP, 175 Ks, 3.45 ERA)
Hernandez is only 23 years old and has electric stuff, but he has suffered from bout of inconsistency from time to time (finishing top 10 in walks and wild pitches last season). It can't help Hernandez's development that he has only pitched on one winning team and has three different pitching coaches the last three seasons. Despite only winning nine games in 2008, Hernandez still finished in the top 10 in ERA, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts. King Felix still has plenty of time to develop and improve on his consistency, and should be a dominant force for years to come.
No. 12 John Lackey, Angels (2008: 12-5, 163.1 IP, 130 Ks, 3.75 ERA)
After being one of baseball's best-kept secrets for four seasons, Lackey had his coming out party in 2007. He was 19-9, pitched 224.1 innings and had an ERA of 3.01, on his way to a third place finish in the AL Cy Young Award voting. Lackey missed some time in 2008, making 9 less starts, but had a superb record of 12-5. He seemed to hit a snag in September, posting an ERA for that month over 8.00, and still had an ERA of 3.75 for the season, almost 3/4 of a run better than the league average. Lackey also has excellent control, allowing only 40 free passes all season. The Angels' rotation is one of the best in the game, and the fact that Mike Scioscia names him the ace says a ton about Lackey.
No. 11 Cliff Lee, Indians (2008: 22-3, 223.1 IP, 170 Ks, 2.54 ERA)
Cliff Lee is an enigma. He is the only Cy Young Award winner not to make the top 10, because Lee has been inconsistent. In five years as a regular starter for Cleveland, Lee has posted one good season, one great season, one terrible season and two average seasons. If the real Lee is the one who went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA than he is definitely a top 10 or top 5 ace. If he is the Lee who was so bad in 2007 that he was sent back to the minors, then he should be toward the end of this list. He is probably neither of the extremes, but should be a good to very good ace.
The Upper Echelon
No. 10 Jake Peavy (2008: 10-11, 173.2 IP, 166 Ks, 2.85 ERA)
The 2007 NL Cy Young Award winner, Peavy's 10-11 record in 2008 is not a good indication of how good he was last season. Peavy pitched 173 IP in only 27 starts, and got some of the worst run support in baseball. He finished third in the league with a 2.85 ERA, that's almost a full run below the league average and only 31 points more than his 2.54 ERA in his Cy Young season. Peavy's couple of subpar seasons sprinkled in his great career (2003, 2006), the Padres ownership turmoil and all the trade rumors could mean a tough season for Jake. If not for that he would definitely be higher.
No. 9 Carlos Zambrano, Cubs (2008: 14-6, 188.2 IP, 130 Ks, 3.91 ERA)
Zambrano's "stuff" is absolutely electric. Just entering his prime, Zambrano's numbers took a slight dip last season, but he did pitch at less than 100% health, and still made 30 starts. He has the chance to be one for the ages, and pitching for a team with a national following like the Cubs won't hurt. He has had control problems, walking at least 90 batters three times in his six seasons as a full time starter, but he cut down on them drastically last season, walking only 72. With that however came a drastic drop in K's. The other concern is his fiery personality. When things are going good, the Cubs and their fans really feeds off his energy, but when things start going bad, Zambrano has been prone to violent melt-downs. It maybe the only thing stopping him from taking the next step to elite status.
No. 8 Roy Oswalt, Astros (2008: 17-10, 208.2 IP, 165 Ks, 3.54 ERA)
Oswalt may be the best pitcher to never win a Cy Young Award. He has been remarkably consistent in his career. In eight season in th majors, all with the Astros, Oswalt has posted double-digit win totals, including back-to-back 20 win seasons, has never had a losing record, pitched in 200 or more innings in six of those eight seasons, and his 3.54 ERA last season was a career high. His career 3.13 ERA is almost a run and a quarter below the league average. He also has a remarkable winning percentage of .668, and helped pitch Houston to the 2005 World Series. It's amazing he has only been an all star three times.
No. 7 Cole Hamels, Phillies (2008: 14-10, 227.1 IP, 196 Ks, 3.09 ERA)
Philadelphia's 2002 first round draft pick, Hamels, in just his third year in the big leagues, is making his case as an elite pitcher. He has 38 career wins and has yet to post a losing record. he has increased his strikeout and innings totals and lowered his ERA in each of those seasons. His 2008 ERA of 3.09 was a career low. Take into account that Hamels pitches in one of the most offensive friendly ballparks in baseball, and that number looks more impressive. it was in the post-season, however, where Hamels really made a name for himself. He proved to be as clutch as they come, winning all four post season games he pitched in, posting a 2.19 ERA on his way to winning NLCS and World Series MVP to go along with the Phillies championship.
No. 6 Tim Lincecum, Giants (2008: 18-5, 227 IP, 265 Ks, 2.62 ERA)
Lincecum took some knocks in his rookie season of 2007, going 7-5 with a 4.00 ERA. He did have his moments, and had more strikeouts than innings pitched with 150 and 146.1, respectively. His second season, however, was something out of the early days of Dwight Gooden's career. He finished first in the NL in strikeouts and K/9 innings, second in wins, winning percentage and ERA, sixth in complete games, seventh in shutouts, eigth in innings pitched, he made the all star team and won the NL Cy Young Award. Lincecum might have the best stuff of any pitcher in the game, he just needs to do it longer. One Cy Young season does not a career make.
No. 5 Josh Beckett, Red Sox (2008: 12-10, 173.1 IP, 172 Ks, 4.03 ERA)
After winning 20 games in 2007, Beckett had a down year in 2008. He also has battled the injury bug in his past, but has been relatively healthy since joining the Red Sox. To look at Beckett's numbers, it's easy to think he should be further down on this list. Beckett makes the number five spot because there may not be a better "big game" pitcher in the game. In 12 post-season starts, Beckett has a 7-2 record, 96 K's in 87 innings and an ERA of 2.90. He's even better in the World Series, going 2-1 with 28 K's in 23 innings and an ERA of 1.90. His teams are 2-0 in the World Series, winning with the Marlins in 2003 and Red Sox in 2007. If you need to win a big game, you wan this guy on the hill.
No. 4 CC Sabathia, Yankees (2008: 17-10, 253 IP, 251 Ks, 10 CG, 2.70 ERA)
The 2007 AL Cy Young Award winner got foo to a slow start in his walk year with the Indians, before being traded to the Brewers on July 7th. In 17 games after that trade, Sabathia was a horse, going 11-2 with 128 strikeouts in 130.2 innings, a 1.65 ERA, a WHIP of 1.003, seven complete games and three shutouts. He also pitched a complete game on the last day of the season, winning the game for Milwaukee and giving them their first post season birth since 1982. He ended up finishing 6th and 5th in the NL MVP and Cy Young voting, respectively. The only knock on Sabathia, is that as good as he has been in the regular season, he's been just as bad in the post season. After signing a huge contract with the Yankees this offseason, NY hopes that changes.
No. 3 Brandon Webb, D-Backs (2008: 22-7, 226.2 IP, 183 Ks, 3.30 ERA)
There may not be a more consistently dominant pitcher in the league than Webb. Armed with an almost unhittable sinker, Webb had a phenomenal season in 2008. He won a career and league best 22 games, logged over 220 innings for the fourth consecutive year, and had an amazing 41 straight scoreless innings. Over the past three seasons, Webb is an astounding 31 games over .500 (56-25), a big reason why he has finished second in the Cy Young voting the past two season after winning the award in 2006. With Webb, and number two starter Dan Haren, Arizona has a 1-2 punch as good as anybody has in the sport.
No. 2 Johan Santana, Mets (2008: 16-7, 234.2 IP, 206 Ks, 2.53 ERA)
The 2004 and 2006 AL Cy Young Award winner, almost added his first NL award in 2008. Santana had a huge year last season, leading the NL in ERA, games started and innings pitched, and finishing in the top 10 in wins (16), won-loss percentage (.696), WHIP (1.148), K's (206), complete games (3), shutouts (2), and K/BB ratio (3.27). As good as Santana is, he gets even better in the second half of the season. Last year Johan was 8-0 with an ERA of 2.17 in the second half, not to mention his dominant complete game shutout of the Marlins on short rest to save the Mets' from playoff elimination on the next-to-last day of the season (even if it was for only one game). If only he could pitch everyday.
No. 1 Roy Halladay, Blue Jays (2008: 20-11, 246 IP, 206 Ks, 2.78 ERA)
While CC Sabathia was getting a ton of press for the season he was having with Milwaukee, Halladay was having a comparable season. He won three more games and had a lower ERA than Sabathia. He also pitched just six fewer innings and had 9 complete games to CC's 10. He's still is on 31 and he has already won 20 games twice, won a Cy Young award (2003) and has a career record of 131-66 for the fourth highest active career winning percentage (.665). He also has the fifth most career complete games among active players with 40 (the youngest player ahead of him, Livan Hernandez, is four years his senior). Halladay has had a few injury problems, he seems to have put that behind him, pitching at least 220 innings the last three season. Halladay may be one of the few bright spots for the Jays in 2009, and he is the definition of a work-horse ace.