Ranking MLB's Most Dominant 1-2 Pitching Duos Entering 2017

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2017

Ranking MLB's Most Dominant 1-2 Pitching Duos Entering 2017

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    Boston Red Sox left-hander David Price.
    Boston Red Sox left-hander David Price.Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Everyone loves a great duo. Batman and Robin, Simon and Garfunkel, Tyrion Lannister and that weird eunuch. 

    So it goes in MLB, where a stout top-of-the-rotation combo can excite fans and propel a team to success. 

    With pitchers and catchers about to do their much-anticipated reporting, let's rank the top 10 starting-pitching tandems in the game, keeping a few factors in mind:

    • Track record. Pitchers with a history of success and no glaring red flags get bonus points over recent breakout stars who've yet to prove their longevity.
    • Recent performance/potential. That said, raw talent and last season's results matter; you can't skate on pedigree or reputation alone.
    • Ignore the rest of the rotation. This isn't a ranking of starting rotation depth, so 1-2 combos that are backed by solid No. 3s, No. 4s and No. 5s receive zero extra credit, though I'll note when there's a debate about who's No. 2.

Honorable Mentions

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    Seattle Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez.
    Seattle Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Justin Verlander/Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers

    Justin Verlander came within a few inexplicable votes of winning the 2016 American League Cy Young Award, and Michael Fulmer took home AL Rookie of the Year honors.

    A case can be made for including them on this list, but scroll through the top 10 and tell me who you would bump.

     

    Felix Hernandez/Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle Mariners

    It's tough to leave any rotation featuring Felix Hernandez on the outside looking in. But King Felix posted a career-worst 3.82 ERA while battling injuries and velocity decline in 2016. Add Hisashi Iwakuma's 4.12 ERA, and you're looking at a once-formidable twosome who could be on the downslope. 

     

    Masahiro Tanaka/CC Sabathia, New York Yankees

    Masahiro Tanaka is coming off his best season on American soil after posting a 3.07 ERA in 199.2 innings. Veteran lefty and former Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia backed Tanaka with his strongest campaign since 2012, as he put up a 3.91 ERA in 179.2 innings. 

    Sabathia's numbers don't quite rate in the upper tier, however, and the creaky 36-year-old is an injury away from oblivion.

10. Aaron Sanchez/Marco Estrada, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Aaron Sanchez.
    Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Aaron Sanchez.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    Aaron Sanchez (RHP): 192 IP, 161 SO, 63 BB, 3.00 ERA, 3.9 WAR

    Marco Estrada (RHP): 176 IP, 165 SO, 65 BB, 3.48 ERA, 3.0 WAR

     

    After promising seasons in 2014 and 2015, Aaron Sanchez made the leap in 2016 to full-blown rotation anchor. Workload restrictions handcuffed the 24-year-old's stats, but he appears to be on the cusp of special things.

    "He has dynamic stuff, he can definitely carry a team," teammate Devon Travis said, per Craig Slater of the Canadian Press (via CBC Sports). "We saw what he could do last year over a full season, and I think that's just the beginning of his great career."

    As for the Toronto Blue Jays' No. 2, you could make an argument for diminutive, demonstrative Marcus Stroman or 20-game winner J.A. Happ.

    I'm handing the honors to changeup artist Marco Estrada, however, who followed a top-10 AL Cy Young Award finish in 2015 with an All-Star season.

9. Cole Hamels/Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers

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    Texas Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish.
    Texas Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    Cole Hamels (LHP): 200.2 IP, 200 SO, 77 BB, 3.32 ERA, 3.0 WAR

    Yu Darvish (RHP): 100.1 IP, 132 SO, 31 BB, 3.41 ERA, 2.7 WAR

     

    In his first full season with the Texas Rangers, Cole Hamels did Cole Hamels things, eclipsing 200 innings, reaching 200 strikeouts and making the fourth All-Star appearance of his decorated career.

    He's joined atop the Rangers rotation by Yu Darvish, who missed the entire 2015 season recovering from Tommy John surgery and dealt with neck and shoulder issues in 2016.

    We're in the realm of "if." If Hamels, in his age-33 season, remains elite and Darvish stays healthy, this duo could rocket up the charts. For now, there's enough uncertainty to keep them at No. 9.

8. Chris Archer/Jake Odorizzi, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Chris Archer.
    Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Chris Archer.Jon Durr/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    Chris Archer (RHP): 201.1 IP, 233 SO, 67 BB, 4.02 ERA, 3.1 WAR

    Jake Odorizzi (RHP): 187.2 IP, 166 SO, 54 BB, 3.69 ERA, 2.0 WAR

     

    Chris Archer's plus-4.00 ERA and 9-19 record don't scream, or even whisper, elite ace.

    But his 3.41 xFIP—which is essentially a version of ERA with defense removed from the equationsuggests a degree of bad luck. What's more, he posted a 3.25 ERA after the All-Star break.

    The 28-year-old Tampa Bay Ray is still a stud, and he's joined by 26-year-old Jake Odorizzi, a first-round pick in 2008 who put together another quietly excellent season in central Florida. 

    Both pitchers could be on the trading block if the Rays are out of contention by late July. For now, they form one heck of an unheralded pair.

7. Kyle Hendricks/Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs

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    Chicago Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta.
    Chicago Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta.Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    Kyle Hendricks (RHP): 190 IP, 170 SO, 44 BB, 2.13 ERA, 4.5 WAR

    Jake Arrieta (RHP): 197.1 IP, 190 SO, 76 BB, 3.10 ERA, 3.8 WAR

     

    Kyle Hendricks led both leagues with a 2.13 ERA and 188 ERA+ and was the second runner-up for the National League Cy Young Award.

    He doesn't feature bat-missing stuff and leaned heavily on the Chicago Cubs defense, which was the best in baseball, according to the metrics

    That explains why Hendricks' 2016 xFIP was 3.59, a nice mid-rotation mark but not ace material. On the other hand, Kenny Kelly of Baseball Prospectus made a case for why Hendricks could again defy his xFIP by continuing to induce soft contact.

    As for Jake Arrieta, he came down from his 2015 NL Cy Young perch but remained a valuable asset. The 30-year-old righty is entering a contract year and should have every motivation to recapture his peak.

    Side note: Some will argue for veteran lefty Jon Lester as one of the Cubs' top two starters. They're not necessarily wrong, but it wouldn't move Chicago up or down in these rankings.

6. Noah Syndergaard/Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

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    New York Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard.
    New York Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    Noah Syndergaard (RHP): 183.2 IP, 218 SO, 43 BB, 2.60 ERA, 6.5 WAR

    Jacob deGrom (RHP): 148 IP, 143 SO, 36 BB, 3.04 ERA, 3.2 WAR

     

    After a tantalizing, radar-gun-abusing rookie campaign in 2015, Noah Syndergaard made the leap to greatness in 2016.

    He couldn't quite pitch the New York Mets through the Wild Card Game, but he lived up to his Norse god nickname during the regular season and established himself as the club's undisputed No. 1.

    As for the rest of the Mets' vaunted rotation, well...about that. Injuries hit early and often, eventually shelving everyone from Matt Harvey to Steven Matz to Jacob deGrom.

    All are expected back in 2017, and you can debate who's most likely to rise to the occasion. I'll go with deGrom, who had elbow surgery in September and is reportedly feeling swell.

    In fact, deGrom sounded an optimistic note for New York's entire starting five.

    "We are healthy, and we are ready to go," the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year said, per Kevin Kernan of the New York Post. "It should be an exciting year."

5. Corey Kluber/Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians

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    Cleveland Indians right-hander Corey Kluber.
    Cleveland Indians right-hander Corey Kluber.Elsa/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    Corey Kluber (RHP): 215 IP, 227 SO, 57 BB, 3.14 ERA, 5.1 WAR

    Carlos Carrasco (RHP): 146.1 IP, 150 SO, 34 BB, 3.32 ERA, 2.5 WAR

     

    Corey Kluber gilded an All-Star 2016 season with a workhorse performance in the playoffs that included three starts and two wins in the World Series.

    The Cleveland Indians fell in seven games to the Cubs (not that the Tribe faithful needed to be reminded), but it did nothing to diminish Kluber's legend.

    The 2014 AL Cy Young Award winner is an ace among aces—period.

    Carlos Carrasco was an October spectator after landing on the disabled list with a fractured hand. The 29-year-old possesses legitimate strikeout stuff, however, as does his rotation counterpart and fellow 2016 injury victim Danny Salazar.

4. Max Scherzer/Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

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    Washington Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer.
    Washington Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    Max Scherzer (RHP): 228.1 IP, 284 SO, 56 BB, 2.96 ERA, 5.6 WAR

    Stephen Strasburg (RHP): 147.2 IP, 183 SO, 44 BB, 3.60 ERA, 3.9 WAR

     

    Max Scherzer cemented his status as one of this generation's greatest pitchers in 2016, engineering a record-tying 20-strikeout masterpiece in May and ultimately becoming one of only six pitchers in MLB history to win a Cy Young Award in both leagues. 

    He'll turn 33 in July, but Mad Max shows zero signs of slowing.

    His No. 2, Stephen Strasburg, is a more fragile, enigmatic creature. Strasburg missed the postseason last year with a right forearm strain and has suffered a range of ailments over the course of his career, punctuated by periods of flat-out dominance.

    If the 28-year-old can stay healthy, the Nats could challenge for the top spot on this list.

3. Clayton Kershaw/Kenta Maeda, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw.
    Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    Clayton Kershaw (LHP): 149 IP, 172 SO, 11 BB, 1.69 ERA, 6.5 WAR

    Kenta Maeda (RHP): 175.2 IP, 179 SO, 50 BB, 3.48 ERA, 3.3 WAR

     

    Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball. Some may have doubted that truism after Kershaw missed two full months with a back injury last season, despite his three NL Cy Young Awards and MVP trophy.

    Kershaw erased all doubt upon his return, posting a 1.29 ERA in his five starts off the disabled list and authoring a few unforgettable October moments. 

    Oh, did I mention he's still just 28 years old? Yeah.

    The role of No. 2 could go to Rich Hill, who is a passable No. 1 when he isn't injured. Unfortunately, he gets injured a lot.

    Instead, the nod goes to Japanese import Kenta Maeda, who exceeded expectations in his first MLB season and is poised to once again play the role of Kershaw's wingman.

2. Chris Sale/David Price, Boston Red Sox

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    Boston Red Sox left-hander Chris Sale.
    Boston Red Sox left-hander Chris Sale.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    Chris Sale (LHP): 226.2 IP, 233 SO, 45 BB, 3.34 ERA, 5.2 WAR

    David Price (LHP): 230 IP, 228 SO, 50 BB, 3.99 ERA, 4.5 WAR

     

    The Boston Red Sox mortgaged much of the farm to acquire left-hander Chris Sale from the Chicago White Sox. 

    Ultimately, Boston might miss Cuban stud Yoan Moncada and the other pieces it gave up. At the moment, the Red Sox have forged a glistening rotation.

    Sale, who has made five straight All-Star teams and five consecutive top-10 Cy Young Award finishes, joins a group headlined by reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello and former AL Cy Young Award winner David Price.

    You could tap either Porcello or Price as Sale's No. 2 and not be wrong, but I'll go with Price for his track record and innings-eating tendencies.

    Price had an up-and-down season in Beantown after signing a seven-year, $217 million deal. Still, it says here he and Sale will join forces to create one of the most dynamic southpaw combos in recent memory. 

1. Madison Bumgarner/Johnny Cueto, San Francisco Giants

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    San Francisco Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner.
    San Francisco Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    Madison Bumgarner (LHP): 226.2 IP, 251 SO, 54 BB, 2.74 ERA, 4.9 WAR

    Johnny Cueto (RHP): 219.2 IP, 198 SO, 45 BB, 2.79 ERA, 5.5 WAR

     

    The San Francisco Giants' even-year magic ran out in 2016, but Madison Bumgarner kept on rolling.

    The big, cutter-slinging lefty eclipsed 200 innings for the sixth straight season, earned his fourth straight All-Star nod and finished fourth in NL Cy Young Award voting.

    The temperamental country boy from Hickory, North Carolina, was joined in brilliant, odd-couple fashion by bubble-blowing, dreadlocked Dominican Johnny Cueto, who made a lasting impression in his first season by the Bay.

    Cueto can opt out of his contract after the 2017 season. He turns 31 on Feb. 15 and will be angling for one more massive payday. That doesn't guarantee another top-shelf showing, but it doesn't hurt.

    This may be the final season MadBum and Johnny Beisbol occupy the same rotation. If so, we should all take the time to enjoy it.

       

    All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.