Power Ranking MLB's 10 Best Starting Rotations Entering 2018
These are dark times for starting rotations in Major League Baseball. Starters are going into the 2018 season knowing that last year was a nadir characterized by small workloads and way too many home runs.
Some rotations, however, will fight the good fight.
The aim here is to rank the top 10 starting rotations in MLB as the league prepares to enter a new season.
This is a bit tricky, given that the free-agent market still hasn't found homes for Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb. Nonetheless, it's still possible to make judgment calls based on what each rotation has in terms of elite talent, overall depth, upside and downside.
10. New York Mets
2017 Stats Combined: 87 G, 86 GS, 477.1 IP, 8.8 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 1.4 HR/9, 4.77 ERA, 2.4 WAR
Jacob deGrom enjoyed a strong 2017 with a 3.53 ERA over 201.1 innings. Otherwise, injuries and other calamities reduced the New York Mets' rotation into a pile of human wreckage.
However, it's worth remembering that Mets starters were elite as recently as 2016.
The team can count on deGrom, who combines sizzling stuff with strong command, once again in 2018. It can also hope for Noah Syndergaard to re-emerge as one of MLB's most dominant starters.
A lat injury limited him to just seven starts last year. But when he did pitch, he was the same flame-throwing Asgardian who takes no prisoners. His fastball averaged 98.3 mph, and he combined 34 strikeouts with only three walks in 30.1 innings.
It's harder to take anything for granted with Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler, both of whom are formerly electric pitchers who've been cut down by injuries and other hardships. But there's hope for Steven Matz, who showed with a 3.40 ERA in 2016 that he can be an easily above-average starter when healthy.
If nothing else, deGrom and Syndergaard should form one of the best one-two punches in MLB. Questions abound elsewhere, but the potential answers invite just enough optimism.
9. Toronto Blue Jays
2017 Stats Combined: 143 G, 117 GS, 688.0 IP, 7.9 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 4.15 ERA, 10.0 WAR
The Toronto Blue Jays rotation might also look out of place here after the season it had in 2017. However, it's basically the same unit that put up a 3.64 ERA over a league-best 995.1 innings in 2016.
A weak link in '16, Marcus Stroman turned into a Cy Young Award contender (3.09 ERA over 201 innings) in 2017 by adding an unpredictable tempo to the excellent stuff and command that he already had. J.A. Happ, meanwhile, was his usual solid self with a 3.53 ERA in 25 starts.
Toronto will need more out of Aaron Sanchez after injuries limited him to just eight starts last year. But since those were minor finger afflictions, he should get back to overwhelming hitters with the bowling-ball sinker and hammer curveball that made him the American League's ERA champ in 2016.
The 4.98 ERA that Marco Estrada put up last year looks like proof that fly-ball pitchers don't belong in these dinger-happy times. But he'll at least be good for innings. There's also some hope to be found in how Statcast's xwOBA stat—based on quality of contact—characterized him as unlucky in 2017.
The Blue Jays thus have the potential for three really good starters up top and one solid starter at the back. if Joe Biagini can keep getting ground balls, it'll be two solid starters at the back.
8. Chicago Cubs
2017 Stats Combined: 165 G, 127 GS, 787.1 IP, 8.3 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 3.97 ERA, 13.6 WAR
Chicago Cubs starters led MLB with a sparkling 2.96 ERA in 2016. Last season knocked down that figure to 4.05. And now, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are gone.
But while it's likely the Cubs will add a name-brand starter before the offseason concludes, it wouldn't be ridiculous for them to trust in what they already have.
Kyle Hendricks, the National League ERA champion in 2016, recovered from a slow start to post a 2.19 ERA in his final 13 outings of 2017. Following a rough start of his own, the move from the South Side to the North Side (where he had a 3.74 ERA in 14 starts) effectively turned Jose Quintana back into the same reliable pitcher he's been since 2013.
Jon Lester, on the other hand, lost a mile per hour off his fastball en route to a 4.33 ERA in 180.2 innings. He was better at missing bats, however, dropping his contact rate to a career-low-tying 75.7 percent. He has enough pitching smarts to build on that and get back to being a top-tier starter.
In Tyler Chatwood, the Cubs added a former Colorado Rockie with a history of being quite good away from Coors Field. He's also a ground-ball magnet who should enjoy pitching in front of Chicago's infield.
Should the Cubs forgo adding another starter, crafty left-hander Mike Montgomery wouldn't be out of place in the No. 5 slot. Eddie Butler, a former top prospect, is another option.
7. Boston Red Sox
2017 Stats Combined: 118 G, 113 GS, 690.0 IP, 9.8 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9, 3.76 ERA, 14.6 WAR
The Boston Red Sox know what they're going to get out of Chris Sale in 2018.
The lanky lefty was a perennial Cy Young contender when he was with the White Sox between 2012 and 2016. So it went in his first season in Boston, as he led MLB with 214.1 innings and 308 strikeouts on his way to a runner-up finish in the AL Cy Young voting.
There are fewer certainties elsewhere in Boston's rotation yet no shortage of intrigue.
Although a balky elbow limited David Price to only 18 appearances in 2017 (including the playoffs), it at least remained intact and didn't hold him back when he could pitch. Wipe away the 2012 AL Cy Young winner's slow start from 2016, and what emerges is a 3.38 ERA over his last 263.1 regular-season innings.
After winning a Cy Young of his own in 2016, Rick Porcello crashed hard with a 4.65 ERA in 2017. But at the least, his ability to eat innings is beyond dispute. There are also more hopeless bets to make than one on a command/control pitcher who's been there and done that.
The gripe with Drew Pomeranz is that he's rarely good for more than six innings. But he hasn't achieved his 3.32 ERA over the last two years by accident. Notably, he's whiffed 9.4 batters per nine innings.
If Steven Wright is healthy, he may get back to throwing the GIF-able knuckleball that made him an All-Star in 2016. Failing that, Eduardo Rodriguez can return from knee surgery to continue providing five or six good innings when he takes the ball.
6. New York Yankees
2017 Stats Combined: 144 G, 144 GS, 838.0 IP, 9.0 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9, 3.76 ERA, 16.2 WAR
The New York Yankees may not be finished adding to their starting rotation. They've been connected to plenty of big-name trade targets and also continue to be linked to Yu Darvish, per John Harper of the New York Daily News.
In the meantime, the fact that their rotation is already this good is the scary part.
Luis Severino emerged from prospect purgatory to become a Cy Young-caliber ace with a 2.98 ERA in 193.1 innings last year. He did that mainly with a fastball that averaged a staggering 97.6 mph. A heater that hard naturally invites concerns, but it bodes well that he increased his velocity over time.
It also bodes well that Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray, both former Cy Young contenders, shook off slow starts to finish strong in 2017. Tanaka had a 3.54 ERA over his final 16 starts before tacking on three more excellent turns in October. Across 21 starts with the Oakland A's and then the Yankees, Gray finished with a 3.23 ERA.
For their part, CC Sabathia and Jordan Montgomery combined for a 3.79 ERA in 304 innings. Formerly a power pitcher, Sabathia has reinvented himself as a ground-ball ace. Montgomery won't overwhelm anyone with his stuff, but his extreme over-the-top release point gives him natural deception.
If any trouble arises, the Yankees will be able to reach into their farm system and pull out right-hander Chance Adams or left-hander Justus Sheffield. Both are top-100 guys with sharp stuff.
5. Los Angeles Dodgers
2017 Stats Combined: 133 G, 126 GS, 724.0 IP, 9.6 K/9, 2.4 K/9, 1.2 HR/9, 3.19 ERA, 17.9 WAR
On the surface, it's hard to find faults with a Los Angeles Dodgers rotation that led MLB with a 3.39 ERA last season.
Clayton Kershaw is still up top and deserving of glowing praise. He's coming off his seventh straight All-Star selection and his fifth NL ERA title. With a 2.36 ERA in 10 major league seasons, he's tracking to be the most dominant starter MLB has ever seen.
After Kershaw come two more lefties with impressive stuff, Rich Hill and Alex Wood. Then comes Kenta Maeda, who can miss bats despite not having the most electric stuff. And then Hyun-Jin Ryu, who's rarely not been effective when he's been healthy.
Altogether, these are the pillars of a starting rotation that led the National League with a 3.52 strikeout-to-walk ratio and all of MLB with 85.0 mph in average exit velocity allowed. In the face of excellence that well-rounded comes the obvious question: Why isn't the Dodgers rotation the best there is?
Mainly because of the workhorse factor. Only Kershaw averaged more than six innings per start last year. And knowing that he's had injury problems in three of the last four seasons, even he's no sure thing to keep the innings coming anymore.
Still, this will be a mere nitpick as long as manager Dave Roberts' careful usage of his starters keeps the results coming. And in the event he needs a fill-in, he could ask for a lot worse than Walker Buehler. The right-hander is one of baseball's best pitching prospects.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
2017 Stats Combined: 147 G, 145 GS, 866.1 IP, 9.6 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 3.41 ERA, 20.5 WAR
The Arizona Diamondbacks got plenty of credit for how they turned around their starting rotation last year. And yet, it never felt like enough.
Arizona starters were downright awful in 2016, posting a 5.19 ERA that ranked ahead of only the Minnesota Twins for worst in the league. A year later, there they stood with a 3.61 ERA (third in MLB) and more wins above replacement than all but two others teams' starters.
Zack Greinke, a 2009 Cy Young winner and two-time ERA champ, wiped away a rough 2016 and became much more worthy of the largest per-year contract for a starting pitcher in baseball history. He had a 3.20 ERA in 202.1 innings. Behind him, Robbie Ray continued his emergence as a strikeout demigod by whiffing 218 batters in only 162 innings.
Amazingly, there wasn't much of a drop-off after Greinke and Ray. Taijuan Walker added a slider and became a ground-ball pitcher. Patrick Corbin put more trust in his own slider and dropped his contact rate. Zack Godley enjoyed the best of both worlds, avoiding contact and inducing ground balls when he didn't.
Rather than potential regression, the bigger question has to do with the Diamondbacks' shortage of depth. That will hurt them if any injuries arise, which generally isn't a matter of "if" where pitchers are concerned.
Yet, it could be worse. They'll be able to call on Anthony Banda, a capable left-handed prospect. It's also possible that fast-rising righty Jon Duplantier will be ready for the majors in 2018.
3. Cleveland Indians
2017 Stats Combined: 142 G, 137 GS, 824.0 IP, 10.3 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 3.64 ERA, 20.9 WAR
The Cleveland Indians are returning all the key players from a rotation that set a new mark for dominance in 2017, racking up a record 1,066 strikeouts.
Leading the way once again will be Corey Kluber. He added a second Cy Young to his collection last year, mainly thanks to an otherworldly finish in which he had a 1.62 ERA over 23 starts. Overall, he's averaged a 2.83 ERA, 219 innings and something like a bajillion slider GIFs per season since 2014.
The only shame about Kluber's excellence is that it keeps Carlos Carrasco under the radar. He has a 3.17 ERA and a 5.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 97 starts dating back to 2014. He proved he could handle a large workload with his first 200-inning season in 2017.
Below him, Trevor Bauer has settled comfortably as a mid-rotation starter. His latest trick was riding elevated curveball usage to a 4.19 ERA and a career-high 196 strikeouts in 2017.
Cleveland's rotation does go off a cliff a bit after its front three but not to a dangerous degree.
Josh Tomlin's excellent command generally makes him an average-ish starter. Danny Salazar was an All-Star in 2016 and struck out 12.7 batters per nine innings when he was healthy in 2017. Waiting in the wings is Mike Clevinger, a fellow hard thrower who quietly had a 2.84 ERA in 21 starts last year.
Another season like the one Cleveland's rotation had last year is a lot to ask. And yet, it also seems doable.
2. Houston Astros
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2017 Stats Combined: 136 G, 136 GS, 820.0 IP, 9.2 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9, 3.68 ERA, 17.6 WAR
Although the Houston Astros didn't need to get better following their World Series triumph, there's a strong argument that they now have the best starting rotation in baseball.
They'll have Justin Verlander, who joined the Astros on Aug. 31, for a full season. As his fastball velocity has returned since his 2014 nadir, so has his dominance. He was the AL Cy Young runner-up in 2016 and was last seen putting up 1.67 ERA in 11 total appearances with Houston.
Dallas Keuchel, the 2015 AL Cy Young winner, is the strongest ground-ball magnet in the sport. Gerrit Cole, a recent arrival from the Pittsburgh Pirates, has a high-octane fastball and an array of secondary pitches that, as FanGraphs' Eno Sarris argued, are ripe for unlocking in Houston.
Beneath this exciting front three is an embarrassment of depth riches. Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton both pack power fastballs and hard curveballs. Brad Peacock is a slider machine who had a 3.22 ERA as a starter last year. Collin McHugh was a reliable workhorse as recently as 2016.
However, some caution is warranted with this group.
Verlander will turn 35 years old next month. Keuchel has had injuries and ups and downs over the last two years. Cole's results don't always match his stuff. The same goes for McCullers, and he, Morton and McHugh come with durability issues of their own.
Nonetheless, the sheer depth of the Astros' starting pitching will save the team from experiencing too much downside. The upside, meanwhile, is humongous.
1. Washington Nationals
2017 Stats Combined: 134 G, 129 GS, 810.1 IP, 9.7 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9, 3.19 ERA, 21.6 WAR
The Washington Nationals rotation begins with the most dependable ace in Major League Baseball.
Max Scherzer has pitched over 200 innings every year since 2013, averaging a 2.87 ERA and a 5.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio along the way. He's won three Cy Youngs in this stretch, including two in a row for his 2016 and 2017 performances.
Finishing third in the 2017 NL Cy Young race was co-ace Stephen Strasburg. Although durability is always a concern with him, his excellent stuff and control ensure that dominance never is. He's coming off a 2.52 ERA in 175.1 innings. Only Kluber and Scherzer held batters to a lower OPS.
Gio Gonzalez was also a Cy Young contender in 2017, putting up a 2.96 ERA in 201 innings. There is a too-good-to-be-true vibe to that performance, but it's mitigated by how he changed his pitch mix and cut down the quality of contact against his offerings.
Tanner Roark was the ugly duckling of Washington's 2017 rotation with a 4.67 ERA over 181.1 innings. But his performance did come with a career-best 8.2 K/9 rate. If he gets back to suppressing hard contact like he did in his excellent 2014 and 2016 campaigns, he'll be the best No. 4 starter in baseball.
The biggest red flag is that the Nationals don't have an answer for their No. 5 slot. But because of his upward-trending velocity, A.J. Cole is a possible answer. Erick Fedde, formerly a top-100 prospect, is another.
As it is, most rotations lack a concrete No. 5 starter. The difference with this one is that it has four who can pitch like a No. 1 on any given day.