MLB Power Rankings: The Top 25 Craftiest Pitchers in the Game
When it's used to describe pitchers, the term "crafty" is a pretty subjective one.
Does it apply to all soft-tossers who get results? Or maybe it should only apply to pitchers with impeccable control and consistently low walk totals?
Based on common usage patterns, you might assume that the term describes all pitchers who play or have played for the Oakland A's.
In fantasy circles, it might seem like little more than a code word for guys who are more valuable to their real teams than their fantasy owners. The way some other people use it, you'd think it applies to just about any veteran hurler who's left-handed and old.
But for the purposes of these rankings, "crafty" pitchers will be defined as those who are not the most physically-gifted and overpowering pitchers, but put up strong numbers based on effective off-speed pitches, knowledge of hitter tendencies, finesse, excellent control, the ability to limit home runs or some other intangible.
I don't doubt that some relief pitchers are crafty (Trevor Hoffman comes to mind), but the term is typically used to describe starters, so we'll limit our list to guys who pitch the first inning.
Some "crafty" pitchers may be able to throw in the low- to mid-90s and some may get their fair share of strikeouts, but if they're successful, it's primarily because they've learned to master their "craft."
Even the most naturally talented guys need to learn how to pitch if they hope to join the league's elite, but there's no question that the margin for error is smaller among the less physically talented pitchers, who prove that the mental and strategic aspects of pitching are just as important as radar gun readings.
25. Anibal Sanchez, Florida Marlins
Despite giving up his fair share of hits and walks over the last two seasons, Sanchez has managed to post sub-four ERAs both times. That is either crafty or just plain lucky.
Sanchez, who pitched a no-hitter as a rookie in 2006, is no longer the same pitcher after undergoing shoulder surgery in 2007. His success in 2010 was largely due to his ability to limit the gopher ball.
If Sanchez can continue to consistently escape with his low-90s fastball, he'll prove that he can get by on grit.
24. Brett Myers, Houston Astros
Myers was quite successful for several years as both a flame-throwing starter and closer in Philadelphia. But between injuries and wear-and-tear on his arm, he's had to reinvent himself in Houston as a crafty pitcher.
While he still sported a beard worthy of the hard-throwing intimidator he used to be, Myers struggled to reach even 90 miles per hour with his fastball in 2010. But that didn't stop Myers from putting together a solid season in which he posted 14 wins, a 3.14 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP.
He'll have to prove that he can again avoid the long ball if he hopes to repeat that type of performance.
23. Jon Garland, Los Angeles Dodgers
With stuff that was far from overpowering, Garland won 14 games with a 3.47 ERA last year in San Diego. He surely benefited from pitching half his games at Petco Park, but Garland first established himself as a decent back-end rotation option while pitching for years in the White Sox' far more hitter-friendly ballpark.
Garland will have to hold off Vincente Padilla for the fifth spot in the Dodgers rotation once Padilla returns from surgery in May, but if given the opportunity Garland could again post surprisingly decent numbers in 2011.
22. Mike Pelfrey, New York Mets
Pelfrey is another guy that benefits from a pitcher-friendly home ballpark, which might help explain why he finished in the top 10 among qualified starters in fewest home runs allowed in 2010. His home-road splits show he is much more effective when he's pitching at Citi Field.
Nonetheless, despite striking out barely a batter every two innings, Pelfrey has managed to throw at least 200 innings, win at least 13 games and finish with an ERA below four in two of the last three seasons.
21. Mark Buehrle, Chicago White Sox
Buehrle had his highest ERA and WHIP since 2006 last season, but he's been around long enough to prove what he's capable of. He holds a 3.85 ERA and 1.28 WHIP for his career despite pitching in a difficult environment.
Buehrle has always had a weak strikeout rate, but more than makes up for it with one of the league's best walk rates. Even in his subpar 2010 season, Buehrle finished among the league leaders in walk rate and HR/FB (home run/fly ball) rate. Buehrle only throws in the low-90s, but mixes up his pitches very well, which also helps explain his success.
20. Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals
Garcia appeared to get the best possible results from his skill set in 2010. However, he is still just 24 years old, so his skills may continue to evolve or he may end up proving that last season was a fluke.
Garcia's fastball was clocked in the low 90s and high 80s last year, and he gave up plenty of hits and walks. But Garcia finished tied for third in baseball in fewest home runs allowed, and ended up with a 2.70 ERA and 13 wins.
There is some debate about whether avoiding home runs is a skill set, but when you are the sixth-best pitcher in baseball at inducing ground balls, it certainly helps.
19. C.J. Wilson, Texas Rangers
As a late-inning reliever, Wilson occasionally topped 95 mph with his fastball. But following his conversion to starting, he's lost about 5 mph and had to rely more on pitching than simply rearing back and throwing.
As a starter, Wilson dramatically reduced his reliance on his fastball, developed a cutter and significantly increased the usage of his changeup.
Wilson's walk rate remains fairly high and his strikeout rate is far from elite, but he managed to be quite effective in 2010 by keeping the ball in the park and getting a decent share of ground balls. Wilson has had a very low HR/FB rate each of the last two seasons, and at least a solid HR/FB in three of the last four years, suggesting he could be getting the job done with craftiness.
18. Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox
Floyd has not yet had the breakthrough season that some had predicted, but he's been a very consistent innings-eater pitching in a tough ballpark.
Floyd has increased his ground ball rate and reduced his home runs allowed in each of the last three years, which enabled his ERA to remain stable even in a 2010 season where he was quite unlucky—he had the fifth highest batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in the league.
He works in the low to mid 90s, but doesn't rack up the strikeouts.
17. Carl Pavano, Minnesota Twins
Earlier in his career, Pavano was a top prospect who lacked consistency in health and performance at the big league level. Other than his excellent 2004 contract-year performance, Pavano had shown little to inspire confidence heading into last season.
But Pavano pitched very well in 2010. Throwing around 90 mph, Pavano's success can largely be explained by not beating himself: He had the third-best walk rate in all of baseball, trailing only Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay.
And although plenty of the fly balls he surrendered ended up being home runs, Pavano did a nice job of limiting that damage by inducing plenty of ground balls, finishing among the league leaders in that category as well.
16. Dallas Braden, Oakland A's
Despite a very mediocre strikeout rate and sub-par ground ball rate, Braden has posted back-to-back sub-four ERAs at the major league level. Like Pavano, Braden's success is best explained by his control; he finished with the sixth-best walk rate in 2010. Braden also has had one of the best HR/GB ratios in the league over the last two seasons.
Braden has gotten the job done in Oakland despite rarely even topping 90 mph on the radar gun.
15. R.A. Dickey, New York Mets
It doesn't get any craftier than a knuckleballer, does it?
Dickey rode that knuckler to a sparkling 2.84 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 2010. Impressively, despite throwing the hardest pitch to control in baseball, Dickey had the 13th-best walk rate in the majors last year.
The knuckleball was also evidently quite difficult to drive, as Dickey was among the best in baseball in inducing ground balls and finished near the top of the league in fewest home runs allowed per nine innings.
14. Bronson Arroyo, Cincinnati Reds
Arroyo is in many ways the classic crafty veteran. His skill set certainly doesn't jump out at you, and if he had just one solid season on his resume he'd be a good bet for regression. But the fact is, he's won at least 14 games and finished with an ERA of 4.23 or better in four of his five seasons in Cincinnati.
Other than a slightly above-average walk rate, there is nothing in Arroyo's peripherals that explains his performance. Arroyo rarely tops 90 mph, but apparently confuses hitters with a very even balance of his four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, cutter and changeup.
13. Jeremy Guthrie, Baltimore Orioles
Guthrie is another pitcher who has consistently outperformed his peripherals, finishing with an ERA of 3.83 or better and WHIP of 1.23 or better in three of his four seasons in Baltimore. The fact that he pitches in the AL East makes that even more unlikely, and impressive.
Relying primarily on a low-nineties fastball, one thing Guthrie has done fairly well is limit walks, especially in 2010, when he finished with the league's 11th-best walk rate. Guthrie also consistently finishes with one of the best BABIPs in baseball.
I suppose you could argue that he's just been riding an extended streak of good fortune, but after more than 800 innings of low BABIPs you have to at least consider the possibility that there is some skill involved here.
12. Shaun Marcum, Milwaukee Brewers
Despite a fastball that only reaches the high-80s, Marcum put up strong numbers for the Blue Jays in baseball's toughest division. Marcum gives up his fair share of fly balls and home runs, but his decent strikeout rate and fifth-best walk rate in 2010 helped him escape with relatively little damage inflicted.
Now pitching in a lighter-hitting division without the DH, Marcum, whose peripherals mostly back up his performance, should be able to post numbers at least matching his 3.64 ERA and 1.15 WHIP from last year.
11. Trevor Cahill, Oakland A's
Like Jaime Garcia, Cahill is still young and may develop into a completely different pitcher than what he's shown so far. But up to this point, Cahill's elite strikeout rates in the minor leagues have not translated to the majors.
Instead, Cahill's league-leading .236 BABIP is the biggest factor behind his fantastic 2010 season. A BABIP at that level clearly includes at least some level of good luck, and it's possible Cahill will tumble back to reality in 2011.
However, Cahill's walk rate and home run rate were both decent, and he had the fifth-best ground ball rate in baseball, which suggests he could continue to be relatively effective if the defense behind him remains strong.
10. Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox
In some ways, Buchholz's profile resembles Cahill's: elite 2010 seasons despite mediocre strikeout totals that don't come close to their minor league rates, perhaps due to an effort to pitch to contact. Like Cahill, Buchholz also has proven quite adept at inducing weak ground balls.
As is the case with his namesakes Clayton Kershaw and Clayton Richard, Buchholz has had some struggles with wildness, resulting in a fairly high walk rate. He was still able to post an incredible 2.33 ERA in 2010, though, because he avoided giving up home runs.
Buchholz's strong ground ball rate is undoubtedly a significant part of that accomplishment, but whether he'll be able to maintain his excellent HR/FB ratio from last year is an open question.
Of course, Buchholz is still just 26 years old, and he possesses a 95 mph fastball and 12-to-6 curveball. So while it's possible he'll regress in 2011, it's also possible that he'll emerge as a pitcher that is too dominant to ever again be considered lucky.
9. Ted Lilly, Los Angeles Dodgers
Year after year, Lilly seems to be vastly underrated by the baseball world. Here's a guy who consistently posts sub-four ERAs with excellent WHIPs and decent strikeout rates, but never seems to get his due.
Lilly rarely tops 90 mph, but mixes up his pitches very well. Over the last three years, no pitcher in baseball has been more prone to giving up fly balls than Lilly, but it hasn't hurt his performance, even while pitching in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.
Lilly hasn't been lucky in avoiding home runs—his HR/FB ratio is actually quite high—but most of the fly balls he surrenders that aren't home runs are outs, and he also boasts one of the league's better walk rates. Now that he calls spacious Chavez Ravine home, Lilly's ability to induce fly outs is an even bigger asset.
8. Hiroki Kuroda, Los Angeles Dodgers
Lilly's teammate Kuroda is another underrappreciated—and crafty—pitcher.
Working in the low-90s with his fastball, Kuroda also heavily relies on his slider. And it's worked. During his three seasons in the majors, Kuroda has never posted an ERA higher than 3.76 or a WHIP higher than 1.22.
7. Jamie Moyer, Free Agent
Moyer had to make the list, didn't he? Any junkballer who manages to play in the major leagues until age 48 deserves automatic qualification.
Moyer is out for the season with Tommy John surgery, but maintains that he plans to make a comeback next year. Moyer is now at least eight years removed from his best seasons, but he's managed to stay relevant throughout his 40s despite a fastball that barely reaches 82 mph.
Moyer struggled for the most part in 2010, burned by the home run ball and his inability to strand runners on base. But he did have the fourth-best walk rate of any pitcher who threw over 100 innings, suggesting he realizes that his best hope at this point in his career is to avoid beating himself.
It will be interesting to see if he is crafty enough to survive in the majors until age 50. At 267 career wins, the thought of 300 must be motivating him to rehab from surgery and come back strong.
6. Roy Oswalt, Philadelphia Phillies
The top six players on this list are the cream of the crop when it comes to crafty pitchers. These are All-Star caliber pitchers who would probably have enough natural ability to still be darn good even if they weren't so crafty.
Oswalt is one such pitcher. Despite pitching in the low-to-mid 90s, Oswalt has never been a huge strikeout pitcher. What he has been able to do, though, is limit home runs and walks, get his fair share of ground balls and strand runners on base. That has allowed him to be a workhorse with a career 3.18 ERA and 1.18 WHIP.
5. Dan Haren, Los Angeles Angels
Haren is a bit bigger strikeout pitcher than Oswalt, and has put up one of the best walk rates in baseball over the last six years. Haren has been a bit more prone to the gopher ball than Oswalt, especially last year.
Overall, though, there's little to complain about with Haren. Despite a slight off year in 2010, he has still amassed six straight years with an ERA of 4.12 or lower and a WHIP of 1.27 or lower.
4. Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
Lee's strikeout totals are not particularly noteworthy, but his control most certainly is. He displayed far and away the best control in the game in 2010, as the only pitcher to walk less than one batter per nine innings.
Lee is also incredibly adept at keeping the ball in the ballpark. Despite a slightly below-average ground ball rate, Lee has allowed the fourth-fewest home runs per nine innings in the league over the last three seasons.
Lee does not throw particularly hard, topping out at about 92 mph. But he clearly keeps hitters guessing no matter what uniform he's wearing and what ballpark he's playing in. Although he may not be the No. 1 most crafty pitcher on this list, he's probably the best overall right now.
3. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
Cain continues to "craftily" defy the Sabermetricians by outperforming his peripherals.
Despite an average strikeout rate, average walk rate and tendency to give up fly balls, Cain has posted an ERA of 3.14 or better and WHIP of 1.18 or better each of the last two seasons. As is the case with Lilly, many of the fly balls Cain surrenders end up being harmless pop-outs, helping him achieve consistently low BABIPs.
Cain has decent stuff and plays in a pitcher's park, and it's possible he's benefited from some good fortune along the way. But if he can continue to consistently do better than his peripheral numbers suggest, it can only be because he's mastered the art of pitching.
2. Chris Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals
Rather, the keys to Carpenter's success have been an excellent walk rate, very strong ground ball rate and an incredible ability to avoid home runs. Those talents have helped Carpenter post at least 15 wins, an ERA of 3.41 or better and a WHIP of 1.18 or better in each of his last five full seasons.
1. Tim Hudson, Atlanta Braves
Hudson has always been very mediocre in strikeouts and his walk rate has been decent, but far from stellar. Throughout his career, a significant amount of the fly balls Hudson has given up have ended up leaving the yard.
So why is Hudson the most crafty pitcher in baseball? Because despite those numbers and a fastball that tops out in the low-90s, Hudson has a 3.42 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 11-plus seasons in the big leagues.
He's managed to pull that off by inducing ground balls with the third-most frequency of any pitcher over the last seven seasons (he led the league last year), which has helped him be one of the league leaders in BABIP over that time frame. Hudson has also shown a consistent ability to escape jams (he had the third-best strand rate last year).
The consistency in his peripheral numbers (both good and bad) from year to year show that Hudson's performance is no fluke. He's just that crafty.