The Game Day Report’s Top 10 Starting Pitchers Entering 2018

With Opening Day just a week away, we here at The Game Day Report will be launching our large-scale preview of the 2018 MLB season that will feature everything from player rankings to full win-loss predictions for each team.

We will first be starting with player rankings, which will take a look at the top ten players at each position in baseball. Starting pitchers are up first, and here’s when the rest of our rankings will be released to the public:

Starting and relief pitchers: March 22nd

Catchers and first base: March 23rd

Second base and third base: March 24

Shortstops: March 25

Left fielders: March 26

Center fielders: March 27

Right fielders: March 28

Without further delay, here are our rankings of the top ten starting pitchers in baseball entering the 2018 season:

1: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers 

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Age: 30

2017 stats: 5.2 WAR, 2.31 earned run average, 202 strikeouts, 175.0 innings, (27 starts)

The 2017 season marked the second-straight season that Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw had to be placed on the disabled list for an extended period of time thanks to a back issue, but the 2017 season also once again proved that Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, and it’s not particularly close either.

It is fair to question whether or not Kershaw’s health concerns will limit how long he’ll be able to maintain his elite status, but it’s important to enjoy Kershaw at his best while we still can.

His 2.31 earned run average helped him lead the National League in that category for the fifth time in ten seasons, and he would’ve had six seasons leading the National League in earned run average had his 1.69 mark in 2016 not qualified among league leaders.

Kershaw’s velocity is still right where it should be, as his average fastball velocity last season was 93.1 miles per hour. His sinker-curve velocity jumped to a career-best 94.9 miles per hour as well, per Fangraphs.

On March 29th against the San Francisco Giants, Kershaw will be given the ball on Opening Day for a Dodgers franchise record eighth time. He has a career 0.99 earned run average on Opening Day, which is a good indication that Kershaw’s 2018 season, and a run towards a fourth-career Cy Young Award will be off towards a promising start.

2: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox

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Age: 28

2017 stats: 6.1 WAR, 2.90 earned run average, 308 strikeouts, 214.1 innings, (32 starts)

It’s going to be fun watching Chris Sale slice through the bats of opposing hitters for the next decade.

Sale was by far and away the best strikeout pitcher in baseball last season, causing 308 batters to whiff. His go-to strikeout pitch is his slider, which Sale threw 32.9% of the time in 2017, per Fangraphs. He was the best pitcher in baseball for the first half of the season as well, before fatigue started to kick in towards the end. Sale’s slider didn’t have the same spin on it, which caused his home run rate to inflate during the final two months of the regular season.

Fatigue biting Sale towards the end of the season happened during Sale’s time with the Chicago White Sox as well, which means Boston could look to limit Sale’s innings and high-stressed pitches in-season. With a deep pitching staff that features David Price and Rick Porcello, it is certainly possible that the team will be able to execute a plan to keep their ace fresh for 2018, and many more years to come.

3: Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals 

Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Age: 33

2017 stats: 7.4 WAR, 2.51 earned run average, 268 strikeouts, 200.2 innings (31 starts)

If you think that the Cy Young Award race usually comes down to Kershaw or Max Scherzer every year, you are exactly right.

Scherzer was named the National League’s recipient of the honor for the second-straight season in 2017, making it the first time since Randy Johnson‘s four-peat in 1999-2002 that a National League pitcher won the award in back-to-back seasons.

While most American League hitters will tell you that Sale is the hardest pitcher to face in all of Major League Baseball, the National League hitters also have themselves a good argument for Scherzer being the toughest of them all. Opponents last season batted just .178 against Scherzer in 2017, which is the lowest mark by a pitcher since 1920.

His personal accomplishments will no doubt lead him to Hall of Fame enshrinement one day, but Scherzer ultimately decided to sign with the Nationals in 2015 to win World Series titles. With 2018 potentially being Bryce Harper‘s last season in Washington D.C., the time is now for the team to win it all, and Scherzer will certainly put up yet another Cy Young worthy season in 2018 to try to push the Nationals there.

4: Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians 

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Age: 31

2017 stats: 8.2 WAR, 2.25 earned run average, 265 strikeouts, 203.2 innings (29 starts)

Cleveland Indians star Corey Kluber ended up prying away the 2017 American League Cy Young Award from Sale’s grasp with a strong second half of the season, and the two aces will likely go head-to-head once again for the honor in 2018.

For Kluber, the 2017 season brought him that prestigious honor, making it the second time in his career that he had received the award. The 2017 season also brought Kluber the lowest earned run average mark of his career at 2.25, and with MLB teams starting to transition more towards heavy bullpen-usage, manager Terry Francona was able to let it ride for a full nine innings with Kluber on five separate occasions, with three of those five complete games being shutouts.

Overall, Kluber was locked in the entire 2017 regular season, and that’s part of the reason why it was very weird to see him and the Indians exit the playoffs early in after losing the American League Division Series to the New York Yankees. Still, as long as Kluber keeps doing what he’s doing, the Indians will be reaching the playoffs for many years to come. ESPN notes that Kluber’s 15.6% swing-and-miss rate last season was the best by any pitcher in all of baseball, and that rate will likely be around that same percentage once again.

5: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals 

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Age: 29

2017 stats: 6.4 WAR, 2.52 earned run average, 204 strikeouts, 175.1 innings (28 starts)

One of baseball’s most underrated stories last season was Stephen Strasburg starting 25+ games in a season for the first time since 2014. The overall product of the game is so much better when Strasburg is out there 100% healthy, and his 2.52 earned run average mark in 2017 proved that to be the truth, as that is the lowest earned run average mark in a full-season for Strasburg in his Major League career.

Strasburg also only surrendered 13 homers last season, another career low-mark for a full-season for the 29-year-old hurler. Perhaps his 2017 season was a bit overlooked considering he had to share the spotlight with Scherzer, but I doubt his 2018 season will be able to share the same sentiment.

Plus, Strasburg’s stellar 2017 season had to be encouraging for general manager Mike Rizzo and the Nationals’ front office as a whole, as the team will owe Strasburg over $175 million between now and 2024. He is scheduled to make $15 million this season, but his salary will spike up to $35 million in 2019, and it could reach $45 million in 2023 if Strasburg doesn’t choose to opt-out in 2019 or 2020.

That’s a whole different story, however, because as long as Strasburg is healthy, the results will take care of themselves. Many scouts and pundits believe Strasburg has the best pitch arsenal in the game, so in other words, the $175 million investment is in very good hands.

6: Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Age: 28

2017 stats: 3.5 WAR, 3.32 earned run average, 101 strikeouts, 111.0 innings, (17 starts)

The 2017 season for the San Francisco Giants and southpaw Madison Bumgarner will forever go down as one to forget.

While Bumgarner himself had success when he was on the field, the Giants had an overall disappointing season as a team. Plus, before he was even able to get onto the field in 2017, Bumgarner had to rehab a shoulder injury suffered in a dirt bike accident during the spring. At the time, San Francisco was said to be heavily concerned about the health of Bumgarner’s shoulder, but his strong return brought more optimism to the organization, especially when you look at his post all-star break numbers. The 28-year-old Bumgarner walked just 16 batters from mid-July on, and had a 3.43 earned run average.

Many consider that stretch by Bumgarner to be some of the most effective work of his career, which is why general manager Bobby Evans went out and added Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen to the roster over the winter to beef up hitting on the roster, and kept Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija together in the starting rotation.

If things do turn sour in San Francisco again, it should be interesting to see what direction the team will choose to go in. They hold a $12 million club option in 2019 on Bumgarner’s contract, but he will become an unrestricted free agent following the 2019 season if he doesn’t receive a fair long-term extension offer by the club. Bumgarner would love to stay with the Giants, but as a player who was won a World Series MVP and shinned his brightest in the clutch, he wants to win more than anything.

7: Justin Verlander, Houston Astros 

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Age: 35

2017 stats: 6.5 WAR, 3.36 earned run average, 219 strikeouts, 206.0 innings, (33 starts)

2017 stats with Houston: 1.8 WAR, 1.06 earned run average, 43 strikeouts, 34.0 innings (5 starts)

Had Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow not acquired right-handed pitcher Justin Verlander via trade with the Detroit Tigers on August 31st, it’s very possible the team could still be in search for their first World Series title in franchise history.

Houston already had a great rotation without Verlander, but many in the Astros’ clubhouse thought he could be the guy to elevate the team come playoff time. That’s just what Verlander did, as he seemed rejuvenated being back in a winning environment again.

Many teams were said to be skeptical about trading for Verlander in August, but those same teams are likely now regretting not being more aggressive in adding Verlander into their winning culture. He and Jose Altuve were named co-recipients of the Babe Ruth Award that honors the best MLB player in the playoffs overall. Verlander was also named American League Championship Series MVP for his stellar showings against the New York Yankees, while center fielder George Springer took home World Series MVP.

Verlander had a 2.21 earned run average across six games in the playoffs for the Astros, and with him being named the team’s Opening Day starter, he will only continue to get to build on what has been an essentially perfect start to his Astros career thus far.

8: Luis Severino, New York Yankees

Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News

Age: 24

2017 stats: 5.3 WAR, 2.98 earned run average, 230 strikeouts, 193.1 innings (31 starts)

After a nightmare 2016 season, it was very good to see New York Yankees right-hander Luis Severino bounce back and emerge as the team’s ace ahead of Masahiro Tanaka, with more growth still possible for the 24-year-old.

Severino learned how to command his pitches last season and learned how to mix those same pitches better so that he became more unpredictable. Sometimes when executives and scouts see a hard-throwing pitcher that struggles with his command, they often fear that specific pitcher may be destined for a bullpen role if he doesn’t get things under control. Severino threw away all that talk about him not being a starting pitcher by sitting down 230 hitters in 2017, with his average fastball velocity being 97.6 miles per hour, the fastest among starting pitchers in the majors.

Opponents struggled to hit Severino, and also struggled at getting on-base in general. Opposing hitters posted a way below-average .266 on-base percentage versus Severino, which once again proves the point that he cut down on his walk rate, and inflated his strikeout rate even more.

The next generation of Yankees baseball will likely be led by Severino pitching wise, and carried by Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, and Gary Sanchez hitting wise. What Yankees general manager Brian Cashman will decide to do to supplement the rotation after Severino in the future remains to be seen, but there will be nothing wrong with turning the ball over to Severino in the biggest of games for the next decade, and then some.

9: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports

While teammate Noah Syndergaard will be receiving the Opening Day nod instead, New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom is still a better overall pitcher than Syndergaard due to his ability to stay healthy and be the more consistent and dependable pitcher.

Syndergaard clearly has the potential to become a better pitcher than deGrom, but remember when how not even three full years ago the talk around baseball was how well set up the Mets were set up for the future because of their pitching staff?  Syndergaard only pitching 34.1 innings in 2017 isn’t even the worst in regards to the decline of the Mets pitching staff, as Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler both have struggled to stay healthy throughout their entire careers, and Matt Harvey has appeared to have fallen off a cliff from the pitcher he once was.

All of those factors are why we are going with deGrom ahead of Syndergaard, because deGrom has provided the Mets with 107 starts since his rookie season in 2014, while Syndergaard has only started 61 games for the team since his rookie season in 2015.

You can count on deGrom to be fully-healthy once again in 2018, and if we are being honest, Mets fans deserve to see their rotation fully healthy at least one more time for a full-season. There is already enough uncertainty with the health of franchise-pillar David Wright, so wouldn’t it just be nice to receive some clarity for at least one area of the team in 2018?

Age: 29

2017 stats: 4.8 WAR, 3.53 earned run average, 239 strikeouts, 201.1 innings, (31 starts)

10. Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros

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Age: 30

2017 stats: 3.9 WAR, 2.90 earned run average, 125 strikeouts, 145.2 innings (23 starts)

Both the Nationals and Astros now have two pitchers in the top ten with the addition of Dallas Keuchel onto our list. Keuchel, just like Verlander, was also very critical towards landing the Astros their first World Series title in franchise history, as he had a 3.58 earned run average in his five playoff starts. His best performance of the playoffs came against the New York Yankees on October 13, when he pitched seven shutout innings and allowed just four hits while striking out 10 batters.

Just like Scherzer and Strasburg, Verlander and Keuchel will also likely both be in contention for the Cy Young Award. Keuchel has already won an American League Cy Young Award in his career as well, thanks to his 2015 campaign that featured a 2.48 earned run average and 216 strikeouts in 232 innings of work. The 2016 season was a rough one for Kuechel, as his earned run average blossomed to 4.55, but a very strong bounce back 2017 season is why he’s earned his way back into baseball’s group of elite pitchers.

Honorable Mention:

Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians 

Robbie Ray, Arizona Diamondbacks 

Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets

Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs [twitter-follow screen_name='tony_montalto' show_count='yes']

Published by Tony Montalto

Twitter: @montalto_tony

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