These are the top aces in the postseason

A Division Series edition of Starting Pitcher Power Rankings

October 7th, 2023

The figure of the ace does not loom as large in the modern postseason as it does in October lore. That’s the reality of how starting pitchers are used now.

But there will still be plenty of opportunities for top starters to exert their influence on this year’s Division Series -- set to begin with four games on Saturday -- and beyond. It already happened in the Wild Card Series, with the Rangers ( and ), Twins ( and ), Phillies ( and ) and D-backs () all notching two-game sweeps with significant help from their frontline arms.

So as we look ahead to the rest of this month, here is a postseason edition of the Starting Pitcher Power Rankings. Our voting panel only considered those on the final eight teams remaining, factoring in career track record (including the playoffs), 2023 performance and recent success.

1. Zack Wheeler, Phillies
That Wheeler only appeared once across 12 regular season editions of these rankings (eighth on Sept. 7) doesn’t mean he had a disappointing campaign. While the righty’s traditional stats don’t jump out (13 wins, 3.61 ERA), he actually led Major League pitchers in FanGraphs’ version of WAR, based on his 3.15 FIP (sixth among qualifiers). But the thing that likely propelled Wheeler to the top spot here is his burgeoning reputation as a postseason performer. Including his dominant outing against the Marlins in the Wild Card Series, Wheeler owns a 2.55 ERA over his first seven playoff starts, with 41 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings.

2. , Braves
The 24-year-old still has to prove himself on the October stage, but it should be fun seeing him put his electrifying arsenal to the test. First up: an intimidating Phillies lineup that nonetheless batted .192/.225/.287 with three walks and 38 strikeouts against Strider in four regular season confrontations this year. Overall in 2023, Strider led the Majors in both wins (20) and strikeouts (281, a Modern Era Braves record), piling up at least nine K’s 22 times.

3. , Astros
At the other end of the experience spectrum you have the venerable Verlander. Nobody on this list is less likely to be overwhelmed by the spotlight than a 40-year-old with three Cy Young Awards and two World Series rings. Verlander is already the all-time postseason strikeout leader (230), and two more starts would give him 36 of those, trailing only Andy Pettitte. Even in a somewhat uneven 2023, Verlander posted a 3.22 ERA, including 3.31 in 11 starts after rejoining the Astros.

4. Sonny Gray, Twins
It’s shocking to think that it's now 10 years ago that a 23-year-old Gray, then an A’s rookie, went toe-to-toe with Verlander in two ALDS starts against the Tigers. Now, their current teams are battling in the same round. Gray’s overall postseason record is limited but impressive (2.39 ERA in five starts). And this time, he is coming off arguably the finest season of his career, having led the Majors in FIP (2.83) and home run rate (0.4 per nine innings) while allowing three runs or fewer in 29 of 32 starts.

5. Zac Gallen, D-backs
Gallen delivered in his postseason debut on Wednesday, overcoming a shaky first inning to go six strong and help Arizona complete a sweep in Milwaukee. That was representative of Gallen’s season, after he finished second in the Majors with 210 innings. The D-backs will be counting on him for another gem -- or, perhaps, two of them -- to get past the heavily favored Dodgers in the NLDS.

6. , Astros
Around midseason, Valdez topped these rankings and looked like a serious AL Cy Young Award contender, with an ERA well under 3.00, including his May 21 no-hitter against Oakland. A shaky final 14 starts (4.66 ERA, 4.39 FIP) changed the conversation, although Valdez was mostly stellar over the last month. And let’s not forget that one year ago, the lefty made his mark on the Astros’ championship run, with a 1.44 ERA in four starts, including a win in the decisive sixth game of the World Series.

7. Pablo López, Twins
López took the mound in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series against the Blue Jays shouldering the responsibility of helping to end Minnesota’s 18-game playoff losing streak. He didn’t buckle under that pressure, going 5 2/3 strong innings in his second career postseason start. López posted a 2.79 ERA over his final 13 regular season starts as well, striking out 89 in 77 1/3 innings.

8. , Phillies
Few individual players have more on the line this postseason than Nola, a pending free agent with a strong career track record but underwhelming 2023 results (4.46 ERA). But Nola pitched well over his final two regular season outings and carried that into the Wild Card Series, allowing the Marlins just three hits over seven scoreless innings. A few more starts like that certainly wouldn’t hurt Nola’s Hot Stove outlook.

9. Nathan Eovaldi, Rangers
Eovaldi ranked as high as second (twice) in the Starting Pitcher Power Rankings this year, reflective of an All-Star season in which he delivered a 2.69 ERA over 19 starts through July 18. But then Eovaldi missed several weeks with a right forearm strain, returned in September and allowed 21 earned runs in 20 1/3 innings the rest of the way. That put a damper on his postseason prospects, but Eovaldi -- a pitcher with some serious October credentials -- turned things back around in Game 2 against the Rays (6 2/3 innings, one run, eight K’s). That’s huge for a Rangers club missing multiple injured starters.

10. , Braves
While a few injured list stints limited him to 14 starts, Fried was excellent when healthy in 2023 (2.55 ERA). But once again, his ability to stay on the mound is in question due to a persistent blister issue. Atlanta’s October fate may hinge on whether Fried can avoid further problems and improve upon his up-and-down postseason record.

Other receiving votes: Jordan Montgomery (Rangers), (Dodgers), (Orioles), (Orioles), (D-backs), (Dodgers)

Voters: David Adler, Brett Blueweiss, Paul Casella, Doug Gausepohl, Thomas Harrigan, Sarah Langs, Travis Miller, Ricardo Montes de Oca, Brian Murphy, Sweeny Murti, Manny Randhawa, Efrain Ruiz, Shanthi Sepe-Chepuru, Andrew Simon, David Venn