Kershaw leads aces atop 2018 Top 10 SP list

January 31st, 2018

MLB Network's "Top 10 Right Now" series ranks Major League Baseball's top players at each position headed into 2018, with two episodes airing each Saturday night from Jan. 13 through Feb. 10.'s Mike Petriello participated in the show, and as each position is aired, we'll share his list along with the reasoning behind it. Rankings were compiled with a combination of subjective and analytical data, and no, wins and saves never matter.
Position overview: Starting pitching has always been full of stars, and this year is no different, as there's a four-way tie at the top consisting of some of the truly elite aces in baseball. After that, there are several different directions you could go in, but getting to 10 names wasn't the hard part. Separating out the 20 or so contenders to get to a final list of 10 was.
Before we get to my list, here is The Shredder's list -- the official ranking of Top 10 Right Now -- for comparison. This list was created by the MLB Network research team and is to be considered entirely separate from my list.
3. Chris Sale
4. Max Scherzer
Petriello's list
1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
2. Max Scherzer, Nationals
3. Corey Kluber, Indians
4. Chris Sale, Red Sox

This is essentially a four-way tie for first, because these four studs are the owners of eight Cy Young Awards and 20 top-five finishes. There's a reasonable argument for the top four to appear in any order, really. They're the best the game has to offer, and they have been for years.

We kept Kershaw at the top of the list, and we expect that will be controversial, because for the second straight year, he missed time due to a back injury, which in 2017 limited him to only 175 innings. Then again, Scherzer (neck, hamstring) and Kluber (back) missed time as well, Sale stayed healthy, but faded down the stretch, and Kershaw's performance (202/30 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 2.31 ERA) remained elite. He's still the best pitcher in baseball until someone proves he's not.
However, Scherzer came extremely close. The now three-time Cy Young Award winner had the lowest Expected wOBA in the Majors, and that's a metric that matters; it's our most advanced Statcast™ tool for grading both quality of contact and amount of contact. He led the NL in strikeouts (268) for the second year in a row, and his 34.4-percent strikeout rate was second only to Sale.
For Kluber and Sale, they both combined long periods of dominance with a few weeks of struggle, except at different times of the year. When Kluber returned from the disabled list in June, he had a 5.06 ERA in six starts. Over his remaining 23 starts, he struck out 224 in 166 1/3 innings with a 1.62 ERA on his way to his second Cy Young Award.
Meanwhile, Sale was so strong through the first four months of the year (2.37 ERA, 211 strikeouts in 148 1/3 innings) that the discussion was whether he'd end up as the Most Valuable Player, not just the Cy Young. Over the final two months, that ERA jumped to 4.09, though he continued to miss bats; no starter had a higher strikeout percentage than his 34 percent.
All four of these aces are stars, to the point that it's going to be a surprise if several of them aren't in Cooperstown someday.

5. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
It might actually undersell Strasburg to say he's "only" fifth, but the foursome ahead of him are just that good. He also missed some time (elbow), limiting him to a Kershaw-esque 175 1/3 innings, but when he was on the mound, he pitched some of the best baseball of his career. In a world where every pitcher is allowing more home runs, Strasburg actually allowed fewer, as his 0.67 HR/9 was the lowest of any of his full seasons. By xwOBA, he was essentially equal to Kershaw.
Strasburg might not be the best pitcher on his own staff, thanks to Scherzer, but he's undeniably one of the truly elite arms in the game.
6. Carlos Carrasco, Indians
Speaking of great pitchers who get overshadowed in their own cities, there's Carrasco, who has quietly been one of the best starters in baseball since his 2015 breakout. Pitching a career-high 200 innings, Carrasco whiffed 226 hitters, also a career high, and it's important to realize how far he's come. In '17, he struck out 28 percent of the hitters he faced; in '11, his first full year as a starter, that number was 15 percent. Because it took him so long to get here, his career numbers don't really tell the story of the pitcher he is now.

7. Noah Syndergaard, Mets
Because Syndergaard pitched just 30 1/3 innings due to a lat tear, this might seem high, but this list is not about reviewing what happened in 2017. It's about looking ahead to '18. We know that he was an absolute ace in 2016; we know that he was dominant before he got hurt in '17 (in 27 1/3 innings, he struck out 32 against two walks); we know that when he made two brief cameos at the end of the year, he was healthy enough to touch 100 mph five times.
"I'm extremely confident just because of the way I finished the season," Syndergaard said in December. "The last start against the Phillies, I don't think I've ever felt that way before."
We don't know if a man who throws this hard all the time can stay healthy over a full season. We do know that when he's on the mound, there are few better.
8. , Yankees
At 23, Severino finished third in the AL Cy Young voting, thanks in large part to a 97.5- mph fastball that was the hardest of any starting pitcher outside of Syndergaard. If we go back to xwOBA, which includes both amount of contact as well as quality of contact, Severino had the eighth-best mark; he had the sixth-highest strikeout rate of any qualified starter, and the 15th-lowest walk rate. The track record isn't as long as the other names here, but the talent certainly matches up.
9. Justin Verlander, Astros
At the time, it seemed like down/injured seasons in 2014 and '15 might be the beginning of the end of Verlander as one of the best pitchers in the game, but a pair of very good seasons in 2016 and '17 have turned that discussion around. His fastball, which had dropped to 92-93 mph in his down years, was up above 95 again. His strikeout rate, which had fallen to 18 percent in 2014, was back up to 26 percent. Plus, if you look at only what he did with Houston, he had a 43/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 34 regular-season innings. We're excited to see what a full year with the Astros can do.

10. Zack Greinke, D-backs
Speaking of veteran aces who had suffered through a down year, Greinke's 2016 Arizona debut was pretty disappointing, with an inflated 4.37 ERA. It was pretty clear to us a year ago that improvements in the team around him would help, and they did, as Greinke stepped forward in every facet of the game. His ERA dropped to 3.20; his strikeout rate jumped from 20 percent to 27 percent; his xwOBA dropped from .316 to .276. This is the Greinke we remembered.
Just missed (in no order): , free agent; , Giants; , free agent; Kyle Hendricks, Cubs; , Astros; , Mets; , Mariners; Chris Archer, Rays; , Cubs; , Phillies; , Cardinals
Every pitcher listed here -- and probably several others -- had something of a case to make the top 10. Bumgarner is probably the most controversial exclusion, and that's only due to the shoulder injury that cost him months last year; after returning, his ERA went from 3.00 to 3.43, and his strikeout rate dropped from 25 percent to 21 percent. Milwaukee's Jimmy Nelson may also have placed here if not for a shoulder injury of his own, and it may well be that a year from now, we regret not placing Shohei Ohtani here.