Justin Verlander is easy. He’s the living, breathing definition of a No. 1 starter in both style and substance.
“When our guys come in and see his name on the lineup card, they think they’re going to win that day,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “That’s the highest compliment you can give a guy.”
That Hinch says precisely the same thing about his other ace, Gerrit Cole, says plenty about why the Astros enter the postseason with so much optimism.
But that’s a story for another day. This is about ranking the Game 1 starters of the 11 teams that have clinched playoff berths or are still in contention. (We’re not including the Cubs and Mets because they appear to be extreme postseason longshots at this point, but perhaps we’ll have to reassess this ranking in a few days if that changes.)
This list gets complicated in some spots because we are talking about Game 1 of the Division Series, which could be tricky for the teams that play in the Wild Card Game, since the teams that advance likely won’t get to use their aces until Game 3.
Here we go:
1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Astros: His 2.53 ERA is the lowest in the American League, and his 0.806 WHIP is the second lowest by a starting pitcher in the past 58 years. He has pitched at least six innings in 28 of 33 starts.
2. Jack Flaherty, RHP, Cardinals: His 0.97 ERA since the All-Star break is the lowest among all MLB starters, and he has allowed no more than one run in eight of his last 10 starts while averaging almost seven innings per game. He doesn’t have the track record of some of the other names below him on this list, but he looks as dominant as any pitcher in the game right now.
3. Patrick Corbin, LHP, Nationals: Here’s where this exercise starts to get tricky. Corbin presumably gets the Game 1 start, since Max Scherzer likely will have started the National League Wild Card Game. Corbin gets the nod over Stephen Strasburg because the Dodgers were slightly more vulnerable against left-handed pitchers (.793 OPS) vs. righties (.817 OPS). Beware of Cody Bellinger. Once thought to be vulnerable against lefties, he has a 1.058 OPS against righties, .984 against lefties.
4. James Paxton, LHP, Yankees: This is a nod to the “hot hand,” as Paxton finally looks like the guy the Yankees traded for last winter. He has allowed one earned run in four September starts to give the Yankees’ rotation a totally different look -- and potentially a dominant presence in Game 1.
5. Walker Buehler, RHP, Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw? Sure, he’s still a No. 1 on most nights. Hyun-Jin Ryu? He could get that title as well. However, Buehler’s body of work -- particularly his body of work at Dodger Stadium (2.86 ERA) -- makes him the choice for Game 1. (Also, see why MLB.com’s Dodgers beat reporter Ken Gurnick thinks Buehler will get the nod in Game 1.)
6. Charlie Morton, RHP, Rays: His 188 2/3 innings are a career high -- and that may explain his 4.38 ERA since the All-Star break, after putting up a 2.32 ERA in the first half.
7. Shane Bieber, RHP, Indians: He’s a co-ace with Mike Clevinger, but Clevinger seems lined up to pitch a tiebreaker, if necessary, or the AL Wild Card Game. Of course, if the Indians end up in a tiebreaker and then they win the Wild Card behind Clevinger and Bieber, all bets are off for the ALDS Game 1 starter. Bieber has been consistently strong down the stretch, allowing two earned runs or fewer in 10 of his last 12 starts while averaging more than seven innings per start.
8. Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Braves: He has a 3.31 ERA in 10 career postseason appearances (nine starts) and should be fresh, having pitched just 107 2/3 regular-season innings because he signed in June. His 20.5-percent soft-contact rate is his lowest since 2013. Staff ace Mike Soroka has pitched almost triple his 2018 total innings and could be slotted to pitch Game 3.
9. José Berríos, RHP, Twins: His first half (8-5, 3.00 ERA, 104 strikeouts and 23 walks) was a big reason the Twins climbed atop the AL Central to stay. He has mixed some good starts with some not-so-good ones down the stretch.
10. Mike Fiers, RHP, Athletics: With Sean Manaea likely to start the AL Wild Card Game, Fiers would appear to be A’s manager Bob Melvin’s best ALDS Game 1 option since he has been Oakland’s most consistent starter. He had a 9.39 ERA in five starts against the Astros this season, but other options may not be more appealing. Melvin could go with lefty Brett Anderson, but the Astros have an .870 OPS against lefties, .844 against righties.
11. Jordan Lyles, RHP, Brewers: His numbers say he’s manager Craig Counsell’s best option for the NL Wild Card Game. But even if he gets the start, Milwaukee could use every arm on its staff in the hitter-by-hitter matchup game that worked so well last season.