MLB.com Columnist

Mike Petriello

2017's Top 10 starting pitchers right now

2017's Top 10 starting pitchers right now

MLB Network's "Top 10 Right Now" series, looking at the best players at each position headed into 2017, will air two positions each Sunday night through Feb. 12. As each position is revealed, MLB.com's Mike Petriello, a participant in the show, will unveil his list along with the reasoning behind it. Rankings were compiled with a combination of subjective and analytical data, and pitcher wins never matter. We'll also include the rankings of "the Shredder," the MLB Network research department algorithm based on player performance, which accounts for both offense and defense.

Position overview: The top of the list of starting pitchers remains as stacked with huge names as ever, but overall this position feels slightly less loaded than it did last year. Big names like Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Greinke, Sonny Gray, Dallas Keuchel, Gerrit Cole, Jordan Zimmermann and Carlos Carrasco took steps back, were injured or both, and the tragic passing of Jose Fernandez robbed the sport of one of its brightest stars. There's also the ever-present question of how much the Cubs' "Big 3" owe to Chicago's outstanding defense as opposed to their own skill. The only certainty in this list is that if you asked 10 people, you'd get 10 different lists.

Previous lists: Second base | Third base 

The list:

1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (Shredder rank: 1)
Yes, Kershaw missed two months with a back injury, which likely cost him a fourth National League Cy Young Award in six years. No, it doesn't matter. Kershaw was already on a Hall of Fame trajectory entering 2016, and all he did was deliver his most dominant season yet, doing insane things like putting up a 172/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio(!) in 149 innings with a 1.69 ERA. You can offer all the lame "but playoffs" jokes you want, forgetting that he managed to dominate the Cubs in Game 2 of the NL Championship Series, and he's still the best pitcher in baseball. This one's not close.

Clayton Kershaw strikeout and yell

2. Max Scherzer, Nationals (Shredder rank: 2)
Scherzer did just about everything he could to overtake Kershaw, topping 210 innings for the fourth season in a row, easily winning his second Cy Young Award, and tying a record by striking out 20 hitters in a game. Scherzer's 31.5-percent strikeout rate wasn't only a career high, it was the highest by any starting pitcher with 150 innings pitched other than Fernandez, and Scherzer kept his walk rate low. While there was a minor home run issue that led to a higher-than-expected ERA, Scherzer's sheer dominance over so many innings makes him a very worthy No. 2 on this list.

3. Noah Syndergaard, Mets (Shredder rank: 9)
On raw talent alone, Syndergaard might top this list. He led all starters with a 98.2-mph average fastball velocity, topping the next name on the list by well over a full mph, and even though his debut in 2015 was impressive, his follow-up in '16 was better. Syndergaard increased his strikeout rate, held his walk rate steady and sliced his home-run rate in half. There's even evidence, according to FanGraphs, that the Mets' outfield defense made him look worse than he should have been, and he looked great anyway. Just about the only knock against Syndergaard is that he had forearm tightness in 2015 and elbow spurs in '16, which has to add some amount of risk to a pitcher who already throws harder than anyone, and that's why he can't sneak above Scherzer here. Yet, anyway.

4. Chris Sale, Red Sox (Shredder rank: 7)
While there's a clear top three in this list-maker's opinion, you could probably order everyone else in just about any fashion you wanted. We're going with Sale at No. 4 because he's had five straight seasons of elite performance and health, allaying just about any concerns that his funky delivery wouldn't allow him to hold up over time, and because there's evidence that the move to Boston could help him considerably. As we wrote at the time of the trade, Sale was hurt by poor pitch framing more than just about any other pitcher in 2016. The departure of plus framer Tyler Flowers isn't the only reason Sale's strikeout rate dropped from 32.1 percent in 2015 to 25.7 in '16, but it matters -- a lot. He'll get more help in Boston, both behind the plate and in the field.

5. Corey Kluber, Indians (Shredder rank: 6)
If Kluber's postseason heroics were his national coming-out party, then you're about three years behind the times. The 2014 AL Cy Young Award winner continues to pump out 200-plus innings of dominance a year, to the point that, by some measures, 2016 was his least impressive year, and it was still outstanding. There's a good argument to make that Kluber's curve/slider -- he simply calls it "a breaking ball" -- is the best pitch that any starter owns, according to FanGraphs. If the only thing on his resume was the lack of postseason credentials, he has that now, too.

Corey Kluber strikes out eight in first three innings

6. Madison Bumgarner, Giants (Shredder rank: 3)
Speaking of postseason credentials, few have ever had more big October moments than Bumgarner, and despite the fact that the Giants' even-year magic ended in 2016, he still added to the legend by outdueling Syndergaard in throwing a four-hit shutout of the Mets in the NL Wild Card Game. There's evidence that the superior framing of Buster Posey helped Bumgarner more than any starter was helped by a catcher, according to FanGraphs, but we've now seen San Francisco's ace throw six straight outstanding seasons. He's yet to have that one wow season and doesn't pile up gaudy strikeout numbers like some of the others, yet he's earned this lofty position.

7. Justin Verlander, Tigers
After years of heavy use and success, Verlander was nearing the edge of being written off after two subpar (for him) seasons in 2014 in '15, beset by surgery and declining velocity. But he quietly showed enough late in 2015 that he seemed like a good comeback candidate, and he did that and then some, throwing 227 2/3 innings with the highest strikeout rate (28.1 percent) of his career. No starting pitcher had a higher spin rate on his fastball than Verlander, and since he began using it more effectively, it became his best pitch. This wasn't quite vintage MVP Verlander, but it was close.

8. Yu Darvish, Rangers
It was easy to forget about Darvish, given the Tommy John surgery that erased his 2015 season and delayed his '16 debut, but when he returned last summer, he was absolutely fantastic. In 100 1/3 innings following his return, his strikeout rate of 31.7 percent was a career-best and essentially the same as Scherzer's. Darvish sliced his walk rate to a career-low 7.5 percent -- which is interesting, as command is usually the last thing to return after surgery -- and he did it while relying more on his high-spin fastball, as recommended by catcher Jonathan Lucroy. His 100 innings is enough to show his arm is healthy, and he's never been less than dominant in the big leagues.

Darvish Strikeout Reel

9. Johnny Cueto, Giants (Shredder rank: 8)
Remember how uncertain we all were about Cueto given his Kansas City struggles in 2015? We knew going into his free agency that he was excellent at limiting exit velocity on his fastball, and all he did in his first year with the Giants was put up a season that was equal to or better than Bumgarner's, according to FanGraphs. If it wasn't quite the 2.25 ERA over 243 2/3 innings Cueto put up with Cincinnati in 2014, a 2.79 ERA in 219 2/3 innings is still a pretty impressive line, thanks in part to a career-low 5.1 percent walk rate. Including playoffs, he's thrown 708 1/3 innings over the past three years, putting to rest any injury fears that came up during a truncated 2013.

10. Kyle Hendricks, Cubs
Where to place Hendricks or any other Cubs starter was difficult, given how much we know they were all helped by a historically good Chicago defense. Hendricks' strikeout and walk ratios were nearly identical to what they were in 2015, yet he managed to cut his ERA from 3.95 to an MLB-best 2.13. Was that him or Addison Russell, Jason Heyward and friends? The right answer is both, probably, but we could tell by midseason that Hendricks truly induced weak contact, and early looks at new measurements coming out of the Statcast™ lab show that he might be among the game's elite in avoiding high exit velocity at dangerous launch angles. If this is a skill, it seems he might have it.

Kyle Hendricks nasty changeup

Just missed (in no order): David Price, Red Sox; Rick Porcello, Red Sox; Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees; Jose Quintana, White Sox; Jake Arrieta, Cubs (Shredder rank: 4); Jon Lester, Cubs (Shredder rank: 5); Rich Hill, Dodgers; Chris Archer, Rays; Cole Hamels, Rangers; Strasburg, Nationals; Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays.

You can see by the size of the just-missed list how difficult it was, because there are at least 20 pitchers with decent cases to make it into the top 10. If you prefer Hill's small-sample dominance or Price's overwhelming innings total or Archer's second-half rebound or even Greinke (ranked by the Shredder at No. 10), you could certainly make the argument toward doing so. Finding the 10 best starters is not the same as saying there are only 10 good starters, after all.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.