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Ranking 2013′s Rookie SP Class: #1-10

Michael Wacha was nearly unhittable down the stretch, but where does he rank in our top 10?

Michael Wacha was nearly unhittable down the stretch, but where does he rank in our top 10?

We’ve made it, folks. After grinding through Part 1 (#21-33) and picking up steam in Part 2 (#11-20), we’re finally ready to unveil the much-heralded top 10!

This is also a good time for me to ask you to do two things:

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Without further ado, here’s my top 10 rankings of 2013′s rookie starting pitchers. For reference, recall that expected 2014 production is weighted heavily (since I think people care way too much about seasons 3-5 years out).

10. Zack Wheeler, NYM

24 100 68.2 168.2 7-5 3.42 1.36 4.17 7.56 4.14 43.2

I’m not totally sold on Wheeler, but his 2014 upside is higher than anyone on Part 2 of this three-part countdown. He’s struggled mightily with his control, and while he can always rear back and throw mid-to-high 90s smoke, it doesn’t matter that batters can’t catch up to it if you give them the chance to leave the bat on their shoulder.

After a trio of veteran signings (Curtis Granderson, Chris Young, Bartolo Colon) adding to a strong 2-3 combo in their lineup (Daniel Murphy, David Wright), the Mets are still sort of in rebuilding mode with the potential to surprise in 2014. The rotation is holding them back, and Wheeler’s development will dictate much of their success this season. Regardless, they’ll want Wheeler to cut his teeth, and take his lumps, this year as opposed to next when Matt Harvey will hopefully be back. On a positive note, Wheeler threw 168.2 innings in 2013, so a 185+ inning season is very doable.

The Colon signing crowds the Mets rotation a bit, but I think Wheeler gets the final spot.

2015 & Beyond: Scouts rave about Wheeler’s stuff, particularly this rather glowing review of his repertoire. That article also says, “Wheeler’s mechanics make him an unlikely bet to avoid major arm injuries over the next five years,” which is never great to hear, especially in light of teammate Matt Harvey’s heartbreaking injury. In the end, it’ll come down to Wheeler’s ability to limit walks. I think this will come with time, and I’m moderately high on his potential beyond the upcoming season.

9. Alex Wood, ATL

23 77.2 62 139 3-3 3.13 1.33 3.05 8.92 3.13 49.1

Tim Hudson‘s departure opened up a rotation spot for Wood, who just so happens to be one of my favorite young pitchers. Whether it’s height (6’3), handedness (lefty), velocity (low 90s fastball), or secondary pitch selection (great change-up), Wood reminds me a lot of Cole Hamels. Wood would (that just sounds awkward) be higher on this list if not for one glaring concern — his potential innings total in 2014.

Between the majors and minors last year, Wood threw just 139 innings. Teams don’t like increasing the innings totals of young pitchers by more than 25-35 per year, which means Wood’s 2014 season might be capped around 165-170 innings. I think he’ll be brilliant in those 165-170 innings, but the guys who rank 1-8 don’t have the same likely innings restrictions (save for number 7).

2015 & Beyond: Best-case scenario: Hamels. That said, Wood has a funky delivery, which many have suggested leaves him at risk for serious injury. Of course, the same people have probably said the same thing about Chris Sale‘s delivery, and he’s been just fine…knock on Wood. (Get it? Wood? Nevermind.)

8. Hyun-Jin Ryu, LAD

27 192 0 192 14-8 3 1.20 3.24 7.22 2.30 50.6

Unlike a lot of Korean or Japanese rookies, Ryu is still relatively young (27). Now, I still think that’s a little old to land him in a ranking of last year’s top rookies, but I’m just following MLB’s lead here.

In the interest of full disclosure, I owned Ryu in my fantasy league last year and I tried to dump him for about three months until the trade deadline passed. He started the year scorching hot with a 2.38 ERA and 10.99 K/9 in April, but his strikeout rate plummeted to the mid-5.00s for three of the season’s final five months. In May, June, and July that was a major issue — Ryu was striking out around just 5.5 batters per nine and walking about 3.0. It wasn’t such a big deal in August and September when his walk rate fell to 1.0.

Point blank: Ryu is a more veteran sophomore starter than the other guys on this list, and he worked 192 innings of surprisingly stable ball en route to a 3.00 ERA and 3.24 FIP. I see no reason he can’t do the same thing in 2014, and I think there’s still a little room for improvement, particularly with his WHIP.

2015 & Beyond: Eh, Ryu’s upside is the most limited among this group. What you see in 2014 is probably what you’ll see in 2015, 2016, and 2017.

7. Danny Salazar, CLE

24 52 93 145 2-3 3.12 1.13 3.16 11.25 2.60 34.4

Like Wood, Salazar’s 2013 innings total will prevent him from really breaking out in 2014. Still, look at that strikeout rate. And look at that walk rate! Do you know how many non-relievers in the last 10 years have had a strikeout rate over 11.0 and a walk rate under 3.0 in a single season (minimum 50 IP)? Of course you don’t. That’s a completely random stat.

But because you were wondering, the answer is five: Randy Johnson (2007), Stephen Strasburg (2010), Strasburg again (2012), Max Scherzer (2012), and Salazar (2013). That’s an incredibly elite group.

Yes, Salazar will probably get capped around 170-175 innings, but he’s still a threat for 200+ strikeouts. And because his walk rate is so good and he limits the balls put into play (all those strikeouts) he’ll almost certainly finish with a very good WHIP. The determining factor in how high Salazar’s value soars in 2014 is how many homers he allows, which are really just functions of his his GB% and HR/FB%.

2015 & Beyond: His potential is stupid-good. I reeeeally wanted to put him above the next guy, but the innings limit prevented me from pulling the trigger. But in a keeper league where you’re guaranteed to lock in Salazar for the next 3-5 years? I’ll take him over the guy ranked sixth in a heartbeat (especially when you consider Salazar probably costs way less to acquire right now).

6. Shelby Miller, STL

23 173.1 0 173.1 15-9 3.06 1.21 3.67 8.78 2.96 38.4

After pitching just 136.1 innings in 2012, Miller ran into the innings wall last year, finishing at 173.1. His strikeout rate fell off the table to just 4.60 K/9 in 29.1 September innings, and the Cardinals decided his season was done.

Admittedly, I have my reservations about Miller. He’s the epitome of a two-pitch starter, throwing either his fastball or his curveball an astounding 92.2% of the time. Fact #1: He’s going to need a reliable third pitch. Fact #2: I’m not going to just own him and hope that he doesn’t get lit up while working through it.

That’s a rather scathing paragraph for a player I ranked higher than Indians wunder-pitcher, Danny Salazar. Well, there are plenty of reasons to like Miller in 2014: he could approach or exceed 200 innings, he’s coming off a 15-win season for a World Series favorite, he’ll still strikeout nearly a batter per inning (or more), and his electric stuff and below average ground ball rate should help keep his WHIP low.

2015 & Beyond: I’d flip Miller and Salazar in my long-term rankings, and I’d probably put Wood over Miller as well. That’s more a reflection of how much I like those two than it is of my opinion of Miller. A strong 2014 season in which he successfully mixes in a third pitch will have Miller shooting up my 2015 rankings, though.

5. Julio Teheran, ATL

23 185.2 0 185.2 14-8 3.2 1.17 3.69 8.24 2.18 37.8

Teheran really impressed me last year. I really didn’t think he had the stuff to be an 8.00+ K/9 pitcher, but a 9.41 second-half strikeout rate helped the Braves rookie leap into my top five.

Where did the strikeout rate come from? Frankly, his slider got wicked good. After adding the pitch to his repertoire at the start of the year, Teheran saw rapid improvement in the pitch’s quality. While he posted average swing-and-miss rates of about 10-15% versus his slider during the season’s first two months, that rate skyrocketed over the last four months of 2013 up to 26.4% in September. Teheran now boasts three very good pitches, plus the occasional change-up.

That isn’t to say that Teheran doesn’t come without his warning signs — he’s a fly ball pitcher whose 3.69 FIP belied his 3.20 ERA — but all-in-all he did enough to convince me that he’s a strong starting option from here on out.

2015 & Beyond: Assuming his development hasn’t plateaued — and at just 23 years of age in 2014, there’s little reason to think that it has — Teheran should continue to improve the quality of his offerings as well as his feel for the game. With a potentially devastating slider and very good walk rates, Teheran will likely be near the top of the NL pitcher rankings for the foreseeable future.

4. Michael Wacha, STL

23 64.2 85 149.2 4-1 2.78 1.10 2.92 9.05 2.64 44.3

Blasphemy! How is Wacha this low?! Once again, a probable 2014 innings cap is to blame. Wacha was a stretch run and postseason monster, but I don’t envision him going much beyond 180 innings. That’s good enough to put him fourth on this list, but the three guys ahead of him are probably beyond the innings-monitoring stages of their careers.

What can we expect out of Wacha in those 180 innings? I think he has the ability to put up Felix Hernandez-like numbers on a per-inning basis — 3.00 ERA, 1.10-1.15 WHIP, and around a K per inning.

2015 & Beyond: I’d have Wacha second on this list if 2014 didn’t count, but unless you’re the Houston Astros, you probably care about the upcoming season.

3. Gerrit Cole, PIT

23 117.1 68 185.1 10-7 3.22 1.17 2.91 7.67 2.15 49.1

I thought long and hard about where to rank Cole. On the one hand, his 2.91 FIP, 100-mph heat, and 10.97 K/9 in September are awfully impressive. On the other hand, he allowed a below average 24.8% line drive rate last year and he has a tendency to overthrow, leading to four-seamers that are as straight as they are fast. I saw enough in 2013 to be pretty bullish on Cole’s 2014 potential, and his 185.1 innings last year (and the resulting restriction-less total for 2014) only help his cause.

2015 & Beyond: Cole is a really odd combination of ground balls and strikeouts, and I love this about him. Even when he was striking out almost 11 batters per nine in September, his GB/FB ratio was still very high (1.78). As he matures, the overthrowing will probably subside (then again, we said the same thing about Josh Beckett), so I see no reason to have any concerns about Cole. Once again, though, I would put Wacha over him for 2015 and beyond.

2. Sonny Gray, OAK

24 64 118.1 182.1 5-3 2.67 1.11 2.70 9.42 2.81 52.9

As great as Wacha was in the playoffs, Gray was just as good. Though he was 0-1 in two ALDS starts against the Tigers, Gray did compile a 2.08 ERA in 13 October innings including that eight-inning, nine-strikeout, four-hit, no-run masterpiece in Game 2 in which Gray and the A’s (cool band name, huh?) edged by the Justin Verlander 1-0. Like Cole, Gray is a ground ball pitcher who boasts elite strikeout potential, which is always an exciting combination.

Pitching half his games in Oakland with an already low fly ball rate, Gray could be heading for a very low number of homers allowed. Combine that with a walk rate under 3.00, and you get very few damaging long balls and a reliably low ERA. I think we could see a 2014 stat line resembling Madison Bumgarner‘s 2013 season — 13-9, 2.77 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 199 K in 201.1 IP. OK, so a 1.03 WHIP is lower than I’d expect (I’m thinking 1.10-1.15), but the rest is spot on.

2015 & Beyond: Gray possesses a mid-90s fastball and a devastating curveball. He has elite strikeout potential, rarely walks batters, and induces a lot of ground balls. He pitches in a strong pitcher’s park, and his team looks poised for a string of 90-win seasons. If it weren’t for the next guy, Gray would be #1 in my rankings (and my heart).

1. Jose Fernandez, MIA

21 172.2 0 172.2 12-6 2.19 0.98 2.73 9.75 3.02 45.1

Words really don’t do Fernandez’s 2013 season justice. Sometimes I just head over to Fangraphs to stare at his player profile. A 2.19 ERA, a 0.98 WHIP, a .180 batting average against, a strikeout rate approaching 10.00 and a GB/FB ratio well over 1.00? And he was 20 years old? As much as I love Sonny Gray, there’s just no way to justify anyone topping Fernandez, whom many have likened to King Felix.

All drooling aside, it should be noted that Fernandez probably won’t be that good again. Not to be the sabermetrician that cried, “Regression!”, but Fernandez did have a .240 BABIP against in 2013. His 21.6% line drive rate allowed was pretty close to league average, and his 7.1% infield fly rate was nothing special. My goal here isn’t to tarnish what Fernandez accomplished last season — he and Harvey were incredible to watch face off.

(Just think about this for a second — in the two games that Fernandez and Harvey matched up against each other, the games ended up going 15 and 20 innings. That’s 35 innings instead of 18 — almost twice as long! I can’t wait for Harvey to get healthy again.)

As for Fernandez’s 2014 season, I’d expect an ERA in the 2.70-3.20 range and a WHIP around 1.05-1.15 with a strikeout total well into the 200s, and that’s certainly nothing to scoff at.

2015 & Beyond: They don’t compare him to Felix Hernandez for nothin’.


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About the author: Bryan is the co-founder of Baseball Professor and works as a consultant specializing in operational metrics and efficiency analysis. When he’s not working, blogging, or tending to basic human needs, he enjoys pondering the vastness of the universe, rewatching episodes of Breaking Bad, and avoiding snakes. (@BaseballProf)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jon Schorah

    Hey Bryan,
    Great article. You hit a lot of these guys spot on. Question for you – out of the top 10 you have here, which one would be the “steal” of the 2014 draft? That is if you take their stat line and pre-draft ranking, who would hold the most value? Personally, I think Salazar and Teheran are the “least known” names, where guys like Wacha, Miller and Cole are well known, therefore dropping their “sleeper” value.

    • http://www.baseballprof.com/ Bryan Curley

      Thanks. In terms of 2014 draft value, I’d have to say Salazar. I think you’re 100% correct that not a lot of people are buying into him yet, though we’ll see what some dominant spring training numbers do to that (assuming he is in fact dominant). I could see Max Scherzer’s 2013 season over 165 IP. Plus for people in H2H leagues who have idiot leaguemates, draft him and sell him high after May when he’s due to be shut down or restricted. Turn a 12th-15th round pick into top 50 value.

  • Scrap Irony

    Tony Cingrani?

    Led rookies with 10+ K rate.
    BAA is less than ,200, which would rank 2nd
    FIP ranks 7th.
    BB rate is high, but less than Wheeler
    H rate lower than all but Fernandez.
    K/BB ranks 6th
    WHIP would rank 2nd on this list behind only Fernandez

    He’s only 23, so it’s not like he’s an older guy. Too, his minor league numbers are Strat-tastic. Missing the boat on the Red southpaw, IMO.

    • http://www.baseballprof.com/ Bryan Curley

      I ranked him 11th (see Part 2) only due to how limited his work load might be in 2014 since he didn’t pitch a ton of innings last year.

  • tvalton

    Nothing better than a nice cup of coffee on a little Baseball Professor to start the day! Quick question for ya: If you can keep Salazar and Gray for a combined $14 (total budget $267) with the ability to keep them for next three seasons (+$5 each year), do you keep both are allow Salazar to go in the draft?

    • http://www.fishtankmedia.com/ Matt Commins

      The big question I have about both pitchers heading into 2014 is what will their ultimate roles are going to be beyond 2014. Salazar has some of the best raw stuff in the majors, but can his stuff hold up for 180-plus innings a year? If not, he’s going to be a lights out closer. But remember this is the Indians who employed Chris Perez and now John Axford as closers; so who knows if Salazar ever sees a save opportunity. For 2014 there’s no bigger fan of Salazar than me.

      As an A’s fan I’ve seen Gray pitch at the majors and triple-a and I’m not buying the hype for 2014. He’s a two-pitch pitcher which makes him more hittable the second time a team sees him. For example, look at the swings made in game 2 of the ALDS compared to game 5. You’ll see they were not fooled as much and Gray’s pitches found more barrels. I bet Gray has a great first half and falls off afterward; that said if the changeup develops then he can be a monster. If the changeup doesn’t develop he will be a great set-up man.

      I would try to trade Gray for Yordano Ventura because he’s the “safest” bet to provide the most combined value the next three years.

      To answer your question its hard to say because I don’t know how much of your budget you’re allocating to hitting versus pitching. Standard allocation is roughly 35% for pitching and 65% for hitting (some go 33/67%) so you got about $93-94 to work with to build your pitching staff; on average that’s about $10 per pitcher. By that crude math they’re worth less than average pitcher. So the short answer is I think they’re a good value for 2014.

      Thanks for reading!