I have a problem with the term ‘Number One starter’. In fact, have a problem with numbering starters at all. The problem arises when trying to compare pitchers from different teams. Just because Roy Halladay is on the same starting staff as Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee doesn’t make him a Number Three Starter any more than Ricky Nolasco is a Number One Starter simply because he heads an awful Miami Marlins rotation. Starting pitcher quality needs to be measured as a rating system, not a ranking system. Last August, John Sickels of Minor League Ball wrote an article redefining the terms ‘Number 1-5 Starter’. John shows how scouts and Baseball America rank starting pitchers. While I certainly agree with the premise of the rating system scouts and Baseball America employ, I find fault with how they go about it. I propose we eliminate the Numbering of starters altogether, and begin describing pitchers in tiers. This is how I will be referring to pitchers and pitching prospects from here on out.
It should be noted that pitchers can (and will) move from tier to tier over the course of their careers. Roy Halladay was once a Tier 1A pitcher, but is now a Tier 1B pitcher because of his age and injury concerns. Josh Beckett was once a Tier 1B pitcher, but has since fallen to Tier Two. Pitchers will naturally move down a tier as they get older and move beyond their peak years, but it is very unusual for a pitcher to move up a tier once they are established. Usually moving up a tier only happens when a pitcher learns a new pitch, or develops better control. RA Dickey is a great example of someone who went from Tier Two to Tier 1B. On the other hand, some pitchers never get to Tier Two, but carve out nice careers for themselves as a Tier Three or Four pitcher. Jeff Suppan averaged 200 innings and allowed 223 hits per year, but managed to make over $58 million over 17 years doing so. Suppan shows that a Tier Three or Four pitcher isn’t always someone on their way down. Sometimes, that’s the ceiling, and there are a lot of Major League rotations each year who use multiple lower tier starters. Lastly, you’ll notice that there are many more Tier Two starters than any other tier. While it’d certainly be cleaner to have five equal groupings, life is a bell curve. By definition, there are fewer elite pitchers than average pitchers, and the below-average pitchers typically get somewhere between one and zero chances to stick in a Major League rotation. That said, I present to you my Starting Pitcher tiers.
Tier 1A Starting Pitchers: These are the traditional aces; the real aces. The pitchers you never want your team to face in a playoff series. Today, there are very few First Tier starting pitchers, and even fewer in Tier 1A. They are: Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, David Price, CC Sabathia, Stephen Strasburg, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee. This is no knock on anyone not on this list. These are the pitchers whose team knows every start comes with a good chance of winning, and the other team knows they have a lot of work to do. These are the pitchers who are undeniably at the top of Major League Baseball. They each have multiple plus pitches, some of whom are the best at throwing their top pitch. Verlander’s fastball, Kershaw’s curveball, Sabathia’s slider, Cole Hamels’ changeup. These guys have high strikeout rates and limit walks, and therefore aren’t as dependent on how well the front office did at putting a defense behind them. They all have a third pitch (or more) that is also at least average. Barring injury, these pitchers could be Hall of Famers.
Tier 1B Starting Pitchers: These pitchers are great pitchers, but there is a clear divide between these pitchers and the Tier 1A starters. These starters can certainly lead a rotation, and in fact many rotations are led by Tier 1B pitchers simply because by my definition there only eight Tier 1A starters amongst seven teams. Tier 1B starters are very, very good pitchers. Each of them has two plus pitches and at least a third average pitch, but who don’t have quite the same ability to get themselves out of trouble with a strikeout. They allow more baserunners than the Tier 1A pitchers and sometimes have injury concerns. These pitchers will have exceptional years more often than not, but will hit a bump or two. They are world-class, but clearly separated from the top group. It is conceivable that any of these pitchers could move into the top tier, or they were once in the top tier. Roy Halladay, Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke, James Shields, Matt Cain, Jered Weaver, Madison Bumgarner, Adam Wainwright, Gio Gonzalez, Max Scherzer.
Tier 2A Starting Pitchers: After deliberation, I’ve broken up Tier Two into 2A and 2B as well. Second Tier starting pitchers are very good. There are 150 Major League starting pitchers on Opening Day and I’ve only put 18 of them into the top tier. The second tier of pitchers is made up of those who have at least one plus pitch, and two or more average pitches. They can get a strikeout, but can’t rely on them. They’ll have a K:BB ratio closer to 2:1 than 3:1. These are pitchers who will be the first starter in a bad rotation and the third starter in a great rotation. These pitchers tend to be consistent, and show flashes of dominance. They will occasionally be paid like First Tier starters because of their value to a playoff-bound team or their free agent market.
Tier 2A Starting pitchers are those very good pitchers who have the upside and ability to put together an exceptional season or three. Whether it’s because their plus pitch borders on ‘plus-plus’ or their average secondary offerings border on plus, these pitchers could feasibly put together a season that gets them some Cy Young Award votes. They are RA Dickey, Tim Lincecum, Josh Johnson, CJ Wilson, Ian Kennedy, Jon Lester, Dan Haren, Jake Peavy, Jordan Zimmerman, Anibal Sanchez, and many others. The line that separates the second tier from the first and third tiers is very clear. The non-elite, but still very good, reside here.
Tier 2B Starting Pitchers: Tier 2B is a tricky tier to place guys into. While the line that separates the second tier from the first and third tiers is very clear, the line that separates 2A from 2B can sometimes get fuzzy. These pitchers are better than simple innings eaters. In fact, they’re quite valuable pitchers. They don’t have the same penchant for having an extraordinary season as the Tier 2A pitchers, but they will periodically have exceptional starts. The word that comes to mind is “steady”. As in, “steadily valuable”. A lot of these pitchers were once in a higher tier, still have great ability, but with time have lost the extra bit that made them top pitchers. Gavin Floyd, Hiroki Kuroda, Mark Buehrle, Kyle Lohse, AJ Burnett, Ryan Vogelsong, Jon Niese, Edwin Jackson, Chad Billingsley, Trevor Cahill and the like.
Tier Three Starting Pitchers: The Third Tier starting pitcher is the guy who rounds out a playoff rotation. They’ll provide quality innings, but are decidedly ordinary. These pitchers have good enough stuff to keep working, but not good enough that they’ll likely see big money or extended contracts. Every good rotation needs this starter to eat innings and save the bullpen, without putting his team at a disadvantage in order to do so. Every bad rotation needs these guys; they will keep their team in the game without requiring an expensive long-term commitment. These are the pitchers that fans always want to upgrade from December to March but appreciate from July to September. Aaron Harang, Bruce Chen, Jeremy Guthrie (okay, they shouldn’t require an expensive commitment), Bronson Arroyo, Clayton Richard, Paul Maholm, Joe Saunders, among others.
Tier Four Starting Pitchers: The Fourth Tier are pitchers who will sniff Major League Baseball, but won’t stay for long. These pitchers may have one Major League average pitch with good command, or multiple Major League average pitches with no command. These pitchers tend to not throw overly hard, and therefore are unable to make any mistakes without it costing their team the game. They might have a good start, or a good series of starts. Still, they don’t have good enough pure stuff to successfully get through multiple seasons, or even a single season at the Major League level. They might have a future as a middle reliever, at best, but will probably be out of baseball before they hit free agency. These are a team’s AAA starters, the injury contingency plans. The has-beens who are getting one last chance at a last Major League start. The never-wills who are hoping for their first start, just so they can say they made it. If your team is relying on one of these pitchers to fill a rotation spot, it’s probably time to start making October vacation plans. That said, it seems like every year a competitor needs a Fourth Tier starter to come up big for them for a couple weeks, or a couple months, while a Top Three Tier starter recovers from injury. Sometimes, a Fourth Tier starter only needs a chance to prove they can be a Third Tier starter. Occasionally, you get Elymania (h/t @PA_Dodger via Blue Heaven). This is the home of former prospects and Rule V draft picks. John Ely, Ramon Ortiz, Derek Lowe, Jamie Moyer, Bartolo Colon, Kip Wells, Jeff Suppan, Miguel Batista.
The primary difference between my rating system and the system currently used by Baseball America and professional scouts is the absence of the word ‘makeup’ anywhere in the descriptions. Makeup is a loosely defined word. When using it to describe athletes, it is usually something to the effect of “work ethic”, “attitude”, or “perseverance”. Makeup describes something other than performance; it’s how an observer interprets another person’s internal feelings and reaction to stimuli. It’s a made-up thing being included as evidence to support or refute whether a player should be acquired by that scout’s organization. Should a scout take a player’s outward attitude and personality into account when assembling a Major League roster? Absolutely. How a player’s attitude might jibe or disrupt an already established clubhouse is an important factor. If a prospect seems like he’ll be satisfied with his signing bonus rather than work to become the best pitcher he can be, that can be an important factor when deciding who to draft. The scouts and their organizations are unquestionably justified in using such a grading category.
We’re not drafting prospects. We’re not assembling a team. The purpose of this rating system is to make headway toward an understanding that if your team is made up of one Tier 1B starter and four Second Tier starters, you’re looking pretty great right now. It’s to spark a discussion that allows us to say Zach Lee projects to be a solid Second Tier starting pitcher and know that means a ceiling closer to Anibal Sanchez than Eric Stults. As a result, makeup did not, and will not factor into the rating system I’ve laid out. I don’t pretend to know what a starting pitcher is thinking in every situation and under the game’s biggest spotlight, and I don’t think that should factor into how we decide which tier the pitcher is on athletically. Also, very rarely does anyone other than those who are in the player’s clubhouse or immediate social group have any real idea what kind of makeup a pitcher has. I don’t think pitchers decide to stop throwing strikes any more than I think they decide to start throwing strikes. I think makeup and dedication , of course, are synonyms, but I think the dedication will show itself in the pitches and performance we see on the field, and need not be separated out.
You’ll also notice I did not use specific statistics to decide where one tier ends and another begins. I did this because the statistical lines in baseball are gray at best, but mostly because this is designed to be an observation and scouting piece used to judge tiers of Major League starting pitchers and starting pitching prospects. It’s wholly likely that a Tier Two pitcher could have a Tier 1A or 1B type season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve made the leap up the ladder.
I want to thank Jay Jaffe, SI.com and Baseball Prospectus writer and founder of JAWS over at Baseball-Reference, for his contributions. I look forward to hearing everyone’s feedback. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @RB_GScott for future articles and prospect profiles here at www.minorleaguecentral.com.