Ranking MLB playoffs' best remaining starting pitchers

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Your eyes are not deceiving you: There has been a lot of good starting pitching so far in the MLB playoffs. There have already been more starts of at least seven innings (11) than there were in the entire postseasons of 2017 (10) and 2018 (9). In more than half the games, the starting pitcher has allowed no runs or one run (26 of 48 games). Nine times a starter has pitched at least seven innings and allowed one run or fewer.

We have a great duel in Game 3 of the NL Championship Series on Monday at Nationals Park, with Jack Flaherty facing Stephen Strasburg. Not only will both likely finish in the top five of the Cy Young voting, but they are also two of the hottest pitchers going.

In fact, let's have a little fun and rank the best starting pitchers right nowamong those who remain in the postseason, using our specially constructed ranking formula, known as STRIKES: Schoenfield Total Rating Integrated Knowledge Enumerated System. We will factor in this year's regular-season performance, playoff performance and some super-secret "other factors," with each category rated on a scale of 1 to 5.

Here's the top 10:

Gerrit Cole, Astros

Regular season: 5 | Postseason so far: 5 | Other factors: 5 | Total: 15

Have we ever seen anybody do this? On May 22, Cole allowed six runs to the White Sox, falling to 4-5 with a 4.11 ERA. Since then, he has been unbeatable -- not in the exaggerated fashion of saying, "he's so dominant he's unbeatable," when he does lose a game every now and then but actually unbeatable. Since May 27, including two wins in the postseason, Cole is 18-0 with a 1.66 ERA, .166 average allowed and 251 strikeouts in 162 innings. His strikeout rate in those 24 starts is 41.4%. His strikeout totals in his past 11 starts: 10, 12, 14, 14, 15, 11, 10, 14, 10, 15, 10. He's like the Little Leaguer who had an early growth spurt and started shaving at 12: He looks almost too good for this league.

Of course, Coleis beatable. He doesn't throw up a zero every start. Not every pitch is 99 mph up in the zone on the black (though it sure feels like it). The Yankees will be ready to tackle him in Game 3 in front of what should be a ridiculously raucous crowd at Yankee Stadium. "He's obviously a great pitcher in the prime of his career in a really good stretch right now," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said before the start of the ALCS. "So any time you go up against a guy like that, it's hard. But it's also really fun. ... I think they'll look forward to that challenge, and hopefully, when you do get that mistake, hopefully you're able to take advantage of it. Because you know those are going to be few and far between."

Key stat: In Cole's two playoff starts, when he gets to two strikes, batters are 2-for-34 with 25 strikeouts and two singles.

Justin Verlander, Astros

Regular season: 5 | Postseason so far: 3.5 | Other factors: 5 | Total: 13.5

I'm basically throwing out that start on three days' rest; I doubt we'll see AJ Hinch go down that road again. But even downgrading Verlander's postseason score because of that game, he comes out No. 2 on our list. He dominated the Rays and then held the high-powered Yankees' attack to two runs on 6 innings. He has won a lot of big postseason games in his career, and you know the pressure of the moment won't get to him. He hasn't won 18 decisions in a row like Cole has, but the four runs he allowed against the Rays on short rest marked just the second time since the All-Star break that he allowed four runs in a game. His ERA since the break: 2.22, with 167 strikeouts in 113 innings. Plus, he has cut down on the home runs. Put him on the mound, and I like my chances.

Key stat: Verlander's slider makes him deadly against right-handed batters, but he's equally tough against lefties. In fact, in the second half, his OPS against lefty hitters is eight points lower and his strikeout rate higher (41.8% to 35.4) than his numbers against righties.

Jack Flaherty, Cardinals

Regular season: 4 | Postseason so far: 4 | Other factors: 5 | Total: 13

We all know what Flaherty has done in the second half: 0.91 ERA since the All-Star break, 1.12 if you include his two starts in the NLDS. I dinged him a little for his mediocre first half but gave him extra credit for the monster run he's on in the "other factors" category. He really has made just one big mistake in his two playoff starts: a two-run home run to Adam Duvall in the seventh inning of Game 2 against the Braves, and it came on his 100th pitch of the game. (He stayed in for 117 pitches.)

Buster Olney likes to compare Flaherty to a young John Smoltz for his stuff and style of pitching. Smoltz was one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all time, so the Cardinals hope Flaherty's dominance holds up for his Game 3 start against the Nationals on Monday. Flaherty is only 23, but he's the staff ace. "It's not the norm," manager Mike Shildt said about that on Sunday, "but Jack's not a normal talent. He's got a lot of different skill sets that allow him to get to a point where he's earned -- and that's exactly what's happened -- he's earned the opportunity to head our staff, which is saying something with the staff we have."

Key stat: During his second-half run, Flaherty has allowed opposing hitters a .155 batting average, including .167 on ground balls. His ground ball rate in this stretch has been 46%.

Max Scherzer, Nationals

Regular season: 4.5 | Postseason so far: 4.5 | Other factors: 4 | Total: 13

Scherzer gets dinged a little for missing some time in the regular season because of injuries and for a 5.12 ERA in September. His start in the wild-card game wasn't his best, as he probably came out a little too amped up and allowed three runs in five innings. Since then, though, he has fired a scoreless inning in relief, held the Dodgers to one run in seven innings in Game 4 and held the Cardinals to one hit and no runs in seven innings in Game 2. Yes, the shadows helped him in that game, but it was peak Scherzer, as he recorded 19 swinging strikes, tied for his second-highest total in a playoff start.

As Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidtsaid after his team's futile offensive effort against Scherzer: "He can do anything he wants. He's got four really good pitches. He can use them to all four quadrants of the strike zone. He can come right at you with strikes. He can make you chase."

Scherzer's next start would be Game 6, but the Nationals are hoping for a quick series, as Scherzer has racked up a lot of innings early in the postseason. He talked about his arm dragging after the start against the Dodgers, but he obviously recovered just fine. He did, however, give up six home runs across five starts in September, two against the Brewers and one against the Dodgers, so your best chance to beat him is probably the old-fashioned way: a bloop and a blast.

Key stat: Scherzer has destroyed right-handed batters, with a .186/.215/.299 batting line. Stack your lineup with lefties against him if you can.

Stephen Strasburg, Nationals

Regular season: 4.5 | Postseason so far: 4.5 | Other factors: 4 | Total: 13

Here's something many of us never expected to see: Strasburg led the National League with 209 innings pitched. He had a little rough patch in early August, including a nine-run game at Arizona in which he allowed three home runs, but since Aug. 20, he has a 1.91 ERA and .174 average allowed. Strasburg is also starting to build a nice little postseason résumé: In 34 career innings, he has a 1.32 ERA with a 45-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He faces Flaherty in Game 3 of the NLCS in one of the most anticipated pitching matchups so far this postseason. If Strasburg fires another gem, maybe we'll move him up this list.

Key stat: Since that Aug. 20 outing, batters are hitting .087 against Strasburg's curveball and .114 against his changeup. He has increased his usage of those two pitches slightly as well, from 50% to 56%, and the mark was more than 60% in his two starts against the Dodgers.

Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees

Regular season: 3 | Postseason so far: 4 | Other factors: 4.5 | Total: 11.5

Tanaka's regular season wasn't anything special, though he made 31 starts, and that 12-run outing in July at Fenway Park helped ruin his ERA. He seems to enjoy the big moment, though: He has allowed just four hits and one run in 11 postseason innings so far, and his career postseason ERA is down to 1.32 in 41 innings. Plus, he has yet to allow more than two runs in any of his seven playoff starts. He doesn't earn a "5" in the postseason category because he doesn't pitch as deep into the game as some of the other starters -- not that he has needed to with that Yankees bullpen.

Key stat: In the regular season, batters hit .327/.390/.646 against Tanaka's four-seamer, which he threw 27% of the time. In his two playoff starts, he's throwing the four-seamer 21% of the time, and batters are 0-for-8 against it.

Adam Wainwright, Cardinals

Regular season: 3 | Postseason so far: 4 | Other factors: 3 | Total: 10

So far in 2019, the 38-year-old veteran had his best regular season since 2014 and two outstanding postseason starts -- and, really, when he gave up two late runs against the Nationals in Game 2 of the NLCS, you can argue that he should have been out of the game instead of facing the top of the lineup for the fourth time. Wainwright has a 2.86 career postseason ERA, though most of the good numbers before this year came back when he was one of the elite starters in the league. The question now: Will we see him pitch again this season? "I'm hoping to," he said after Saturday's game. "I didn't feel like today was my last day."

Key stat: Wainwright still makes a nice living with that big curveball. Batters had a swing-and-miss rate of 26% against it in the regular season, and it's at 46% in the postseason.

Anibal Sanchez, Nationals

Regular season: 3 | Postseason: 4 | Other factors: 2 | Total: 9

After posting a 6.09 ERA with the Tigers in 2016 and 2017, Sanchez added a cutter with the Braves and turned himself back into a quality starter. He quietly had a solid regular season, and you can't deny his playoff results so far this year: one run in five innings against the Dodgers and that no-hit bid into the eighth against the Cardinals. He doesn't throw hard, so he's the kind of pitcher managers are usually going to have a quicker hook with in the postseason, but his off-speed stuff and ability to paint the corners have worked so far.

Key stat: Sanchez has been successful in the playoffs by mixing things up. He got just two of his 15 outs against the Dodgers on his fastball (four-seamer or sinker) but matched his season high with seven outs on his fastball against the Cardinals.

Patrick Corbin, Nationals

Regular season: 4 | Postseason so far: 2 | Other factors: 2 | Total: 8

Here we have our fourth Nationals starter. You still think the Yankees-Astros winner is a sure bet to win it all? The big-ticket free agent was outstanding in his first season in D.C., going 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA and topping 200 innings for the second straight season. This is Corbin's first taste of the postseason, as he didn't appear in the wild-card game or NLDS with Arizona in 2017. He allowed two runs (one earned) in a start against the Dodgers, though he walked five batters. Then he got hammered for six runs in a two-out relief effort in Game 3. He recovered to get four big outs in Game 5 against the Dodgers and retired the only batter he faced in Game 2 against the Cardinals. He'll start again in Game 4, perhaps with a chance to send the Nationals to the World Series.

Key stat: Lefties hit just .190/.260/.248 against Corbin in the regular season, but they have a .438 OBP in 16 plate appearances so far in the postseason.

Zack Greinke, Astros

Regular season: 4.5 | Postseason so far: 1.5 | Other factors: 1.5 | Total: 7.5

I know, Greinke's two playoff starts weren't pretty and resulted in Astros losses. Against the Rays -- pitching for the first time in 12 days -- maybe he was a little rusty. He left a couple of changeups over the plate, and Tampa docked him for six runs, including three home runs. His start against the Yankees was hardly terrible -- three runs in six innings -- and included a cheap home run into the Crawford Boxes by Gleyber Torres (it wouldn't have been a home run in any other park). Greinke's career postseason ERA is now 4.58, worse than Clayton Kershaw's. Still, he had a good regular season, and he seems like the type who won't let a bad outing affect his next performance.

Key stat: Greinke allowed those two home runs to the Rays on changeups -- after allowing just three on the pitch in the entire regular season.

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