The dominant right-handed starter is a baseball prototype that's been around since the beginning of the sport. But in recent years, lefty aces have started to take hold across the league, and teams are employing a nearly equal blend of lefty and righty studs in their rotation. The overall ceiling among left-handers is probably higher overall, but the talent pool among right-handed starters is much deeper. One thing is for sure, though: I don't think any team would mind a member of either of our top ten lists on their staff, no matter their handedness.
Remember: this list (and all of the lists we'll be rolling out this week) reflect the order I'd prefer to have the players for the 2013 season. I don't care about 2016, I don't care about 2010, I care about 2013. Got it? Good.
10. Johnny Cueto, Reds
Cueto put it all together for the Reds in 2012, and it couldn't have come any sooner for the 26-year old. Cueto dramatically shifted his strikeout and walk rates in the right direction, so much so that his 3.47 strikeout to walk ratio was one full point higher than his previous career-best of 2.46. Cueto's FIP and xFIP both continued their downward trend, and his groundball rate over the last two years indicates that there's a good omen for his future. Cueto could be the biggest mover in 2013, going into his age 27 season on a solid club in Cincinnati.
9. Max Scherzer, Tigers
Scherzer finally put it all together in 2012 for the Tigers. The talented, hard-throwing righty once again fell short of 200 innings, but struck out 231 hitters, far and away a career-best. Scherzer's velocity also ticked up to 94 this year, and his control once again remained solid after being an issue early in his career with the Diamondbacks. The most worrisome thing about Scherzer is his tendency to allow a lot of homers, as he's now allowed 72 over the last three seasons, much too high of a total for someone as talented as he is. If Scherzer is going to continue to allow 20-25 homers per season, he's going to need some more luck on balls in play if he wants to dominate the league like he's capable of.
8. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
Wainwright didn't miss a beat in 2012 after sitting out all of 2011 following Tommy John surgery. He picked up right where he left off, throwing 198 2/3 innings with a 3.54 strikeout to walk rate (splitting the difference of his 2009 and 2010 marks) and his typical 50% groundball rate. His 3.90 ERA is a mirage because of an awfully low 67.8% strand rate, and his FIP and xFIP compare favorably to his 2009 and 2010 numbers. With his elbow fully strengthened two years after the surgery, it wouldn't be a stretch to pencil Wainwright in for another 230 innings, 200 strikeouts, and a 3.00 ERA.
7. Yu Darvish, Rangers
Darvish really struggled at times during 2012, and had walk rates north of 10% in each of the first five months of the season. But then, September came, and Darvish exploded. He cut his walk rate to just 5.2% while continuing to strike out tons of batters (29.1% in September) and turning into an unhittable monster, allowing just a .433 OPS. For the season, Darvish finished with a 27.1% strikeout rate, and his 3.90 ERA was boosted by a low 70.5% strand rate. With his American debut out of the way, Darvish can go into 2013 more focused and confident, and dominate the league like he's capable of.
6. Matt Cain, Giants
I was skeptical of Cain's huge contract extension last spring, but he delivered in spades this year, despite what his relatively low 3.8 fWAR might indicate. Cain put together another 200 inning season, and posted a career-best 3.78 strikeout to walk ratio. The 28-year old Cain almost reminds me of Pac-Man, just continuing along at a steady pace, munching innings as he goes. Cain is almost criminally underrated in today's game, and there always seems to be someone else in the Giants rotation that gets more attention than him. First it was Tim Lincecum, and now, it's Madison Bumgarner, while Cain sits there in the background doing his thing.
5. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
Despite the innings controversy that surrounded Strasburg this season, he was still a really good pitcher. In fact, he was one of the best in the league a year and a half removed from Tommy John surgery, striking out 197 in 159 1/3 innings while walking just 48. Strasburg showed no ill effects from his surgery, still sitting at 95 with his fastball and possessing none of the control problems that are typical of Tommy John patients. With a full 2013 season, he could win the Cy Young award in the National League due to his absolutely breathtaking arsenal of pitches.
4. RA Dickey, Blue Jays
Dickey is one of the grand questions of the 2013 season. Heading to Rogers Centre, it'll be interesting to see how his knuckleball plays in that extreme hitters environment, and how he'll pitch in his new home park is a vast unknown. It'll also be interesting to see how the 2012 NL Cy Young winner responds to his newfound stardom, after putting together far and away the best season of his career in 2012. While you'd expect Dickey to potentially regress to the mean (for whatever reason), it's not as if he can't control his BABIP due to the weak contact generated by his knuckleball. In fact, since reigniting his career with the Mets, Dickey's BABIP has remained remarkably consistent, fluctuating a total of three points over the last three seasons. His decreasing groundball rate could be a warning flag, but the massive jump in Dickey's strikeout rate in 2012 signifies that he can definitely hold his own and miss bats. But will he be able to continue to dominate in the AL East?
3. Zack Greinke, Dodgers
Zack Greinke in Dodger Stadium could be a ridiculous thing. If Los Angeles's defense, which actually could be a little shaky behind him, holds up, Greinke could put together a year like he did in 2009, when he won the Cy Young with the Royals. Greinke hasn't hit that level since, but it's not really his fault. His strand rate in 2010 and 2011 was south of 70%, and his BABIP has continually been above .300 despite an ever-increasing groundball rate. It's a little bizarre when a pitcher allows fewer flyballs but more home runs, but that's exactly what's happened to Greinke over the last three seasons. He's still the same hard thrower who strikes out batters by the bushel and keeps his walks in check, but awful luck with batted balls has killed him over the last three seasons. Even with all of that bad luck though, he's put together three four win seasons since winning the Cy Young.
2. Felix Hernandez, Mariners
Hernandez won't turn 27 until April, and he's already put together over 1600 career innings of 3.22 ERA baseball. While Hernandez hasn't really obliterated the league year after year like the man in possession of the top spot on our list, he's not very far behind him in the grand scheme of things. While Hernandez probably doesn't get enough of the attention he deserves due to playing for a bad Seattle team year in and year out, But Hernandez has been so good and so durable over his career. The last time he threw less than 200 innings was in 2007, when he was 21. The last time he had an ERA over 4.00 was 2006, when he was 20. The last time he didn't strike out 200 batters in a season was 2008, when he was 22. Do you see a pattern here? The man has turned into a complete pitcher, and he's still ridiculously young. If he stays healthy, expect a lot more of the same.
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers
You were expecting someone else? Verlander will turn 30 in February, and already has a Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and MVP to his credit, along with two Cy Young top three finishes and a top ten MVP finish. He hasn't failed to throw 200 innings since he rookie year of 2006, has posted a FIP under 3.00 in each of the last four seasons, and has struck out at least 200 batters in each of the last four seasons as well, while putting together four straight six win seasons for Detroit. Oh, and his fastball velocity is still absurd for a starting pitcher too, sitting at 94 last season, which was actually a little bit down from his last couple of seasons. He's the best pitcher in the game, and it's going to take a lot for someone to knock him off that perch.
Note: the original version of this list had Jered Weaver ranked ninth, and omitted Stephen Strasburg, which was an oversight on my part. Strasburg was edited in at fifth, and everyone else was pushed back a slot aside from Johnny Cueto, who retained his #10 ranking while Weaver dropped out. My apologies for this crucial bit of ignorance on my part.