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The Nine Best National League Starting Pitchers for 2013

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Over the last nine weeks, we’ve chronicled the best players at each field position and the best starters the AL has to offer. Here, we’ll wrap up this particular run with the National League’s best starters.

I’ve often commented on the level of difficulty each list gave me during its construction, and this one, like the AL list, gave me trouble because there were a good number of candidates for the back half of the list. I feel strongly about the top five, but I think 6-15 could go in a lot of directions.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these rankings as a topic of debate and a way to preview the 2013 season. We’ll pick up next Saturday with other types The Nine lists, but we’ll revisit these lists throughout the season to see how well they prepared us for the future.

9. Johnny Cueto (Reds)

Cueto has pretty consistently outperformed his peripherals in the past and finally had a top shelf season this year in Cincinnati. Cueto remains in his prime and pitches in front of a pretty complete team. I thought about some other guys for this spot, and it killed me to leave Halladay off this list, but this one feels right.

8. Zach Greinke (Dodgers)

Greinke is now a very wealthy man and has a friendly home ballpark. He’s got great stuff but is susceptible to blow up innings. If there wasn’t a bit of a question about his elbow for the start of the season, he’d be a bit higher. Greinke is as talented as almost anyone on the list, but he tends to underperform his peripherals and his health is a bit uncertain.

7. Matt Cain (Giants)

Cain is an absolute workhouse with great control whose WAR undervalues him because it doesn’t appreciate his apparent ability to limit BABIP. He’s never missed a start in seven seasons, clearly has no-hit stuff and is very reliable. The ace of the world champs belongs on any list of this kind, and his contract looks incredible compared to some of the big signings of late.

6. Gio Gonzalez (Nationals)

Gio is a bit wild, but the strikeout rate and the walk rate are trending in the right direction. I’m not his biggest fan and there will certainly be steroid talk this season, but the numbers are telling me he’s a top six starter for next season. I’d rather have Cain or Greinke on my club, but if we’re going to try to be objective about next year, we probably have to give the edge to Gio.

5. Adam Wainwright (Cardinals)

Wainwright had two Cy Young type seasons in 2009 and 2010 before missing all of 2011 after having Tommy John’s Surgery. It took him a few months to return to form, and looks locked in and ready to go. He’s one of the best pitchers in the game when he’s healthy and all signs point to a big season from the 31 year old ace of the Cardinals.

4. Cliff Lee (Phillies)

Lee is coming off five excellent seasons in which he threw 211 innings or more. He has amazing control and a fine strikeout rate. He only has one Cy Young on his shelf, but this lefty ace could easily have a couple more. He is, without a doubt, owner of the best 6-9 season in baseball history and shows no sign of slowing down.

3. Cole Hamels (Phillies)

Everything about Cole Hamels’ game is awesome. Strikeouts, few walks, durability. He doesn’t quite have the ceiling of the others, but he’s consistency keeps him at the top of this list. The changeup is one of the best in the game and he remains the youngest of the Phillies aces heading into 2013.

2. Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers)

Kershaw is awesome. I don’t think I have to say anything else. He’s 25, has a Cy Young and a couple of near misses. He’s the best left handed pitcher in the game and should be for years to come. The only question about Kershaw is if he or Verlander will break the $200 million barrier for starters.

1. Stephen Strasburg (Nationals)

Last season was all about the innings limit. When he’s allowed to pitch, he is off the charts incredible. His career strikeout rate is 11.21 with a 2.71 BB/9. If he can hold up and stay healthy, he’s the best pitcher in the league. His stuff is amazing to watch. Is he Justin Verlander? Maybe not. Is he as close as any right hander in the game, you bet. Stephen Strasburg is the real deal.

What do you think? Kershaw or Strasburg? Or, someone else?

2012 Season in Review: Philadelphia Phillies

81-81, 3rd in the NL East

After years atop the NL East, the Phillies stubbed their toe in 2012. Picked by many to head back to the playoffs, they finished the season .500 and failed to make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.

The disappointment comes in two phases. The offense problems were predictable. Carlos Ruiz (5.5 WAR) had a very strong season behind the plate before his offseason suspension and Jimmy Rollins (4.4) provided a lot of value at short. Chase Utley (3.2) was very good, but only played half a season. Shane Victorino’s 2.2 WAR in 101 games was also a good showing, even if he isn’t the player he used to be.

Other than that, the Phillies didn’t get a lot of great offensive contributions and were very average as a team.

Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels had down-ballot Cy Young Type seasons, but Roy Halladay had an injury plagued campaign. Halladay was a solid starter in 2012, but that’s a far cry from his “best in the game” credentials. Vance Worley, Kyle Kendrick, and Joe Blanton combined to fill out the remaining rotation spots and did a respectable job doing so.

Jonathan Papelbon had a good season in the first year of his too-big contract, but the rest of the bullpen struggled. The rotation was top ten, but the bullpen was mediocre.

Collectively, the Phillies were just an average team in a tough division. They played better later on in the season and got some top flight performances from their stars, but not enough to live up to their high expectations.

The rotation is still great heading into 2013 and Ben Revere in center and the-maybe-upgrade of Michael Young at third should give them a boost. Ryan Howard is still a serious problem at first. The corner outfield is still up in the air.

The Phillies should be better in 2013, but they played below their potential in 2012.

2012 Grade: C

Early 2013 Projection: 85-77

2012 Awards Series: NL Cy Young

Preseason Prediction: Cole Hamels (LHP – Philadelphia Phillies)

Hamels had a strong season in 2012 for the disappointing Phillies, posting a 4.5 WAR (good for 7th in the NL) and signing a monster contract extension. He went 17-6 in 215.1 innings with a 3.05 ERA and 3.30 FIP. The strikeout rate was excellent at 9.03 next to a great walk rate of 2.17. The Phillies lefthander didn’t have a good enough year to earn my Cy Young praise, but he had a very strong season and should be acknowledged for it.

And the award goes to…

Just like in the AL, three strong candidates emerge for the 2012 NL Cy Young award, but the SABR Toothed Tigers have to give it to someone who sabermetrics can’t quite understand; R.A. Dickey.

Dickey had a phenomenal season by most standards, but WAR doesn’t like him as much as our other two finalists, Clayton Kershaw and Gio Gonzalez. There is a simple reason for this, however. FIP (one of the biggest drivers of WAR) doesn’t know what to do with knuckleballers because they are so rare and have different results profiles than a standard hurler. That said, Dickey was still 6th in the NL in WAR in 2012.

Dickey’s 20-6 record doesn’t mean anything but he tossed 233.2 innings and posted solid strikeout (8.86) and walk numbers (2.08) to go along with his strong 2.73 ERA. His FIP was elevated, but that’s because FIP doesn’t understand him.

The only thing Gonzalez did better than Dickey was strike hitters out, but he threw way fewer innings walked more and had a higher ERA. WAR likes him better, but that’s the knuckleball problem and nothing else.

Kershaw is the strong contender. He tossed six fewer innings, had a higher K rate and higher BB rate, and posted a lower ERA. The WAR spread is +0.9 WAR for Kershaw, but I can’t help wonder how much that gap would close if FIP understood knuckleballers. It would at least close some.

I think Dickey and Kershaw are both good choices, but it’s hard not to give the tie breaker to the guy who threw more innings for a worse team and did so in such a fun way. Dickey was a great story and I’ll always give the tiebreaker to the better story. Plus it is hard not to love Dickey’s NL leading 5 complete games.

We can find plenty of worthy arms in the NL, but R.A. Dickey is this year’s best.

Full Ballot

5. Cole Hamels (LHP – Philadelphia Phillies)

4. Cliff Lee (LHP – Philadelphia Phillies)

3. Gio Gonzalez (LHP – Washington Nationals)

2. Clayton Kershaw (LHP – Los Angeles Dodgers)

1. R.A. Dickey (RHP – New York Mets)

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