Six weeks into the 2017 season and we've already seen several major injuries to top tier starting pitchers such as Madison Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard, and Corey Kluber. For arguments sake we are going avoid any injured arms in the below rankings. It's just tough to predict how Bumgarner will look upon returning, for example. The other thing to keep in mind is that this isn't just a list of the best seasons so far. Jason Vargas and Ervin Santana have low ERAs but not nearly the track record the rest of the starters on this list do. We are looking for a combination of past performance and effectiveness in 2017. Sorry Jake Arrieta. Anyways last but not least honorable mention shout outs to Chris Archer and Carlos Carrasco, both of whom just missed the top five.
5. Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks
Greinke is easily the biggest surprise entry to the top five for me. His velocity ratings were so worrisome back in Spring Training, coming off a horrendous 2016, that I thought there was a legitimate chance he was done. What's interesting is that his velocity is still down (91 mph in 2017, down from 94 in 2014) but he's managed to be effective. You can read more about him in this FanGraphs article but basically he is getting a ton of swing and misses on his off-speed stuff, particularly his slider. Not only has Greinke put together six quality starts in his past seven outings (consistency!) but he has been able to dominate individual games as well. His eight inning, one run, one hit, one walk, 11 strikeout performance from last week against the Pirates stands out as one of the better pitched games this season. Through eight starts Greinke has a 2.79 ERA and is averaging more than a strikeout per inning for just the second time since 2011.
4. Dallas Keuchel, Astros
All Dallas Keuchel does is pound the bottom of the strike zone...with strikes. This causes an interesting dilemma for the opposing batter. They can choose to swing at the pitch, which likely results in a ground out. Or they can choose to take the pitch, which is likely a called strike. Mastering this skill is how Keuchel has become impossible to hit in the early going of 2017. As of this writing Keuchel is second in all of baseball with a 64.4% ground ball rate. Some may be skeptical of this ranking thanks to his 4.55 ERA from a season ago, but it appears that his 2016 was due to a lingering shoulder injury. Through eight starts this year Keuchel has a 1.69 ERA and is tied for the major league lead in innings pitched. He is also giving up significantly fewer hits than his Cy Young season while walking batters at a similar rate.
3. Max Scherzer, Nationals
If Max Scherzer were at his best every time he toed the rubber he would become arguably the best pitcher of all time. When he's on his A-game he's that good. This is a guy who has thrown two no-hitters, has a 20 strikeout game, and just last night threw an immaculate inning. What's crazy about the immaculate inning (9 pitches, 9 strikes, 3 strikeouts) is that it came the inning after Scherzer was drilled in the leg by a line drive with an exit velocity of 100 mph. For some reason he doesn't get enough recognition for how tough he is. In addition to providing dominant starts in individual games Scherzer has also been remarkably durable over the past four years. In every season from 2013 to 2016 the 32-year-old has pitched at least 210 innings while striking out at least 240 batters. His ERA was below 3.00 in three of those four years and Scherzer won two Cy Youngs with two more top-five finishes during this run. He is off to another great start in 2017 with a 2.80 ERA and a National League leading 70 strikeouts.
2. Chris Sale, Red Sox
Make no mistake. Chris Sale is having the best season of any starting pitcher thus far in 2017. According to baseball-reference his 2.6 WAR are tied with Mike Trout for the most in the majors of players at any position. Sale's season has been more about a different stat though, the strikeout. He has struck out double digit batters in each of his last seven starts, putting him one away from the record eight straight done by both himself in 2015 and Pedro Martinez in 1999. Last season Sale made a conscious effort to strike less guys out in an attempt to pitch deeper into games. It worked in some ways. Sale finished in the top six of the Cy Young voting for the fifth straight season. But now he's striking out batters more than ever before (13.0 K/9) while remaining effective deep into games (leads baseball in innings pitched). It's early, but it looks like the 28-year-old is on track to finally win his first Cy Young.
1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
It's going to take more than a six week stretch from Sale to dethrone Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher in baseball, a title the Dodgers lefty has held since 2011. After all this is a guy who has lowered his career ERA in eight...consecutive...seasons. He's been really good this year (6-2, 2.43 ERA) but since he isn't setting modern record books on fire it doesn't feel like he's been that good. However, an interesting article on The Ringer came out today about Kershaw. It's super nerdy with lots of numbers and graphs but I'll summarize it for you here. Basically since returning from the DL last year (with a scary back injury) Kershaw has been throwing his slider too hard. The slider is what helped transform Kershaw into CLAYTON FUCKING KERSHAW and it's been his best pitch ever since. In his last start against the Rockies Kershaw began throwing his slider at a reduced velocity and the results showed improvement. So there's hope that he is about to transform back into the consensus best pitcher alive if this slider thing is legit. If not, well, he's still one of the best pitchers alive. I'm betting he'll be just fine.