With less than five weeks left until Spring Training gets underway, MLB Network has started releasing their Top 10 Right Now lists for the upcoming season, beginning with the Top 10 starting pitchers.
Even from a quick, cursory glance and initial reaction, the first attempt at a Top 10 list looks a bit ... well, wonky.
From a Philadelphia perspective, Phillies fans may feel that Zack Wheeler deserves better than he got on this list, coming in at No. 6. Not bad, but he could, and should, be higher up the rankings.
Phillies fans aren't the only fanbase with a gripe against these 10 picks. Where's Kevin Gausman of the Toronto Blue Jays?
As for the No. 1 spot, even the most ardent anti-Yankees baseball fans should be able to agree that Gerrit Cole has a legitimate case as the top dog. The guy just doesn't falter. As the reigning AL Cy Young winner — and a unanimous one at that — he tossed 209 innings with a 2.63 ERA, a 15-4 record, and a 5.2 fWAR for an otherwise disappointing Yankees team in 2023.
But do you know who had a higher replacement value?
Zack Wheeler. He finished the 2023 season with the highest fWAR among all pitchers, at 5.9. We've made the right-hander's case before, after he finished sixth in Cy Young voting. And it's not like this season was a flash in the pan for the Phillies ace. Wheeler has been the most valuable pitcher over the last three seasons, with a top fWAR of 17.3 since 2021.
Wheels threw 192 innings for the Phillies last year. He finished the regular campaign with a 13-6 record over 32 starts, a 3.61 ERA, although his xERA of 3.21 shows better, and a 1.08 WHIP.
And that was all before his dominant postseason for the Phils. The 33-year-old threw 27 1/3 frames, posting a 3-0 record over four starts and a relief appearance, a 1.95 ERA, 0.72 WHIP
With a 26.9 percent strikeout rate in 2023, he didn't have the flashy strikeout numbers of Atlanta's Spencer Strider, who ran a 36.8 percent rate last season, or even Blake Snell's 31.5 percent, or Gausman's 31.1 percent. But he also doesn't have Snell's 13.3 percent walk rate.
Speaking of Snell, who won the 2023 NL Cy Young with a ton of strikeouts and the lowest ERA in baseball at 2.25, Wheeler topped him in xERA, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. Who's a better pitcher?
And why is Wheeler behind Justin Verlander? Sure, Verlander is a living legend at this point and has fought off Father Time over the last couple of years, but he'll be 41 to begin the season. Even the projections don't believe in the Astros righty.
In Steamer's 2024 projections, Wheeler's predicted 4.7 fWAR is second only behind Strider's 4.9. Verlander projects for 2.6 fWAR, with a 4.21 ERA and 1.22 WHIP over 178 innings. Wheeler's projected 3.54 ERA over 197 innings has to be more valuable.
If you're looking at the best starting pitchers right now, there's no way Wheeler should be where he appears on this list. But that's the thing about these rankings: you can make a case for most of the starters here, especially without knowing how the list is created.
As it stands, Phillies fans will gladly take their guy Wheeler against anyone.