With spring training around the corner, we’re right in the season of preseason rankings, as fans and analysts alike debate the best of the best, rank them, and then argue over the rankings. While the prospect rankings tend to get the most coverage, no stone is left unturned, with everything from the likeliest candidates for Rookie of the Year to which team had the best offseason getting coverage.
If you spend any time on Twitter, you may have noticed that one of these Top 10 lists — or rather, several of them — generated quite a bit of buzz.
SP #top10rightnow on @MLBNetwork. I had 31 guys in consideration. So yeah, I wanted Strider, Cease, Max, Webb, Wheeler, Castillo, Fried, Manoah, etc. But I wanted these guys too.— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) February 2, 2023
Nola>Sandy? Better K%, lower BB%, 92% of IP, longer track record. I had SA 3. So.. really good. pic.twitter.com/QZ4aK71rEg
Corbin Burnes is the king among the aces!— MLB (@MLB) February 2, 2023
Who’s in your top 10? pic.twitter.com/7HY3Bky9ig
The fan vote for the top Starting Pitchers right now— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) February 1, 2023
Find out who made @MLBNow's #Top10RightNow at 8pm ET. pic.twitter.com/XHX3PIhwwg
New Yankees starter Carlos Rodón not unsurprisingly made two out of the three lists, finding himself on the outside looking in only on the fan vote (which, as fan votes are, influenced in part by popularity). Fans should be ecstatic about this, as he currently projects to be the team’s No. 2 starter behind Gerrit Cole, giving the Yankees a 1-2 punch which, when combined with Nestor Cortes, gives the Yankees one of the best rotations in baseball.
But when these three came out, the focus was not on Rodón’s inclusion, but rather on Cole’s exclusion. Almost immediately, Twitter began to debate the Yankees’ $324 million man. Although his 2022 numbers were definitively a step down from his 2021 performance, it seemed inconceivable to many that Cole would not be considered one of the ten best starters in the game; still others focused on his exclusion as evidence of him being overrated.
To an extent, the decision to leave him off these lists is part recency bias and part an attempt to spur debate. It’s early February, after all — we’re desperate for anything baseball-related to talk about. Still, in my mind, the question is nonetheless a fruitful one, as it leads us on to a bigger question than just Gerrit Cole’s status on a Top 10 list: “What exactly does it mean to be Top 10 at your position?”
When it comes to starting pitchers, the go-to definition among many would be something along the lines of, “Who do you want on the mound in a must-win game?” And while that’s not a bad definition, it is by its very nature hard to quantify, and relies on anecdotal evidence and gut feelings, two things that are very much subject to confirmation bias. In fact, this past October, many fans did not want Cole getting the ball in high-leverage situations because of his bad outing in the 2021 Wild Card Game, ignoring his career 2.68 ERA in 13 postseason starts prior to that outing.
In order to get past these biases, we need to turn to the data. There are three types that we can use: single-year stats, multi-year stats, and projections. For our most basic analysis, we can turn to 2022 stats, as it is the most recent season. Just one year, however, can be considered a small sample size in baseball; upping that to three years can remove some of the noise and give us a better sense of where a pitcher ranks. Still, our focus is on what we expect to happen in the future, and not what has happened in the past. This brings us to projection models such as ZiPS and Steamer.
On this chart can be found some selected stats from all these categories, chosen for their prevalence in these discussions (ERA, FIP, WHIP, fWAR) and for their predictive qualities (K% and K%-BB%). Cole’s rank among qualified starters is listed in parentheses.
Based on these numbers, it’s possible to generate an argument both for including Cole on a Top 10 list and leaving him off. If your focus is on runs scored — which, obviously, is the goal of the game, but which also involves a lot of variables outside the pitcher’s control — then you’re going to put Cole at the bottom of the list at best, especially if you place a lot of emphasis on 2022 performance. On the other hand, if you place a high value on K%-BB% (as I do, since it is entirely within the pitcher’s control and is largely independent of park factors), then you have no choice but to conclude that Cole ranks as one of the five best pitchers in baseball.
And that, ultimately, is both the fun and frustration of these rankings. Even when you try to remove preexisting bias from the equation and rely on data, it’s impossible to lose the subjectivity. Instead, you’re simply shifting it from the players themselves to how to evaluate them. In this particular instance, I would still continue to argue Cole is one of the game’s true aces on account of that K%-BB%, while I know others would focus on that relatively high ERA in 2022 that’s a result of a high home run rate, a situation that will likely improve but not completely disappear so long as he continues to play the majority of his games in the small confines of the AL East. That disagreement in what is most important about analyzing players, however, is where these discussions truly shine.
For the next two weeks at least, until pitchers and catchers report, that’s the highlight of baseball.