Writing about the career of Matt Cain this morning got me thinking about how starting pitchers are described. Was Cain a “number one starter?” Five years ago, I posted this article about the difference between a Number One starter, a Number Two, and on down through Number Five. The original article is still worth a look if you like, but I want to re-work it a bit today with examples from 2017.
Also note that someone can be a Number One or Two starter in his prime years, but fade into the lower category as they age and begin to lose their skills. That’s what happened to Matt Cain.
NUMBER ONE STARTER:
A true Number One starter is a guy who anchors your rotation, will be in line for the All-Star game most seasons, and is on the pre-season candidate list for the Cy Young Award. The exact style can vary between pitchers, but the results have to be there. These are Hall of Fame candidates if they last long enough.
Examples: The true superstar pitchers: Lefty Grove, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Pedro Martinez in the past. Today that would be Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer.
NUMBER TWO STARTER
Number Two starter is similar to a Number One, but not quite as good, perhaps not as consistent or durable as a true One.
The dividing line between the two categories is blurry, and some Number Two starters will have Number One-quality seasons at times, although they may not sustain the performance year after year. These guys can certainly anchor your rotation. Number Twos can be considered aces for most teams, and will be on the short list for the All Star Game many seasons.
Number Two starters can make the Hall of Fame if they last long enough. A team with a Number Two in the top spot of the rotation can certainly win the World Series.
Examples: Zack Greinke has straddled the line between a One and a Two for years. Matt Cain in his prime. Stephen Strasburg due to durability concerns. Carlos Carrasco at his best. Chris Archer.
NUMBER THREE STARTER
These are the guys that soak up innings for you, usually with average to slightly above-average per-inning performance, but who don't meet the standards to be a One/Two. For weaker teams, a Number Three may take the first slot in the rotation and be the de-facto ace. There is usually a fairly clear dividing line between a Number Three and Number One/Two. It's like pornography; you know it when you see it.
Examples: Mike Leake, Michael Wacha, Trevor Bauer this year, Ervin Santana. It is possible to win with a guy like this at the top of your rotation in the right year.
NUMBER FOUR and NUMBER FIVE STARTERS
A guy to soak up innings, but who isn't as good or consistent or durable as a solid Three. The styles here can vary wildly. Some of these guys are control artists who lack plus stuff, others have plenty of stuff but don't command it well. Examples are legion.
Something to consider: fans are often disappointed when a prospect is referred to as a "Future Number Three starter," but that's actually a huge complement.
Even calling someone a Future 4/5 isn't a bad thing: there aren't enough 1/2/3 guys to fill every major league rotation spot, and even if a guy is just going to provide 170 average innings, that's still valuable.