An ace starting pitcher is the most valuable commodity in baseball. Need a power-hitting first-basemen? Take your pick from the 15 who hit more than 20 home runs last year. How about an outfielder who drives in runs? There were 31 outfielders with at least 80 runs batted in during 2007.
But when it comes to lights-out starting pitchers, the choices start to get very slim. Last season only one (Josh Beckett) won 20 games. The number with an earned run average under 3.00 was also just one (Jake Peavy). How about a power pitcher intimidating hitters with double-digit strikeout games? Forget it. We have not seen a pitcher with 250 strikeouts in a season since 2004.
With this in mind, we decided to take a look at who the elite starters are in baseball today based on the stats for the past three seasons, cut by salaries. The goal here isn't to see who's best – it's who's best for the buck.
By our calculations, the best value in baseball right now is the Arizona Diamondbacks' Brandon Webb. The 28-year-old righty won the National League's Cy Young Award in 2006 and finished second last year. Webb has led all of baseball in innings pitched the past three years and his ERA is third-lowest when adjusted for the ballpark he pitches in.
Overall his performance score ranked fourth, yet his 2008 salary of $5.5 million is the third lowest of our top 20 pitchers. Good news for D-Back fans, Webb is locked up at an affordable $16 million combined for the next two seasons.
Looking just at performance, the top hurler by a mile was the New York Mets' Johan Santana. His dominance has been staggering. He was the top pitcher in baseball for ERA compared with the league average as well as walks and hits allowed per inning. He was second best when it came to innings pitched, strikeouts per nine innings and wins.
Our pitcher performance ratings were based on the rankings within those five categories. After adding up the numbers, Santana's performance score was three times better than that of runner-up John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves.
Unfortunately for the Mets, Santana's incredible stats were piled up while he was hurling for the Minnesota Twins and his success proved costly to the Amazins. In order to complete a trade with the Twins this winter, the Mets gave Santana a six-year, $137.5 million contract so that he would waive the no-trade clause in his contract. Santana's $22.9 million average salary set a record for a pitcher for a multi-year deal. The previous high was Carlos Zambrano who signed a deal in 2007 that pays an average of $18.3 million annually.
So is Santana a good value at his 2008 salary of $19 million? The numbers say yes. We compared the performance of baseball's 20 best pitchers by our ratings with their 2008 salary. Santana's salary was twice that of the average elite pitcher ($9.9 million), but his dominating performance almost pushed him to the top. Alas, he ranked fourth in our bang for the buck look at baseball's top aces.
The top five: