One quick takeaway from this particular decile of the Baseball Tonight 100 is that voters placed three of the most exciting and talented young starters in the game in this particular group of 10:
Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays: He's 27 years old with a 3.33 career ERA and a 32-32 record, but he's coming off a breakthrough season by leading the majors in starts (34) while notching 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings.
Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates: The youngest of these three as he heads into his age-25 season, Cole boasts a 40-20 career record with a 3.07 ERA while maturing into being the ace of a reliably contending Pirates team.
Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics: Built low to the ground and slinging a power ground ball repertoire, the A's ace has put up a 33-20 record with a 2.88 ERA. Last year's bid for an ERA title contributed to his finishing third in AL Cy Young voting.
All three are outstanding pitchers, and all three merit mention among the top 40 players in baseball today, even though they are all relatively young and haven't built up massive career numbers -- yet. But that brings me to a question: If you had to pick from among these three guys for which one was going to take it to the next level to become an ace among aces, who would you pick? Who do you think is going to get even better?
Let’s start off by saying that I love watching Gray pitch, and I'm someone who isn’t very secretive about growing up an A's fan. Gray's record of 33-20 over the past 2 1/3 seasons for the A's is remarkable given the franchise's uneven fortunes after last seasons's tumble, as is his notching a quality start 73 percent of the time (52 percent is average). He's clearly one of the better pitchers in baseball. That said, you put these three guys in a group, somebody has to finish third, and that's clearly going to be Gray.
This has nothing to do with his record or any conservatism about short right-handers (Gray is listed at 5-foot-11). Instead, this has a lot more to do with his merely decent career strikeout rate, 21 percent when the league average for starters in the American League is 19.5 percent, and just 20.4 percent across his two full seasons. His fielding-independent pitching ratios in 2014 and 2015 were 3.46 and 3.45, respectively. You can't help wonder whether Gray has already peaked. His two full seasons are nearly identical statistically, with a slightly better walk rate in 2015. As good as he is, this might be as good as he gets -- incredibly valuable, but not as overwhelmingly dominant as Archer or Cole have been.
So for me, this almost automatically becomes an exercise in picking between Archer and Cole. Wouldn't we all love to have that luxury? But keep in mind that Archer is just coming off a breakthrough season, and you would anticipate that promises more big seasons to come. That's probably the case, but the thing to keep in mind is that Archer is also the oldest of this trio. Also remember that Archer has been handled with exceptional care by the Rays -- his group-low 57 percent rate of making quality starts is as much a product of carefully managed workloads as any other factor. His group-high 24 percent strikeout rate compares well to the American League-wide average for starters (19 percent) and is the highest among these three. In terms of pure stuff, Archer might win out, because between electric heat and breaking stuff, he could become even more frightening if he masters a changeup to give him an extra weapon when his breaking stuff is off. That suggests there is the potential for another gear, but can he pop the clutch and make that shift?
Which bring us to Cole, the youngest of the three, and also the one among them who is an acknowledged No. 1 on a regular contender in Pittsburgh, something true now and perhaps well into the future. That's exactly what you want to get when you pick a guy first overall in the first round, and Cole has never disappointed since the Buccos nabbed him to lead off the 2011 draft.
How does he compare to his competition? Though the National League strikeout rate among starting pitchers is slightly higher than in the AL (19.7 percent), we're still talking about a guy with a 23.5 strikeout rate for his career, better than Gray, if a cut below Archer. However, his 2.66 FIP last season (against a 2.60 ERA) is a reflection that he's more like Gray in generating lots of ground-ball outs and striking out batters at a rate much like Archer's.
Add all of that together, and to me it suggests that 2015 is at least his level, which is better than that of the slow-developing Archer and the relative consistency of Gray. Lastly, though I know this is a matter of getting attached to postseason drama, Cole's performance in October 2013 was exceptional, and his losing in 2015 is as much a matter of running into Jake Arrieta when the Cubs' ace was still at the top of his game than any other factor. Losing to one of the best half-dozen pitchers on the planet is the hazard any of these guys face in a winner-take-all postseason game, but Cole is a pitcher I wouldn't bet on losing again if he's in that situation.
So having lined this up to pick from among three young aces for which one has the best ultimate upside, I'm going with Cole, as a function of established performance and relative youth, since he's tops in both. Who is your choice?