There are plenty of ways to judge who is the best pitcher baseball. While the traditional value of a win-loss record has faded in recent years, there are still dozens of metrics you could use. Traditional measures like ERA and strikeouts still matter, as do more recent creations like WHIP, K/9, or quality starts. If you are into more advanced numbers, numbers like xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching), ERA+ (to account for different ballparks), or WAR (wins above replacement) can tell an even more detailed story.
We’re not going to drill you with a bunch of complicated numbers or hard to understand formulas in this article. When it comes to which pitchers are the hardest to get a hit from, we decided to rank this list according to one basic statistic that everyone will understand — opponent’s batting average, or the official term of Batting Average Against (BAA) from the 2017 season.
By using BAA, we get a true sense of which pitchers are almost unhittable, while eliminating those with poor control who give up too many walks and those who suffer from playing in front of a below average defense, since baserunners gained via error don’t contribute to BAA. We’re also limiting our list to starting pitchers, since shutdown relievers play in different circumstances — that’s a whole different list!
Most of the usual suspects are here, but the order may surprise you — Clayton Kershaw isn’t even in the top five! Here are the 15 most unhittable pitchers in the game today, based on how often they actually allow a legitimate hit.
15. Carlos Martinez – .232 BAA
This list kicks off with Cardinals ace Carlos Martinez, who had a solid enough 2017 to be named an All-Star for the second time of his career. He appeared in 32 games for St. Louis and faced a league-high 858 total batters, giving up a grand total of 179 hits for a BAA of .232. That goes along with a respectable ERA of 3.64 and a WHIP if 1.220.
Martinez helped his own cause, racking up 217 strikeouts while allowing just 71 walks. He also threw two complete game shut-outs in 2017, which was tied for the most in the league. Despite his strong pitching, his final win-loss record last season was just 12-11. That may not seem like much, but his 20 quality starts (at least six innings pitched, less than four earned runs) were among the most in the Major Leagues. More than half the pitchers with more than 20 QSs also appear on this list.
14. Zack Greinke – .230 BAA
Zack Greinke was cruising along in the middle of a six-year, $147 million contract with the Dodgers when he suddenly opted out after the 2015 season and signed a brand new six-year, $206.5 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The former Cy Young winner had a bit of shaky first year in the desert in 2016, but bounced back in a big way in 2017.
Along with his .230 BAA, Greinke went 17-7 (with 19 quality starts) in 32 starts for the D-Backs last season. That was enough to named to his fourth All-Star team, as well as finish fourth in NL Cy Young voting. He picked up 215 strikeouts and only walked 41 batters all year, which is pretty impressive since he also faced over 800 batters. He only gave up 172 hits all season. Between his low BAA and his minimal walks, he posted a stingy WHIP of 1.072 in 2017. He also helped the Diamondbacks secure their first postseason berth in the last six seasons, although they lost to the Dodgers in the NLDS.
13. Yu Darvish – .228 BAA
Yu Darvish started the season in Texas and then found himself shipped to the L.A. Dodgers at the trade deadline when the Rangers decided they were sellers. The Japanese superstar was about to be a free agent, and the Dodgers acquired him as a rental in their quest to win a World Series. Most of Darvish’s numbers improved after he switched teams, leading to a .228 BAA by the time the regular season was finished.
Altough Darvish faltered in the World Series against the Astros, his strong 2017 season was enough for the Chicago Cubs to offer him a six-year, $126 million deal in free agency. The Cubs are hoping for another All-Star year from Darvish, who pitched to a 3.86 ERA and a 1.163 WHIP in 2017, to go along with 209 strikeouts. His eventual win-loss record of 10-12 was mostly the result of 22 starts with a non-playoff team in the Rangers, and a weirdly unlucky lack of run support. He still put up 19 quality starts, proving he’s probably worth all that money.
12. Sonny Gray – .226 BAA
Here’s yet another pitcher who was moved at the 2017 trade deadline, as Sonny Gray was stuck in the baseball hell known as the Oakland Coliseum. The A’s finished at least 20 games back in their division in each of the last three seasons, so it was sweet, sweet relief for Gray when he was shipped to the Yankees at the deadline. His stellar numbers actually went down in New York, but the Bronx Bombers did make the playoffs — which is more than they could say in Oakland.
Gray wasn’t the most effective pitcher, but he was one of the most unhittable with a BAA of just .226. Unfortunately, he posted lower strikeout numbers (153) and higher walk numbers (57) than many others on this list. His total ERA in 2017 was 3.55 and his 10-12 record wasn’t amazing — although he still managed 17 quality starts, proving some of those losses weren’t really his fault.
11. Ervin Santana – .225 BAA
Outside of the 2008 season when he was named an All-Star and finished sixth in Cy Young voting, Ervin Santana has been a steady and reliable, if not spectacular, pitcher for the Angels, Royals, Braves, and Twins. When healthy, he’s good for around 200 innings per year, with a career ERA just over 4.00 and a career WHIP of 1.265. Like we said, he’s consistently adequate but not knocking down the door of Cooperstown.
Whether Santana did something different in 2017 or not, we’re not sure. But we are sure that he strung together a career year for the Twins, holding opponents to a .225 batting average while going 16-8 over 33 starts (with 20 quality starts). His ERA (3.28) was the lowest of his career and he almost beat his previous WHIP mark, putting up a 1.126 compared to his 1.119 from 2008. Amazingly, he pitched five complete games in 2017. And three of them were shutouts. He also helped the Twins to their first playoff berth in seven years.
10. Lance Lynn – .223 BAA
As we break into the top ten of our list, the batting averages against keep getting lower. Next up is Lance Lynn, who spent 2017 pitching for the Cardinals, leaving opposing hitters struggling to get a hit with a .223 BAA. He gave up a fair share of walks (78) and even put 10 batters on base by hitting them with a pitch. But when it came to real hits, Lynn gave up just 151 over 776 batters faced.
Lynn’s 18 quality starts in 2017, combined with a 3.43 ERA and over 150 strikeouts, led to the Twins offering him a one-year, $12 million contract for 2018. If that seems a little low, remember that he missed all of 2016 due to Tommy John surgery. If he can keep opponents from getting hits in 2018 like he did in 2017, his next contract could be dramatically more valuable.
9. Justin Verlander – .221 BAA
Like a fine wine, Justin Verlander seems to just get better with age. Okay, he didn’t match his Cy Young and MVP winning numbers from his unprecedented 2011 season (2.40 ERA, 0.920 WHIP, 24 wins, 250 strikeouts), but Verlander had himself a year in 2017 — especially at the end. A trade to the first place Houston Astros, literally seconds before the midnight trade deadline, became a spark for both Verlander and his new team.
Verlander was having a decent year with the Tigers, the only team he had ever played for before the trade. But they weren’t in contention at all. When he got to Houston, Verlander went 5-0 in the regular season, putting up a 1.06 ERA and a 0.647 WHIP. He carried that into the playoffs, won the ALCS MVP award, and helped the Astros win their World Series in franchise history. For the entire season, he allowed just a .221 BAA over a league-leading 23 quality starts, on his way to a championship ring.
8. Gio Gonzalez – .216 BAA
Gio Gonzalez almost had as many quality starts as Verlander, coming in one behind at 22. He did, however, managed to put up a lower BAA, limiting opposing hitters to just a .216 clip. The Washington Nationals lefty came on strong in 2017, throwing over 200 innings, facing 837 batters, and giving up just 158 hits. Unfortunately, he also gave up 79 walks, leaving his WHIP at 1.179. Luckily, he also struck out 188 batters to keep his ERA at 2.96.
His 15-9 record was helped by the powerful Nationals offense, but Gonzalez was no slouch himself, as you can tell from how hard it was to get a hit off him last year. Part of his success is due to a nasty curveball, that induces plenty of whiffs and groundballs. Like most Washington players in recent years, Gonzalez’s considerable talents seemed to vanish in the postseason — he started two games in the 2017 NLDS to the tune of a 6.75 ERA over just eight innings pitched. The Nats are still in search for postseason glory, and the Bryce Harper window closes this winter (unless they find the money to bring him back).
7. Clayton Kershaw – .212 BAA
You certainly expected to see Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw on this list, but we have to admit we were surprised to see so low. While a .212 BAA is excellent by any measure, we still thought the game’s best pitcher would end up in the top five (or even top three) on this list. But no, Kershaw comes in at No. 7 after yet another amazing season. His 2.31 ERA was the lowest in baseball and he was one of the few pitchers to post a WHIP below one — finishing up at 0.949 for the year.
He struck out 202 over 175 innings, and walked just 30 batters — that’s exceptionally low. Playing on a strong (and expensive) team like the Dodgers definitely helped his 18-4 record, but he still put up 20 quality starts anyway. At this point in his career, the only thing the three-time Cy Young winner and one-time NL MVP hasn’t done is the win the World Series. The Dodgers got ever so close in 2017, losing a Game 7 to the Astros. You can bet that will motivate Kershaw to, well, keep pitching like Clayton Kershaw.
6. Luis Severino – .208 BAA
Luis Severino had a promising start to his MLB career in 2015, starting 11 games for the Yankees after being a Summer call-up from the minors. However, he had a major setback in 2016 when he went just 3-8 in 11 starts, picked up an injury, and finished the season as a reliever. He bounced back in 2017 and was a big reason the Yankees surprised most people by making the playoffs in the middle of their rebuild.
The Dominican righty started 31 games in pinstripes last year, going 14-6 and holding batters to just a .208 average. He struck out 230 batters over 193.1 innings, resulting in a 2.63 ERA and a 1.040 WHIP. He gave up just 21 home runs over 783 batters faced, on his way to 21 quality starts.
Severino is still young (24) and cheap (he’ll make $604,000 in 2018). While names like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton may dominate the headlines when it comes to the Yankees, their success in the next few years will very much depend on Severino keeping hitters from hitting.
5. Chris Sale – .208 BAA
We’ve finally made it into the top five, and the numbers keep getting better and better. Chris Sale spent seven years with the White Sox without even a sniff of the playoffs, despite regularly being an All-Star and putting up great numbers. A trade to the Red Sox in December 2016 certainly sparked his competitive juices, as 2017 was one of the best years of his entire career.
In 32 starts for the BoSox, Sale went 17-8 and held opposing hitters to just a .208 average. His 23 quality starts were tied for the most in the Major Leagues, and he was impressive in all the major pitching categories — a 2.90 ERA, a 0.970 WHIP, a league-leading 308 strikeouts, and a massive 214.1 innings pitched. He finished second in AL Cy Young voting and even picked up some MVP votes.
Sale helped Boston win their second straight AL East title, but the team faltered in the ALDS against the eventual champion Houston Astros. The Red Sox kicked 2018 off with a hot start, still aiming for another championship. Sale will need to stay unhittable for that to happen — which seems likely, given his track record.
4. Stephen Strasburg – .204 BAA
Between Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, and the No. 1 pitcher on this list (to be named later), the Washington Nationals have an embarrassment of riches. Strasburg comes in at No. 4 on our list, holding batters to a .204 BAA. That’s downright stingy. Getting a hit off the then-28-year-old Strasburg was certainly a tough task in 2017.
In 28 starts for the Nats, he went 15-4 (20 quality starts) with an ERA of 2.52 and a WHIP of 1.015. He also struck out 205 of the 701 batters he faced, and allowed just 13 home runs all season. At one point near the end of the season, he set a franchise record by pitching 34 consecutive scoreless innings. Strasburg’s excellent year earned him his third All-Star appearance and a third-place finish in Cy Young voting. He even pitched great in the playoffs for Washington, starting two games against the Cubs in the NLDS without giving up an earned run — he still lost Game 1, but won Game 4.
3. Robbie Ray – .199 BAA
Maybe it’s our American League, East Coast bias showing, but we did not expect to see Robbie Ray on this list when we came up with the idea. That was definitely our bad, because the Diamondbacks southpaw had himself one helluva year in 2017, depending on which stats you focus on. On this list, Ray had the third-best BAA in the entire league, allowing batters just a .199 average when he was on the mound. He was 15-5, with just 16 quality starts (the lowest of anyone on this list).
The amazing thing about Ray’s 2017 season is that is started so poorly. After his first eight starts, his ERA was 4.75 and had won just two games. His next eight games were a complete turnaround, going 6-1 with a 1.81 ERA over 54.2 innings. His primary weapon was the strikeout, as he fanned 218 batters in only 162 total innings, the best ratio of any pitcher in the NL.
The Diamondbacks are sneaky good, with a starting staff that also features Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin and a lineup that features annual MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt. Expect them to be in the mix again in 2018.
2. Corey Kluber – .193 BAA
Unsurprisingly, the final two spots on our list belong to AL and NL Cy Young winners from 2017. Corey Kluber, who won his second AL Cy Young last year, comes in second with a BAA of just .193. The Cleveland Indians ace was lights out all year, leading the league in wins (18), ERA (2.25), complete games (5), shutouts (3), and WHIP (0.869) over 29 starts (22 quality starts). He has the second-most strikeouts in the American League, with 265, and only gave up 141 hits all year while facing 777 batters.
Kluber has been immense for Cleveland since maturing into a dominant pitcher in 2013. He started six different games in the 2016 playoffs, including three in the World Series. He won Games 1 and 4, and started Game 7 on short rest. As the Tribe seek another trip to the Fall Classic, Kluber will remain a key part of their success.
1. Max Scherzer – .178 BAA
Who else could it be? Two-time reigning NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer was as unhittable as it gets in 2017. He only allowed 126 hits to 780 batters faced, resulting in a minuscule .178 BAA. If all of the batters he faced were collectively joined into one player, that player would probably be rotting away in AA ball. Scherzer went 16-6 (22 quality starts) last season in 31 starts, with 2.51 ERA, an NL best 0.902 WHIP, and the most strikeouts of any NL pitcher (268).
It was his fifth straight All-Star season and his third Cy Young win. Scherzer is the prototypical workhorse, regularly working into the late innings of games. He’s a huge reason the Nats won back-to-back division titles in 2016 and 2017. Unfortunately, Scherzer is still a part of a roster that has gained a reputation for choking in the playoffs – Scherzer hasn’t picked up a postseason win since playing for Detroit in 2013.