Complete game shutouts don’t happen very often in baseball anymore.

In 2023 there were 21 total. Houston’s Framber Valdez and the Yankees Gerrit Cole led the majors with two each.

By comparison, here are how many there have been going back every 10 years for the last half century with the league leaders in parentheses:

  • 2014 – 65 (Rick Porcello, Adam Wainwright, Henderson Alvarez – 3)
  • 2004 – 69 (Cory Lidle, Jason Schmidt – 3)
  • 1994 (season cancelled in August) – 69 (Randy Johnson – 4)
  • 1984 – 151 (Geoff Zahn, Bob Ojeda – 5)
  • 1974 – 227 (John Matlack, Luis Tiant – 7)

So far, there have been two this season. Houston’s Ronel Blanco’s no-hitter, and Ranger Suarez’s 112-pitch effort on Tuesday night in the Phillies’ 5-0 win over Colorado.

While they were more regular in the good old days, they happen just about a third of the time going back to just 2014. They’re almost as rare an occurrence as a no-hitter, or a cycle, or a three-homer game. Not quite… but getting there.

Which means when they happen, people are going to take notice, and Bryce Harper did following the game, with some high praise for Suarez:

It got me wondering, is Bryce right? Is Ranger Suarez, the best No. 3 pitcher in baseball?

Well, there are a lot of factors to consider when diving into this, and some of them are subjective, but I decided to give it a shot to find out if, in fact, Harper’s take on his teammate is a good one.

The first challenge to this exercise is determining just who each team’s No. 3 starter is. Aces are easy. The No. 2 guy is usually pretty cut and dry, too. But by the time you reach the middle of a rotation, there’s a lot of volatility.

As such, I felt the fairest way to go about this was to use the ever-changing depth charts listed on Fangraphs. This way, if there is any debate about a pitcher being included or excluded in this analysis, at least it’s all sourced from the same independent and trusted site and that the pitcher’s identified as No. 3 starters were as of the completion of play on Tuesday night.

Secondly, it’s important to acknowledge that most of the pitchers on this list likely weren’t expected to be their team’s No. 3 starter coming into the season. That’s because there are 40 starting pitchers in baseball who are currently injured who would have been a team’s No. 1 or No. 2, forcing the planned No. 3 into a higher spot in the rotation, or were a No. 3 or competing for that spot. Either scenario forced teams to elevate pitchers from lower on their depth chart into the No. 3 spot.

By my count, of the 30 teams in baseball, only 10 teams in baseball have the guy in the No. 3 spot that they expected to have there coming into the 2024 season. Those 10 are:

  • Detroit – Jack Flaherty
  • L.A. Angels – Reid Detmers
  • Oakland – J.P. Sears
  • Seattle – Logan Gilbert
  • Cincinnati – Andrew Abbott
  • Colorado – Austin Gomber
  • PHILLIES – Ranger Suarez
  • Pittsburgh – Jared Jones
  • San Diego – Dylan Cease
  • St. Louis – Lance Lynn
  • Washington – Mackenzie Gore

Some of those guys were more entrenched in those positions than others coming into the season. For example, Jones was a spring training surprise and Cease was traded for once spring training had begun. Still, they were the guys their teams were planning to turn to on day 3.

As for everyone else, well, that’s where it gets more subjective thanks to injuries or late additions. For example, Jordan Montgomery is likely going to be the No. 3 in Arizona, but he hasn’t thrown a pitch that counts yet.

The remaining pitchers who are considered, then, to be the current No. 3 in their team’s rotations are:

  • Baltimore – Grayson Rodriguez
  • Boston – Garrett Whitlock
  • Chi. White Sox – Nick Nastrini
  • Cleveland – Tanner Bibee
  • Houston – J.P. France
  • Kansas City – Brady Singer
  • Minnesota – Bailey Ober
  • N.Y. Yankees – Clarke Schmidt
  • Tampa Bay – Zack Littell
  • Texas – Jon Gray
  • Toronto – Yusei Kikuchi
  • Arizona – Tommy Henry
  • Atlanta – Charlie Morton
  • Chi. Cubs – Shota Imanaga
  • L.A. Dodgers – Yoshinobu Yamamoto
  • Miami – Ryan Weathers
  • Milwaukee – Colin Rea
  • N.Y. Mets – Sean Manaea
  • San Francisco – Kyle Harrison

If we are looking at stats so far this year, under the caveat that it is a small sample size of just three or four starts for each guy, Suarez ranks at or near the top of the list in several categories:

  1. His record of 3-0 is tied for the best among all No. 3 starters with Rodriguez and Detmers.
  2. His 26 innings pitched are second only to Gilbert
  3. His 1.73 ERA is fifth behind Imanaga, Singer, Detmers and Littell.
  4. His 0.769 WHIP is second behind Singer, and tops in the National League among all pitchers.
  5. His ERA+ of 248 is fourth behind Singer, Detmers and Littell.

The only key category in which he ranks in the middle of the pack is strikeouts per nine innings (9.3), which is 16th. Still, it’s an effective amount, considering the weak contact he’s inducing.

He’s only yielding a barreled ball 2.1% of the times a batter makes contact against him. That’s tops among the pitchers listed above, and eighth in all of baseball among the 84 pitchers who have had at least 50 batted ball events, according to Statcast.

Again, to reiterate, this is a small sample size, so let’s consider a little more criteria to determine the best No. 3.

Suggesting someone is the best No. 3 means he would be slotted higher on more teams in baseball than anyone else who has the same recognition. That means they likely pitch for a good team, or at least a team with playoff expectations.

Of the players listed above, based on track record, I can only identify a few that would be bumped up higher in existing rotations and who pitch for contenders. Suarez, Gilbert, Rodriguez, Kikuki, and Cease.

I’m eliminating Singer, even though he was a first round pick by the Royals who has taken a while to put it all together. I want to see it sustain before I include him. Harrison may one day be an ace, ditto Yamamoto, but we need to see more than we’ve seen so far. I may put Imanaga on this list a little later this year if he continues to show out as he has and I really like Littell too, and think he could get there, but there’s a danger ranking any Tampa pitcher high because they all seem to get hurt and disappear fast.

The rest are either too old (Lynn, Morton), or too inconsistent (Bibee, Flaherty).

So, let’s consider the competition.

Rodriguez is starting to show why he was the top pitching prospect in all of baseball entering last season, and he’s only going to get better. His change up is flat out filthy:

But, he’s still got so much room to grow. He’s my No. 5 on this list as of today, but check back with me in a few months and I may give you a different ranking because he’s got so much potential.

Kikuchi had a nice season last year for Toronto, after underwhelming in his first four seasons in the majors. He seems to be building off of that success to start this season, and if he keeps it up, it’s gonna cost him a pretty penny, not that he’s complaining:

He’s the epitome of what a No. 3 starter should be in a rotation – a reliable guy who pitches well most of the time, gets you into the sixth inning, and doesn’t get run out of the ballpark. For that reason alone, I have him at No. 4.

I then put Suarez No. 3, and that’s not a bad place to be. He might eventually work his way to be the B3IB, but for now, he’s here – and the Phillies have to be thrilled with that. It makes their rotation, arguably, the best in the National League and top three in baseball.

And I don’t have Suarez higher only because the other two guys are unique competition.

Cease may have been one of the best moves of the offseason as he has really solidified a Padres rotation that was in shambles last year.  Instead of making the big splashes in free agency, this was a shrewd trade by GM A.J. Preller and Cease has paid dividends so far. He has a 1.99 ERA and a 0.926 WHIP while striking out 10.7 batters per nine.

The most impressive thing about Cease is in three of his four starts he’s only allowed two hits. And in the other one, he allowed just four. He had a rough year in 2023 with the White Sox, but he was the Cy Young runner up in 2022 and led the American League in K/9 in 2021. He has the track record to be higher in a rotation, and if he wasn’t in San Diego, he probably would be.

As for Logan Gilbert, he’s a No. 3 in name only because of Luis Castillo and George Kirby in front of him on a loaded Mariners staff. Gilbert is just so deceptive in his delivery, he throws hard and he has great command.

He’s a workhorse, who doesn’t miss starts and he’s gotten better each season, and now he’s dominating hitters through his first four starts more than he has in his previous three seasons.

And really, what are batter supposed to do with this?

So, the conclusion is if there were an award handed out for the best No. 3 in baseball, Suarez would be an early season favorite to be a finalist for sure. But there’s still a ways to go to determine if he can actually prove himself better than his chief competition.