2020 MLB Top Ten: Starting Pitchers

We’ve officially gone through the top-ten position players at each position, so now, it’s time to look at who’ll they be facing off against; today, we’re going to analyze the game’s top-ten starting pitchers. Obviously, since there are roughly 1,500 pitchers who will occupy rotation spots, this is a very tough list to put together- only the elite pitchers were able to secure a spot on this list. It’s a unique list with older players and younger players, but all of these pitchers are a nightmare for opposing hitters, and are true aces. So, who are those players? Let’s predict who will be the top-ten starting pitchers next season!

Stats Used (Via Fangraphs and Baseball Savant):

xwOBA= Expected Weighted On Base Average

xSLG= Expected Slugging Percentage

xFIP= Expected Fielder Independent Pitching. It very similar to FIP, as it coverts a pitcher’s Ks, BBs, and HRs to a ERA number, but unlike FIP, it normalizes home run rate and is thus a more stable statistic.

SIERA= Skill Interactive ERA

Before we get to the top ten, let’s discuss the players who just missed the list:

  • Shane Bieber (CLE) possesses elite K-BB numbers, but he allows a significant amount of hard contact, so he’s yet to post an elite season in terms of xwOBA allowed.
  • Patrick Corbin (WSH) quietly regressed all-around in 2019, and I’m a little concerned about his prospects heading into 2020.
  • Zack Greinke (HOU) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (TOR) possess elite command, though their strikeout numbers are still not ideal.
  • Luis Castillo (CIN) and Sonny Gray (CIN) will headline a stellar Reds rotation, but both saw their walk rates spike last season.
  • Noah Syndergaard (NYM) could easily win the Cy Young next season in the NL, yet that’s a massive projection, considering his inability to strike more hitters out despite his incredible pitching arsenal.
  • Clayton Kershaw (LAD) hasn’t regressed as much as some claim, though he’s no longer dominant enough to appear on this list.
  • Charlie Morton (TB) is extremely consistent, though his upside is much limited than the players on this list.
  • Walker Buehler (LAD) is one of my personal favorite players to watch and has incredible K-BB numbers, but he allowed more hard contact in 2019, and regressed just enough to miss out on a spot on this list. If anyone had him as high as #5 on this list, however, I wouldn’t object.

#10: Jack Flaherty, St.Louis Cardinals

flaherty
Photo Cred: Sporting News

Age: 24

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (151 IP): 3.34 ERA, 3.58 xFIP, 10.85 K/9, 3.52 BB/9, 3.57 SIERA, 2.3 fWAR

2019 Stats (196.1 IP): 2.75 ERA, 3.64 xFIP, 10.59 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, 3.68 SIERA, 4.7 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 3.08 ERA, 3.27 xFIP, 10.98 K/9, 2.34 BB/9, 3.34 SIERA, 5 fWAR

At the end of the first half, the Cardinals, with just a 44-44 record, looked like a playoff long-shot. Instead, they went 47-27 in the second half, and made it all the way to the NLCS. So, what changed for St.Louis? Obviously, it doesn’t all fall on the shoulders on player, but you can’t help but assign a significant amount of the credit to Jack Flaherty. The 24-year-old wasn’t bad in the first half with a 4.11 xFIP, but his 0.91 ERA and 3.19xFIP in the second half gave the Cardinals a tremendous boost. Notably, his K-BB ratio skyrocketed (3.34 1st Half, 5.39 2nd Half), and for the season, he made noticeable improvements to his command. Now, he’s probably not going to have another half with a ERA under 1.00, but for a young pitcher, this may have represented the turning point in his career- he’s an ace in my books. As mentioned, his K-BB numbers are strong, but what stands out for me is his ability to suppress hard contact (91st percentile in exit velocity allowed and hard-hit allowed); it’s one thing to just miss bats, but to do so while also limiting hard contact is extremely impressive. He hasn’t dominated like some of the other players on this list, but he certainly appears to be on the right trajectory, and will rightfully be a very popular pick to win the NL Cy Young.

#9: Blake Snell, Tampa Bay Rays

snell
Photo Cred: CBS Sports

Age: 27

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (180.2 IP): 1.89 ERA, 3.16 xFIP, 11.01 K/9, 3.19 BB/9, 3.30 SIERA, 4.8 fWAR

2019 Stats (107 IP): 4.29 ERA, 3.31 xFIP, 12.36 K/9, 3.36 BB/9, 3.56 SIERA, 2.7 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 3.16 ERA, 3.22 xFIP, 11.94 K/9, 3.23 BB/9, 3.40 SIERA, 4.5 fWAR

ERA can be a very fluky statistic, which is why more advanced statistics, such as xFIP and SIERA, are the best way to evaluate pitchers. No pitcher illustrates that more than Blake Snell. The 27-year-old won the Cy Young in 2018 with a 1.89 ERA, but despite posting an increased strikeout rate and a lower xwOBA and xSLG, his ERA skyrocketed to 4.29. So, what happened? You don’t want to blame it all on poor luck, but it’s very hard not to do just that. Snell’s batting average allowed on balls in play (BABIP) went up by .102 points (.343), which is strange considering the Rays have the reputation as one of the best defensive teams in baseball. Therefore, I actually see 2019 as an improvement for him, as his swinging strike rate (17.7%) and chase rate (37%) only got better, which is a good sign for the future. He did deal with some injuries last season, but as long as he pitches around 180 innings in 2020 with his usual results, he’s definitely a top-ten starting pitcher. Sure, he may not throw as many innings as Flaherty or some other pitchers, but he shouldn’t be punished for pitching in an organization that likes to rely heavily on their bullpen; even if his fWAR isn’t as high as some other pitchers, it’s more of a reflection of the Rays’ philosophy than his ability to pitch 200+ innings.

#8: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

strasburg
Photo Cred: Bloomberg

Age: 31

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (130 IP): 3.74 ERA, 3.28 xFIP, 10.8 K/9, 2.63 BB/9, 3.33 SIERA, 2.4 fWAR

2019 Stats (209 IP): 3.32 ERA, 3.17 xFIP, 10.81 K/9, 2.41 BB/9, 3.49 SIERA, 5.7 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 3.39 ERA, 3.19 xFIP, 10.77 K/9, 2.49 BB/9, 3.44 SIERA, 5.4 fWAR

Heading into 2019 season, Stephen Strasburg always has been a high-quality pitcher, but due to durability concerns, wasn’t living up to the hype as a former #1 overall pick, in the perspective of many fans. Well, that narrative has changed quite a bit since then. Pitching over 200 innings for just the second time in his career, the 31-year-old wasn’t actually any better than he had been in previous seasons, but as mentioned, his rate statistics were never an issue- he just didn’t have the innings pitched needed to be an ace. However, in order to compensate for a decrease his fastball velocity (94.3 MPH), he altered his pitch usage massively; he threw far less fastballs (28.6%) and more curveballs (30.7%). Therefore, he was able to induce ground balls at a very high rate (51.1%), and with that, his xwOBA on balls in play decreased all the way down to .343. In other words, he’s already had to come to terms with the velocity decrease that many pitchers past the age of 30 deal with, which is very important for the Nationals. After all, they signed the World Series MVP to a seven-year contract worth $245 million, which is a major risk, considering his injury issues. To that end, I am concerned about a potential World Series hangover for him, since he doesn’t exactly have a track record of durability. As far as when he’s healthy, however, I’m a believer in Strasburg’s new pitch mix, and believe it’ll help him pitch at a high level into his mid 30s. The move to extend him may ultimately backfire for Washington, but as far as next season is concerned, Strasburg should continue to be one of the top starting pitchers in the game.

#7: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox

Sale
Photo Cred: The Athletic

Age: 30

2019 Rank: 1

2018 Stats (158 IP): 2.11 ERA, 2.31 xFIP, 13.50 K/9, 1.94 BB/9, 2.27 SIERA, 6.2 fWAR

2019 Stats (147.1 IP): 4.40 ERA, 2.93 xFIP, 13.32 K/9, 2.26 BB/9, 3.00 SIERA, 3.6 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.98 ERA, 2.56 xFIP, 13.42 K/9, 2.19 BB/9, 2.71 SIERA, 5 fWAR

Without out a doubt, the hardest player to rank on this list was Chris Sale. The Red Sox lefty has dealt with injuries the past two seasons, and now, will miss the start of the season as he recovers from pneumonia. That makes it rather difficult to project his value for next season, but one thing is for certain- when healthy, the 30-year-old is one of the top starting pitchers in baseball. Even as he dealt with injuries and saw his average fastball velocity decrease by 2 MPH (93.7 MPH), he still struck out batters at an extremely rate, while his command remained terrific. The main issue with Sale is the spike in his hard-hit rate allowed (36.3%), which correlates with a much higher xSLG allowed (.384). Then again, he still posted a 2.93 xFIP , which is fantastic, especially since he was pitching with a compromised shoulder and was coming off a World Series title. It’s impossible to know if 2020 will be any different for Sale from a durability perspective, but upon returning, I expect him to continue to be one of the most dominant pitchers in the MLB.

#6: Mike Clevinger, Cleveland Indians

clevinger
Photo Cred: MLB-NBC Sports

Age: 29

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (200 IP): 3.02 ERA, 3.86 xFIP, 9.32 K/9, 3.02 BB/9, 3.86 SIERA, 4.2 fWAR

2019 Stats (126.1 IP): 2.71 ERA, 3.09 xFIP, 12.07 K/9, 2.64 BB/9, 3.33 SIERA, 4.5 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.83 ERA, 3.16 xFIP, 11.63 K/9, 2.91 BB/9, 3.45 SIERA, 4.6 fWAR

Similarly to Sale, Mike Clevinger’s status for the beginning of the 2020 season is in doubt, as he underwent surgery on his knee on February 14th; he should only miss a start or two at the most, but that’s assuming a clean recovery. That’s a minor setback, but nevertheless, the 29-year-old quietly emerged as a premier starting pitcher this past season. In 2018, it was his command that improved greatly, but this past season, Clevinger became a true strikeout artist. Interestingly, his average fastball velocity has risen from 92.8 MPH in 2017 to 95.6 MPH in 2019, which would explain his newfound ability to miss bats. Essentially, rather than mixing up his pitches, he just became better, which is the dream of any pitcher, and would certainly appear to be sustainable. I’m a huge believer in his abilities, and should Cleveland fall out of the playoff race, he would be a hot a commodity on the trade market.

#5: Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay Rays

glasnow
Photo Cred: New York Post

Age: 26

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (111.2 IP): 4.27 ERA, 3.47 xFIP, 10.96 K/9, 4.27 BB/9, 3.58 SIERA, 0.8 fWAR

2019 Stats (60.2 IP): 1.78 ERA, 2.94 xFIP, 11.27 K/9, 2.08 BB/9, 3.18 SIERA, 2.3 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.43 ERA, 3.06 xFIP, 11.19 K/9, 2.48 BB/9, 3.29 SIERA, 5.3 fWAR

The Pirates are heading towards a long rebuild, but perhaps it could’ve been avoided with better coaching. After all, pitchers such as Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole have been significantly better after leaving the organization, as they ditched their sinkers and have become true power pitchers. Rather than change, the old regime continued on with their original strategy, acquiring Chris Archer from the Rays, only to see him struggle as they forced him to throw more sinkers. On the other end of the spectrum, however, is Tyler Glasnow, who is following in Morton and Cole’s footsteps. Acquired in that 2018 midseason trade, alongside All-Star outfielder Austin Meadows and high-end pitcher prospect Shane Baz, for Archer, the 26-year-old was immediately covered back into a starting pitcher, and hasn’t looked back since. Yes, he only pitched 60.2 innings, but with his statistics were simply absurd, and represent the caliber pitcher he is moving forward.   He became a two-pitch pitcher in 2019, which doesn’t usually work, but fastball and curveball spin rates in the 95th percentile, that’s all he needs, and was likely the Rays’ plan for him when they acquired him. That may explain his drastic improvement in command, as well as an his incredible .309 xwOBA on balls in play (99th percentile). At the end of the day, I am betting on an extremely small sample size with Glasnow. However, this wouldn’t be the Rays’ first successful pitching development, and there’s nothing to suggest he won’t continue to be the ace he was when healthy last season. He’s easily my pick to win the AL Cy Young this season, and is one of the faces of a team that figures to do damage in the American League.

#4: Justin Verlander, Houston Astros

verlander
Photo Cred: Detroit News

Age: 37

2019 Rank: 4

2018 Stats (214 IP): 2.52 ERA, 3.03 xFIP, 12.20 K/9, 1.56 BB/9, 2.63 SIERA, 6.6 fWAR

2019 Stats (223 IP): 2.58 ERA, 3.18 xFIP, 12.11 K/9, 1.70 BB/9, 2.95 SIERA, 6.4 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.55 ERA, 3.08 xFIP, 12.13 K/9, 1.75 BB/9, 3.01 SIERA, 6.2 fWAR

The Rays have had their success with bringing in pitchers on other teams, only to bring them to new heights, but the Astros, under old general manager Jeff Lunhow, also had similar success. They turned pitchers like Morton and Cole into true aces, but they didn’t just pick on the Pirates; they acquired Justin Verlander at the 2017 waiver trade deadline in what has to be one of the greatest trades in franchise history. At the time, Verlander, at 35-years-old and with an expensive contract, wasn’t a super hot trade commodity, especially since he wasn’t exactly an overpowering pitcher. That’s obviously changed since then, and to an overwhelming degree. Verlander’s K-BB ratio in 2017 was 3.84, but in 2018 and 2019, that has gone up to 7.84 to 7.14, which is outrageous. Plus, even with a slight decrease in his fastball velocity, he made up for it by throwing more breaking balls, and with incredible spin rates on both offerings (98th percentile FB, 90th percentile  breaking ball), he’ll continue to induce plenty of whiffs. Heck, given the success of his slider (34.3 runs above average) he could afford to throw it even more than he did last year (28.2%), which I fully expect him to do. He’s making $33 million in each of the next two seasons on an extension he signed prior to last season, and at the moment, there’s no reason to suggest he won’t live up to that deal.

#3: Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals

scherzer
Photo Cred: Federal Baseball

Age: 35

2019 Rank: 3

2018 Stats (220.2 IP): 2.53 ERA, 3.06 xFIP, 12.24 K/9, 2.08 BB/9, 2.71 SIERA, 7.5 fWAR

2019 Stats (172.1 IP): 2.92 ERA, 2.88 xFIP, 12.69 K/9, 1.72 BB/9, 2.93 SIERA, 6.5 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.60 ERA, 2.95 xFIP, 12.57 K/9, 1.90 BB/9, 2.86 SIERA, 6.4 fWAR

Sticking with the theme of older pitchers, when the Nationals signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year contract following the 2014 season, it was cited as the “worst free-agent signing of the offseason”. After all, Scherzer had been a frontline starter for the Tigers, but  the cost (seven years, $210 million) was certainly costly for a pitcher who had just turned 30-years-old. In hindsight, however, the Nationals have gotten the last laugh. With two Cy Young awards and a 32.5 fWAR in five seasons with Washington, he’s been more than worth that contract, and over that stretch, has been the best pitcher in baseball. Plus, since his fastball velocity (95.2 MPH) and K-BB ratio (7.36) only improved last season, he has shown no signs of slowing down. Even as he allowed more hard contact last season, he did so while inducing much more ground balls (40.4%), and if anything, his .254 wOBA compared to .269 xwOBA suggests he should’ve been even better last season. The Nationals will need to be careful with how they handle his workload early coming off a World Series run, but he figures to compete for another Cy Young. Heck, there’s a chance that similarly to Verlander, he may get another large free-agent contract- he’ll be a free agent at 37-years-old, and is getting better with age.

#2: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

degrom
Photo Cred: USA Today

Age: 31

2019 Rank: 2

2018 Stats (217 IP) : 1.70 ERA, 2.60 xFIP, 11.16 K/9, 1.91 BB/9, 2.78 SIERA, 9 fWAR

2019 Stats (204 IP): 2.43 ERA, 3.11 xFIP, 11.25 K/9, 1.94 BB/9, 3.29 SIERA, 7 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.47 ERA, 3.13 xFIP, 11.21 K/9, 1.93 BB/9, 3.32 SIERA, 6.5 fWAR

Coming off a season in which he posted a 1.70 ERA and won the NL Cy Young award, it was expected that Jacob deGrom would naturally regress in 2018, which in fact he did. Yet, despite that, he was still able to win the award for the second straight season, which speaks to how dominant of a pitcher he’s become. deGrom’s K-BB numbers were essentially the same as they were in his historic 2018 season, as was his exit velocity allowed (85.8 MPH). That’s the exact combination that every starting pitcher is looking for, especially with his fastball velocity (97.2 MPH) reaching new heights in 2019. In essence, there are zero red flags regarding the 31-year-old’s outlook, and he’ll be the favorite to win the NL Cy Young for a third straight season. General manager Brodie Van Wagenen has made plenty of mistakes in his short time with the Mets, but extending deGrom on a five-year, $137.5 million contract prior to the start of last season was a brilliant decision.

#1: Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees

cole
Photo Cred: NJ.com

Age: 29

2019 Rank: 10

2018 Stats (200.1 IP): 2.88 ERA, 3.04 xFIP, 12.40 K/9, 2.88 BB/9, 2.91 SIERA, 6 fWAR

2019 Stats (212.1 IP): 2.50 ERA, 2.48 xFIP, 13.82 K/9, 2.03 BB/9, 2.62 SIERA, 7.4 fWAR

2020 Projected Stats: 2.52 ERA, 2.65 xFIP, 13.34 K/9, 2.40 BB/9, 2.76 SIERA, 7 fWAR

Ironically, deGrom is no longer the best pitcher in his own city; after signing a $324 million contract with the Yankees, Gerrit Cole is the new king of New York. As demonstrated by the statistics shown above, the 29-year-old’s two-year run with the Astros was simply incredible, and based on his 2019 production, easily should have won the AL Cy Young over Justin Verlander. After all, his 13.82 K/9 was an all-time record for a starting pitcher, and he was able to do so while also improving his walk rate. With a 37.1 runs above average, his fastball has a case as the best pitch in the MLB, as it ranks in the 96th percentile and 97th percentile in spin rate and velocity, respectively. It’s the major force behind his increased chase rate (35%), swinging strike rate (16.8%), and whiff rate (33.7%), and correlates well with the Yankees organization, which values high fastballs as much or more than other organization. Some players can’t handle the pressure of playing in New York, but I fully expect Cole to handle it, and in doing so, will be the driving force behind a Yankees team that will be expected to run through the American League.

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