Since the turn of the millennium, the best pitchers in MLB have constantly changed. Similar to the hitters of the past 20 years, different pitchers stepped up at different points in time and dominated the sport. There were so many great pitchers that they have to be divided into a few different categories. While all of these pitchers were some of the best pitchers in MLB, not all were dominant in the same way or at the same time.
Best Pitchers in MLB: Early 2000s Aces
The pitchers in this category were some of the best pitchers in MLB during the 1990s but continued to have success in the first half of the 2000s. Their run of success didn’t last too long into the new millennium, but they did enough to deserve recognition.
Most baseball fans remember Pedro Martinez for carving up hitters in the late 90s, however, he was still a very good pitcher from 2000-2005. Martinez won the AL Cy Young Award in 2000, which is a year that gets considered as one of the best in baseball history. That season, he went 18-6 with a microscopic 1.74 ERA/2.17 FIP (291 ERA+) and a 0.737 WHIP to go with 284 strikeouts in 217 innings (11.8 K/9). Overall, from 2000-2005, Martinez made three All-Star Games and pitched to a 90-34 record, a 2.58 ERA/2.54 FIP (180 ERA+), a 0.960 WHIP, and 1,327 strikeouts in 1,153.2 innings (10.4 K/9).
Unfortunately, Martinez began to suffer from injuries towards the end of the 2005 season and he was never able to regain his form from the early part of the decade. He retired following the 2009 season and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.
Put an asterisk on Clemens’ numbers from the 2000s all you want, but he was still one of the best pitchers in MLB from 2000-2006. During that stretch, Clemens went 101-44 with a 3.27 ERA/3.38 FIP (136 ERA+), a 1.192 WHIP, and 1,288 strikeouts in 1,355.1 innings (8.6 K/9). Clemens also made four All-Star Games and won two Cy Young Awards during that stretch despite these being his ages 37-43 seasons. Yes, it’s widely suspected that Clemens was using steroids during this time, but what he was doing was impressive regardless of his alleged PED usage.
Randy Johnson’s stretch of success wasn’t as long as Clemens’ or Martinez’s was in the 2000s, but it was just as impressive. From 2000-2002, The Big Unit was the best pitcher in baseball, pitching to a 64-18 record with a 2.48 ERA/2.44 FIP (188 ERA+), a 1.052 WHIP, and a whopping 1,053 strikeouts in 758.1 innings (12.5 K/9). As a result, Johnson won the NL Cy Young Award in all three seasons despite these being his age 36-38 seasons.
After an injury-plagued year in 2003, Johnson returned to being one of the best pitchers in MLB in 2004 despite being 40 years old. That season, Johnson finished second in Cy Young Voting and led the majors with 290 strikeouts. He also threw a perfect game on May 18, 2004. While his production soon began to tail off, Johnson’s performance in the early 2000s makes him one of the best pitchers in MLB in the 21st Century.
Best Pitchers in MLB: Short, Dominant Peaks
These pitchers were briefly some of the best pitchers in MLB, but their success wasn’t sustained for very long. Most of these players succumbed to injuries, leaving many to wonder what could have happened if they had never suffered such a fate.
Brandon Webb didn’t have a very long career, but when he was healthy, he was one of the best pitchers in MLB. From 2003-2008, Webb went 87-62 with a 3.24 ERA/3.48 FIP (143 ERA+), a 1.237 WHIP, and 1,063 strikeouts in 1,315.2 innings (7.3 K/9). Webb was a three-time All-Star and won the NL Cy Young in 2006. While he wasn’t a strikeout artist, Webb used his sinker to generate a ton of ground ball outs. Unfortunately, Webb began to suffer from shoulder injuries following the 2008 season and didn’t pitch in the majors after 2009. He retired in 2013 while in the Texas Rangers organization.
Cliff Lee’s dominance beginning in 2008 led to one of the craziest free agencies in baseball history after the 2010 season. From 2008-2013, Lee was one of the best pitchers in MLB, pitching to an 85-50 record with a 2.89 ERA/2.85 FIP (140 ERA+) and a 1.086 WHIP with 1,203 strikeouts in 1,333.2 innings (8.1 K/9). Lee won the 2008 AL Cy Young Award and was a five-time All-Star during that stretch. He began to suffer from injuries in the 2014 season though, and never pitched in the majors after that season.
Santana was originally a Rule 5 Draft pick, but his career began to take off in the mid-2000s. From 2004-2010 though, Santana was on top of the baseball world. During this stretch, Santana went 110-57 with a 2.87 ERA/3.32 FIP (151 ERA+), a 1.063 WHIP, and 1,479 strikeouts in 1,512.1 innings (8.8 K/9). Santana also was a four-time All-Star and won two AL Cy Young Awards during this timeframe. He suffered multiple injuries to his elbow and shoulder starting the 2009 season and was never able to regain the magic he had earlier in his career. His lone other highlight came in 2012 when he pitched the first no-hitter in Mets history.
Kluber is still active, which means that theoretically, he isn’t done yet. His production has been in decline lately though, and he’s suffered two straight injury-shortened seasons as a result. From 2014-2018, however, Kluber was one of the best pitchers in MLB. In this time, Kluber went 83-45 with a 2.85 ERA/2.83 FIP (151 ERA+), a 1.016 WHIP, and 1,228 strikeouts in 1,091.1 innings (10.1 K/9). Kluber also made three All-Star Games and took home two AL Cy Young Awards. He is currently a free agent and teams are hoping he can regain his Cy Young form.
Jacob deGrom has been one of the best pitchers in MLB since the turn of the century, but he goes into this category because he has only been in the majors since 2014. deGrom’s career started with a bang when he won NL Rookie of the Year in 2014, and since then, he has made three All-Star Games and won two Cy Young Awards. Overall, he has a 70-51 record with a 2.61 ERA/2.75 FIP (150 ERA+), a 1.047 WHIP, and 1,359 strikeouts in 1,169.2 innings (10.5 K/9). If he keeps up this pace, expect deGrom one day to be enshrined in Cooperstown.
David Price hasn’t quite lived up to his large contract, but there’s a reason as to why the Red Sox gave him so much money. From 2010-2015, Price was easily one of the best pitchers in MLB, going 94-49 with a 2.97 ERA/3.05 FIP (130 ERA+), a 1.113 WHIP, and 1,258 strikeouts in 1,299.1 innings (8.7 K/9). As a result, Price made five All-Star Games and won the AL Cy Young Award in 2012. Price is 35 now and his prime is over, but he remains a solid pitcher today.
King Felix broke into the majors as a 19-year-old in 2005, however, he didn’t fully break out until 2009. From 2009-2015, Hernandez pitched to a dominant 2.83 ERA/2.99 FIP (136 ERA+), a 1.109 WHIP, and 1,549 strikeouts in 1,596 innings (8.7 K/9). King Felix made six All-Star Games during this stretch and won the 2010 AL Cy Young Award. Also during this stretch, King Felix threw a perfect game to add to his resume. Unfortunately, injuries began to pile up on Hernandez and his production took a nosedive following the 2015 season. He is still only 34 years old, which means that there is still time for him to turn his career around.
Yes, CC had a fantastic career, but after taking a closer look at his numbers, he only had one season with a career ERA below 3.00 and never pitched a full season with a strikeout rate greater than 9.0 K/9. He was consistently strong though and his career numbers are most definitely weighed down by his final seven years with the Yankees.
With that being said, from 2006-2012, Sabathia was one of the best pitchers in MLB. During that stretch, Sabathia went 122-57 with a 3.14 ERA/3.20 FIP (140 ERA+), a 1.162 WHIP, and 1,453 strikeouts in 1,591.2 innings (8.2 K/9). He made four All-Star Games in that time and won the 2007 AL Cy Young Award.
Perhaps his best stretch came in 2008 after he was traded to the Brewers. After that trade, Sabathia went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA/2.44 FIP (255 ERA+), a 1.003 WHIP, and 128 strikeouts in 130.2 innings (8.8 K/9). Sabathia also threw seven complete games and three shutouts with the Brewers, and despite only playing a half-season in the NL, he finished sixth in MVP voting and fifth in Cy Young voting.
Best Pitchers in MLB: Non-Award Winners
These pitchers have experienced stretches where they were among the best pitchers in MLB, yet they never earned recognition from the BBWAA in the form of Cy Young Awards.
Oswalt often gets overshadowed because he only played for 13 seasons, but he was excellent. He finished his career with a 163-102 record, a 3.36 ERA/3.37 FIP (127 ERA+), a 1.211 WHIP, and 1,852 strikeouts in 2,245.1 innings (7.4 K/9). Oswalt was a three-time All-Star, won an ERA title, and finished in the top six in Cy Young voting six times, but he never took home any hardware.
Every year he’s been healthy, Chris Sale has been a popular pick to win the Cy Young Award. He has a 109-73 record with a 3.03 ERA/2.90 FIP (140 ERA+), a 1.035 WHIP, and 2,007 strikeouts in 1,629.2 innings (11.1 K/9). Sale is a seven-time All-Star and has finished in the top six of Cy Young voting every he’s been healthy, finishing as high as second. In addition to his high strikeout totals, Sale has exceptional command, issuing just 2.1 walks per nine innings, and owning the best strikeout to walk ratio in history among qualified pitchers at 5.37. Sale is still one of the best pitchers in MLB, and maybe one day, he will finally win a Cy Young Award.
Hamels has quietly been one of the best pitchers in MLB this century. While he hasn’t lit up radar guns with blazing fastballs the way Sale has, Hamels has pitched to a strong 3.43 ERA/3.68 FIP (123 ERA+) and a 1.183 WHIP with 2,560 strikeouts in 2,698 innings (8.5 K/9). Hamels is a four-time All-Star, won 2008 World Series MVP, and has finished in the top ten in Cy Young voting four times. As great as Hamels was though, he was always one-upped by someone else, and it normally was one of his teammates in Philly.
Lester’s production has dropped off in recent years, but his career numbers are still strong. He has a 193-111 record with a 3.60 ERA/3.69 FIP (119 ERA+), a 1.265 WHIP, and 2,397 strikeouts in 2,598.2 innings (8.3 K/9). Lester is a five-time All-Star, a three-time World Series champion, and has finished in the top ten of Cy Young voting four times.
Best Pitchers in MLB: Best of the Best
The pitchers in this category have a long period of sustained success during this century. Not only were they the best pitchers in MLB, but they also took home accolades and if they aren’t already in Cooperstown, they will be enshrined there once they hit the ballot.
Greinke has consistently been one of the best pitchers in MLB. He has a 208-126 record with a 3.37 ERA/3.37 FIP (126 ERA+), 1.158 WHIP, and 2,689 strikeouts in 2,939 innings (8.2 K/9). Greinke is a six-time All-Star and won the AL Cy Young Award in 2009. Even as his velocity has diminished, Greinke has found ways to remain effective. He is still a solid pitcher, which means he has time to further solidify his case for the Hall of Fame.
Scherzer was a bit of a late bloomer, as he didn’t fully break out until he was 28 years old. His breakout out though led to a dominant seven-year stretch from 2013-2019 where Scherzer was one of the best pitchers in MLB. During that phase, Scherzer went 118-47 with a 2.82 ERA/2.81 FIP (149 ERA+) and a 0.981 WHIP with 1,683 strikeouts in 1,485.1 innings (11.3 K/9). Scherzer was an All-Star every year in that stretch and won three Cy Young Awards. Scherzer also has thrown two no-hitters during his career.
Heading into his age-36 season, Scherzer is approaching the 200 wins (currently at 175) and 3,000 strikeouts (currently at 2,784) benchmarks that many consider as the important numbers for a Hall of Fame case. He already has a strong case right now, but if he hits those numbers, he will become a lock for Cooperstown.
It’s crazy to think that the Tigers had two of the best pitchers in MLB in the same rotation at one point, yet couldn’t win a World Series with them. A lot of people thought Verlander had peaked in the middle of the 2010s. He had a 4.54 ERA in 2014 and his 2015 season was shortened by injuries. In 2016 though, Verlander began the second stretch of dominance where he would finish in the top five of Cy Young voting in four consecutive years.
Overall, Verlander has a 226-159 record with a 3.33 ERA/3.41 FIP (129 ERA+) and 1.134 WHIP with 3,013 strikeouts in 2,988 innings (9.1 K/9). He is an eight-time All-Star, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, and won the 2011 AL MVP Award. Verlander has also thrown three no-hitters in his career. While Verlander likely won’t pitch in 2021 due to him getting Tommy John Surgery, there hasn’t been any indication that he is done with his playing career.
You probably didn’t expect to see a reliever in here, but Rivera was great enough to the point where he deserves a spot. From 2000-2011, Rivera pitched to a 2.05 ERA/2.59 FIP and a 0.946 while racking up 774 strikeouts and 474 saves in 834.2 innings (8.2 K/9). Rivera made 10 All-Star Games during that stretch and won two World Series rings. Even after suffering a season-ending injury in May of 2012, Rivera returned for a strong final season in 2013. He was an All-Star again that season while pitching to a 2.11 ERA/3.05 FIP and a 1.047 WHIP while picking up 44 saves and striking out 54 in 64 innings (7.6 K/9).
Somehow, four players mentioned in this list were at one point all in the same rotation. In 2000, Roy Halladay had one of the worst seasons in baseball history, pitching to a 10.64 ERA in 67.2 innings. In 2001 though, he began a long stretch where he was one of the best pitchers in MLB.
From 2001-2011, Halladay went 175-78 with a 2.98 ERA/3.08 FIP (148 ERA+), a 1.113 WHIP, and 1,795 strikeouts in 2,300 innings (7.0 K/9). Halladay was an eight-time All-Star and won two Cy Young Awards. In 2010, Halladay made baseball history twice, first by throwing a perfect game on May 29, then by throwing a no-hitter in his first-ever postseason start in the NLDS. Sadly, Halladay passed away in a plane crash in 2017 at the age of 40. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019.
Clayton Kershaw’s career numbers are crazy to think about. So far, he has a 175-76 record, a 2.43 ERA (158 ERA+), a 1.003 WHIP, and 2,526 strikeouts in 2,333 innings (9.7 K/9). Zooming in on the peak of his career though will make any pitching fanatic drool. From 2011-2017, Kershaw went 118-41 with an insane 2.10 ERA/2.36 FIP (179 ERA+), a 0.913 WHIP, and 1,623 strikeouts in 1,452 innings (10.1 K/9 against just 1.8 BB/9). Kershaw was an All-Star every year during this stretch, won three Cy Young Awards, and won 2014 NL MVP.
Even in his post-peak years, Kershaw continues to be one of the best pitchers in MLB, finishing in the top ten in Cy Young voting in 2019 and 2020. Since his rookie season, Kershaw has only had one season where his ERA exceeded 3.00 when he had a 3.03 ERA in 2019. For a while, people knocked on Kershaw for his playoff performance, but he finally won a ring in 2020. The craziest fact about Kershaw’s career is that he is only 32 years old right now. He could retire right now and be a Hall of Famer, but he likely has at least another five years before he retires.
Best Pitchers in MLB From 2000-2020: Closing Thoughts
There have been a ton of great pitchers throughout the 21st Century. All of them were among the best pitchers in MLB, but they didn’t all dominate at the same time or length, or with the same method of pitching.
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