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Ranking the Top 20 Starting Pitchers in MLB (10-1)

We’ve taken a look at the bottom half of this list, now let’s look at the top. Here’s the best of the best starting pitchers in Major League Baseball entering the 2021 season.

10. Mike Clevinger

The Padres starting pitcher had a great year in 126 innings in 2019 but only threw 41.2 innings in 2020. Once again he had a great ERA (3.02) but many of his peripherals were slightly worse this season. He was traded to the Padres at the deadline after breaking COVID-19 protocols in Chicago in early August. Since 2018, he ranks ninth in ERA and 11th in FIP among qualified starting pitchers. Although his SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA) is one of the worst of these pitchers, Clevinger is a top ten starting pitcher in the league entering his fifth season.

9. Clayton Kershaw

Kershaw, at just 32, has an MVP and three Cy Young Awards. He is already among the best starting pitchers of all time, and finally won the first World Series ring of his career this season. Kershaw is a lock for the Hall of Fame and he’s only 32, much younger than many baseball fans would think.

The knock against him has been his lack of playoff success, but in 2020, he finally had a great postseason ERA and won a ring. This is an obvious choice inside the top 10, and although he may be a little out of his prime, he is still an elite starting pitcher, among the league’s best.

8. Hyun-jin Ryu

Ryu led the NL in ERA in 2019 and then signed a four year, 80 million dollar contract to be the Blue Jays’ ace in the offseason. He has never been the advanced stats’ favorite but he has a 2.30 ERA and 3.06 FIP since 2018 and has consistently overperformed his peripherals. Opinions on Ryu differ depending on the crowd of MLB fans that you’re talking to, but he has a 2.95 career ERA.

The Blue Jays have an ace starting pitcher, and if they pair him with some other starting pitchers, they could make a playoff run in 2021. He is aging, but coming off of two top-three Cy Young finishes in a row, he is one of the league’s best.

7. Blake Snell

One of three ace-caliber starting pitchers in a stacked Rays’ rotation, the 2018 AL Cy Young award winner has established himself as one of the best in the league. He significantly overperformed his 2.95 FIP and 3.30 SIERA in 2018 but had slightly higher peripherals and a 4.29 ERA in 2019. He evened out in 2020, and had a great year, posting a 3.24 ERA and 11.34 K/9.

Snell gave up 1.8 home runs per 9 innings, but his 29.2 HR/FB rate, meaning that almost one in three of the fly balls he gave up was a home run. This should regress to the mean in a full season, which could shave nearly half a run off of his ERA.

6. Shane Bieber

The unanimous AL Cy Young winner built on a great 2019 campaign and had an insane 2020 season. He led the league in ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, K%, K-BB ratio, K/9 and fWAR. He was the best pitcher in Major League Baseball in 2020, but it was a shortened season and Bieber isn’t quite on the level of the rest of the guys ahead of him.

He wasn’t chosen as an MVP finalist, finishing fourth in the voting, but he had an MVP-caliber season. Bieber left 91.1% of his baserunners on base, which isn’t going to be sustainable over a 162 game season. He was voted unanimous for the Cy Young at age 25 and doesn’t hit free agency until 2025.

5. Stephen Strasburg

The first of two Washington Nationals in the top-5, Strasburg threw only 5 innings in 2020, but is still one of the best pitchers in the league. He missed 2018 and 2020 due to injury, so there is a concern there, but when he pitches, he is elite.

Since 2017, Strasburg has a 3.22 ERA, 3.19 FIP, and 10.62 K/9 in 519.1 innings of work. In his career, Strasburg has a 2.96 FIP and 3.05 SIERA, but injuries have held him back. He has put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, but he has missed a lot of time due to injuries. It will be interesting to see how the rest of his career pans out, and whether or not he ends up in Cooperstown.

4. Chris Sale

Sale underwent Tommy John surgery before the 2020 season and missed the whole year. He had a 4.44 ERA in 2019. These signs are not amazing for the Red Sox starting pitcher.

Sale has somehow never won a Cy Young award, but he has been the most consistent pitcher in the American League since his breakout year in 2012. Sale’s 2019 numbers appear very fluky; he had a 4.40 ERA despite a 3.39 FIP, 2.93 xFIP, 29.6 K-BB%, and 3.00 SIERA. Sale is still just 31, so he still has years left as one of the best starting pitchers in baseball if he can stay healthy.

3. Max Scherzer

Scherzer has five top-5 Cy Young finishes and three wins, and he may have deserved a fourth in 2018, if you look past deGrom’s 1.70 ERA. He got off to a rough start in 2020, with a 4.31 ERA and 3.80 FIP in the first half, but he bounced back in the second half with a 3.25 ERA and 3.16 FIP.

Although Scherzer is entering his age-37 season, he hasn’t shown signs of slowing down. This shortened 2020 season was the first year he wasn’t worth at least 5.5 fWAR, and the first time he was worth less than 6.4 wins above replacement since joining the Nationals in 2015. Behind Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin, the Nationals have a World Series caliber rotation of starting pitchers entering 2021.

2. Gerrit Cole

The debate between deGrom and Cole has been going on for years. Some people believe that Sale or Scherzer is the best, but I have them as third and fourth. Since his trade to the Houston Astros in 2018, Gerrit Cole has a 29.8 K-BB%, 2.59 DRA, 2.71 ERA, 2.85 FIP, and 2.82 SIERA.

When Cole signed with the Yankees, it was the biggest contract for a pitcher in MLB history at nine years, $324M. He struggled to begin the 2020 season, but still finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. Entering 2021, Cole is the best pitcher in the American League.

1. Jacob deGrom

The best starting pitcher in baseball: Mets’ ace Jacob deGrom. The 2018 and 2019 NL Cy Young Award winner also led Bauer in most categories in 2020, including pCRA, DRA, and SIERA (stats that eliminate outside factors such as park factors, defense and DRA factors for the difficulty of an opponent). I only bring up these stats because the difference between Cole and deGrom is so slim, with deGrom holding the lead in ERA and FIP, while Cole leads in SIERA and K-BB%. As we look forward to the 2021 season, Jacob deGrom is the best starting pitcher in the National League.

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