With the return of baseball just over a month away, it’s the perfect time to remind everyone of the premier players in the game. Starting Pitchers are first on the docket. Even though they’ll only (at most) get 12 starts, staff aces can have massive impacts. According to Baseball-Reference, four of the top 10 WAR earners in 2019 were starters. So who’s gonna be up there this year? Let’s take some educated guesses.
(2019 stats and Cy Young finish in parentheses)
1. Jacob deGrom (11-8, 2.43 ERA, 11.3 K/9 – 1st NL)
Yes, deGrom regressed while other pitchers improved. Yes, Yankee fans at this point may have closed the tab. His HR/9 doubled in 2019 although he only allowed 0.4 per 9 in 2018, so many are willing to chalk that increase up to “improved baseballs.” Regardless of all that he led the NL in strikeouts, and posted top 10 marks in ERA, WHIP, BB/9, H/9, and WAR. All while playing for the New York Mets. Gerrit Cole – the #2 starter – played for the Astros, who scored almost a run more per game than the Mets. Next year, he’ll be with Yankees, who led the league in R/G. Ask any pitcher in any league. Run support matters, for confidence, for energy and for wins (personal and team). In 2018 and 2019 combined, Gerrit Cole went 35-10. deGrom was 21-17, but has walked away with two Cy Youngs. Case closed.
2. Gerrit Cole (20-5, 2.50 ERA, 13.8 K/9 – 2nd AL)
While deGrom has been the best pitcher on the planet for the past two years, Cole takes took the cake for last year alone. He finished just a tick behind deGrom in ERA, and had a lower WAR – attributable to other valuable players on the Astros. But he was second in FIP, WHIP, H/9, and led humanity in strikeouts with 326(!!). That’s Ryan-esque. He narrowly missed the Cy Young award because of Justin Verlander’s outstanding age-36 season where he notched his 3000th strikeout. Cole’s new contract – $324 million over nine years – comes with significant pressure to continue his trajectory in the Bronx. But if his 2019 postseason is any indication of his high leverage performance, the Yankees have to be feeling pretty good. He allowed a 1.93 ERA in 32.2 innings.
3. Walker Buehler (14-4, 3.26 ERA, 10.6 K/9 – 9th NL)
Yep, that’s right. The 25-year-old Walker Buehler is ranked ahead some of the elder-statesmen in the game – Strasburg, Scherzer,and Verlander. Not to say that those three are on their way out just yet. But the only direction that Buehler can go is up. Barring injury (which is considerably more likely to occur with Strasburg or Scherzer), Buehler will fully take over as staff ace in the short time that he and Clayton Kershaw pitch this year.
His FIP, 3.01 last year, shows that his ERA will likely drop quite a few ticks. Plus his low walk and home run rates bode well for his future in run-prevention against the modern offense. The Dodgers are lucky to have another star pitcher that they can build years of agony around.
4. Max Scherzer (11-7, 2.92 ERA, 12.7 K/9 – 3rd NL)
Look, Max Scherzer is the coolest. If he pitches until he’s 40 and racks up 4000 strikeouts, a whole lot of people would be happy. But taking into account his advancing age and tendon-shredding delivery, Buehler ranks higher. Remember when his World Series start was pushed back a couple of days because he was in so much pain he couldn’t get out of bed? Even though he came back and pitched very well in Game 7, it’s not the hallmark of a durable pitcher to be unable to lift his arm on occasion.
Despite all that, his track record speaks for itself. Over five seasons with the Nats, he’s managed a 2.74 ERA while striking out 11.7 per 9. 2019 was the first season in that span that he missed significant time due to injury. But if he reads this, he might challenge Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA this year…
5. Justin Verlander (21-6, 2.58 ERA, 12.1 K/9 – 1st AL)
Another of the elder-statesmen checks in at number five. America’s Workhorse (maybe I should copyright that) led the AL in innings, registered strikeout number 3000, and won his second Cy Young. Entering his age-37 season, his durability is not in question – it’s the homers. The American League’s best pitcher also allowed 36 dingers, third place in the bigs. Fortunately, he didn’t walk enough guys or give up enough hits for those jacks to majorly affect his bottom line. But it’s something to keep an eye on as his fastball slows down a bit. Regardless, the move to Houston has done wonders for him. A few more sub-3.00 ERA seasons could be in the tank.
6. Stephen Strasburg (18-6, 3.32 ERA, 10.8 K/9 – 5th NL)
Healthy for a full season for the first time since The Oscar Selfie, Strasburg threw an NL leading 209 innings. All he had to do to dominate in 2019 was to stay on par with his career averages – impressive numbers. The consistency of his performance when healthy, paired with World Series MVP honors, netted him a seven-year, $245 million deal to stay in Washington.
While this contract may be an overpayment, the Nats made a loyalty move, much like the Red Sox did with Nathan Eovaldi after 2018. Strasburg is 31, and with his injury record, the chances that he lasts until age 38 as an effective pitcher are slim. But 2020 is Strasburg’s kind of year. Let it all hang out for 10 starts, then rest up for the long haul ahead. Root for him.
The Best of the Rest
Young guns Jack Flaherty, Mike Soroka and Shane Bieber pitch with three distinctive styles, all with poise beyond their years. Don’t count out repeat performances from Charlie Morton and Hyun-Jin Ryu, who finished third and second in 2019 Cy Young voting respectively.