Ranking the Top 25 Starting Pitchers in MLB Entering 2019
Who are the best starting pitchers in baseball?
Rattling off names such as Jacob deGrom, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander is easy.
Ranking those guys is hard.
Keeping that list to 25 names is borderline impossible.
Yet that's what we've done here with our top 25 starting pitchers for the 2019 season.
This is not simply a list of the best pitchers from last year. This is based on career success, recent performance and expectations for the upcoming season.
Let the debate begin.
10 to Watch
Because we couldn't pick just one, here are 10 young pitchers to watch who could be on their way to joining the top-25 list in the near future:
- Shane Bieber, age 23, Cleveland Indians
- Luis Castillo, 26, Cincinnati Reds
- Jack Flaherty, 23, St. Louis Cardinals
- Tyler Glasnow, 25, Tampa Bay Rays
- Yusei Kikuchi, 27, Seattle Mariners
- Jesus Luzardo, 21, Oakland Athletics
- Chris Paddack, 23, San Diego Padres
- Nick Pivetta, 26, Philadelphia Phillies
- Brandon Woodruff, 26, Milwaukee Brewers
- Kyle Wright, 23, Atlanta Braves
Nos. 25 to 21
25. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
The Giants' longtime ace has something to prove after a pair of one-off injuries limited him to 38 starts the past two seasons. He had a mediocre 3.99 FIP and 1.24 WHIP over 129.2 innings last year after he returned from a fractured pinky finger. For now, he gets the benefit of the doubt with a clean bill of health and a stellar track record, and he should have extra motivation in a contract year.
24. Mike Clevinger, Cleveland Indians
It's easy to fly under the radar in a starting rotation that includes Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco. That said, the 28-year-old Clevinger is an excellent starter, and he came into his own in 2018. In his first full season in the Cleveland rotation, he racked up 207 strikeouts in 200 innings with a 3.52 FIP and 1.16 WHIP. His best days may still be ahead.
23. Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs
Hendricks remains one of the most underrated players in baseball. A sub-90 mph fastball and a quiet demeanor on and off the field will do that. His 22.4 percent soft-contact rate was fourth among qualified starters last season, as he's a master of painting the corner and changing speeds. As Jon Lester begins to decline, Hendricks will be counted on to lead the staff.
22. Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks
His $34.5 million salary doesn't look great, but Greinke is still one of the best pitchers in baseball. After a shaky first season in the desert, he posted a 3.51 FIP and 1.08 WHIP while averaging 205 innings the past two years. The 35-year-old should age well with a reliance on finesse over power.
21. Kyle Freeland, Colorado Rockies
One of the breakout stars of 2018, the 25-year-old Freeland went 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA in 202.1 innings for an impressive 8.4 WAR. His 3.67 FIP suggests he pitched over his head a little bit, and he doesn't exactly have swing-and-miss stuff, but he's still an excellent young pitcher on the rise and a vital part of a contending Rockies team.
Nos. 20 to 16
20. Miles Mikolas, St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals took a two-year, $15.5 million flier on Mikolas last offseason after his strong three-year run in Japan. He rewarded them by exceeding even the wildest expectations. Command was the name of the game, as he led the NL with 1.3 BB/9 and posted 146 strikeouts and 29 walks in 200.2 innings. While he pitches to contact, his 3.28 FIP suggests his 2018 performance is sustainable.
19. Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians
Carrasco just continues to go about his business as one of baseball's most underrated players. Over the past four seasons, he's posted a 3.40 ERA with a 3.12 FIP while averaging 206 strikeouts and 180 innings. His 130 ERA+ during that span speaks to his standing as an elite starter.
18. Jameson Taillon, Pittsburgh Pirates
It took Taillon some time to live up to the hype that came with going No. 2 overall in the 2010 draft. Now that he's established himself in the majors, he appears ready to join the ranks of the sport's elite. He tossed two complete games and one shutout last season while posting a 3.46 FIP, 1.18 WHIP and 179 strikeouts in 191 innings.
17. Zack Wheeler, New York Mets
Wheeler was dominant after the All-Star break last season, going 9-1 with a 1.68 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and 73 strikeouts in 75 innings. The 28-year-old is finally healthy, and he'll pitch for a big payday with free agency awaiting next offseason. Could the Mets sign him long term to serve as a staff anchor and let Jacob deGrom walk?
16. Patrick Corbin, Washington Nationals
Corbin picked the perfect time to put up the best season of his career, pitching his way into a six-year, $140 million deal with the Nationals. His strikeout rate climbed from 8.4 to 11.1 K/9, and his 2.47 FIP suggests his elite-level performance last season was more than just a mirage. This could be the missing piece for a Nats team that has not been able to win a playoff series.
Nos. 15 to 11
15. Jose Berrios, Minnesota Twins
Few pitchers have better pure stuff than Berrios, who backs his mid-90s fastball with a filthy curveball. The 24-year-old ran out of steam last year after the All-Star break, which took a bite out of his overall stat line. But if he can put it all together for a full season, he'll vault into the upper echelon of MLB starters.
14. Luis Severino, New York Yankees
A bum shoulder that's expected to sideline him for the first month of the season and a 5.57 ERA during an up-and-down second half last year give reason for pause regarding Severino's ranking. Still, he's the unquestioned ace of the Yankees staff, and when he's right, few are more dominant.
13. German Marquez, Colorado Rockies
I wrote the following in February while identifying Marquez as a potential breakout star: "Marquez quietly finished fourth in the NL with 230 strikeouts last season, backing his mid-90s fastball with a lethal curveball (19.8% usage, 111 K, .151 BAA, .126 ISO) and an equally effective slider (18.7% Usage, 61 K, .177 BAA, .102 ISO)."
Freeland was the breakout star of 2018, Marquez will anchor the staff going forward.
12. Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
If Syndergaard is healthy, there's no question he has the stuff to be a top-tier starting pitcher. However, after he made just seven starts in 2017 and 25 starts last season, a full season is far from guaranteed. That's enough to keep him out of the top 10, but don't be surprised if he earns his way back in before 2019 is over.
11. Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers
The best is yet to come from Buehler, and that's saying something given how he finished his rookie season. Over his final six starts, with the Dodgers fighting for a division title, he posted a 1.62 ERA, 0.77 WHIP and a .137 opponents' batting average. That culminated in 6.2 scoreless innings of one-hit ball against the Rockies in Game 163 to secure the NL West title. He could be the No. 1 guy on this list in a few years.
10. Trevor Bauer, Cleveland Indians
Stats: 27 GS, 12-6, 2.21 ERA (198 ERA+), 1.09 WHIP, 221 K, 175.1 IP
Trevor Bauer might have given Blake Snell a run for AL Cy Young honors if not for the time he missed with a stress fracture in his right ankle.
Still, in the 27 starts he did make, Bauer went 12-6 with a 2.21 ERA while leading the AL with a 2.44 FIP. That was good enough to finish sixth in AL Cy Young voting and cement his place as a pitcher on the rise.
He's added a changeup to his already vast repertoire this offseason and could be ready to give teammate Corey Kluber a run for the title of staff ace.
9. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Stats: 26 GS, 9-5, 2.73 ERA (142 ERA+), 1.04 WHIP, 155 K, 161.1 IP
The toughest decision was where to rank Clayton Kershaw.
The 31-year-old is the best pitcher of his generation, and he still performed at an extremely high level last season when he was on the mound.
However, he's missed time with back issues each of the past two seasons, took a trip to the disabled list with biceps tendinitis in 2018 and is banged up again.
A sore left shoulder will land him on the injured list to begin the new season, and one can't help but wonder if he'll play catch-up all year.
Still, he's earned the right to be called one of the game's best, and he's expected back in April.
8. Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros
Stats: 32 GS, 15-5, 2.88 ERA (140 ERA+), 1.03 WHIP, 276 K, 200.1 IP
It's clear the Houston Astros bought low when they acquired Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Colin Moran, Joe Musgrove, Michael Feliz and prospect Jason Martin (the team's No. 11 prospect on MLB.com) in January 2018.
After a lackluster 2017 season with the Pirates where he posted a 4.26 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, Cole burst into acehood while pitching alongside Justin Verlander at the top of the Houston staff.
His strikeout rate soared from 8.7 K/9 to an AL-leading 12.4 K/9, and his excellent 2.88 ERA was backed by an even more impressive 2.70 FIP.
Verlander is still the staff ace, but Cole is an elite starter.
7. Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
Stats: 33 GS, 17-6, 2.37 ERA (175 ERA+), 0.98 WHIP, 224 K, 212.1 IP
Aaron Nola was viewed more as a high-floor starter who could move quickly through the minor league ranks than a future ace when the Philadelphia Phillies selected him No. 7 overall in 2014.
Turns out he was both.
After showing flashes during his first three seasons in the majors, Nola went from a good young starter to a 10.5 WAR pitcher in 2018.
You read that right: 10.5 WAR!
As long as there is no recurrence of the elbow issues that plagued him at the end of the 2016 season when there was some initial belief he might be headed for Tommy John surgery, the 25-year-old will remain one of the game's best starters.
6. Blake Snell, Tampa Bay Rays
Stats: 31 GS, 21-5, 1.89 ERA (219 ERA+), 0.97 WHIP, 221 K, 180.2 IP
Can Blake Snell duplicate his AL Cy Young performance?
Even if he regresses a bit, he'll still be one of baseball's most dominant pitchers after he posted a sterling 1.89 ERA while punching out 221 batters in 180.2 innings.
While there's little question he took a major step forward last season, his minor league track record suggested it was coming.
Snell, 26, was Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year in 2015 when he went 15-4, with a 1.41 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 163 strikeouts in 134 innings.
Last year may have just been the beginning.
5. Jacob DeGrom, New York Mets
Stats: 32 GS, 10-9, 1.70 ERA (216 ERA+), 0.91 WHIP, 269 K, 217.0 IP
Jacob deGrom was historically good in 2018.
The NL Cy Young winner finished the season on an otherworldly run of 24 straight quality starts, which broke the MLB single-season record of 22 that Bob Gibson and Chris Carpenter previously held.
Expecting him to duplicate that performance would be unfair.
At the same time, expecting him to be anything other than one of baseball's most dominant starters in 2019 would be foolish.
That said, he may have been the No. 1 guy last year, but the four guys ranked ahead of him have been pitching at a Cy Young-caliber level on a consistent basis for longer.
4. Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
Stats: 33 GS, 20-7, 2.89 ERA (151 ERA+), 0.99 WHIP, 222 K, 215.0 IP
Corey Kluber was a late bloomer who didn't join the Cleveland Indians rotation on a full-time basis until his age-28 season in 2014.
He won his first of two AL Cy Young Awards that year, and in his five full seasons as a starter, he's gone 83-45 with a 2.85 ERA (2.84 FIP) and 1.02 WHIP while averaging 246 strikeouts and 218 innings per season.
The 32-year-old doesn't have the same volume of innings on his arm that some guys his age do, and he's been extremely durable, so he should continue to throw at an elite level into his mid-30s.
The three years and $52.5 million left on his contract makes him one of the best post-arbitration bargains in baseball.
3. Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
Stats: 34 GS, 16-9, 2.52 ERA (159 ERA+), 0.90 WHIP, 290 K, 214.0 IP
Aside from a brief hiccup in 2014 and an injury-marred 2015 season, Justin Verlander has been one of baseball's best hurlers for the better part of a decade.
The 36-year-old joined the Houston Astros at the August waiver deadline in 2017 and went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in five regular-season starts before he played a crucial role in the team's run to a World Series title.
It was more of the same in his first full season in Houston, as he finished in the top five in Cy Young voting for the seventh time.
He struck out a career-high 290 batters at a career-best 12.2 K/9 rate while leading the AL with a 7.8 K/BB ratio.
Even though he has an MVP award on his resume, the 2018 season might have been his best, and he's showing no signs of slowing.
2. Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
Stats: 27 GS, 12-4, 2.11 ERA (207 ERA+), 0.86 WHIP, 237 K, 158.0 IP
It's hard to believe Chris Sale hasn't won a Cy Young Award.
The 2018 season marked the seventh straight year he finished in the top six in the award's voting, as he finished fourth in the AL balloting despite missing more than a month with shoulder inflammation and then returning in a limited capacity in September.
He gutted out a postseason without his best stuff, going 1-0 with a hold and a 4.11 ERA. He capped Boston's run by striking out the side in the ninth inning of the decisive World Series Game 5.
As long as there are no lingering injury arm issues, this could be the year Sale adds some well-deserved hardware to the mantel.
His upcoming free agency next offseason could provide the final push.
1. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
Stats: 33 GS, 18-7, 2.53 ERA (168 ERA+), 0.91 WHIP, 300 K, 220.2 IP
Max Scherzer may not have added a fourth Cy Young Award to his trophy case last season, but he added to his stellar resume with another brilliant year to solidify his place as the game's No. 1 starting pitcher.
Even with all he'd accomplished, Scherzer still set a new career high in strikeouts (300), as he led the NL in WHIP (.091) and K's for the third year in a row.
The 34-year-old has made at least 30 starts in each of the past 10 seasons, averaging 206 innings during that span, so durability is not a concern.
Others may have better seasons in a bubble, but in terms of overall body of work and recent production, Scherzer has earned the title of best pitcher in baseball.