Ranking the Top 25 Starting Pitchers in MLB Entering 2020 Season
Who are the best starting pitchers in baseball?
Rattling off names such as Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, 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 2020 season.
This is not simply a list of the best pitchers from last year. It is instead based on career success, recent performance and expectations for the upcoming season.
Let's start with a few honorable mentions and some young up-and-comers to watch.
10 Up-and-Comers 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:
- Max Fried, 26, Atlanta Braves
- Zac Gallen, 24, Arizona Diamondbacks
- Adrian Houser, 27, Milwaukee Brewers
- Dinelson Lamet, 27, San Diego Padres
- Jesus Luzardo, 22, Oakland Athletics
- Frankie Montas, 26, Oakland Athletics
- Joe Musgrove, 27, Pittsburgh Pirates
- Nate Pearson, 23, Toronto Blue Jays
- Eduardo Rodriguez, 26, Boston Red Sox
- Julio Urias, 23, Los Angeles Dodgers
Just Missed the Cut
After brilliant 2018 seasons, Blake Snell (4.29 ERA in 107 innings) and Aaron Nola (3.87 ERA in 202.1 innings) each took a step backward last season. Both still put up solid numbers, and they're capable of returning to that previous level of dominance, but for now they're on the outside looking in.
Meanwhile, injury concerns kept Chris Sale, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco off the list.
Sale has averaged just 153 innings the past two seasons, and he is now set to undergo Tommy John surgery, which will sideline him for the remainder of 2020.
Kluber pitched just 35.2 innings last season before suffering a fractured right arm on a line drive, and he will also be adjusting to a new team after being traded to the Texas Rangers.
Carrasco put together an impressive stretch in the four seasons prior to 2019 with a 3.40 ERA and 1.11 WHIP while averaging 206 strikeouts and 180 innings. He missed time last season following a leukemia diagnosis, and while he returned to action in September, he finished the year with a 5.29 ERA in 80 innings.
Keep an eye on Trevor Bauer in a contract year. He struggled to a 6.39 ERA in 10 starts after being traded to the Cincinnati Reds last summer, but he's a far better pitcher than those numbers suggest.
Another pitcher who could claw his way into the top 25 is Yu Darvish. After an ugly first half, he posted a 2.76 ERA and 0.81 WHIP with 118 strikeouts in 81.2 innings after the All-Star break.
The same goes for Noah Syndergaard after he logged a middling 4.28 ERA in 197.2 innings last year. The big 6'6" right-hander entered 2019 with a career 2.93 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 9.9 K/9, so he's certainly capable of frontline production.
Brandon Woodruff also just missed the cut, posting a 3.62 ERA and 1.14 WHIP with 143 strikeouts in 121.2 innings last year. The 27-year-old backed those numbers up with a 3.01 FIP, and he is still capable of another step forward.
25. RHP Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay Rays
A strong case can be made that Tyler Glasnow was the best pitcher in baseball during the first month-and-a half of the 2019 season.
Over his first eight starts, he posted a 1.86 ERA and 0.91 WHIP with 55 strikeouts in 48.1 innings before a forearm strain sidelined him until September. He returned with a 1.46 ERA in 12.1 innings over the final month, erasing any long-term health concerns.
He also underwent surgery to decompress a nerve in his right wrist in November, though he was expected to be ready for Opening Day even before it was delayed.
The towering 6'8" right-hander has always had electric stuff dating back to his time in the Pittsburgh farm system, but he struggled to a 5.8 BB/9 over 141.1 innings with the Pirates. The fact that he's trimmed that to just 2.6 BB/9 in 116.1 innings in a Rays uniform bodes well for his future.
24. RHP Chris Paddack, San Diego Padres
On the heels of a year lost to Tommy John surgery, Chris Paddack soared up top prospect lists by posting a 2.10 ERA and 0.82 WHIP with 120 strikeouts in 90 innings between High-A and Double-A in 2018.
He followed that up with a stellar performance last spring and forced the San Diego Padres' hand, earning a spot on the Opening Day roster.
The 24-year-old finished his rookie season with a 3.33 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 153 strikeouts in 140.2 innings before he was shut down in late September to limit his innings.
He pitches mostly off a mid-90s fastball and a terrific changeup while also mixing in the occasional curveball, and he showed no lingering effects of the Tommy John surgery last year.
He'll be the seasoned veteran of the staff by the time top prospects MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patino reach the majors, and for the time being, he's the clear ace of the San Diego staff.
23. LHP Mike Minor, Texas Rangers
There's no ignoring the fact that Mike Minor led all pitchers with 7.8 WAR last season.
However, there are some red flags below the surface, including a 4.25 FIP and a .244 opponents' batting average that ranked just 30th among qualified starting pitchers.
The 32-year-old is a very good pitcher and more than deserving of a spot on this list after posting a 3.59 ERA with 200 strikeouts in 208.1 innings while pitching in a hitter-friendly environment in Texas.
It's reasonable to expect at least some modest regression, though.
Regardless, the three-year, $28 million deal the Texas Rangers signed him to after he spent a year in the Kansas City Royals bullpen is already one of the better free-agent bargains in recent memory.
22. RHP Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs
It's not often that players suiting up in a major market are underrated, but Kyle Hendricks fits the bill.
Here's a portion of what I wrote earlier this month while naming him to my 2020 All-Underrated Team:
"It's not hard to see why Kyle Hendricks is regularly overlooked.
"At a time when 95 mph fastballs have become commonplace around the league, Hendricks averaged just 87.9 mph with his fastball in 2019, per Brooks Baseball.
" ... There are 115 active pitchers who have at least 100 career starts under their belt. Among that group, Hendricks ranks in the top 10 in both ERA (3.14, sixth) and WHIP (1.11, eighth), yet he is rarely mentioned as one of baseball's elite starters."
The 30-year-old may never match the brilliance he showed in 2016 when he led the majors with a 2.13 ERA and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting, and he doesn't need to in order to be deserving of a spot on this list.
Over the past three seasons, he's posted a 3.33 ERA and 1.15 WHIP while averaging 172 innings, and more of the same seems like a safe bet going forward.
21. RHP Mike Soroka, Atlanta Braves
Can Mike Soroka continue to succeed with a strikeout rate (7.3 K/9) that ranked 99th among the 130 pitchers who worked at least 100 innings in 2019?
The answer to that question will determine where he ultimately lands on this list.
Despite his less-than-stellar strikeout total, he posted a 2.68 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 174.2 innings as a rookie to finish second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting and sixth in the NL Cy Young balloting.
The 22-year-old finished sixth among qualified pitchers with a 51.2 percent groundball rate, and maintaining that will be the key to his success.
Guys like Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright and Max Fried might have a higher ceiling, but Soroka is the one who has found the most success at the MLB level from Atlanta's stable of young arms.
20. RHP Mike Clevinger, Cleveland Indians
After allowing just two hits in 12 scoreless innings while racking up 22 strikeouts in his first two starts last season, Mike Clevinger missed more than two months with a strained back muscle.
He returned strong and finished the season with a 2.71 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 169 strikeouts in 126 innings for an impressive 12.1 K/9 mark.
At late bloomer of sorts, Clevinger has just 500.2 innings under his belt despite the fact that he's entering his age-29 season.
As long as he stays healthy, he's capable of ranking much higher on this list, but he was shelved again this spring with a partially torn meniscus in his left knee.
For now, it's hard to move him any higher than the No. 20 spot.
19. RHP Jose Berrios, Minnesota Twins
Does Jose Berrios still have another gear?
The 25-year-old has been an All-Star in back-to-back seasons, averaging 196 innings while posting a 3.76 ERA and 1.18 WHIP during that span.
He has electric stuff, including a mid-90s fastball and a hard-breaking curveball, yet he has a rather mediocre 8.8 K/9 strikeout rate for his career.
An uptick in that area could allow him to take his game to another level, and given his age, it's not out of the question to think he has yet to peak.
He tallied 250 strikeouts in 229.2 innings at the Triple-A level before breaking through and reaching the majors, so he's proved capable of racking up punch-outs in the past.
Even if he produces more of the same in 2020, he's still one of baseball's best young pitchers.
18. RHP Marcus Stroman, New York Mets
With an undersized 5'7" frame, there were questions whether Marcus Stroman could handle a starter's workload after he went No. 22 overall in the 2012 draft.
Those questions were effectively erased with back-to-back 200-inning seasons in 2016 and 2017 while he was still pitching with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Now, he's a member of the New York Mets after coming over in a blockbuster deal last summer that sent pitching prospects Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods Richardson the other way.
Stroman, 28, has always relied more on a stellar groundball rate (58.6% career) than he has on racking up strikeouts. That said, it's worth mentioning that his strikeout rate spiked from 7.1 to 9.1 K/9 in 59.2 innings after he joined the Mets.
He's expected to be one of the most coveted free agents of the 2020-21 class, so he should be supremely motivated in a contract year.
17. RHP Lance Lynn, Texas Rangers
More than a few eyebrows were raised when the Texas Rangers signed Lance Lynn to a three-year, $30 million contract on the heels of a disappointing 2018 campaign in which he logged a 4.77 ERA over 156.2 innings.
Suffice to say, those numbers have since lowered.
The 32-year-old pitched a career-high 208.1 innings in his first season in Arlington, posting a 3.67 ERA and 1.22 WHIP while finishing fourth in the AL with 246 strikeouts.
Unlike teammate Mike Minor, his peripheral numbers show little cause for regression-related concern.
In fact, his 3.13 FIP suggests he pitched better than his bottom-line numbers last year might indicate, and entering his age-33 season, he appears to have taken his game to another level.
16. LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu, Toronto Blue Jays
It has always been about staying healthy for Hyun-Jin Ryu.
While the 32-year-old has a 2.98 ERA and 1.16 WHIP since making his MLB debut in 2013, the 182.2 innings he pitched last season marked the first time he eclipsed 150 innings since 2014.
He led the majors in ERA (2.32) and ranked second in the NL in WHIP (1.01) to finish second in the NL Cy Young voting last year, and that earned him a four-year, $80 million deal from the Toronto Blue Jays in free agency.
He's now the ace of a Blue Jays team on the rise as he looks to tame the AL East.
15. RHP Zack Greinke, Houston Astros
Still going strong entering his age-36 season, Zack Greinke will now be counted on even more to anchor the Houston Astros staff with Gerrit Cole departing in free agency and Justin Verlander recovering from groin surgery.
The six-time All-Star finished last season with a 2.93 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 187 strikeouts in 208.2 innings, and he didn't miss a beat in his return to the American League.
In 10 starts with the Astros following a deadline blockbuster that sent four prospects to the Arizona Diamondbacks, he had a 3.02 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 62.2 innings. He also had a 2.95 ERA in four starts between the ALCS and World Series.
14. LHP Patrick Corbin, Washington Nationals
Patrick Corbin was worth every penny in the first season of a six-year, $140 million deal with the Washington Nationals.
The 30-year-old reached 200 innings for the second straight year, posting a 3.25 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 238 strikeouts in 202 innings.
His 5.6 WAR was tied for fifth among NL pitchers, and he finished 11th in the NL Cy Young voting as far and away the best No. 3 starter in baseball.
The uptick in his strikeout rate from 7.9 K/9 over his first six years in the majors to 10.8 K/9 the past two seasons has allowed him to take his game to another level.
13. RHP Sonny Gray, Cincinnati Reds
After a strong run with the Oakland Athletics that included a third-place finish in the AL Cy Young voting in 2015, Sonny Gray joined the New York Yankees in a blockbuster deal at the 2017 trade deadline.
His first and what wound up being his only full season with the Yankees saw him struggle to a 4.90 ERA in 130.1 innings, but there was reason for optimism that a change of scenery would be beneficial after a 6.98 ERA at Yankee Stadium inflated his numbers.
The 30-year-old was ultimately traded to the Cincinnati Reds last offseason and subsequently signed to a three-year, $30.5 million extension.
Despite moving to another hitter-friendly park, he bounced back in a big way, logging a 2.87 ERA and 1.08 WHIP with 205 strikeouts in 175.1 innings. His 10.5 K/9 were well above his 7.9 K/9 career mark entering the year, and his solid 3.42 FIP suggests sustainability.
12. RHP Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox
Once widely regarded as the top pitching prospect in baseball, Lucas Giolito struggled to a 6.13 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in 173.1 innings during his first full season in the majors in 2018.
The rebuilding Chicago White Sox gave him an opportunity to take his lumps without looking over his shoulder, and it clearly paid dividends last year.
The 25-year-old had a 3.41 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 228 strikeouts in 176.2 innings to finish sixth in the AL Cy Young voting, recording a major-league-leading three complete games and two shutouts along the way.
At the root of his newfound success was the fact that he threw his changeup more (15.3 to 26.0%) and his curveball less (10.1 to 4.1%), and he also enjoyed an uptick in fastball velocity (93.0 to 94.6 mph), according to Brooks Baseball.
He will be counted on to front the staff for a White Sox team with postseason aspirations.
11. RHP Charlie Morton, Tampa Bay Rays
Charlie Morton signed a two-year, $14 million deal with the Houston Astros after a solid, if unspectacular, first nine seasons in the majors.
That proved to be a turning point in his career despite the fact that he was entering his age-33 season.
The numbers before and after that signing speak for themselves:
- Pre-2017: 893.0 IP, 4.54 ERA (84 ERA+), 1.44 WHIP, 6.3 K/9
- Since 2017: 508.1 IP, 3.24 ERA (131 ERA+), 1.14 WHIP, 10.7 K/9
He inked a two-year, $30 million contract with the Tampa Bay Rays last offseason, becoming the highest-paid player on the team in the process, and promptly turned in the best season of his career.
With a 3.05 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and a career-high 240 strikeouts in 194.2 innings, he earned his second straight All-Star nod and finished third in the AL Cy Young voting.
He has 1,401.1 career MLB innings on his arm, which is just 32nd among active pitchers, so it's not out of the question to think he can continue to pitch at a high level for several more seasons.
10. RHP Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds
The Cincinnati Reds' move to acquire Luis Castillo and two others from the Miami Marlins in exchange for Dan Straily prior to the 2017 season has a chance to go down as one of the best trades in franchise history.
Castillo made his MLB debut that same year, posting a 3.12 ERA with 98 strikeouts in 89.1 innings to finish eighth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
In his first full season in the rotation, he finished with a middling 4.30 ERA over 31 starts, but he closed out the season on a roll with a 1.09 ERA and 0.85 WHIP in five September starts.
That proved to be a springboard to a true breakout season last year.
The 27-year-old earned a spot on the NL All-Star team on his way to a 3.40 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 226 strikeouts in 190.2 innings. His .202 opponents' batting average was fifth-lowest in the majors among qualified starters.
9. RHP Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers
Heading into his junior season, Walker Buehler was viewed as the top 2015 MLB draft prospect on a loaded Vanderbilt roster that also included Dansby Swanson (No. 1 overall pick) and Carson Fulmer (No. 8 overall pick).
However, he was slowed by elbow soreness that spring, and it was revealed leading up to the draft that he would likely need Tommy John surgery. The Los Angeles Dodgers scooped him up at No. 24 overall and signed him for below slot, rolling the dice on his eventual return to health.
Even with that delayed start to his pro career, he still made his MLB debut in 2017, and he has quickly emerged as an ace in the making since joining the rotation.
The 25-year-old had a 3.26 ERA and 1.04 WHIP with a brilliant 215-to-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 182.1 innings to finish ninth in the NL Cy Young voting last year, and it's only a matter of time before he assumes the mantle of staff ace.
8. RHP Jack Flaherty, St. Louis Cardinals
Jack Flaherty allowed seven hits, four walks and four earned runs in 4.2 innings against the Seattle Mariners on July 2, raising his ERA to 4.90 over his first 17 starts of the 2019 season.
It's at that point that a switch seemed to flip.
He threw seven strong innings in his next start and went on to post a 0.93 ERA and 0.70 WHIP with 130 strikeouts in 106.1 innings over his final 16 starts. He allowed just 50 hits for a .139 opponents' batting average during that span.
With the St. Louis Cardinals chasing a postseason berth, he was at his best in September, pitching to a 0.82 ERA and 0.57 WHIP while allowing just 17 hits in 44 innings.
The 24-year-old finished the 2019 season with as much momentum as any pitcher in baseball. How high can he climb in 2020?
7. LHP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
It feels odd not having Clayton Kershaw in the top five.
The 32-year-old was still plenty dominant last season, posting a 3.03 ERA and 1.04 WHIP while making his eighth All-Star appearance and finishing eighth in the NL Cy Young voting.
However, he is no longer the workhorse he was in his prime.
Over the past four seasons, he's averaged just 26 starts and 166 innings amid a nagging back issue and a bum shoulder that sidelined him at the start of last season.
His 2,274.2 career innings rank eighth among active pitchers, and he's thrown another 158.1 frames in the postseason, so there's a lot of mileage on his arm.
He's still one of the best in baseball when everything is right, but he's no longer in the best-pitcher-in-baseball conversation at this point in his career.
6. RHP Shane Bieber, Cleveland Indians
On the surface, Shane Bieber had a rather pedestrian rookie season.
After posting a dominant 1.10 ERA and 0.70 WHIP in 10 starts between Double-A and Triple-A, he made his MLB debut on May 31.
He bounced between Triple-A and the majors a couple of times before becoming a full-time member of the Cleveland Indians starting rotation during the second half. All told, he finished with a 4.55 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 114.2 innings.
However, below the surface, he had a 3.23 FIP that indicated there was some positive regression to come, along with an excellent 118-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
The pieces indeed fell into place for the 24-year-old last year, and he broke out in a big way, posting a 3.28 ERA and 1.05 WHIP with 259 strikeouts and just 40 walks in 214.1 innings to finish fourth in the AL Cy Young voting.
With pinpoint command (led AL with 1.7 BB/9) and swing-and-miss stuff (sixth in AL with 10.9 K/9), all from a durable 6'3", 200-pound frame, he checks all the boxes to be the present and future ace in Cleveland and a perennial Cy Young contender.
5. RHP Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
Stephen Strasburg ended the 2019 season on an absolute roll.
He had a 1.76 ERA with 66 strikeouts in 51 innings over his final eight starts of the regular season, and that success carried over into October.
In six postseason appearances (five starts) he went 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 47 strikeouts in 36.1 innings, and his two quality starts in the Fall Classic earned him World Series MVP honors.
On the heels of that performance, he opted out of the final four years and $100 million on his current contract and re-upped with the Washington Nationals on a new seven-year, $245 million deal.
Perhaps the most impressive stat of all last year was the fact that Strasburg led the NL with 209 innings pitched.
That's no small feat for a pitcher who had averaged 24 starts and 145 innings over the previous four seasons, and who had been banged up throughout his career.
As long as he stays healthy, Strasburg is part of the upper echelon of MLB starters entering his age-31 season.
4. RHP Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
After dealing with a lat strain early in spring training and then a groin injury that wound up requiring surgery, Justin Verlander stands to benefit as much as anyone from the delayed start to the 2020 season.
The 37-year-old won the second AL Cy Young Award of his career last season, leading the majors in WHIP (0.80), innings pitched (223) and starts (34) while finishing second in the AL to teammate Gerrit Cole in ERA (2.58) and strikeouts (300) in a 7.4-WAR season.
The most impressive stat of all was his .172 opponents' batting average, which stands as the fourth-lowest single-season mark in MLB history behind only Pedro Martinez (.167, 2000), Luis Tiant (.168, 1968) and Nolan Ryan (.171, 1972).
How much longer can the 37-year-old keep pitching at such a high level?
The injury concerns this spring keep him out of the running for the No. 1 spot, but until he proves otherwise, it's hard to bet against the future Hall of Famer continuing to rank as one of the best in the game.
3. RHP Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
Max Scherzer has been nothing short of dominant since winning the AL Cy Young Award during a breakout season in 2013.
During that seven-year span, he's posted a 2.82 ERA and 0.98 WHIP while averaging 266 strikeouts and 212 innings pitched and racking up a combined 46.7 WAR.
The 35-year-old failed to reach 180 innings for the first time since 2009 last season, missing time in July with an inflamed bursa sac in his back, but he has been a horse throughout his career.
On top of another strong regular season that netted him a third-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting, Scherzer also had a 2.40 ERA with 37 strikeouts in 30 innings over five starts and one relief appearance in the postseason during the Washington Nationals' run to a World Series title.
It's reasonable to assume he will start to slow down at some point in the near future, but after he posted a career-high 12.7 K/9 with a brilliant 243-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 172.1 innings last season, there's no reason to bet against him in 2020.
2. RHP Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees
Will Gerrit Cole live up to a record-setting nine-year, $324 million contract?
The 29-year-old put together a remarkable 2019 season, leading the AL in ERA (2.50) and strikeouts (326) while finishing runner-up to teammate Justin Verlander in the AL Cy Young voting.
His 13.8 K/9 are the single-season record for a qualified starting pitcher, and he tallied double-digit strikeouts in 21 of 33 starts, including nine in a row to close out the regular season.
Now, he joins a New York Yankees team that will be relying on him to anchor the starting rotation.
Interestingly, Cole has made just one career start at Yankee Stadium, allowing seven hits and three earned runs over six innings all the way back in 2014 when he was still a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
While it's a hitter-friendly ballpark, Cole's stuff will play anywhere.
It remains to be seen how good his $36 million salary will look in 2028 when he's in his age-37 season, but for now, he's one of baseball's truly elite hurlers.
1. RHP Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
Jacob deGrom was so dominant in 2018 that his ERA climbed by 0.73 last year and he was still able to repeat as NL Cy Young winner.
During that two-year stretch, he pitched to a 2.05 ERA and 0.94 WHIP with 524 strikeouts in 421 innings and a staggering 17.4 WAR.
No pitcher has been more valuable, and only Mike Trout (18.4) and Mookie Betts (17.6) have been more valuable during that span.
Perhaps the most impressive stat of all during his two Cy Young campaigns is that he recorded a quality start in 51 of 64 appearances.
The 31-year-old was a late bloomer, winning NL Rookie of the Year honors in his age-26 season, so he has less mileage on his arm than a lot of other pitchers his age.
In the prime of his career, there's no better pitcher in baseball right now than the New York Mets ace.