Power Ranking Every MLB Team's Ace Entering the 2021 SeasonMarch 27, 2021
Power Ranking Every MLB Team's Ace Entering the 2021 Season
There are hundreds of pitchers in Major League Baseball at any given moment, but one of the cool things about Opening Day is that it's a showcase of the 30 best of the best.
With the start of the 2021 season now just days away, here's how we stack up the league's top aces.
This list covers pitchers who are already confirmed or who are expected (look for the asterisks) to take the ball for their club's opener on April 1. In ranking them from No. 30 to No. 1, we considered their recent track records and their upside and downside for the coming season.
Let's count 'em down, going five at a time for the bottom 25 and then one at a time for the top five.
30-26: Anderson, Boyd, Gibson, Means and Gonzales
30. LHP Tyler Anderson*, Pittsburgh Pirates
With Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams and Chris Archer out of the picture and Steven Brault sidelined with a strained lat, Anderson might get the Opening Day nod for Pittsburgh by default. He's pitched to a subpar 95 ERA+ over just 67 appearances since his solid debut for the Colorado Rockies in 2016.
29. LHP Matthew Boyd, Detroit Tigers
Boyd turned heads as he struck out 235 batters over 185.1 innings in 2019. But he's been trending backward as he's coughed up an ugly 6.15 ERA over his last 30 starts. What's more, he's given up 10 more home runs than any other pitcher over the past two seasons.
28. RHP Kyle Gibson, Texas Rangers
He's had some solid years throughout his eight-year career, including a 2018 campaign with the Minnesota Twins in which he logged a 118 ERA+ over 196.2 innings. Yet his overall 93 ERA+ reflects his true nature as an unspectacular and generally hittable hurler.
27. LHP John Means, Baltimore Orioles
Last year saw him regress after breaking out as an All-Star and the runner-up for the American League Rookie of the Year in 2019. But in spite of his merely average 100 ERA+, he did tease some potential upside by adding two miles per hour to his average fastball.
26. LHP Marco Gonzales, Seattle Mariners
He was a pretty good control artist even before 2020, but he reached a whole new level last year as he walked only four batters in 69.2 innings to effectively co-lead MLB in walks per nine innings. He's also a good bet for six innings when he takes the ball. The only catch is that he's not at all overpowering.
25-21: Bumgarner, Eovaldi, Glasnow, Keller and Bassitt
25. LHP Madison Bumgarner*, Arizona Diamondbacks
His first year in Arizona featured a disastrous 6.48 ERA, not to mention a stint on the injured list and significantly reduced fastball velocity. But in fairness, the four-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion only had one bad start after he came off the IL in September.
24. RHP Nathan Eovaldi, Boston Red Sox
Eduardo Rodriguez was supposed to go for Boston on Opening Day, but a dead arm nixed that plan. In his place will be Eovaldi, who's known for his triple-digit heat and is coming off a career-high 127 ERA+ in 2020. What he's not known for, however, are sustained health or dominance.
23. RHP Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay Rays
Both health and consistency have eluded him throughout his professional career. Yet he's gotten his fastball as high as 101 mph and his curveball is an absolute hammer, and now he has a new slider that's been making waves in spring training. Such things give him legit Cy Young-caliber upside.
22. RHP Brad Keller, Kansas City Royals
Since 2018, only this guy and 11 others have done better than a 130 ERA+ over at least 360 innings. He's not going to strike out many batters, but he makes up for that by inducing ground balls on over half his balls in play. That'll get it done.
21. RHP Chris Bassitt, Oakland Athletics
He was a well-kept secret in 2019 and then downright dominant in 2020 as he racked up a 177 ERA+ in 11 starts. Though he's not going to light up the radar gun, he can throw six different pitches with control. So even if he regresses—which is likely—he should still hold his own at the top of Oakland's rotation.
20-16: Gausman, Bundy, Fried, Alcantara and Flaherty
20. RHP Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants
After a rough go of things in 2019, he caught on with the Giants and reestablished himself as an exciting starter by whiffing 79 batters over 59.2 innings in 2020. It helped that he found some lost velocity and that his splitter was in fine form. More of that should equal continued success in 2021.
19. RHP Dylan Bundy, Los Angeles Angels
He occasionally threatened to break out when he was with the Orioles, but he could never quite do it. Then he joined the Angels and ripped off a well-above-average 142 ERA+ over 65.2 innings in 2020. If he keeps his fastball usage down, he might just keep up the good work this season.
18. LHP Max Fried, Atlanta
He truly found something last year as he mustered a 2.25 ERA over 56 innings. Sure, he only whiffed 50 batters in the process. But his exit velocity and hard-hit rate were both in the 98th percentile. That kind of contact management plays, especially when the pitcher responsible for it can also field his position.
17. RHP Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins
Given that he's averaged 95.8 mph on his fastball throughout his career, it's odd that he's struck out only 7.3 batters per nine innings. Yet it's hard to argue with results that include a 116 ERA+ in 45 starts with Miami. If he starts getting more swings and misses, he might make a run at the NL Cy Young Award.
16. RHP Jack Flaherty, St. Louis Cardinals
He had a solid rookie year in 2018 and then mounted a late charge at the NL Cy Young Award in 2019, racking up a 0.93 ERA over his last 16 starts. But as he slipped to a 4.91 ERA over nine starts in 2020, it only became more apparent how badly he needs a third pitch to complement his fastball and slider.
15-11: Marquez, Greinke, Hendricks, Woodruff and Maeda
15. RHP German Marquez*, Colorado Rockies
He's pitched to a 119 ERA+ over the last four seasons, and he's coming off a career-high 138 ERA+ and an NL-high 81.2 innings in 2020. Let this be a lesson that you, too, might survive Coors Field so long as you have a 95.7 mph fastball and two nasty breaking balls.
14. RHP Zack Greinke, Houston Astros
He says he doesn't care about starting on Opening Day, which is...well, fair enough. A guy can have that kind of attitude after 17 years of Hall of Fame-caliber pitching. And he's truly an ageless wonder, as he just keeps putting out solid seasons even as his fastball gets slower and slower.
13. RHP Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs
He hasn't been an All-Star yet, but he has been an ERA champion, a World Series hero and a top-10 Cy Young Award finisher on three separate occasions. That's good stuff for a guy whose fastball is slower than some pitchers' sliders, which speaks to his superb command and talent for suppressing hard contact.
12. RHP Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers
He was an All-Star in 2019 and even better in 2020 as he mustered a 150 ERA+ and struck out 91 batters over 73.2 innings. And with a fastball that can touch 100 mph and a changeup and slider that yielded 13 total hits last season, he has the stuff to keep climbing the ace ladder.
11. RHP Kenta Maeda, Minnesota Twins
He did a little bit of everything for the Los Angeles Dodgers between 2016 and 2019, but he was always in the shadow of pitchers with bigger names and nastier stuff. Then he joined the Twins and put up a 2.70 ERA over 66.2 innings, complete with an 8.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 98th-percentile hard-hit rate.
10-6: Scherzer, Castillo, Kershaw, Darvish and Nola
10. RHP Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
Between 2013 and 2019, he was a Cy Young Award winner three times and a top-five finisher in the other four seasons. Alas, he finally ran into some health issues in '19 and subsequently pitched to a modest 118 ERA+ last year. But lest anyone think he's finished, he's still one of MLB's leading strikeout artists.
9. RHP Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds
It feels like he isn't quite a household name yet, but he should be. All he's done over the last two seasons is post a 140 ERA+ with 315 strikeouts over 260.2 innings. He sits in the high-90s with his fastball, and his changeup is an absolute beauty. 'Nough said.
8. LHP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
It may be a long time before we see another run like the one Kershaw had between 2011 and 2017, in which he was an MVP, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and a five-time ERA champion. And yet last year was actually his third-best in terms of ERA+, and he of course finally captured an elusive ring.
7. RHP Yu Darvish, San Diego Padres
The first year-and-a-half of his six-year, $126 million contract was a struggle, but he owns a 2.40 ERA in 25 starts since turning a corner in July 2019. And that's with an MLB-best 10.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, to boot. He owes a lot of that to his cutter, which has served him well as his primary pitch.
6. RHP Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
Are there more exciting pitchers than Aaron Nola? Sure. But few have been more effective in recent years, as only he and four others have at least a 130 ERA+ and 650 innings since 2017. He's also one of only five pitchers to have posted 10 rWAR in a single season since the turn of the century.
5. RHP Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox
Key 2020 Stats: 12 G, 12 GS, 72.1 IP, 47 H (8 HR), 28 BB, 97 K, 3.48 ERA, 128 ERA+
2020 WAR: 0.8
It wasn't that long ago that Lucas Giolito was arguably the worst pitcher in baseball.
Out of all hurlers who made at least 30 starts in 2018, only Zack Godley did worse than Giolito's minus-1.0 rWAR. The Chicago White Sox right-hander was notably subpar with all three true outcomes, serving up 27 home runs and 90 walks while striking out only 125 batters in 173.1 innings.
Because his fastball is now faster and his fading changeup has become a featured part of his arsenal, it's no accident that Giolito now resembles one of baseball's best pitchers. The last two seasons have seen him post a 132 ERA+, complete with 11.7 strikeouts, 3.1 walks and only 1.2 home runs per nine innings.
What's more, Giolito is on the upswing going into 2021. His last eight starts of 2020 featured a no-hitter and 73 strikeouts with only 25 hits allowed over 53.1 innings.
4. LHP Hyun Jin Ryu, Toronto Blue Jays
Key 2020 Stats: 12 G, 12 GS, 67.0 IP, 60 H (6 HR), 17 BB, 72 K, 2.69 ERA, 164 ERA+
2020 WAR: 3.0
Even after he compiled a 2.21 ERA over his last 44 starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Hyun Jin Ryu still went into 2020 with plenty to prove.
It wasn't just that he was in the first season of a four-year, $80 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. It was also that he was moving from the National League West to the American League East, with seemingly some bad luck about to come due.
But ultimately, Ryu was just fine. Even though the opposition hit .362 against his four-seamer and sinker, he was so good with his changeup, cutter and curveball that he tied his career high for strikeouts per nine innings while also stifling hard contact at an elite level.
Whether Ryu can be any better than this is fair to question. But since only one pitcher has a better ERA+ over the last three seasons, he doesn't need to be.
3. RHP Shane Bieber, Cleveland
Key 2020 Stats: 12 G, 12 GS, 77.1 IP, 46 H (7 HR), 21 BB, 122 K, 1.63 ERA, 281 ERA+
2020 WAR: 3.2
Ever since Shane Bieber debuted for Cleveland in May of 2018, his trendline has been going nowhere but up.
He was plenty good in 2019, logging 214.1 innings with 219 more strikeouts than walks to go with a 147 ERA+. He obviously set the bar even higher last year as he achieved the highest single-season strikeout rate in history and the lowest opponents' OPS in 20 years.
It helps that Bieber has excellent command and a fastball that sits in the mid-90s, but it's the movement on his pitches that truly sets him apart. His fastball has outstanding rise, and his curveball and slider are marked by sharp downward action. When he has everything working, it's a wonder how anyone hits him.
Mind you, Bieber did slightly overachieve while also enjoying a relatively easy schedule last year. Even still, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner rightfully has a place among baseball's great aces.
2. RHP Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees
Key 2020 Stats: 12 G, 12 GS, 73.0 IP, 53 H (14 HR), 17 BB, 94 K, 2.84 ERA, 151 ERA+
2020 WAR: 2.2
Gerrit Cole was a five-pitch pitcher in his final season with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2017, wherein he featured a four-seamer, sinker, slider, changeup and curveball.
Over the last three seasons, he's become a good example of the ol' "less is more" adage. He's all but scrapped his sinker and changeup, generally shifting more trust into a four-seam fastball that stands out for both its upper-90s velocity and its explosive movement.
Cole's results since 2018 pretty much speak for themselves. He's put up a stellar 162 ERA+ and 61 more strikeouts than any other pitcher, including a whopping 326 in 2019 alone.
Granted, Cole initially struggled to live up to the hype after he signed his record-breaking $324 million contract with the New York Yankees last winter. But he found his usual footing, as he racked up a 1.80 ERA with 64 strikeouts over his last 45.1 innings.
1. RHP Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
Key 2020 Stats: 12 G, 12 GS, 68.0 IP, 47 H (7 HR), 18 BB, 104 K, 2.38 ERA, 178 ERA+
2020 WAR: 2.6
Jacob deGrom is just...ridiculous. In a good way.
Though the New York Mets ace wasn't chopped or any other kind of liver in his first four seasons, it's in the last three that he's claimed a level unto himself. His 188 ERA+ in this span is the best of any pitcher, and he's struck out 520 more batters than he's walked over 489 innings.
Because he averages better than 90 mph with both his slider and his changeup while sitting around 100 mph with his fastball, it's easiest to notice deGrom's velocity. But there's also an art to his pitching. Notably, he excels at throwing from a common release point and disguising his pitches on their path to the hitting zone.
In other words, deGrom truly has every advantage when he's on the mound. It should surprise nobody if he ultimately walks away from 2021 with his third Cy Young Award in the last four years.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.