Ranking the Best Pitching Starts of the 2021 MLB Season So Far

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 20, 2021

Ranking the Best Pitching Starts of the 2021 MLB Season So Far

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    Is John Means' no-hitter the best of the six?
    Is John Means' no-hitter the best of the six?Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Major League Baseball pitchers just had a major advantage stripped away from them, but not before they filled the first half of the 2021 season with some incredible performances.

    Naturally, we're going to rank the best of the best.

    In picking out 10 performances in particular, it was both a blessing and a curse that there were seven starts—you can probably guess at least six of them—that had to be included on account of their historic results. Otherwise, we filled the remaining three slots with starts that yielded great results and even better metrics.

    Though we used Game Score as a jumping-off point, it wasn't necessarily the final arbiter in our rankings. Because while objectivity is good, it's just not as much fun as subjectivity.

    First, some honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    ARI @ ATL: Madison Bumgarner's 7-Inning No-Hitter

    Date: April 25

    Line Score: 7.0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 7 K, 98 pitches (73 strikes)

    Game Score: 84

        

    PHI vs. STL: Aaron Nola's 2-Hit Shutout

    Date: April 18

    Line Score: 9.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 10 K, 109 pitches (73 strikes)

    Game Score: 93

            

    CLE @ CHW: Shane Bieber's 3-Hit Shutout

    Date: April 13

    Line Score: 9.0 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 11 K, 113 pitches (85 strikes)

    Game Score: 91

         

    CHW vs. KCR: Lance Lynn's 5-Hit Shutout

    Date: April 8

    Line Score: 9.0 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 11 K, 111 pitches (79 strikes)

    Game Score: 88

10. Lucas Giolito's Sneaky Brilliance Against Baltimore

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    Date: May 30

    Line Score: 7.0 IP, 3 H, 1 R (1 ER), 3 BB, 12 K, 108 pitches (70 strikes)

    Game Score: 76

    OK, so, this one is a hard sell. Because while Lucas Giolito obviously had a good day against the Baltimore Orioles on May 30, he was hardly flawless and was even [insert gasp here] scored upon.

    The Chicago White Sox ace did, however, achieve the lowest expected batting average (.058) for any start in which he faced at least 25 batters. Once we reverse-engineered that number, it actually made sense.

    Even though Giolito walked three batters, he threw a ton of strikes and indeed earned the bulk of them with 43 that were either called or swinging strikes. Specifically, his 28 whiffs—half of which came courtesy of his ghastly changeup—are the fourth-most that any pitcher has collected in a start this season.

    What's more, only two of the 12 batted balls that Giolito served up were in the hard-hit bracket of 95 mph and up. While one was a legit home run by DJ Stewart, the other was a ground ball.

    Altogether, only three of the balls in play off Giolito that day had better than a 20 percent chance of turning into a hit. By comparison, his no-hitter on August 25, 2020, featured four such balls.

9. Corbin Burnes' Strike-Fueled Mastery of Arizona

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    Date: June 6

    Line Score: 7.0 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 13 K, 106 pitches (78 strikes)

    Game Score: 82

    There's certainly more to pitching than just throwing strikes. But on June 6 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Corbin Burnes demonstrated just how effective simply throwing strikes can be.

    Of the 78 total strikes he accumulated, a season-high 51 were either of the called or swinging vintage. The majority of those (28) were the former, and not because the Milwaukee Brewers ace was getting a wide zone from home-plate umpire Dan Bellino.

    On the contrary, only two of Burnes' called strikes technically missed the zone. The most egregious of those two was a cutter that, while not quite in the zone, nipped the black on the outside corner against opposing pitcher Caleb Smith.

    As it sat at 93 mph and got up to 97 mph, Burnes' cutter also accounted for 12 of his 23 whiffs. Both his changeup and slider, meanwhile, were in fine form.

    Though Burnes was touched for four hits, all four were mere singles and only two left the bat at over 95 mph. Since both of those were also ground balls, it's fair to say that Burnes was both brilliant and a tad unlucky on June 6.

8. Tyler Glasnow Sticks It to the Rangers

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    Date: April 12

    Line Score: 7.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 14 K, 102 pitches (73 strikes)

    Game Score: 88

    For reasons that might be related to MLB's crackdown on foreign substances, Tyler Glasnow won't be toeing the rubber for the Tampa Bay Rays any time soon because of injuries to his ulnar collateral ligament and flexor tendon.

    That is a shame, because the 6'8" right-hander had been having a Cy Young-caliber season that peaked against the Texas Rangers on April 12.

    So far in 2021, Glasnow's outing is still one of only six with as many as 14 strikeouts. He truly earned those as he racked up 27 swings and misses, with 14 coming on a fastball that got up to 100 mph and the other 13 coming on his slider and curveball. The latter, especially, was downright filthy.

    Because he gave up six hard-hit balls—including this 102.4 mph drive by Jose Trevino—Glasnow probably should have been touched for more than just two hits. The two knocks he did give up, though, were mere ground-ball singles. One was even of the seeing-eye variety.

    Factoring that Glasnow also walked only one of the 25 batters he faced, his outing on April 12 is arguably the best non-complete game start of the season.

7. Spencer Turnbull Gets Mean Against Seattle

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    Date: May 18

    Line Score: 9.0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 9 K, 117 pitches (77 strikes)

    Game Score: 94

    The Seattle Mariners had already been no-hit once by the time Spencer Turnbull faced them on May 18, but he was clearly in no mood to go easy on them.

    The Detroit Tigers right-hander's fastball got up to 95.4 mph and ultimately generated 12 whiffs on 27 swings against it. Those were almost uniformly up in the zone, where the pitch's velocity and rising action rendered Mariners hitters helpless.

    Though Turnbull did serve up 18 batted balls, only five clocked at 95 mph or higher off the bat. What's more, about two-thirds of those balls in play were on the ground, resulting in a wash-rinse-repeat effect of Detroit infielders getting easy outs.

    But if we must nit-pick Turnbull's finest hour, we'll note that he only barely dodged a bullet when Mitch Haniger flew out to the center-field wall in the fourth inning. Because he clearly missed on ball fours to Jarred Kelenic and Jose Marmolejos, he also didn't get squeezed on either of his two walks.

    Considering that the Mariners were also hitting just .203 as a team even at the outset of that game, Turnbull's no-no rates as one of the lesser of 2021's six no-hitters.

6. Corey Kluber Takes His Turn at Texas

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    Date: May 19

    Line Score: 9.0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 K, 101 pitches (71 strikes)

    Game Score: 95

    After tossing his no-hitter on May 18, Spencer Turnbull got to have the spotlight to himself for less than 24 hours before Corey Kluber also stepped into it.

    The two-time Cy Young Award winner had already been rounding into vintage form by the time he and the New York Yankees arrived in Texas, and so it went as he attacked Rangers hitters with a bendy curveball and a biting cutter. By the end of the game, he had 38 total called and swinging strikes.

    Notably, Kluber's one walk might have been avoided if he'd gotten yet another called strike. Home-plate umpire Ryan Additon was inclined to shrink the zone on a 3-0 count, and he simply missed on a perfectly placed fastball to Charlie Culberson.

    Even if he only served up four hard-hit balls, the bigger issue with Kluber's no-no is that he indeed dodged some real trouble. To wit, Adolis Garcia's hard shot in the fourth and David Dahl's line drive in the ninth might have found paydirt under different circumstances.

    Nevertheless, two almost-hits don't make for much of a gripe against what was otherwise a truly masterful performance by one of the greatest pitchers of his era.

5. Carlos Rodon Takes the No-Hit Baton

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    Date: April 14

    Line Score: 9.0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 7 K, 114 pitches (75 strikes)

    Game Score: 94

    In just his second start of the season, Chicago White Sox left-hander Carlos Rodon notched already the second no-hitter of 2021 with a masterful performance opposite Cleveland on April 14.

    Should it have been a no-hitter? Well, at least until a pitcher strikes out all 27 batters he faces in a start, the answer to that question will default to "probably not."

    Rodon only struck out seven batters, after all, and getting that goose egg in the hit column required good luck on seven hard-hit balls and a huge defensive assist from reigning American League MVP Jose Abreu in the ninth inning.

    Even still, Rodon ultimately came just a hit-by-pitch away from retiring all 27 batters he faced. And even if he didn't technically pitch a perfect game, he nonetheless secured what was then only the 40th no-hitter that also featured zero walks.

    Rodon's no-no was also a proof of concept that's still paying off for the White Sox. The southpaw only needed a 95-plus fastball and a devastating slider to carve up Cleveland. Two months later, those weapons are still at the heart of what's turning into a Cy Young-caliber campaign.

4. Wade Miley Doubles Cleveland's No-Hit Misery

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    Date: May 7

    Line Score: 9.0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 K, 114 pitches (72 strikes)

    Game Score: 94

    Less than a month after Carlos Rodon no-hit Cleveland, Cincinnati Reds left-hander Wade Miley managed to replicate the feat May 7.

    Because Miley tallied one more strikeout in his no-no against Cleveland than Rodon had in his, there's at least one point in his favor in a comparison between the two. The catch, though, is that his cutter- and changeup-fueled approach yielded only nine swings and misses. That's 10 fewer than Rodon had in his.

    But even if Miley relied on his defense to get the bulk of his outs, he at least made it easy for his defenders.

    Just four of the 20 batted balls he gave up were in the hard-hit range over 95 mph, and Franmil Reyes' hard liner to shortstop was the only one to top 100 mph. And even in spite of the grounder that Nick Senzel threw away, Miley also tied what was then (and still is) a season high with 14 ground-ball outs.

    The only real blemish on Miley's no-hitter is the obvious ball four that he issued to Cesar Hernandez in the sixth inning. Otherwise, his no-hitter was a fine demonstration of how to dominate without racking up whiffs.

3. Joe Musgrove Gets the No-Hitter Party Started

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    Date: April 9

    Line Score: 9.0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 10 K, 112 pitches (77 strikes)

    Game Score: 97

    Even more than two months later, the first no-hitter of 2021 still looks like one of the best.

    Mind you, Joe Musgrove did need help from his defense in order to hold the Rangers hitless April 9. Wil Myers hauled in bolts from Nate Lowe and Jose Trevino that had expected averages of .786 and .669, respectively. For his part, Jake Cronenworth got in the way of a David Dahl liner that had an xBA of .894.

    But as far as nit-picks go, that's really it.

    Musgrove got 15 strikes swinging and another 24 called against the Rangers. The latter bunch was hardly due to a wide zone, while the former mostly came courtesy of a slider that had an especially nasty horizontal break that day. The right-hander also broke out his curveball for four of his 10 punchouts.

    Like Carlos Rodon, Musgrove ultimately missed a perfect game because of a hit by pitch. Also like Rodon, however, he nonetheless notched a rare start with both no hits and no walks.

2. Jacob deGrom Strikes Out the Nationals

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    Date: April 23

    Line Score: 9.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 15 K, 109 pitches (84 strikes)

    Game Score: 98

    Especially when compared to clubs like Cleveland, Texas, Seattle and Baltimore, the Washington Nationals actually have a competent offense. Indeed, their 99 OPS+ counts as above average in 2021.

    Of course, none of this mattered to two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom when he faced Washington on April 23.

    The New York Mets ace went right at Nats hitters with a fastball that got as high as 101 mph and a slider that sat at 91.4 mph in its own right. The result was something akin to a slaughter, with Nats hitters whiffing 29 times (tops in the National League this year) and also feeling the bite of another 16 called strikes.

    To be fair, one of the hits deGrom gave up was a clean 105.5 mph single off the bat of Starlin Castro. But even if the other hit actually had an xBA of .903, what went into the books as a double for Andrew Stevenson arguably should have been an error after it clanked off Brandon Nimmo's glove/person.

    Even as is, deGrom achieved something rarer than a no-hitter April 23. A shutout with no more than two hits and at least 15 strikeouts, after all, is something that's happened only 25 times in MLB history.

1. John Means No-Hits the Heck out of the Mariners

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    Date: May 5

    Line Score: 9.0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 12 K, 113 pitches (79 strikes)

    Game Score: 99

    Even next to five other no-hitters and a sizzling effort by the game's best pitcher, there's really no question that John Means' no-hitter against the Mariners is the season's best pitching performance.

    For one thing, Means was as close to perfect as a pitcher can get without actually being perfect.

    The one and only baserunner he allowed reached on a strikeout and wild pitch and was then promptly erased when he was thrown out trying to steal second base. So while Means didn't technically twirl a perfect game, he still ended up with only the 23rd start with 27 batters faced and 27 outs.

    For another thing, Means truly was that unhittable. Even setting aside how he had 39 called and swinging strikes, only one of the 15 balls in play off him topped 95 mph. And since that one exception was a pop-up, Kyle Lewis' line drive to third base in the second was the closest the Mariners actually came to a hit.

    Though the "yeah, but Mariners" caveat can and does apply here, Means' no-no nonetheless isn't just the best start of 2021. It's one of the best starts by any pitcher ever.

                 

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and Baseball Savant. All videos courtesy of Major League Baseball, via YouTube.

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