MLB Player Rankings for the Top 25 Starting Pitchers of 2021 Season
Welcome to Bleacher Report's final positional rankings of the 2021 MLB season!
Throughout the year, we released monthly updates to our position-by-position power rankings, selecting the top 10 players at each spot. Now it's time to finalize those rankings while expanding the list to the 25 best at each position on the diamond, which means every position gets its own article.
Just like the regular-season rankings, players are ranked solely on the 2021 season. Past production and future expectations played no part in deciding the order. This is a rundown of the best and brightest of 2021.
To qualify for inclusion, a pitcher had to pitch at least 100 innings, and he had to have made more starts than relief appearances. That notably excluded Jacob deGrom (92 IP) and Ranger Suarez (12 starts vs. 27 relief appearances), who will be included on the relief pitchers list.
Let's keep our 2021 MLB Player Rankings series rolling with a look at the top 25 starting pitchers.
Since there are far more starting pitchers than any other position in this rankings series, it made sense to tack an honorable mention list of 25 guys onto our top-25 list. These players just missed the cut, listed alphabetically:
- Ian Anderson, ATL
- Dylan Cease, CWS
- Yu Darvish, SD
- Anthony DeSclafani, SF
- Nathan Eovaldi, BOS
- Chris Flexen, SEA
- Luis Garcia, HOU
- Kyle Gibson, TEX/PHI
- Zack Greinke, HOU
- Rich Hill, TB/NYM
- Adrian Houser, MIL
- Clayton Kershaw, LAD
- Eric Lauer, MIL
- Pablo Lopez, MIA
- Tyler Mahle, CIN
- Sean Manaea, OAK
- Alek Manoah, TOR
- German Marquez, COL
- Shane McClanahan, TB
- John Means, BAL
- Wade Miley, CIN
- Casey Mize, DET
- Shohei Ohtani, LAA
- Cal Quantrill, CLE
- Framber Valdez, HOU
25. Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox
After struggling to a 4.97 ERA and 1.30 WHIP over his first eight starts, Giolito found his stride in mid-May with eight innings of two-hit ball against the Minnesota Twins and didn't look back. He ranked among the American League leaders in ERA (3.53, sixth), WHIP (1.10, fourth), strikeouts (201, sixth) and innings pitched (178.2, ninth).
24. Lance McCullers Jr., Houston Astros
McCullers stepped into the role of staff ace for Houston in 2021, going 13-5 with a 3.16 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 185 strikeouts over a career-high 162.1 innings. The 28-year-old added a slider to his fastball-curveball-changeup repertoire, and it became his go-to strikeout pitch. His five-year, $85 million extension will begin in 2022.
23. Frankie Montas, Oakland Athletics
Montas was one of the most overlooked standouts of the 2021 season. The 28-year-old made a career-high 32 starts and went 13-9 with a 3.37 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 207 strikeouts in 187 innings, helping to anchor a makeshift Oakland staff that relied heavily on unproven arms. He deservedly received down-ballot AL Cy Young support, finishing sixth in the voting.
22. Jose Berrios, Minnesota Twins/Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal at the deadline, sending top prospects Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson to Minnesota in exchange for Berrios. The 27-year-old came with club control through the 2022 season, and he was rock-solid once again with a 3.52 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 204 strikeouts in 192 innings. That set him up for a seven-year, $131 million contract extension.
21. Charlie Morton, Atlanta Braves
Signed to a one-year, $15 million contract to provide a veteran presence atop the young Atlanta rotation, Morton did just that in his age-37 season. The right-hander went 14-6 with a 3.34 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 216 strikeouts in 185.2 innings, but a fractured right fibula knocked him out of Game 1 of the World Series. The Braves signed him to a one-year, $20 million extension in September that includes a $20 million club option for 2023.
20. Chris Bassitt, Oakland Athletics
Bassitt enjoyed a breakout season in 2020, finishing eighth in AL Cy Young voting with a 2.29 ERA in 11 starts. The 32-year-old got the Opening Day start for Oakland this year, and he earned an All-Star nod as he went 12-4 with a 3.15 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 159 strikeouts in 157.1 innings. A line drive to the face cost him a month during the second half, or he else might rank even higher.
19. Trevor Rogers, Miami Marlins
With a 6.11 ERA and 1.61 WHIP over seven starts in his MLB debut last season, Rogers might not have had a spot in the Miami rotation if not for an injury to Sixto Sanchez. The left-hander took the opportunity and ran with it, posting a 2.64 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 157 strikeouts in 133 innings while earning an All-Star selection. The 24-year-old is part of an impressive core of young arms for Miami to build around.
18. Marcus Stroman, New York Mets
After suffering a torn calf muscle and then opting out of the 2020 season, Stroman returned to the Mets on a one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offer. The 30-year-old eclipsed 175 innings for the fourth time in his career, posting a 3.02 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 158 strikeouts in 179 innings while generating a 50.8 percent ground-ball rate with his bowling ball sinker. A lucrative payday awaits in free agency.
17. Logan Webb, San Francisco Giants
The emergence of Webb this season gives the Giants an electric young starter to build their future rotation around. He looked the part of an ace in October when he allowed one earned run in 14.2 innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. The 25-year-old went 11-3 with a 3.03 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 158 strikeouts in 148.1 innings during the regular season.
16. Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins
An All-Star in 2019 and the Game 1 starter in the NL Wild Card Series and NLDS for the Marlins in 2020, Alcantara continued his ascent to bona fide ace status this year. With a 3.19 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 201 strikeouts in a career-high 205.2 innings, he was a workhorse atop the staff. His 23 quality starts trailed only Walker Buehler (28).
15. Joe Musgrove, San Diego Padres
Musgrove outperformed high-profile additions Yu Darvish and Blake Snell and was the best pitcher in the Padres rotation. The right-hander threw a no-hitter in his second start April 9, and he finished with a 3.18 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 203 strikeouts in 181.1 innings.
14. Carlos Rodon, Chicago White Sox
Rodon was non-tendered at the start of last offseason and then re-signed to a one-year, $3 million deal to compete for the No. 5 starter spot. He won the job and finally delivered on the potential he has flashed since going No. 3 overall in the 2014 draft. The 28-year-old had a dominant 2.37 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 185 strikeouts in 132.2 innings, but he only threw 43 innings after the All-Star break while dealing with shoulder fatigue.
13. Freddy Peralta, Milwaukee Brewers
Despite throwing just 144.1 innings and often getting a quick hook, Peralta was as overpowering as any pitcher in baseball. The 25-year-old posted a 2.81 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings, allowing two or fewer hits in 14 of 28 appearances. His .165 opponents' batting average was the lowest among all pitchers with at least 100 innings.
12. Max Fried, Atlanta Braves
Fried led all qualified starters with a 1.74 ERA in 93 innings after the All-Star break. All told, he had a 3.04 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 165.2 innings, but his second-half surge vaults him into the top 15 in these rankings. His top-of-the-rotation production coincided with Atlanta's seizing control of the NL East race.
11. Lance Lynn, Chicago White Sox
After Lynn had a stellar two-year run with the Texas Rangers, they traded him to the White Sox last offseason in exchange for young right-hander Dane Dunning and lefty prospect Avery Weems. The burly veteran slotted perfectly alongside Lucas Giolito atop the South Siders rotation, posting a 2.69 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 176 strikeouts in 157 innings. A pair of injured-list trips for a back strain and knee inflammation is all that kept him out of the top 10.
10. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
Adam Wainwright enjoyed a resurgent season in 2020 with a 3.15 ERA in 65.2 innings and a pair of complete games. The right-hander returned to the St. Louis Cardinals on a one-year, $8 million contract hoping to find that level of production over a full season.
He wound up reaching 200 innings for the first time since 2014, going 17-7 with a 3.05 ERA and 1.06 WHIP with three complete games, bringing his career total to 27 to lead active pitchers.
He had a 2.28 ERA with 12 quality starts in his final 14 appearances, including a brilliant 88-pitch, two-hit shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 11. The 40-year-old signed a one-year, $17.5 million extension in October as he'll return for at least one more year.
9. Julio Urias, Los Angeles Dodgers
Baseball's only 20-game winner in 2021—if you're into that sort of thing—left-hander Julio Urias was the best No. 3 starter in baseball pitching behind Max Scherzer and Walker Buehler for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The 25-year-old went 20-3 with a 2.96 ERA and 1.02 WHIP while posting a brilliant 195-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio in a career-high 185.2 innings. He was 11-0 with a 1.95 ERA in 16 starts over the final three months of the season, and his final loss of the season came June 21.
He also went 12-for-59 at the plate with two doubles while tying for tops among pitchers with nine RBI, helping his own cause on numerous occasions.
8. Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants
Kevin Gausman has taken his game to another level by developing his splitter into one of baseball's most effective pitches.
The 30-year-old limited opposing hitters to a .133 average and .224 slugging percentage with his splitter while throwing it 35.3 percent of the time in 2021, and the pitch accounted for 138 of his 227 strikeouts.
After accepting a qualifying offer last offseason, he is poised to cash in after going 14-6 with a 2.81 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over a career-high 192 innings. He stumbled after the All-Star break but finished strong.
7. Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees
Gerrit Cole finished his 2021 season with a thud, posting a 6.15 ERA and 1.60 WHIP while surrendering a .311 opponents' batting average in his final five starts. That rough patch raised his season ERA by half a run.
That said, he went 16-8 with a 3.23 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 243 strikeouts in 181.1 innings, turning in nine starts with double-digit strikeouts.
Expectations will be high throughout his record nine-year, $324 million contract. While there have been some bumps, he has been one of baseball's most dominant starters for much of the last two seasons.
6. Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers
After beginning his career as a swingman in the Milwaukee Brewers rotation, Brandon Woodruff emerged as a front-line starter in 2019 when he earned a spot on the NL All-Star team.
An oblique strain limited him to 121.2 innings during his breakout season in 2019, and he had a 3.05 ERA in 73.2 innings during the shortened 2020 campaign, so this year was his first full season in a big league rotation.
The results speak for themselves, as he had a 2.56 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 211 strikeouts in 179.1 innings. With a 9-10 record, he was this year's poster boy for why wins are a terrible gauge of a pitcher's production and abilities.
5. Robbie Ray, Toronto Blue Jays
The 2020 season was a disaster for Robbie Ray, who struggled to a 6.62 ERA with 45 walks in 51.2 innings. He was good enough following an August trade to the Toronto Blue Jays to be worth a one-year, $8 million roll of the dice last offseason, and that proved to be one of the steals of the winter.
The 30-year-old led the AL in ERA (2.84), WHIP (1.05), strikeouts (248) and innings pitched (193.1), winning the Cy Young and setting himself up for a significant multiyear payday.
Despite his past spotty command, Ray has always had some of the best swing-and-miss stuff in baseball. His career 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings are the most in MLB history among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings.
4. Zack Wheeler, Philadelphia Phillies
Zack Wheeler is well on his way to making good on the five-year, $118 million contract he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies two years ago.
The 31-year-old had a 2.92 ERA over 11 starts in his debut with Philadelphia last year to finish 12th in NL Cy Young voting. He enjoyed the best season of his career this year and was the Cy Young runner-up.
The right-hander went 14-10 with a 2.78 ERA and 1.01 WHIP while leading the NL in strikeouts (247) and the majors in innings pitched (213.1). He was also tops among pitchers with 7.6 WAR, well ahead of Walker Buehler (6.7), Robbie Ray (6.7) and Max Scherzer (6.0).
He completed at least six innings in 27 of his 32 appearances, helping to keep a sketchy Phillies bullpen from being overexposed.
3. Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers
Walker Buehler led the majors with 28 quality starts in 2021, five more than any other pitcher.
That was just part of a phenomenal season that saw him continue his ascent as one of baseball's elite starting pitchers, a year after he dealt with blister issues before dazzling in the postseason.
The 27-year-old ranked among MLB leaders in wins (16, tied for third), ERA (2.47, third), WHIP (0.97, fourth), strikeouts (212, 10th), innings pitched (207.2, second) and batting average allowed (.199, second).
With a dynamic six-pitch repertoire anchored by a mid-90s fastball and a terrific slider/curveball pairing, Buehler does as good a job of keeping hitters guessing as any pitcher in the game.
2. Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers
The No. 1 spot on this list is a coin toss, and the fact that Corbin Burnes threw the fewest innings of any pitcher ranked in our top 10 is the reason he slots in at No. 2.
A positive COVID-19 test cost him a couple of weeks during the first half of the season, limiting him to 28 starts and 167 innings, but that's splitting hairs in a fantastic season that won him the NL Cy Young.
The Milwaukee Brewers ace led the majors with a 2.43 ERA, and his 1.63 FIP suggests his individual performance was better than his phenomenal surface-level numbers. He also had a 0.94 WHIP and 234 strikeouts, and he limited opposing hitters to a .201 average.
The 27-year-old is controllable through the 2024 season, and with 313.2 career innings in the big leagues, he is still settling in at the MLB level.
1. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals/Los Angeles Dodgers
Max Scherzer was baseball's best pitcher in 2021.
Scherzer overcame the narrow edge Corbin Burnes had in ERA (2.43 vs. 2.46) and strikeout rate (12.6 K/9 vs. 11.8 K/9) by leading the majors in WHIP (0.86) and opponents' batting average (.185) while making two more starts.
At 37 years old, Scherzer has not lost a step, attacking hitters with a mid-90s fastball and well-rounded arsenal that also includes a slider, changeup, curveball and cutter. Few pitchers in recent memory have brought more intensity to the mound.
He finished the year on a high note after he was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the July 30 deadline, going 7-0 with a 1.98 ERA and an 89-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11 starts.
The future Hall of Famer is still on top of his game, but a lot of young arms are nipping at his heels.