Max Scherzer and MLB's Most Dominant Pitching Runs Since 2000

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 12, 2022

Max Scherzer and MLB's Most Dominant Pitching Runs Since 2000

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    It's times like these, with Major League Baseball mired in a seemingly interminable lockout, that questions like "Which recent pitcher had the best peak?" are invaluable time-passers.

    So, come pass the time with us as we attempt to answer that question.

    We specifically narrowed our sights to pitchers who've been at it since 2000, except we didn't want to judge them by their total body of work or their best individual seasons. 

    We instead weighed their best five-year runs, a process which started with finding every instance this century of a starter posting at least 25 WAR in a span of five consecutive seasons. From there, we looked for the best balance between overall output and consistency, plus postseason contributions and any standout games.

    This led to a final list of 10 pitchers' peaks, which we ranked according to just how impressive they were and indeed still are. 

    But first, some honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

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    Justin Verlander in 2011
    Justin Verlander in 2011Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    RHP Jacob deGrom: 2015-19

    As awkward as it is, there are reasons deGrom isn't in the top 10. His 2015-19 run is outstanding as a whole, but his god-tier 2018 and 2019 seasons do a lot of heavy lifting there. And while he's obviously stayed on this tier over the last two campaigns, we're talking a 27-start, 160-inning sample that doesn't allow for easy points of comparison. We'll have to sing his praises in another list.

                

    RHP Felix Hernandez: 2010-14

    Focusing on King Felix's 2010-14 run means casting aside his 2009 season, in which he fully broke out as an ace en route to a runner-up finish in the American League Cy Young Award voting. Yet the issue here is more his three-year stretch between 2011 and 2013, in which he was an oddly unexceptional pitcher to the tune of a 117 ERA+.

                  

    LHP Cliff Lee: 2008-12

    Lee is probably the most "out of nowhere" ace of the last two decades, as he wasn't even a league-average pitcher before he won the AL Cy Young Award in 2008 and kept pitching like a No. 1 through 2013. But even in the context of his 2008-12 stretch, the gap between his great seasons (2008 and 2011) and his very good seasons (2009, 2010 and 2012) is a bit too large for our liking.

         

    RHP Justin Verlander: 2009-13

    Like deGrom, Verlander would have fared better if we went looking for pitchers who had stellar back-to-back seasons. That's what he did first in 2011 and 2012, and then again in 2018 and 2019. But as smaller parts of five-year runs, those seasons do some deGrom-like heavy lifting. So he, too, will have to have his praises sung another time.

10. LHP Chris Sale: 2014-18

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Key Stats: 148 GS, 981.2 IP, 771 H (98 HR), 1,260 K, 203 BB, 2.85 ERA, 145 ERA+27.4 rWAR

    Honors: 5 All-Stars

    When looking at what Chris Sale did for the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox between 2014 and 2018, the fly in the ointment is an ugly one of Junebug proportions.

    He just wasn't the kind of workhorse you want a No. 1 starter to be, ranking seventh in total innings and authoring only 10 complete games. He didn't even crack 160 innings in 2018, in which shoulder soreness resulted in him barely pitching in August and September.

    On a rate basis, however, Sale was a nightmare for hitters between '14 and '18. He led all of MLB in strikeout-to-walk ratio, as well as his fellow American League hurlers in strikeouts. He topped a 30 percent strikeout rate four times, something that only two other pitchers have done in the 21st century.

    Yet perhaps the ultimate indicator of just how overpowering Sale was in those five seasons is the .341 slugging percentage against him. Only Jake Arrieta did better, and the lineups he was going through didn't have designated hitters.

    Even though Sale was out of gas by the end of 2018, that year at least had a happy ending in which he struck out the side in the final inning of the World Series.

9. RHP Pedro Martinez: 2000-04

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    JOHN MOTTERN/Getty Images

    Key Stats: 139 GS, 936.2 IP, 696 H (68 HR), 1,119 K, 205 BB, 2.53 ERA, 188 ERA+, 36.8 rWAR

    Honors: 2000 AL Cy Young Award and 2 All-Stars

    To be fair, it's not Pedro Martinez's run through 2000 and 2004 that got him into the Hall of Fame in 2015.

    Rather, the 1997-2003 peak in which he pitched to a stupidly elite 213 ERA+ is the one that people typically associate with him. Shifting the focus to 2000-04 does him a disservice, as it puts greater emphasis on his injury-marred 2001 season and his step toward mortality in 2004.

    Even still, it's no small thing that he strayed into, well, Martinez-ian territory with an ERA+ north of 200 while with the Red Sox in 2000, 2002 and 2003. Nearly two decades later, he's still the only pitcher with three such seasons since the turn of the century.

    Per his 48 OPS+, Martinez's ability to avoid offensive damage between 2000 and 2004 is basically what we've seen from Jacob deGrom over the last four years. This is in spite of the fact that Martinez's fastball stopped lighting up radar guns consistently in 2002, forcing him to rely more on his pitching smarts to get outs.

    In October, Martinez's dominance came and went as he pitched to a 4.39 ERA over 55.1 innings between 2003 and 2004. Yet he lasted at least seven innings in six of his eight starts, the last of which saw him also put up a goose egg in the penultimate game of the '04 World Series.

8. RHP Curt Schilling: 2000-04

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    The Sporting News/Getty Images

    Key Stats: 155 GS, 1,121 IP, 1,009 H (133 HR), 1,174 K, 184 BB, 3.24 ERA, 144 ERA+, 36.3 rWAR

    Honors: 3 All-Stars

    On an individual level, Curt Schilling had a habit of being second-best between 2000 and 2004.

    To wit, he was the runner-up for the Cy Young Award to then-teammate Randy Johnson in 2001 and 2002, and then again to Johan Santana in 2004. On the whole, he was also second in innings and strikeouts between '00 and '04.

    This complicates exactly how to place Schilling on this list. Because even if his is obviously one of the better five-year runs of pitching in the 21st century, that he was never the best pitcher in baseball while he was in the middle of it does take some of the shine off.

    Unless, of course, you prefer to judge Schilling's excellence by more specific statistics. Strikeout-to-walk, ratio, for example. It's the metric that does his career the best kindness in general, and this is the era in which he led either his league or all of MLB in K/BB annually between 2001 and 2004.

    October contributions make for yet another equalizer in Schilling's favor. Between the '01, '02 and '04 playoffs, he made 11 starts and overpowered the opposition with a 1.85 ERA. Two of those adventures resulted in World Series rings, so it's fair to say he was baseball's best pitcher when it mattered most.

7. RHP Corey Kluber: 2014-18

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Key Stats: 160 GS, 1,091.1 IP, 886 H (104 HR), 1,228 K, 223 BB, 2.85 ERA, 151 ERA+, 31.6 rWAR

    Honors: 2014 and 2017 AL Cy Young Awards and 3 All-Stars

    Corey Kluber was not just very good during his 2014-18 peak, but so very consistently so.

    His worst year in that span was 2015, when he still salvaged a well-above-average 123 ERA+ over 222 innings. It's a season that fits nicely amid the whole, as only he and Max Scherzer topped 200 innings and a 120 ERA+ annually between '14 and '18.

    Though Kluber was less prolific than Scherzer at striking batters out, he was at least the best at it among AL right-handers. It helped that he could lay claim to the perhaps the best individual pitch of the bunch, as his trademark breaking ball had the best run value of any other pitch by a righty.

    When Kluber struck out 18 batters and allowed just one hit on May 13, 2015, he joined Kerry Wood as the only two pitchers to ever do such a thing. And that was but one of an MLB-high 20 starts he had of at least eight innings with no more than three hits allowed between 2014 and 2018.

    It also shouldn't be forgotten that Kluber was nails during the 2016 postseason. Even after he hit a wall in Game 7 of the World Series, he still put his stamp on Cleveland's epic run with a 1.83 ERA in six outings.

6. LHP Johan Santana: 2004-08

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    JULIE JACOBSON/Associated Press

    Key Stats: 168 GS, 1,146.2 IP, 911 H (126 HR), 1,189 K, 261 BB, 2.82 ERA, 157 ERA+, 35.7 rWAR

    Honors: 2004 and 2006 AL Cy Young Awards and 3 All-Stars

    It wasn't terribly surprising when Johan Santana was one-and-done on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2020. His career spanned only 12 seasons, and his peak was a bit too short for special treatment.

    It's saying something, though, that the strength of this peak was great enough for his Cooperstown candidacy to at least warrant discussion.

    Santana authored four seasons of at least 7 WAR between 2004 and 2008, making him one of only four pitchers since 2000 to have as many seasons in general. And since it's always a good thing to be in Randy Johnson's company, it's notable that only Santana and Johnson did so in a five-year span.

    Santana led all pitchers in both innings and strikeouts between '04 and '08, with a noticeably large margin over the next-best pitcher in 10-strikeout games. These are credits to his absolutely silly changeup, which is also the explanation for why he was better against righties (.211 AVG) than against lefties (.231 AVG).

    Where Santana's peak doesn't make the grade is with his postseason accomplishments. That's not really any fault of his, however, as his three playoff starts with the Minnesota Twins between 2004 and 2006 yielded a 1.35 ERA.

5. LHP CC Sabathia: 2007-11

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Key Stats: 170 GS, 1,199 IP, 1,097 H (94 HR), 1,084 K, 298 BB, 3.09 ERA, 142 ERA+, 30.4 rWAR

    Honors: 2007 AL Cy Young Award and 3 All-Stars

    At the outset of his career, CC Sabathia had the rotten luck of having to share the 2001 AL Rookie of the Year Award race with Ichiro Suzuki. He subsequently settled in as a good, yet not quite great pitcher.

    That began to change in 2006, and by 2007 his rise to acehood was officially on track. 

    Sabathia's durability was lauded at the time and is even more awe-inspiring now. He topped 230 innings each year between 2007 and 2011, with a peak of 253 in 2008. That will also likely remain frozen in time as the last instance of a hurler tossing 10 complete games and five shutouts in a season.

    The dominance with which Sabathia went about his business between '07 and '11 is equally awe-inspiring. He did better than a 130 ERA+ in each of those five seasons, and only Justin Verlander and Tim Lincecum—whose own peak was brilliant but tragically short—had as many strikeouts overall. 

    In spite of all this, arguably the crowning moment of Sabathia's peak was when he bulldozed his way through the 2009 playoffs. He put up a 1.98 ERA over five starts, helping the New York Yankees clinch what is still their most recent World Series championship.

4. RHP Roy Halladay: 2007-11

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Key Stats: 161 GS, 1,194.2 IP, 1,125 H (89 HR), 992 K, 187 BB, 2.80 ERA, 150 ERA+, 34.0 rWAR

    Honors: 2010 NL Cy Young Award and 4 All-Stars

    There's something about whittling the late Roy Halladay's peak down to 2007-2011 that doesn't feel right, in part because it leaves his superb 2003 season—i.e., a 145 ERA+ over 266 innings—on the outside looking in.

    But if there was a time when Halladay crystallized his reputation as the best pitcher in baseball, it was certainly in the latter half of his career in which said peak took place.

    Regular season-wise, Halladay was sort of like an upgraded version of Sabathia between '07 and '11. He trailed the big lefty by only 4.1 innings, yet was safely better than him in terms of ERA+ and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Not that Sabathia is alone there, as Halladay led everyone in those two categories.

    Not bad for a guy who wasn't a true strikeout pitcher. "Doc" more so specialized in using his mastery of location and speed-changing to induce harmless contact, specifically ranking second to Derek Lowe in ground-ball outs between 2008 and 2011.

    Though Halladay tragically missed out on a World Series ring, he put up a 2.37 ERA in the five playoff outings he did make for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2010 and 2011. The first of those outings marked yet more history for his 2010 season, as he paired his perfect game from May with only the second-ever postseason no-hitter.

3. LHP Clayton Kershaw: 2011-15

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Key Stats: 159 GS, 1,128 IP, 810 H (66 HR), 1,249 K, 242 BB, 2.11 ERA, 172 ERA+, 36.3 rWAR

    Honors: 2011, 2013 and 2014 NL Cy Young Awards, 2014 NL MVP and 5 All-Stars

    Clayton Kershaw didn't stop being good after 2015. He just stopped being as good, both in terms of his run prevention and especially in terms of his workload as nagging injuries took their toll.

    Fortunately, none of this diminishes what he actually did between 2011 and 2015. This span saw him become the only pitcher this century to top a 150 ERA+ in five straight seasons. The only year in which he didn't lead MLB in ERA was 2015, when he achieved the league's first 300-strikeout season in 13 years.

    Mind you, Kershaw didn't need to become the league's foremost strikeout artist to traffic in unparalleled hittability. For 2011-15, he held hitters to a .200 average and a 56 OPS+. The next-best marks in those categories? Try .220 and 73.

    Like Max Scherzer, Kershaw was also a candidate for a historic start pretty much every time he took the ball. Never more so than on June, 18, 2014, when he engineered one of the best no-hitters of all time. That was one of 35 outings between '11 and '15 in which he pitched at least seven shutout innings.

    Now for the catch that everyone knew was coming: the postseason. Kershaw was actually mostly good in October in '13, '14 and '15, but never as good as the Los Angeles Dodgers needed him to be. That moment had to wait until 2020.

2. RHP Max Scherzer: 2015-19

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Key Stats: 158 GS, 1,050.2 IP, 761 H (121 HR), 1,371 K, 229 BB, 2.74 ERA, 156 ERA+, 34.3 rWAR

    Honors: 2016 and 2017 NL Cy Young Awards and 5 All-Stars

    If we were strictly going off of WAR, Max Scherzer's 2014-18 run would actually take precedence over his 2015-19 run. He did post 34.5 rWAR in the former, after all.

    But is that extra 0.2 rWAR really worth it? Obviously not, for at least one reason that should be, well, obvious.

    That is, Scherzer's '19 season is arguably the high point of his career. He set career bests for FIP and strikeout percentage and also did a little something known as winning the World Series. To do that, he even fought off neck spasms to post a 2.40 ERA in six outings.

    Even if Scherzer otherwise had only 172.1 innings in 2019, he still easily led the majors in innings for the 2015-19 span. Strikeouts, too, and his propensity for giving up home runs never was and should still not be mistaken for hittability. His .199 average was yet another MLB best between '15 and '19.

    This was also the span in which Scherzer twirled his best individual games. He tossed two of the best no-hitters of all time just in 2015, as well as the fifth 20-strikeout game in MLB history in 2016. All the more reason that the Washington Nationals' $210 million investment in him is one of baseball's all-time bargains.

1. LHP Randy Johnson: 2000-04

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    ROY DABNER/Getty Images

    Key Stats: 157 GS, 1,118 IP, 882 H (102 HR), 1,468 K, 289 BB, 2.69 ERA, 173 ERA+, 39.0 rWAR

    Honors: 2000, 2001 and 2002 NL Cy Young Awards, 4 All-Stars

    Like with Pedro Martinez, we've come to yet another pitcher for whom 2000 is an awkward cutoff point.

    Randy Johnson's ultimate reign really began in 1999, when he won what was his second Cy Young Award on the strength of a 2.48 ERA and 364 strikeouts over 271.2 innings. Nudging aside that season yet not a 2003 campaign in which he made only 18 unspectacular starts, well, sucks.

    Even still, just look at those numbers. The Big Unit especially lapped the field between 2000 and 2004 in strikeouts, and it shouldn't do him any dishonor to point out that he trailed only Martinez in holding opposing hitters to a .216 average and a 59 OPS+.

    Meanwhile, Johnson's penchant for extraordinary individual starts was downright Scherzer-ian. Strictly looking at 10-strikeout games, he had 34 more of those than anyone else between 2000 and 2004. Best of all, he had a 20-strikeout game of his own in 2001 and then a perfect game in 2004.

    As for his October work, Johnson actually got knocked around a bit in his one and only playoff outing for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2002. But that was on the heels of a run through the 2001 postseason that saw him put up a 1.52 ERA over six appearances. He was even the winning pitcher in relief when it all ended.

           

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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