If we take the first 60 games of the 2019 season, which is by no means an accurate representation of how the season played out as a whole, the group of top 10 pitchers you’d see below would be starkly different than the actual list.
Mike Minor might be on the list. He was 5-4 with a strong 2.55 ERA -- which would have ranked fourth in the league had it been his figure at the end of the season, behind Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole -- as opposed to the 3.59 ERA he had by the time October rolled around.
Speaking of Hyun-Jin Ryu, it would have been hard to put him outside the top few pitchers on the list given his performance through 60 games in 2019. He was 8-1 with a 1.48 ERA. He still led the league with a phenomenal 2.32 ERA and was the runner-up for the Cy Young Award, but he certainly won’t be the runner-up on this list.
Jack Flaherty, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t touch the top 10. He was 4-2 with a 3.76 ERA, a figure which rose up to 4.90 come July. Of course, his surge in the final two months of the season brought that number down in a hurry. Spoiler alert: he’s on the list below. Even guys like Jacob deGrom didn’t have the greatest start to the 2019 season, though it would be hard to deny him a spot among the game’s best.
It will be interesting to see which pitchers start off the season on a dominant note, and which falter. Every start is going to be crucial, and many pitchers have acknowledged that. But only the elite can be trusted to lead their teams to victories in a season where a single game is much more likely to dictate playoff chances than in another season.
We have a feeling that these 10 guys will consistently rise to the challenge.
Honorable Mentions: Charlie Morton, Tampa Bay Rays | Hyun-Jin Ryu, Toronto Blue Jays | Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies | Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds | Mike Soroka, Atlanta Braves
10. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
2019 stats: 16-5, 3.03 ERA, 189 K, 3.4 fWAR
Forget the top pitchers of the past decade; Clayton Kershaw has a real case for consideration as one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen. A career ERA of 2.44 is utterly ridiculous. It's a number that would lead the league more often than not. A winning percentage of .695 is good for third all-time, and could even go up given the powerhouse that is the 2020s LA Dodgers. He has the fourth-most Cy Young Award voting shares in the history of the game, trailing only Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux.
But even the best must fall eventually. And by "fall," I mean fall out of the top five. But don't go anywhere with the notion that Kershaw is no longer an elite pitcher. That stat line above is the worst in his career since his rookie season, in terms of WAR, and it was still good enough to place him in the top 10 in ERA and Cy Young voting, though name recognition definitely may have helped with the latter.
It was around this age where Greg Maddux's performance started to become a little less dominant. From age 22 to 32, Maddux had an ERA of 2.56, and his age-32 season was his last that was truly dominant. Perhaps Kershaw will follow a similar trajectory, meaning that he still has some dominance left in his tank. From 33 to the end of his career, Maddux's ERA was 3.69 -- not great, but still very, very respectable. Kershaw isn't going to go anywhere and neither is his devastating breaking ball, and it's certainly not right to move him outside the top 10.
9. Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox
2019 stats: 14-9, 3.41 ERA, 228 K, 5.1 fWAR
Tampa Bay starter Blake Snell completely broke out in his third full year in the Majors after a couple years of mediocrity, going 11-15 with a 3.83 ERA and 217 K over 43 starts. He wasn't great, but he wasn't horrible. Regardless, it didn't prepare fans for the sensational breakout that he had in 2018, though many knew he had the stuff. There's a reason he was a top prospect, and he finally proved those scouts and experts right by capturing the AL Cy Young Award with a 21-5 record and an AL best 1.89 ERA.
Why am I talking about Snell here? Giolito is kind of in the same boat, dominating the hill in his third full year, except his breakout season was even more unexpected. After all, though he had shown glimmers of potential and his stuff was always there, he had the American League's worst ERA in 2018 and led the league in walks. But he was the league's very best pitching prospect for a reason, and he finally proved those experts right with a great 2019 season.
Blake Snell suffered a big regression in 2019 following his Cy Young campaign (6-8, 4.29 ERA), thanks in part to injuries and some bad luck. Will Giolito follow on that path? Or will he stay the course and improve upon his first All-Star campaign?
I'm inclined to go with the latter. Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs attributes a number of factors to Giolito's stellar season, which he calls "one of the most impressive turnarounds of any pitcher in recent memory," including improved mental strength, a useful sinker and much better pitching mechanics. So long as he brings the same mental edge and keeps on utilizing that sinker and changeup, there shouldn't be any reason why he won't be a top 10 pitcher for the dark horse White Sox.
8. Shane Bieber, Cleveland Indians
2019 stats: 15-8, 3.28 ERA, 259 K, 5.6 fWAR
Heading into 2019, expectations were high for Bieber. Experts like Eric Longenhagen pegged Bieber as a prospect (back in 2018) whose accuracy and command were way ahead of his age, ranking up there with the elite control artists of Major League Baseball. His rookie season showed a small sample size of that; he walked three batters in a game only once, and surrendered just 1.8 per nine innings. 2019 was a year in which he could build upon that, with more maturity and experience under his belt.
And that's exactly what he did. His 1.7 walks per nine was the best figure in the American League and he upped his K/9 to double digits, combining for a brilliant 6.4 K/BB ratio. He was about as dependable as possible down the stretch, too. He went at least 5.2 innings in each of his last 13 starts, giving up fewer than three runs in 10 of those outings. He'll only be 25, meaning its probable that the best is yet to come, and more change could be on the way... literally.
He says he's been developing his changeup over the offseason, which Rotowire noted was his only pitch to receive a negative grade from FanGraphs' metric in 2019. If he manages to improve upon the change and use it as a potential out-pitch with his deadly accuracy, a Cy Young could very well be the result.
7. Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers
2019 stats: 14-4, 3.26 ERA, 215 K, 5.0 fWAR
Buehler will be 26 shortly after the season gets underway, but it seems as if he's still developing his game quite a bit. He's upped the opponents' swinging strike rate from 10% to 12% from his rookie year, a figure which is likely to grow given his relative lack of experience and his four-pitch arsenal -- he increased the use of his cutter in 2019, which helped to confuse batters when compared with his slider. The two pitches are six miles per hour apart.
Like Bieber, he also showed off elite command, walking 1.8 batters per nine innings, as compared to his 10.6 K/9 figure, both of which were top-10 figures in the National League. The other two NL pitchers that ranked in the top 10 in both of those stats? Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.
Buehler should be considered a Cy Young favorite and the new best pitcher in LA.
6. Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
2019 stats: 21-6, 2.58 ERA, 300 K, 6.4 fWAR
It looks as though Justin Verlander is taking on a similar trajectory to not Greg Maddux, but to Randy Johnson. Johnson was always a dominant pitcher following his breakout in the early 90s with Seattle, but he somehow found a way to kick his game up a notch following his trade to the Astros (10-1, 1.28 ERA, 116 K in 11 starts) and subsequent free agency during which he signed with the Diamondbacks. From age 35 to age 40, Johnson averaged over 300 strikeouts per year with a 2.65 ERA and picked up four consecutive Cy Young awards. Ridiculous.
But Verlander's age-35-and-up campaigns have been similarly exceptional. Now 37, Verlander has averaged 295 strikeouts with a 2.55 ERA over this past two seasons, finishing as the Cy Young runner-up in 2018 and securing the award last season.
How has he done so? FanGraphs points to the fact that he may have tweaked his delivery once he arrived in Houston to match what he did at his earlier peak, improving upon it with new pitches and better mechanics. Whatever the formula was, it's worked and should continue to do so in 2020.
Then again, he is 37. He could follow the trajectory of Johnson. Or, age could start to catch up with him. This is a projected list of the 10 best pitchers in 2020, and I'm projecting that age could be a factor, which is why he's not higher up.
5. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
2019 stats: 18-6, 3.32 ERA, 251 K, 6.4 fWAR
It's really weird to me that Stras is already 32 years old. I still remember the days when he was the most hyped prospect the game had seen in some time, getting selected first overall in 2009 and kind of failing to live up to the hype. But he has quietly -- yes, somehow he's done it quietly -- put together a magnificent first ten years in the bigs, compiling a 112-58 record with a 3.17 ERA and nearly 1,700 strikeouts.
He truly seems to be getting better, too. Last season was arguably his best yet, showing phenomenal durability with a league-leading 209 innings pitched, setting a career high with 251 strikeouts and once again preventing opponent home runs at a formidable rate, especially in the years where the home run is so prominent. And then there was his postseason performance. 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA, 47 strikeouts and only four walks -- one of which was intentional -- across 36.1 innings.
He's still morphing his game to optimize his production given his skill set at his age, throwing curveballs at a career-high 30.6% rate and practically cutting the slider out of his arsenal. Whatever this guy throws, hitters struggle with it, and there's no reason to expect any change in the coming years.
4. Jack Flaherty, St. Louis Cardinals
2019 stats: 11-8, 2.75 ERA, 231 K, 4.7 fWAR
It was a tale of two halves for Flaherty: a decent one, and an utterly unfair one. I mentioned in the intro how Flaherty's ERA was at the 4.90 mark after his first start of July, and that number declined a little before entering the All-Star break, as he threw a nice seven-inning, one-run game on July 7 but unfortunately lost due to the Cardinals being shut out.
Then the All-Star game happened, and Flaherty turned into another pitcher altogether. He went 7-2 with a mind-blowing 0.91 ERA in his final 15 starts, recording 124 K to just 23 walks. He surrendered zero runs more often than he allowed a number to be scratched off the board. The postseason didn't quite see the same success, though he was still good in two of the three starts.
If the Cardinals want to compete in the crowded NL Central in 2020, they'll have to get it done through their pitching. But with Flaherty at the helm, a postseason berth should not be ruled out. My coworker, Tim Kelly, selected Flaherty as his predicted Cy Young Award winner in the 2020 National League.
3. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
2019 stats: 11-7, 2.92 ERA, 243 K, 6.5 fWAR
So Scherzer got absolutely shelled by the Phillies in their scrimmage on July 18, surrendering a three-run home run to Didi Gregorius in the first inning and another one to Bryce Harper in the second. But that's just because he's shaking the cobwebs out and getting the bad starts out of the way for the beginning of the season.
Mad Max's absurd 7.36 K/BB ratio led the Majors last year, acting as one of the many stats that allowed him to be in the top three for Cy Young voting for the fourth-straight season, and in the top five for the past seven. He set his career high in K/9 (12.7) and seemed to suffer from some bad luck, too. His FIP of 2.45 led the Majors.
Like some of the other names on this list, he's been a steadfast presence in the top 10 over the years, and age really doesn't seem to be a factor. His fastball's average velocity had never been higher than it was in 2019 (94.9 mph) and he's still able to effectively work in four other pitches which make him just so hard to read.
Note: the last pitch in the video below is nasty enough to induce nausea.
2. Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees
2019 stats: 20-5, 2.50 ERA, 326 K, 7.4 fWAR
Heck, you better be a top-10 pitcher when you're making $324 million! But luckily for the Yankees, Cole has the goods to back up the fortune he's pulling in. His fastball is the best pitch in the majors, and it's not really even close, thanks to the work of FanGraphs' Ben Clemens. He challenged even Jack Flaherty's unbelievable second half run for the best in baseball, going 11-0 with a 1.79 ERA and a 14.7 K/9 figure after the Midsummer Classic.
There are a lot of stats that point to the fact that Cole maybe should have won the Cy Young Award over his then-teammate Justin Verlander, but we have a feeling that playing for the biggest team in baseball and being the center of attention this offseason (in a good way, unlike the Astros), given his record-breaking contract, could help him to reel in the first of those honors.
The Yankees didn't need to add Cole to remain the favorites in the AL East. But with him there, it's really hard to imagine another team -- even those sneaky Tampa Bay Rays -- coming out on top.
1. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
2019 stats: 11-8, 2.43 ERA, 255 K, 7.0 fWAR
But it's the other New York team that gets the nod here on my list of the best projected starters in the 2020 MLB season. Can you imagine what deGrom's career winning percentage would look like if he played for the Yankees or the Astros? Even with less-than-stellar counting stats that might turn the casual baseball fan off to deGrom's brilliance, like his 10-9 record in 2018 that helped show the world that wins and losses were among the more meaningless stats baseball has, he's reeling in Cy Young honors by large margins. The "300 win club" has long been one of the gold standards for Hall of Fame eligibility, but deGrom might finally be the guy to act as an exception.
Not that he's Hall of Fame worthy, at least not yet. He still has a lot more work ahead of him. But two consecutive Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019 indicate that he's doing anything but slowing down, and with a healthy and improved offense behind him, those win-loss totals could start to rise regardless of their significance. He stands in the way as Flaherty's largest obstacle at the NL Cy Young Award, and though back problems were of concern early in the summer workouts, they don't look serious and he'll still be the guy the team turns to on Opening Day.
If the Mets come out on top in the NL East, bats like Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil or a possible bounce back season from Edwin Diaz may receive the bulk of the credit. But deGrom is practically a lock for dominance year in and year out, and it'll be on his shoulders that this team finds the most success.