When I do my starting pitcher rankings, I look at many different metrics including skills, past performance, injury concerns/history, and to a lesser extent, team context. After all, wins are still a 5×5 category in rotisserie leagues. I don’t play in many quality start leagues but knowing which pitchers regularly average more than six innings is also important. Even with all the advanced metrics that are available, the first thing I look at is the strikeout minus walk ratio (K-BB%). Not only does K-BB% correlate with success in fantasy, but it’s also a good predictor of in-season success. The top-five starters in K-BB% in 2019 were Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Shane Beiber. As I dig deeper, I look into a pitcher’s arsenal. I look at fastball velocity and swing-and-miss metrics for breaking pitchers. I utilize Alex Chamberlain’s pitch leaderboard and his Beta leaderboard that include expected metrics. Sorry, that’s not released to the public just yet but it’s very helpful when deciding between two or three pitchers. OK, enough rambling, let’s get to the rankings. If you want to check out my other positional rankings, click here.
1. Gerrit Cole (SP – NYY)
My number one starter from last year moves from the Astros to Yankees. I’m not concerned about the move too much, obviously. His strikeout rate was head shoulders above all others including teammate, Justin Verlander. He’s 30 years old, should once again push 300 strikeouts with elite ratios and the opportunity for wins will be plentiful. While I think deGrom will finish with slightly better ratios, the prospect of 50+ strikeouts and potentially a handful of additional wins (I know, they are fickle) pushes him to the top.
2. Jacob deGrom (SP – NYM)
With back-to-back Cy Young Awards, there isn’t much left for deGrom to prove. If only the Mets could get him some run support! How does a pitcher of his caliber only have 21 wins over the last two seasons? Shake my head. His strikeout totals won’t be as high as Cole or even Verlander, but his ratios are second to none over the last two seasons. In fact, his ERA is a half a run better than Justin Verlander who is second at 2.55! You can take that to the bank.
3. Justin Verlander (SP – HOU)
Verlander may have had his best season in 2018 at age-36. His expected K-BB% was right in line with the results he put up. Additionally, his expected barrel rate was much higher than the 7.8% he allowed. If that comes down, it will address the one issue he had in 2019, home runs. I don’t see his age showing at all given the results and his velocity, so until there is a sign such as diminished velocity, injury, etc, he will remain a top SP.
4. Max Scherzer (SP – WAS)
For the first time in seven years, Scherzer failed to reach 200 innings. His back issues concern me. There’s no way around that. He’s 35 (will turn 36 in July) and backs don’t magically get better for pitchers as they age. His skills remain intact which is why I can’t drop him any further. A healthy spring training will go a long way in terms of my confidence going forward.
5. Blake Snell (SP – TBR)
Snell is probably the first surprise on this list. He only threw 107 innings following his CY Young 2018. But, his skills are just too good to overlook. He has three pitches with a SwStr% of over 20% (curve, slider, changeup) and his fastball averages 96 mph with a SwStr% of 12.8% (league-avg is 9.1%)! If his walk rate comes down to the 7% range which the expected metrics indicate, he could compete as the top SP in the league.
6. Walker Buehler (SP – LAD)
Buehler’s second half was fantastic with a 2.99 ERA and a K% of 31.4% putting him up with the big boys. He’s just 25 years old but showed improvements in K%, BB%, and SwStr%. His fastball is fantastic and I love pitchers with an elite fastball as a base, just look at the pitchers above. He just needs either the slider or curve to really take the leap. If that happens this year, look out!
15. Mike Clevinger (SP – CLE) (moved down due to knee surgery)
Speaking of elite fastballs, Clevinger’s was on another level in 2019. I know he missed time last year but he found a tick of velo and increased his K% on his fastball by 14%, up to 35.7%. His slider continues to improve and if the curve or changeup becomes an elite third offering, the sky’s the limit. I’m betting on Clevinger finishing with his best season to date.
7. Chris Sale (SP – BOS)
Sale for me if kind the end of the 1A tier. Everyone in the top-eight possess elite “stuff”. Great fastballs, elite secondaries, great control, etc. Sale is at eight due to durability issues but also because of his fastball velocity. It’s been declining over the last couple of seasons and was down to 93.7 mph last year. He’s averaged only a little over 150 innings the last two years and will be 31 to start 2020. He can put up 200 strikeouts in 130 innings or 300 in 200 innings but I feel more comfortable projecting him for 150-160 innings.
8. Shane Bieber (SP – CLE)
If you believe in expected statistics, which I certainly do, or at least take them into account, Bieber outperformed his xK% and xBB%. The good news for Bieber is that his breaking pitches appear to be elite. I’m just skeptical about his fastball that managed an impressive 15.0 pVAL despite just a 5% SwStr% on the pitch. He has great command per Eno Sarris and his Command+ metric, but he gave up a lot of loud contact. Among qualified starters, only Robbie Ray and Tanner Roark had a higher expected weighted on-base on contact (.408). Obviously, I still think he’s great but I just think his numbers may take a slight step back.
9. Luis Castillo (SP – CIN)
Castillo owns the best changeup in the game with a 26.2% SwStr%! His slider continues to improve and his sinker generates a ton of weak contact. In fact, three of four of Castillo’s pitches generate very weak contact. Remember the xwOBacon I mentioned in Bieber’s blurb? Castillo’s was the opposite, ranking third at .336. If he can get his walks under control, he has a chance to be borderline top-five.
10. Stephen Strasburg (WAS)
Strasburg finally put it all together while staying healthy. He was rewarded with a World Series victory but are we all of a sudden going to believe that he will throw another 200 innings? Let’s not forget, he threw 36 innings in the postseason for a grand total of 245 innings. That’s about 20% more than he’s ever thrown in a single season. He may very likely see at least one IL stint which is why I’ve dropped him just outside my top 10.
11. Clayton Kershaw (SP – LAD)
Well, I guess I should never question Kershaw again. After fading him a year ago, he spun the most innings since 2015 with elite level ratios. He also improved his strikeout rate in the second half. He pulled it off while his fastball velocity continued to decline. At some point, generational pitchers find ways to get it done. Enough said.
12. Jack Flaherty (SP – STL)
Alright, it seems I’m lower on Flaherty than most. His second half was amazing but can we trust that level of performance? Obviously not, and while his 23.1% K-BB% was very good it was not quite elite. Additionally, his xK-BB% was just 19.6%. His fastball generated positive results in part thanks to outperforming the xwOBA against by 40 points. I think if his BABIP normalizes (.232 on his FB and .242 overall), he’s just a borderline top-20 option.
13. Patrick Corbin (SP – WAS)
While I normally have trouble with starters who have just two pitches but Corbin is the exception. He’s been remarkably consistent over the last two seasons and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that his level of performance will change. His slider is arguably the best in the league with a strikeout rate above 50% over the last two seasons. He also throws the slider at two different speeds (low-80 and mid-70s) which make it appear like a third pitch. I’d be happy with Corbin as my ace if I grab hitters in the first three-four rounds.
14. Noah Syndergaard (SP – NYM)
I’m debating moving Thor up a little bit because his stuff and command are a lot better than the results have shown. It feels like he could finally bust out with a new pitching coach. He’s got four pitches with swinging strike rates north of 10% and his curveball, which may be his best pitch, was only thrown 10% of the time in 2019. Increasing the usage of his secondaries could yield an elite level strikeout rate for Syndergaard.
16. Lucas Giolito (SP – CHW)
Wow, what an unexpected breakout from Giolito last year! His stuff was absolutely amazing and the metrics back that up. I’m a believer but the reason he isn’t higher is due to his homer prone tendencies and his history with elevated walk rates. He did improve his zone% and F-Strike% last year but I wonder if he can sustain that level in 2020.
17. Charlie Morton (SP – TBR)
Morton, now 36 and is coming off the best season of his career. It’s not even close as he posted a 3.04 ERA with 240 strikeouts across 194 innings. He also threw the most innings on his career while lowering his walk rate. I still think he’ll be great but given his age and injury history, I have to bake in a little bit of regression from 2019 where he finished inside the top-10.
18. Yu Darvish (SP – CHC)
Darvish was truly Jekyll and Hyde in 2019. He was unbearable in the first half while looking like a Cy Young contender in the second half. I tend to think he’s much closer to the second half Darvish than the first half but he’s not without warts. He continued struggling with the long ball and has never had a stretch with a walk rate as low as he managed in the second half. There’s regression coming but he’s always going strike batters out with the best in the business.
19. Luis Severino (SP – NYY)
Coming off a lost season, it’s difficult to project what level of production we will see from Severino. I’m not willing to buy him as an SP1 to find out. I think his innings will be limited, at least early on, and I feel like his normally pristine walk rate is going to increase as he attempts to regain the feel for all of his pitches.
20. Aaron Nola (SP – PHI)
Nola’s career ERA is 3.49 and his career BABIP is .292. In his 2018 breakout, his ERA was just 2.37 with a .251 BABIP. It’s starting to seem like 2018 is an outlier. Additionally, he struggled with his walk rate as his Zone% dropped for the second straight year. I think he improves on his 2019 walk rate but settles in around his career numbers with a 3.50 ERA.
21. Zack Greinke (SP – HOU)
Shrug Emoji. That’s how I feel about Greinke. His skills don’t match his production but he’s a very cerebral pitcher who has over a decade of success. He throws a ton of pitches, mixes speeds well, and can locate his pitches. I couldn’t rank him any lower but at some point, the bottom will fall out, I just don’t think it will be 2020.
22. Chris Paddack (SP – SDP)
Coming into 2019, Paddack was dubbed one of the safest rookie pitchers in a decade. Typically, rookie pitchers struggle with consistency, especially with walks and Paddack bucked that trend walking under two batter per nine innings. I love his fastball/changeup combination but he needs a third pitch to really take the next step. Will that be his curveball that he only threw 10% of the time? His hook didn’t get whiffs or swings outside the zone, so I’m a little concerned. Look, I think he’s very good and safe but his .243 BABIP against his fastball may rise along with his ratios.
23. Carlos Carrasco (SP – CLE)
You can completely write-off Carrasco’s 2019 surface stats. I don’t do that all that much but come on, give the guy a break. Assuming he receives the go-ahead regarding his unfortunate cancer diagnosis, I don’t think there’s much of a reason to give him a massive discount. Even with the missed time, he still managed a very strong 23.5% K-BB% and still has three-plus secondary offerings. Maybe he won’t reach 200 innings but given a clean bill of health, he should push top-20 value.
24. Trevor Bauer (SP – CIN)
Say what you will about Bauer’s antics and inconsistency, he has struck out at least 10 batters per nine innings each of the last three seasons. He’s also a workhorse, so another 225 strikeouts are in the cards. He’ll struggle with walks but I trust that his ratios will improve now that he gets a full season with his Driveline buddies.
25. Jose Berrios (SP – MIN)
Berrios is a very different pitcher than Bauer but I think he offers safer value. He’s averaged 196 innings over the last two seasons but with a modest career strikeout rate is 23.1%. Everyone is waiting for him to take the next step and I just don’t see it. His curveball was supposed to be a devastating offering but it’s really actually quite pedestrian with a career 13% SwStr%. He also saw a dip in strikeouts with the pitch in 2019, so while I think he’s a nice backend SP2, but I’m not reaching.
26. Brandon Woodruff (SP – MIL)
Woodruff was throwing fire in his four-inning postseason outing and I just love his fastball. It averages 97 mph and generated a SwStr% of 12%. Additionally, he allowed a 63 wRC+ off his fastball with an elevated .354 BABIP, so it could be even better. So while his fastball is almost Walker Buehler good, he doesn’t have the secondaries. The slider is OK but doesn’t generate a ton of whiffs and his change isn’t good. Still, if his slider is at least above average, he’s got enough to justify this ranking.
27. Sonny Gray (SP – CIN)
Gray splits four pitches almost equally and they all have their place. He was back in Cincinnati with his former College Coach Derek Johnson and it really seemed to get the best out of him. His fourseam fastball is bad but it gets strikes and I actually like his sinker more because it can get ground balls. I also think his combination of slider and curveball make a nice one-two punch in terms of his secondaries. He overperformed last year but I think he’s much closer to his 2019 self than 2018.
28. Lance Lynn (SP – TEX)
If Buehler and Woodruff have elite fastballs, Lynn’s 2019 fastball was super-elite (I guess). He added some velocity and generated an unheard of 14.1% SwStr% on the pitch. Between his fourseamer and cutter, he throws a fastball over 70% of the time. I can understand why some people are skeptical about Lynn because he is coming off the highest strikeout rate of his career. But, he’s a workhorse with over 175 innings pitched in six of the last seven seasons with a career 3.59 ERA. His success is not completely out of nowhere.
29. Corey Kluber (SP – TEX)
I don’t know what to expect from Kluber in 2020. What I can say for almost full certainty is that he won’t be as bad as he was in the shortened 2019 and he won’t be his 2014 Cy Young self. I’ll be interested to see how his velocity looks this spring because it’s slowly been dwindling. That’s OK because he makes his money on his cutter and curve/slider. The move to Texas might be neutral with the new stadium and the retractable roof. I like the discount he’s receiving don’t feel confident drafting him as an SP-2 to find out.
30. Tyler Glasnow (SP – TBR)
Glasnow’s stuff is amazing. It’s probably in the top-five in all of baseball. The problem is, he’s never thrown more than 111.2 innings in any major league season. He did reach a total of 155 between Triple-A and the majors in 2017, but I believe that’s his ceiling for 2020. He’s also a true two-pitch guy, so going into the seventh inning with regularity is going to be a challenge. I might be one of the low guys on Glasnow not because of his talent but because of his shortcomings. He was great in limited innings last year but was also a bit lucky. I don’t believe he’s all of a sudden a 6% walk guy when his career rate is 11.2%.
Brad Penner / USA TODAY Sports