In 2021, the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes (2.43) led the Majors in that category. (And don’t forget, part of capturing the ERA crown is qualifying for the leaderboard, which requires logging one inning per game on the schedule).
As we look ahead to 2022, here are five MLB.com writers’ picks to lead MLB in ERA this season:
Walker Buehler -- Dodgers
Key stat: 2.82 ERA as SP since start of 2018
I wanted to pick either of the Brewers’ two-headed rotation monsters -- Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff -- but both of them blew past their previous career-high innings total last year. Without the innings qualifier, the pick is Jacob deGrom without a second thought. Is anyone confident deGrom can pitch 162 innings?
I’ll go with an established workhorse, a pitcher in the mix for this title every year and one entering his prime years instead. Buehler is already a World Series champion with a great October resume (2.94 ERA across 15 postseason starts); now it’s time to start racking up regular-season achievements. Buehler owns MLB’s fourth-lowest ERA (min. 400 innings) since he joined the Dodgers’ rotation four years ago. He’s due for this crown.
-- Matt Kelly
Dylan Cease -- White Sox
Key stat: 32% strikeout rate, 12.3 K/9 in 2021
Cease is coming off his breakout season for the White Sox in 2021, he just turned 26, and he'll be in his second season working under pitching coach Ethan Katz. He has electric stuff, with a power fastball that averages just under 97 mph, a power curveball that drops nine inches more than average, a slider that generated a 50% swing-and-miss rate last season and a changeup that got a 48% whiff rate. What's not to like?
The right-hander harnessed his stuff last season and posted a 3.91 ERA with 226 strikeouts in 165 2/3 innings, as well as a league-leading 12.3 K/9. He ranked in the 94th percentile of MLB in swing-and-miss rate, and in the 93rd percentile in strikeout rate, and when hitters aren't even making contact against you, it's a lot easier to keep your ERA down.
Cease's red flag coming into 2021 was his walks, but he even cut those down, with his walk rate dropping from 13.3% to 9.6% while his strikeout rate shot up from 17.3% to 31.9%. In 2020, the difference between Cease's strikeout rate and walk rate was only 3.9 percentage points. In 2021, it was 22.3 percentage points, top-10 among qualified pitchers. What a difference in command.
-- David Adler
Corbin Burnes -- Brewers
Key stat: 1.99 xERA in 2021
The National League Cy Young Award winner in 2021, Burnes just had one of the most dominant seasons in recent memory, yet you can make a case that his MLB-leading 2.43 ERA didn’t fully capture just how great he actually was. Burnes’ expected ERA, which is based on quality of contact, strikeouts and walks, was 1.99, third-best in the Majors. His 1.63 FIP, meanwhile, was the lowest mark any qualifying pitcher has posted since Pedro Martinez put up a 1.39 FIP in 1999.
For opposing batters, nothing comes easy against Burnes, who pairs eye-popping stuff with outstanding command. The righty’s cutter and curveball are the stars of his arsenal, but he can also mix in a dynamite changeup, slider and sinker. Burnes’ called strike plus whiff rate of 35.2% was the highest in the big leagues (min. 1,500 pitches) last season. When he did allow contact, he posted MLB’s third-lowest expected batting average at .181 and the lowest expected slugging percentage at .257 (min. 400 batters faced). A sub-2.00 ERA isn’t out of the question for the 27-year-old in 2022. He’s that good.
-- Thomas Harrigan
Zack Wheeler -- Phillies
Key stat: 213 1/3 innings pitched in 2021, 1st in MLB
Burnes won the ERA title last year, but Wheeler pitched 46 1/3 more innings on the season while posting a 2.79 xERA and 2.59 FIP, both ranked second in the Majors among qualified pitchers behind the Milwaukee right-hander.
Wheeler made 32 starts last season, nine fewer than Burnes has made in his entire career to this point. The durability question is a legitimate one for the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner (and for another perennial threat to win the ERA title, deGrom).
Wheeler, meanwhile, has pitched more than 180 innings in each of the last three full seasons (not counting the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign). Only two pitchers have thrown more than his 662 innings since 2018, and there are only five innings separating the trio: Gerrit Cole (667 innings) and Wheeler’s rotation mate in Philadelphia, Aaron Nola (666 2/3).
-- Manny Randhawa
Jacob deGrom -- Mets
Key stat: 1.94 ERA since 2018
Fine, I’ll be the one to hold my breath and count on deGrom’s health here. Because that’s really what this is about. In order to officially lead the Majors in ERA, one has to throw enough innings to qualify for that title. (The rule is one per team game, so 162). If deGrom were guaranteed to reach that mark in 2022, there’s no chance four pitchers would have gone off the board ahead of him.
The righty has been almost too good at times in recent years, seemingly toying with hitters thanks to a 100-mph fastball, a devastating slider, a bat-missing changeup and a good curveball that he rarely even needs. That 1.94 ERA mentioned above is more than a half-run better than any other starter over the past four seasons, and deGrom was even better in 2021, allowing 11 earned runs in 15 starts through early July.
Unfortunately, persistent right elbow inflammation derailed his chase of Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA from 1968. deGrom is now 33, and there are no guarantees moving forward. But if you take the leap of faith that he’ll stay on the mound, there’s no reason to think he won’t be one of MLB’s best pitchers once again.
-- Andrew Simon