Your '21 ERA champs? Try these 10 aces

March 12th, 2021

There are more advanced measures of a pitcher’s performance than plain old ERA, from FIP to SIERA to Statcast’s expected ERA (xERA).

But although it’s not perfect, ERA still resonates, still carries plenty of meaning for the players on the mound, and factors significantly into awards voting. So which pitcher will lead the Majors in that category this season? (And here we’re talking about those who meet the qualifying innings threshold, so no relievers).

Last season it was Cleveland’s Shane Bieber who broke out and took the crown, and now he will try to become the first back-to-back MLB leader since Clayton Kershaw from 2011-14. But he will have plenty of competition.

To break down the top contenders, convened a panel of five reporters and had them draft 10 likely ERA champs -- five each from the American and National Leagues. Here are the picks:


-- RHP, Twins
2019 ERA: 4.04 / ‘20 ERA: 2.70

Yes, passing up on some of the bigger names with flashier stuff (see below) is a risk, but do you realize how dang good Maeda was in 2020? In his first year in the AL, the Twins righty posted a 2.70 ERA with a 0.75 WHIP and a 10.8 K/9 rate. He finished second in AL Cy Young voting, but it feels like he still didn’t get sufficient attention and even was overshadowed by the triple-digit-throwing reliever he was traded for last February.

Maeda, 32, doesn’t have high-end velocity, but he succeeds by pitching backward -- relying more on his effective slider (38.6% usage) and diving changeup (29.4%) than his four-seamer (18.8%) -- and inducing weak contact. His 24.7 percent hard-hit rate allowed and 85.3 mph average exit velo both ranked in the top seven percent of MLB last year. Oh, and he also didn’t let opposing batters get on base for free (4.0% BB rate). All of which is why his xERA of 2.93 -- fourth in baseball among starters to qualify for the ERA title -- proves his actual ERA wasn’t a fluke.

Now factor in that the Twins’ defense, which already was strong with 15 Outs Above Average a year ago (second best in MLB), should be even better with wizard Andrelton Simmons at short and Jorge Polanco shifted to second base. This might be a surprising selection at No. 1, but the ingredients are in place for Maeda, who’s working to increase his curveball usage to further flummox batters, to excel even more this season.
-- Jason Catania

-- RHP, Indians
2019 ERA: 3.28 / ‘20 ERA: 1.63

There isn’t exactly a large sample size with Bieber (64 career starts), but the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner’s utter dominance in 2020 suggests his 1.63 ERA in the pandemic-shortened campaign could be a sign of more ERA titles to come. The 25-year-old right-hander became the fastest pitcher in MLB history to reach 100 strikeouts in a season, and did so during a run of 12 straight starts featuring eight or more strikeouts.

With Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco gone, the spotlight on the mound in Cleveland shines exclusively on Bieber. He’s early enough in his career that his raw stuff still perplexes hitters and they haven’t been able to get much of a book on him. For a starting pitcher with only 64 starts to his name and coming off a short season, there would normally be some concern over how many innings he could pitch in a full MLB season. Bieber threw 214 1/3 in 2019, his age-24 season, striking out 259 and walking only 40, which should allay any such worries.
-- Manny Randhawa

-- RHP, Yankees
2019 ERA: 2.50 / ‘20 ERA: 2.84

Cole has been one of the most consistent pitchers in the Majors over the past few years, as evidenced by the fact that he's the only AL pitcher to post a sub-3.00 ERA in each of the last three seasons. Mets ace Jacob deGrom is the only other starting pitcher to do so in that period. It's also quite impressive that Cole managed to keep that streak going last season, considering he entered September with a 3.91 ERA.

That's the thing, though -- Cole had just settled in to his new home in the Bronx and started looking like himself when the abbreviated 60-game season came to a close. He recorded a 1.00 ERA while striking out 34 over 27 innings in four September starts, then racked up 30 strikeouts over just 18 1/3 innings in three postseason outings. With his debut season behind him, expect Cole to be his dominant self over the course of a full season in pinstripes in 2021. Could this be the year he finally wins that elusive AL Cy Young Award?
-- Paul Casella

-- RHP, White Sox
2019 ERA: 3.41 / ‘20 ERA: 3.48

First, let’s acknowledge this: It’s somewhat amazing that Giolito is in this conversation. Yes, he was a first-round pick and hyped prospect. But in 2018, just a few years ago, his ERA began with a six and he allowed the most earned runs in MLB. He entered the 2019 season with a 5.48 career ERA over 240 innings.

Then, it all came together. Giolito figured things out, and for the past two seasons has been one of the best pitchers in the game. Still, he’s “only” 19th in ERA during that time (minimum 200 innings). This pick is based on a belief that the 26-year-old has another jump in him, a higher level to which he will ascend. The projections back up that belief. (And let’s be honest -- pitching in the AL Central probably won’t hurt.)
-- Andrew Simon

-- RHP, Rays
2019 ERA: 1.78 / ‘20 ERA: 4.08

Glasnow is a high-variance pick. His stuff (a 97-100 mph, high-spin, super-extension fastball, plus a spike curve that’s almost impossible when Glasnow locates it) is world-class, and the slider Glasnow is toying with could make it even better. All those weapons are balanced with question marks, however; Glasnow has never pitched even 115 innings in any season, and his struggles as a Pirate to keep all the limbs from his 6-foot-8 frame aligned cropped back up last year.

I thought Glasnow had turned the corner for good entering 2020, and now I’m wondering if I’ll be thinking that in perpetuity -- until it’s too late. But when everything is clicking, Glasnow is as dominant as anyone. Here’s betting he (finally) puts it all together.
-- Matt Kelly


-- RHP, Reds
2019 ERA: 3.40 / ‘20 ERA: 3.21

Castillo is admittedly a personal favorite, but he has a strong statistical case, too, based on a combination I love: his elite ability to rack up both K’s and ground balls. As we detailed when his name was swirling in January trade rumors, Castillo and Stephen Strasburg are the only regular starters with both a 30-plus percent whiff rate and 50-plus percent grounder rate across the last two seasons (and, of course, Strasburg barely pitched in 2020). Castillo’s changeup has been one of MLB’s most valuable pitches in that span, played up even more thanks to his two-pronged, high-90s heat (four- and two-seam) and the occasional slider backing it up. It’s no secret that the changeup will run to the lower quadrant on Castillo’s arm side, and yet hitters still haven’t touched it. That’s a sign of some sustainable dominance.

Last year, Trevor Bauer became the first Red to win a league ERA title since World War II, and he made only five starts at home. Obviously that crown is a tall task for anyone pitching half their games at Great American Ball Park. But that will only make it that much sweeter if Castillo proves me right.
-- Matt Kelly

-- RHP, Mets
2019 ERA: 2.43 / ‘20 ERA: 2.38

If you want a pick that goes out on a limb, well, sorry. deGrom is an ace at the top of his game, and there is no reason to think he won’t dominate again in 2020, when you consider that he keeps adding velocity in an unprecedented fashion while sharpening two devastating secondary pitches. It’s not hard to see why batters missed on nearly 41% of their swings against him in 2020.

Over the past three seasons, deGrom has finished first, second and seventh in the Majors in ERA, and his 2.10 mark over that span is tops in the league. deGrom has backed that up by ranking in at least the 93rd percentile of Statcast’s expected ERA metric (xERA) in each year. He should be a strong contender for his third Cy Young Award in 2021.
-- Andrew Simon

-- RHP, Nationals
2019 ERA: 2.92 / ‘20 ERA: 3.74

Sure, Scherzer will turn 37 years old in July and he is coming off his worst season (ERA-wise) since 2012, but I'm not ready to bet against him just yet. Along with the unusual circumstances surrounding the 2020 campaign, Scherzer also departed his third start of the season after just one inning with a strained right hamstring. Though he ultimately made his next start, it's hard to put a lot of stock in any 12-start sample size, let alone one that may have been impacted by an injury.

Prior to last season, Scherzer had won three Cy Young Awards in the last seven seasons -- and he finished in the Top 5 in voting in each of the other four years. Even factoring in last year's "struggles," Scherzer's 2.80 ERA since 2015 is the third lowest in the Majors, behind only Kershaw (2.37) and deGrom (2.60). Along with the three Cy Young Awards, Scherzer has taken home three strikeout titles and he's led his league in wins four times, complete games three times and innings pitched twice -- but he's somehow never won an ERA title. Don't be surprised if he's on a mission to add that to his resume in 2021.
-- Paul Casella

-- RHP, Padres
2019 ERA: 3.98 / ‘20 ERA: 2.01

If you thought Darvish’s best was behind him when he turned in a pedestrian 3.98 ERA for the Cubs in 2019, he might have heard about it, because he was runner-up in NL Cy Young Award voting in ’20. What changed? What made him look like the Darvish of 2012-14 with the Rangers -- or maybe even better? In short, beginning in the second half of the ’19 season, he started throwing his four-seamer harder, revamped his cutter and expanded his already vast repertoire of breaking pitches. His control improved dramatically and, suddenly, he was almost unhittable, much like when he debuted in the Majors nine years ago.

Yes, he’s entering his age-34 season, but one thing that never wavered throughout Darvish’s struggles in recent years was his strikeout-per-nine ratio, which was 11.4 from 2018-19 (it’s 11.1 for his career). Add his revived command and expansion of baffling breaking balls, and you’ve got yourself a guy who may finally win a Cy Young Award after two runner-up finishes thus far in his career.
-- Manny Randhawa

-- RHP, Brewers
2019 ERA: 3.62 / ‘20 ERA: 3.05

Woodruff continues to fly under the radar in Milwaukee, but the hard-throwing right-hander is coming off a big 2020 in which he registered a 3.05 ERA that was backed up by his 0.99 WHIP and 11.1 K/9. Woodruff’s power stuff is headlined by a four-seamer that sits at 95-96, a heavy sinker, a darting slider and an improving changeup.

The 28-year-old primarily uses his slider to get swings and misses (46.2% whiff rate last year), while his sinker (thrown 30.6% of the time) helps induce weak contact, as his 51.1% ground-ball rate indicates. All those whiffs and worm-burners led to a 3.07 xERA, which ranked sixth among starting pitchers in ’20.

On top of that, Woodruff will benefit from the Brewers adding second baseman Kolten Wong and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. this offseason, not to mention getting center fielder Lorenzo Cain back after he sat out last year. Plus, when Woodruff does permit batters to reach base late in games, that Josh Hader and Devin Williams-led bullpen, which also features Brent Suter and Freddy Peralta, should help limit the damage -- and keep his ERA low.
-- Jason Catania