Top 10 starting pitchers of the decade

At a position that changed dramatically in 10 years, these are the best starters

December 3rd, 2019

Will Leitch took an in-depth look at the game in 2019 with a series exploring Major League Baseball's Data Decade. From the best World Series, to the best starting pitchers and more, Leitch ranked, dissected and celebrated all the things we loved most about the Great American Pastime during the past 10 years.

No position has changed more in the last decade, and definitely in the last 30 years, than that of starting pitcher. We once lionized starters as larger than life, swaggering stoppers, men’s men who finished what they started, who put their whole teams on their back. Now? Now we have them on constant pitch counts, we pull them when they have no-hitters and sometimes we don’t even let them start at all -- maybe they can come in after the “opener.” Who knows what a “best starting pitchers of the decade” list will look like in 2029? Will it even be possible?

Here are 10 best starters of the decade ... maybe the last cowboys standing.

1. Clayton Kershaw (LAD 2010-19)
Kershaw won his first National League Cy Young Award at the age of 23, in 2011; he has won two more since then, finished in the top five in NL Cy Young Award voting seven consecutive years and was the last pitcher to win an MVP Award, in 2014. He spent most of this decade as the only pitcher you ever picked in the first round of your fantasy draft. He had an ERA under 1.83 three times. His career ERA (2.41) is just barely higher than Justin Verlander’s best season (2.40). He’s Clayton Kershaw. Your grandchildren will ask what it was like to see him.

2. Justin Verlander (DET 2010-17, HOU 2017-19)
Verlander was already a terrific pitcher when the decade began -- he’d led the Majors in wins once, strikeouts once and ... losses once -- but it wasn’t until the decade turned, at the age of 27, that he became his best self. His pinnacle year was obviously 2011, winning his first Cy Young Award and an MVP Award, but perhaps the most impressive thing about Verlander is how incredible he has been since being traded to Houston in August 2017. He has a 2.46 ERA with Houston, at the ages of 34-36, which is lower than he had in all but one season in Detroit. Verlander also got himself a World Series ring, another Cy Young Award and, quite possibly, a spot in Cooperstown.

3. Max Scherzer (DET 2010-14, WAS 2015-19)
Did you forget that Scherzer started his career in Arizona? We totally forgot that. (At least the D-backs got Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson out of it.) It took Scherzer a while to get going, but once he figured it out, in 2013, he became the preeminent pitcher of his age, perfectly emblematic of the strike ‘em out era. He is titanically durable, and his strikeout rate has essentially increased every year. He also may the most intimidating pitcher on the mound since Bob Gibson.

4. Chris Sale (CHW 2010-16, BOS 2017-19)
Sale was special from the very first time he stepped on the mound on the South Side of Chicago, but it is worth remembering that he did not initially do so as a starter. He was a reliever from 2010-11, even notching 12 saves those years. When the White Sox finally let Sale start in 2012, he simply rattled off seven consecutive All-Star seasons, finishing in the top six in Cy Young Award voting all seven years ... but somehow never won one. The trade to Boston gave him his first World Series ring -- heck, it gave him his first playoff games -- and it’s worth noting that for all his supposed struggles in 2019, he still has the second-highest K/9 rate of his career. Sale's compilation numbers may make a Hall of Fame case difficult, but then again, he’s still somehow only 30 years old. Just don’t ask him to wear those specific White Sox throwbacks ever again.

5. Madison Bumgarner (SFG 2010-19)
Career numbers-wise, Bumgarner might not necessarily quite match up to some of the biggest names on this list: He’s not even in the top 10 in WAR, or games started, or ERA. But come on. Bumgarner has been the centerpiece of three Giants World Series winners, and a couple of them he essentially won them the title by himself. When you look back at this decade, and you think of the postseason, Bumgarner is the first pitcher that comes into your mind. The Giants didn’t dare trade him at the Deadline. He is the Giants.

6. Cole Hamels (PHI 2010-15, TEX 2015-18, CHC 2018-19)
Hamels was a prodigy for so long in Philadelphia that he still somehow seems younger than he is; he was already 26 when this decade began. He’d already won a World Series MVP by that point, but he emerged from the shadow of Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee as the decade went on, putting up consistent top-shelf numbers and 30-plus starts nearly every year. Hamels, like many other pitchers on this list, has somehow gotten better as he has hit his mid-30s; his 2.64 ERA with Chicago is nearly a full run better than what he put up for Philadelphia. And his hair still looks great!

7. Zack Greinke (KCR 2010, MIL 2011-12, LAA 2012, LAD 2013-15, ARZ 2016-19, HOU 2019)
It’s really sort of insane that a pitcher as fantastic as Greinke has traveled around as much as he has, particularly when he’s so beloved by every team and fan base he has pitched for. He won the American League Cy Young Award in 2009 and then had the worst year of his career in '10 in his final season with Kansas City. After that, though, Greinke has been nails everywhere he has been, including his unreal season with the Dodgers in 2015, when he put up a 1.66 ERA, won 19 games and still somehow finished second in NL Cy Young Award voting. Yet again, he’s a pitcher who is still outstanding at the end of the decade, and he was the best player traded at the 2019 Deadline, with the Astros (who will surely somehow find a way to make him even better) giving away a trove of prospects for him. Greinke is even a five-time Gold Glove Award winner and a lifetime .224 hitter to boot.

8. David Price (TBR 2010-14, DET 2014-15, TOR 2015, BOS 2016-19)
Price was so impossibly young and incredible as a 22-year-old for that AL championship Rays team that his whole career has almost felt like a disappointment compared to the promise of then. But make no mistake: He’s been consistently one of the top pitchers of the decade, leading the AL in ERA twice, games started three times and strikeouts once. Price's contract with the Red Sox made him a target, but it shouldn’t have: He’s been more than solid with them and, oh yes, helped them win a World Series. He also has pitched in 18 postseason games with four teams this decade.

9. Jacob deGrom (NYM 2014-19)
Felix Hernandez dominated the first half of the decade, but deGrom dominated the second half, which pushes him on this list (he wasn’t on it when we did this back in August). DeGrom won his second NL Cy Young Award in 2019 and has been the best thing the Mets have had going all decade. According to bWAR, he’s already the sixth-best Met in their history. The question is whether he’ll just be known for how little the Mets supported him during his peak.

10. Jon Lester (BOS 2010-14, OAK 2014, CHC 2015-19)
Lester had already won a World Series (and overcome cancer!) when this decade began, but he secured his legend -- and established himself as as grizzled a vet as you’ll find in the sport -- with what came afterward. He made three All-Star teams with the Red Sox, was the center of a landscape-altering trade and then announced himself as the linchpin of what would end up being the biggest story of the decade’s second half when he signed with his old pal Theo Epstein and the Cubs. Lester was the ace of the Cubs team that won the World Series in 2016 -- the Cubs won the World Series! -- and that may end up eclipsing everything he’s ever done. He may have a couple more years left with the Cubs. Perhaps Lester will go get them another one.

Honorable mentions: Felix Hernandez, Jake Arrieta, Johnny Cueto, R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, Corey Kluber, CC Sabathia, Stephen Strasburg, Adam Wainwright.