As the 2010s evolved, we saw the role of the starting pitcher whittled down to a shell of what it once was. The complete game became an endangered species, bullpens were prioritized, and the opener strategy was introduced. It made you wonder if we were steamrolling toward a situation in which the traditional rotation, as we knew it, would be eradicated altogether.
Then 2019 happened. Bullpens across the game blew up (relievers’ collective 4.43 ERA was the highest in 19 years and the 11th highest in history), and it was a Nationals club that largely revolved around its rotation that claimed the World Series crown. It was a rotation revival, of sorts.
In this shortened 2020 season, starters, at large, will not be fully up to speed by Opening Day. But the standings in this sprint to the finish won’t be forgiving to teams with rotation flaws that overtax the ‘pen.
So to be deep in the rotation is to be deep where it matters most. Following on the heels of Monday’s list of the top 10 lineups in MLB, here are the top 10 rotations.
Note that one stat frequently cited in this piece is ERA+, which normalizes a player’s ERA across the Majors while accounting for ballparks pitched in and opponents faced. A league-average ERA+ is 100, so 120 is 20 percent better than league average and 80 is 20 percent worse. You can learn more about this stat and others in my book, “A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics.”
The 102 1/3 innings Washington got from its great rotation last October were the most by a World Series champion in a single postseason since the D-backs’ 120 1/3 innings in 2001. In ordinary circumstances, a group that has taken on that kind of workload one year is a source of concern the next. But the shortened schedule and the rest afforded the Nats’ arms seemingly alters that dynamic.
Scherzer (157), Corbin (141) and Strasburg (138) all ranked in the top 15 among qualified pitchers in ERA+ last season, with 100, again, being MLB average. Sánchez (119) was tied for 25th. The Nats’ rotation fades into greater uncertainty from there (Joe Ross elected not to play in 2020), but that’s a fearsome foursome to get you started.
The team that first unleashed the opener upon the world might no longer have much of a need for that concept. This rotation has as much potential as any in MLB.
Morton, as advertised, brought veteran credibility to this staff in 2019 -- and finished third in AL Cy Young Award voting, to boot. Snell is the 2018 AL Cy Young winner. Glasnow is listed as the No. 3, for now, but has clear ace potential. Forearm tightness limited him in 2019, but he had a ridiculous 1.78 ERA, 250 ERA+ and 0.89 WHIP in 60 2/3 innings. Yarbrough has quietly posted a respectable 106 ERA+ while mostly following the opener the past two years, and now he’s likely to serve as a more traditional starter. Brendan McKay (No. 15 overall on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects) could also be in the mix.
The Reds wasted what was, surprisingly, one of the better starting staffs in MLB last season, as both Gray and Castillo’s emergence were shrouded by an anemic offense. Cincinnati spent all winter trying to boost the bats, but not before proactively adding Bauer at last summer’s Trade Deadline and bringing in Miley via free agency to add a lefty option with another veteran touch.
Castillo, whose changeup is not safe for work, might be this Cy Young-less franchise’s best shot at the award, if he can limit the walks. But the real key to this staff will be Gray maintaining what he did in 2019 (2.87 ERA, 1.08 WHIP) and Bauer shaking off a shaky start to his Cincy tenure and returning to his 2018 form (2.21 ERA, 1.09 WHIP). DeSclafani, in a contract year, is not to be ignored, as he had a solid 117 ERA+ in 166 2/3 innings last year.
To trade away Bauer and Corey Kluber in the span of five months last year and still make this list is a testament to the pitching factory the Indians have put together. They had some bumps and bruises in Spring Training Version 1.0 -- Clevinger had left knee surgery and Carrasco had right elbow inflammation -- but are back up and running now.
Clevinger’s 152 ERA+ over the past three seasons is the fifth-best among those with at least 400 innings pitched, and Bieber’s ceiling might be even higher. Plesac (124 ERA+ in 115 2/3 innings in 2019) and Aaron Civale (202 ERA+ in 57 2/3 innings) flourished in unexpected opportunities last year, and the Indians have more depth options (most notably, Civale) on their 60-man list.
The Dodgers lost a major piece of their rotation when Hyun-Jin Ryu departed in free agency after a career year, and David Price has elected not to play in 2020. But this team has depth everywhere, the rotation included. In fact, FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement projections rate Los Angeles as the fourth-best starting set in MLB.
Buehler is a stud (135 ERA+ in 319 2/3 innings over the last two seasons) who might be ready to figure prominently in the NL Cy Young Award conversation. Kershaw is not the ace among aces he once was, but he still offers elite command and great results (137 ERA+ in 2019). Urías might be ready to make the leap, as he finally has a chance to put his elite, contact-limiting stuff to use in a rotation role. And though Dustin May (No. 23 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100) is not yet listed here, the redheaded right-hander with the extraordinary cutter is coming soon to a big league mound near you.
Losing Luis Severino for 2020 is a big deal. Of course, so is adding Cole, who is probably the odds-on AL Cy Young Award favorite. And the delay has allowed Paxton to potentially be ready for the start of the season despite February back surgery.
Paxton (116 ERA+ in 150 2/3 innings) and Tanaka (100 ERA+ in 182 innings), who suffered a mild concussion when he was struck by a comebacker in Summer Camp, are both in a contract year. Happ is capable of league-average output, at the least, so there is a solid base beyond Cole. Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt, both of whom are on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list (No. 92 and No. 88, respectively), are intriguing depth options. Cole no longer has the bona fide co-ace he did in Houston, but he obviously raises the floor for this group a great deal even with Severino on the shelf.
Texas looked around at the way starting pitching returned to prominence in the postseason last year and said, “We want some of that.” The Rangers bought low on Kluber after an injury-riddled 2019 that limited him to seven starts, bought in on the potential of Gibson’s three-pitch mix a year removed from him posting a 3.62 ERA and 118 ERA+ in 196 2/3 innings in Minnesota in 2018 and landed Lyles on the heels of him logging a 2.45 ERA in 58 2/3 innings after a mid-2019 trade from Pittsburgh to Milwaukee.
Add all of that to the oddly near-identical output the Rangers got from Minor (3.59 ERA, 144 ERA+ in 208 1/3 innings) and Lynn (3.67 ERA, 141 ERA+ in 208 1/3 innings), and you have the seeds of what could be a top-flight starting five, with former top prospect Kolby Allard an important depth piece.
If this rotation were just two-time-reigning NL Cy Young Award winner deGrom and then four empty Shake Shack bags, it might still merit a mention on this list. But, of course, the Mets have potential beyond deGrom, even with Noah Syndergaard on the shelf following Tommy John surgery.
Stroman saw his strikeout rate increase after the move to the Mets last summer, but he’s still ultimately a sinkerballer dependent on his defense. Bottom line is he’s capable of giving the Mets quality innings every fifth day. Porcello has a durable track record, and while he might never again be as good as he was in his AL Cy Young Award season in Boston in 2016, he’s a quality No. 3. Matz and offseason acquisition Wacha are the wild cards who will determine whether the Mets have a great rotation in 2020 or merely a good one.
The Astros belong in the top 10. However, their position is possibly more precarious than some others on this list because the rotation is fronted by a 37-year-old Verlander (coming off groin surgery and a lat issue) and a 36-year-old Greinke, to go along with real questions about depth should anything go south. McCullers is coming back from Tommy John surgery, top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley experienced shoulder fatigue and had a 7.99 ERA in the Minors last year, and it’s impossible to know if anyone from a group featuring Cionel Perez, Framber Valdez and Rogelio Armenteros will break out.
But if Verlander and Greinke perform to their norms, McCullers returns to form, and Urquidy and James reach their potentials, this is still a very stout group.
Flaherty emerged as one of the most electric starters in baseball last season, with a 2.75 ERA and NL-best 0.97 WHIP in 196 1/3 innings, and an absurd 0.91 ERA in the season’s second half. Hudson had a 3.35 ERA and 128 ERA+ in 33 appearances and might be on the cusp of putting it all together, as he had 14 starts in which he allowed two or fewer earned runs in six or more innings. League-average output from Wainwright again in 2020 is really all the Cards need with so much excellence elsewhere.
Though Mikolas’ right flexor tendon strain yanked him out of availability for the originally scheduled Opening Day, he’s back in the mix. Martínez served as the closer last year and could return to the ‘pen. Other options for that spot include Kwang Hyun Kim, a veteran pitcher signed from Korea, who was having a strong spring displaying a deep pitch mix and poise before the shutdown. Daniel Ponce de Leon is another intriguing rotation option. Lots of depth here.
Depending on what you prioritize -- upside, experience, durability, etc. -- there are a number of teams who could mount an argument for this list either now or by year’s end.
The A’s, Braves and Padres, for instance, have as much upside as anybody, with excellent young arms aplenty -- from Jesús Luzardo and A.J. Puk in Oakland to Max Fried and 2019 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Mike Soroka in Atlanta to Chris Paddack and MacKenzie Gore in San Diego. It can be difficult to project what that youth will deliver moving forward, but the ceiling for those groups is high. Oakland actually had the eighth-best starters’ ERA in MLB in 2019, so it might have the strongest argument to be in the top 10 already.
The D-backs added a ton of experience via Madison Bumgarner to a group in which Zac Gallen and Luke Weaver shined in small samples last year. The Phillies have a potentially dynamic 1-2 punch up top with Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. Lastly, the Cubs’ group doesn’t have age on its side but does still possess a lot of pedigree.