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Best MLB Players of the 2010s: Starting Pitcher

by Chris Brown

With the 2010s in the rearview mirror, 110 Sports is taking a look back at the best MLB players of the last decade at each position. We’ve gone through all the hitting positions, so now it’s time to shift gears to starting pitchers. 

The way teams handle starting pitchers has changed significantly in the last 10 years. In 2010, 45 different pitchers threw 200+ innings. Last year, that number was 15. In recent seasons, largely only proven, durable arms get the opportunity to go deep into games with regularity. It’s led to a good amount of separation between the stars at the position and those who are a step below. Let’s count down the top 10 starting pitchers who defined the 2010s, starting with a few honorable mentions:

Honorable Mentions

Stephen Strasburg | WSH 2010-19

The lifelong National has undoubtedly been one of the best pitchers in the National League when healthy, but has pitched 200+ innings only twice in his big league career due to various injuries. In 2014, Strasburg led the NL with 242 strikeouts and 34 starts, pitching 215 innings with a 3.14 ERA. His record was somehow only 14-11, and he finished ninth in Cy Young balloting. Strasburg’s best season may have been his most recent, when in 2019 he tossed 209 frames, won a league-best 18 games, tallied a career-high 251 strikeouts and registered a 3.32 ERA for the World Series champions.

Madison Bumgarner | SF 2010-19

I’ve seen Bumgarner as high as fourth or fifth on similar lists, with one major reason given: postseason success. The best October pitcher of the last decade, Bumgarner threw just over 100 innings in the postseason in the 2010s, registering a 2.11 ERA and 0.90 WHIP with an 8-3 record. He carried the Giants to World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014, when he was named series MVP. There’s no doubting the postseason success, but the overall numbers just don’t measure up to others. Bumgarner is outside the top 10 in WAR, games started and ERA among qualified starters over the last 10 years. He’s also never finished in the top three in NL Cy Young voting.

Cole Hamels | PHI 2010-15, TEX 2015-18, CHC 2018-19

It feels wrong leaving the player with the fourth-highest WAR at the position of the 2010s outside the top 10, but durability is really the only thing in Hamels’ favor compared to the other top starters of the decade. He never led the league in any major statistical category in the last 10 years and finished top five in Cy Young balloting only once. Make no mistake, though, Hamels was certainly one of the top lefties in baseball in the early portion of the decade and made 30 starts with 190+ innings in eight of the first nine years of the 2010s. Hamels is sixth in games started and 11th in wins for the decade.

Jon Lester | BOS 2010-14, OAK 2014, CHC 2015-19

Perhaps the hardest pitcher to leave outside the top 10, Lester was never regarded as the top pitcher in the game in the 2010s, but was never far off, finishing top five in Cy Young balloting three times. He was a three-time All-Star with the Red Sox and helped lead the Cubs to their first championship since 1908. The rate stats and ceiling don’t quite measure up to others, but Lester pitched 180+ innings each season from 2010-18 and trailed only Justin Verlander in starts made in the decade.

Top 10

10. Adam Wainwright | STL 2010, 2012-19

Every one of the honorable mentions above has been a top-tier pitcher more recently than Wainwright, so how come the Cardinals’ hurler makes the top 10 while the others fall short? The simple answer: Wainwright was better than all of them at his peak. He finished runner up in NL Cy Young voting in 2010 and 2013 (behind Roy Halladay and Clayton Kershaw, respectively) and third in 2014. He led the NL in wins with 19 in 2013, and registered 20 wins in 2010 and 2014, when he pitched 227 innings with a 2.38 ERA and tallied five complete games and an MLB-leading three shutouts.

Even as Wainwright’s skills have dropped off significantly in recent years, he’s remained a solid contributor for the redbirds. In the last five years, he’s posted a 43-29 record despite generally poor rate stats. And despite missing nearly three seasons in the 2010s due to injuries, Wainwright registered seven double-digit win campaigns. He’s also remarkably third in complete games (19) in the decade behind only Kershaw and Justin Verlander and second in shutouts (10) behind only Kershaw. The durability as an elite arm wasn’t there, but there were few better in baseball than Wainwright at his best.

9. Félix Hernández | SEA 2010-19

The rationale for Hernandez in the top 10 over the likes of Lester, Hamels, and others is the same as for Wainwright. Durability is important, but so too is a player’s ceiling, and few had one in the decade higher than King Felix. It’s easy to forget just how incredible Hernandez was the first half of the 2010s because of how bad he’s been the last handful of years. He was the first AL Cy Young Award winner of the decade despite the fact that the Mariners only notched 13 wins for him in 2010. Hernandez led baseball with a 2.27 ERA, led the AL with nearly 250 innings pitched, tallied six complete games and finished 16th in MVP balloting as well.

Over the next five years, King Felix was named an All-Star five times, finished top eight in Cy Young balloting four times and finished top 25 in MVP voting three times. For the decade, Hernandez is tied for third in baseball in shutouts and tied for fourth in complete games. And despite his rapid decline in recent years into one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2018 and 2019, Hernandez is ninth in WAR among pitchers in the 2010s. It’s really a shame King Felix never had the opportunity for a signature postseason moment with Seattle.

8. Jacob deGrom | NYM 2014-19

deGrom is the only player on this list to have not pitched in at least nine seasons in the 2010s. But what he’s done in his sixth major league seasons is nothing short of incredible. A quick year-by-year rundown: Rookie of the Year, seventh in Cy Young voting, a slightly down year that still featured a 3.04 ERA in 148 innings, eighth in Cy Young voting, Cy Young, Cy Young. In 2018, he led baseball with 1.70 ERA in 217 innings, and inexplicably only won 10 games. 

Despite not pitching in the big leagues until 2014, deGrom is eighth in WAR among starters for the decade, and his ERA of 2.62 in the 2010s trails only Clayton Kershaw and Jose Fernandez among starting pitchers. In 2020, deGrom will attempt to achieve something only two pitchers in MLB history ever have: win three Cy Young awards in a row. At 32 years old, deGrom isn’t young, but among those in the top 10 he’s undoubtedly one of the best bets to be on a list like this for the next decade.

7. David Price | TB 2010-2014, DET 2014-15, TOR 2015, BOS 2016-19

Price hasn’t been an elite pitcher in several years, but for the first half of the 2010s, there were few better starters in baseball. From 2010-15, Price posted a cumulative 2.97 ERA over roughly 1,300 innings, striking out close to a batter an inning and posting a 94-49 record. He won the Cy Young award in 2012, tallying an AL-best 20 wins and posting a league-best 2.56 ERA. Also in that six-year stretch, Price was an All-Star five times and finished top 10 in Cy Young balloting three additional seasons. 

And while his production decreased in the past four seasons during his time in Boston, unlike pitchers such as Hernandez and Wainwright, Price has remained a very effective pitcher later in his career despite some injury-shortened campaigns. In 2016, Price led baseball with 230 innings pitched while posting a still serviceable 3.99 ERA. Over the last three seasons, he only averaged 119 innings per season but has posted a 3.75 ERA. In 2018, Price captured a World Series title with the Red Sox in his 11th major league season. For the decade, Price ranks sixth in wins, seventh in WAR and eighth in strikeouts among all pitchers. You could certainly make the case he actually belongs a few spots higher.

6. Corey Kluber | CLE 2011-19

Kluber’s cumulative numbers for the decade don’t quite measure up to others on this list, but his peak in the 2010s was as great as almost anyone. The longtime Indian, now with the Rangers, is one of just five pitchers to win multiple Cy Young awards in the decade, along with deGrom and this list’s top three players. His first such award came in 2014, when Kluber won a league-best 18 games, posting a 2.44 ERA and striking out over 10 batters per nine innings over 34 starts. Three years later, Kluber led all of baseball in wins (18), ERA (2.25) and WHIP (0.869), finishing first in balloting again.

In a five-year period from 2014-18, the Indians’ ace finished top three in Cy Young voting four times. Four times. He posted a 2.85 ERA and struck out over 1,200 batters in roughly 1,100 innings, posting an exceptional 1.016 WHIP. Kluber is often overlooked in discussions of the best pitchers of the past decade, but his dominance certainly merritts real recognition. “Klubot” was the glue that held together a strong Cleveland rotation during a stretch of significant team success.

5. Zack Greinke | KC 2010, MIL 2011-12, LAA 2012, LAD 2013-15, ARI 2016-19, HOU 2019

Few pitchers were as durable in the 2010s as Greinke, who tallied more than 170 innings in all but one season of the decade. While his only career Cy Young award came in 2009, Greinke finished top 10 in balloting four times in a five-year span from 2013-16. Greinke’s best year was undoubtedly 2015, when in his final season with the Dodgers he posted a truly sensational 1.66 ERA and 0.844 WHIP in 222 ⅔ frames. That ERA was the lowest for a pitcher since Greg Maddux in the mid-1990s.  Greinke has remained a top tier starter into his mid-30s, pitching over 200 innings and posting ERAs below 3.25 in each of the last three seasons.

While it’s not a huge needle-mover, it should also be noted that Greinke has been an outstanding fielder in his career, winning Gold Gloves for six consecutive seasons to end the 2010s. The main criticism of Greinke is that with the exception of a few seasons, he was rarely considered one of the top two or three starters in the game. But he was very consistently right there in the group right below that, and his cumulative numbers for the decade speak for themselves: Roughly 2,000 innings, a 3.18 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 155-70 record. Greinke is five in strikeouts and fourth in both starts and wins in the 2010s.

4. Chris Sale | CHW 2010-16, BOS 2017-19

Major League Baseball’s all-time leader in strikeout/walk ratio was one of the most feared southpaws of the decade. Sale didn’t transition into the rotation until 2012 and didn’t surpass 160 innings in each of the last two seasons due to injury, but still ranks fourth in strikeouts for the decade behind only the three players still ahead. In fact, Sale was the only American League pitcher to strike out 200+ batters in seven seasons during the 2010s.

He never won a Cy Young award, but Sale finished top six in voting for seven (!) years in a row from 2012-18, also making the AL All-Star team each year. In 2017, Sale posted a 2.90 ERA over an MLB-leading 214 ⅓ innings, striking out an MLB-leading 308 batters with an MLB-leading 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Sale’s WAR for the decade was fifth among all pitchers. Since he’s pitched in 10 major league seasons, it’s easy to forget Sale is just 31 years old, the youngest of any pitcher on this list. If he can rebound from a rough 2019 in his return from Tommy John surgery next year, Sale could be only a few strong years away from a no-doubt Hall-of-Fame resumé.

3. Justin Verlander | DET 2010-17, HOU 2017-19

Verlander’s career has been fascinating. He was already one of the best pitchers in baseball when the 2010s began, but reached another level in 2011, leading baseball in wins (24), innings pitched (251), WHIP (0.920) and strikeouts (250) while posting a league-best 2.40 ERA. Verlander not only won the AL Cy Young award that season, but also AL MVP, one of just two times in the decade a pitcher in baseball captured an MVP award. Verlander finished second in Cy Young voting the next season following another sensational season, but then regressed notably in the next few years, posting a 3.99 ERA between 2013 and 2014 and missing a chunk of 2015 due to injury.

Approaching his mid-30s, it looked like Verlander was on a common decline path. Then something incredible happened. Verlander not only stopped the downward trend, he reversed it. He finished second in Cy Young balloting in 2016 and fifth in 2017, pitching 200+ innings with low-to-mid 3’s ERAs in both seasons. Then, in his age 35 and 36 seasons, Verlander was the best pitcher in baseball with the Astros. 2018: 34 starts, 214 innings, 2.52 ERA, 290 strikeouts, 0.902 WHIP, second in Cy Young voting. 2019: 34 starts, 223 innings, 2.58 ERA, 300 strikeouts, 0.803 WHIP, first in Cy Young voting. For the decade, Verlander is second in both WAR and wins. He also captured a World Series title with the Astros in 2018 in his 14th big league season. His late-career resurgence has made Verlander a strong contender for a spot in Cooperstown.

2. Max Scherzer | DET 2010-14, WSH 2015-19

While most similar lists have the same top three starters, a good portion have Verlander ahead of Scherzer. There’s certainly a compelling argument for that. Verlander pitched more innings in the decade and has a very slight edge in ERA. But Scherzer certainly holds the edge in consistency, and was basically just as great at his best. Over the last seven years, Scherzer has been named an All-Star seven times and finished top five in Cy Young balloting seven times. That’s right. Every single year. He and the No. 1 pitcher are the only players to win three Cy Young awards in the 2010s. 

Here’s a Scherzer fun fact: The right-hander has four seasons with 250+ strikeouts and a WHIP under 1.000. That’s more than any other pitcher in MLB history. Verlander was already an elite option earlier in the 2010s while Scherzer was still establishing himself as a star, but aside from the final player on this list, there’s no beating the extended stretch of dominance Scherzer experienced in the decade. From 2013-19, Scherzer’s average season was a 2.82 ERA, 17 wins, 212 innings, 266 strikeouts and a 0.981 WHIP.

1. Clayton Kershaw | LAD 2010-19

This is probably about as much of a surprise as Mike Trout coming in first in center field. A future Hall-of-Famer, Kershaw will go down as one of the best pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball. The lefty’s career 2.44 ERA is the lowest among starters in MLB history in the live-ball era (with the minimum of 1,000 innings pitched). There’s so much black ink (indicating league or MLB leader) on Kershaw’s Baseball Reference page that it’s hard to even know where to start. From 2011-14, he led baseball in ERA every single year, posting a cumulative 2.11 mark and winning three Cy Young awards and an MVP award. In fact, Kershaw finished top five in Cy Young balloting for seven years straight from 2011-17. 

Even as he’s dealt with injuries in recent seasons which have limited him to less than 180 innings for four straight years, Kershaw has remained highly productive, posting a 2.69 ERA with a 43-14 record from 2017-19. For the decade, Kershaw leads baseball in WAR, complete games and shutouts and is first among starters in ERA. The only major thing missing from his resumé: a World Series title.

Catch up on 110 Sports’ entire series looking back at the best MLB players at each position of the last decade here.

Photos by Roger DeWitt / Flickr (Verlander), Barbara Moore / Flickr (Kershaw), All-Pro Reels / Flickr (Scherzer)

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