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An early peek at 2020 Top Pitchers

Digging DeepWith the MLB trade deadline in our rearview mirror, and most league’s trade deadlines either passed or near, we should start thinking about next year and beyond – especially if we need to make keeper decisions. Using projections, 2019 performance, and Stat Cast data, we’ve attempted to list the top 30 Starting Pitchers for 2020. Note that this is a redraft list only – only their expected performance for 2020 is considered.

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1. Max Scherzer

What can I say? Another dominant season for Max. The only caveat is this back issue that keeps flaring up. Even if I knock him down to 180 IP, he is still #1.

2. Gerrit Cole

The former #1 draft pick is dominating again for the Astros. The problem is he might not be slinging in Houston in 2020 (which would ding his Wins a bit). I assume that the stuff he learned in Houston about how to pitch will be mostly retained. Take him with confidence.

3. Justin Verlander

The ageless one just rolls on. Another great season (the player providing the most value in 2019 so far). The only hiccup is that he’s given up a lot of home runs. He’s locked up in Houston so you can count on the wins.

4. Jacob DeGrom

2018’s Cy Young winner quietly is putting up another great season with a sub 3 ERA and FIP and a top 6 xwOBA (SPs with minimum 100 PAs). As solid as they come.

5. Chris Sale

Perhaps the first divisive ranking – the inconsistent Red Sox ‘ace’ has put up a 4.40 ERA and a 6-11 record. Well, he actually has put up a 1.07 WHIP and his 3.40 FIP, 3.00 SIERA, and K-BB% are all better than Verlander’s. What’s the issue? Well, not sure to be honest. He has a 66.7% LOB% (which has been shown to have zero correlation from year to year) whereas league average is around 75%. So, let’s see…2 out of 3 base runners score (whereas it should be more like 3 out of 4)…and he averages 7 baserunners every 7 innings…that ERA of 4.40 should be “more like” 3.87. Maybe he’s hiding some sort of injury – but I would bet not, and buy him here.

6. Walker Buehler

The young Dodger starter will probably still defer the title of Los Angeles’ #1 starter in the playoffs to Kershaw again this year – but don’t be surprised if next year he owns that distinction. With the Dodgers, you never know what they’ll be doing with their starters, but so far this year he has a 1.00 WHIP, 3.08 ERA (FIP and SIERA pretty much the same) and a K-BB% of 24.9%. If there’s a knock on him, it’s that his arsenal indicators are not as dominant as last year (e.g. his SwStrk% is a pedestrian 12.3%) but, that’s really quibbling.

7. Blake Snell

From the top 5 we had a big drop and I’ve got last year’s AL Cy Young winner solidly in this second tier. Just like with Sale, his ERA is an unexpected 4.28, but the FIP and SIERA are both around 3.50. His xwOBA is top 5 and his ‘arsenal’ indicators (SwStrk%, O-Sw%, and Z-Con%) have all been elite this year). Because of the arm injury, I’m estimating 170 IP or so for 2020 (which still might be high) and even then, he’s #7.

8. Shane Bieber

Is he now the Cleveland ace? With Bauer being shipped within-State, Carrasco and Kluber fighting various health issues, and Civale and Plesac not quite ready for primetime, the answer seems to be yes. His calling card is his command (which manifests as low walks) but this year he’s also throwing it past hitters. xwOBA isn’t as convinced (as he’s not as dominant as the pitcher’s above him in this list) but if you’re limiting free passes, you’re putting yourself in a good position to succeed. All the projection systems see him running a 3.50 ERA for the rest of the season with a ~10 K9. That’s easily a top 10 SP in this environment. The AL Central is also a good division to pitch in.

9. Mike Clevinger

Wait, it’s Clevinger who is the Cleveland ace, isn’t it? He’s definitely putting in a good case. He started off 2019 like gangbusters but got felled by a back injury. He’s come back and despite some early hiccups, his fastball velocity is 97 mph (compared to 95 mph in 2018) and has often looked dominant (with an insane 12.7 K9). He’s only one year removed from a 200 IP season, so I’m not particularly concerned that he can’t handle a full season workload, recent injuries notwithstanding. Top 10 easily.

10. Stephen Strasburg

When did Strasburg become 31 years old? It seems like we’ve been waiting forever for him to finally put together his monster year. The bad news is that those days may be in the rearview mirror. The good news is that he’s actually been excellent for a long time and should easily reach 200 IP again (he threw 215 IP in 2014). His K9 is 10.5, his BB9 is 2.3, and his ERA/FIP/SIERA are all around 3.50. The Nationals should still be solid in 2020 (even though they may lose Rendon). Because of the injury risk, he probably has a lower floor than Bieber, but I think that assuming he gets 180 IP in 2020, he is comfortably above the next group of Starting Pitchers.

11. Patrick Corbin

Strasburg’s Washington rotation-mate comes in next. His 2019 season has been a little more uneven than last year’s breakout campaign, but he’s still been excellent so far. His xwOBA is a bit worse than we’d like, and his ‘arsenal’ skills are a bit middling, but he’s solid. If you took him a bit lower, I wouldn’t be offended…

12. Charlie Morton

The ageless Charlie Morton has not missed a beat with the Rays this year, actually improving his K9 and BB9 (and ERA) in the tougher American League East. He should probably hit 190-200 IP (plus playoffs??) too. With his advanced age – and only recent success (though it’s actually been 3 years now) – there could be a cliff-dive. I just don’t think it’ll be next year.

13. Luis Castillo

The Reds made some big moves at the trade deadline and have put together an interesting staff for 2020 – headed up by Castillo (and a couple other names you’ll see a little further down the list). The changeup is still elite (with a ~30% SwStrk%) but where he took the big step forward this year was against lefties (holding them to a 0.300 wOBA, compared to a 0.357 last year). Because of his 2.69 ERA (and youth), expect him to go earlier than here next year. Look at the 3.96 SIERA and feel a bit better about letting him go to your more aggressive redraft league-mates.

14. Jack Flaherty

The young Cardinal starter was taken as a borderline ace this year and he disappointed…until now where his last two months’ performance when he’s redeemed his owners. He’s brought his season statistics up to 1.10 WHIP, and 3.52 ERA (though with a FIP/SIERA of 3.90). I’m possibly being a bit conservative with him here at 14 – and wouldn’t be surprised at all if takes the next step – but even at this ranking, he’s a #1 in a 15 team league.

15. Clayton Kershaw

Coming into 2019, the industry struggled on how to value Kershaw. The HOF’er had been battling some nagging injuries and had a three year average of only 160 IP. Well, this year, the stuff has taken a marginal step back – but he’s going to (probably) get to 180-190 IP plus playoffs and his pitchability has led to face value success. Perhaps we were premature. Well, to be honest, there are some areas of concern: he is 31 years old, his K9 is below his career average (as expected) and his SIERA is over a full point higher than his ERA. Not to mention, a deep playoff run by the Dodgers (which is probably going to happen) will put more wear and tear on his arm than most owners would probably like. Let’s hope he finally gets his ring – and take him at #15 next year.

16. Noah Syndergaard

Thor has had a strange 2019. His agent became his General Manager…and he was the subject of intense trade rumors. Well, he stayed put and despite a terrible season, he’s actually been…okay?? He has a WHIP of 1.21, a FIP of 3.49 (a better predictor of future ERA than ERA is), and an xwOBA in the top 10. I don’t know…does this rank seem low or high?

17. Chris Paddack

The sheriff has exceeded the already very high expectations put on him by the projection systems. Before the season, they aggressively projected a 1.15 WHIP with a 3.48 ERA (with a 9.4 K9) and this year he has thrown a 0.93 WHIP with a 3.26 ERA with a 9.4 K9. Pretty spot on. He will be capped this year (so he will finish with only about 140 IP) but he should be unleashed next year. One of my favorites.

18. Trevor Bauer

Baseball’s smartest pitcher has been smarting owner’s stat-sheets in 2019. Moving from the AL to the NL (but in a smaller park) is probably a wash so we don’t need to adjust expectations there too much. But he has taken a huge step back by almost every statistical measure as he has below average WHIP, ERA/FIP/SIERA, xwOBA, and arsenal metrics. What he does do is rack up the innings (and strikeouts) and tantalize us with his ceiling. Until then, the projections have him higher than the 2019 data would suggest (even though he’s really only had one good year out of six). What that might mean is that owners coming in to 2020 drafts see the 2019 numbers and get scared off. I value him here at #18 but he might fall lower than this.

19. Carlos Carrasco

We are all hoping that Cookie recovers from his leukemia diagnosis and return to the mound. All signs point that way, but we don’t know how effective he will be when he does. That makes him a tough guy to evaluate. The projection systems still love him but his 2019 has not been solid at all (ERA of 4.98). On the other hand, his SIERA is 3.49 and his K-BB% is 24.7%…but his xwOBA in the 65 innings he’s thrown so far has been terrible. Just like with some other pitchers further down the list, his outcomes are probably binary: either he’s a top 10 pitcher or you might end up having wasted a pick.

20. Corey Kluber

Another tough one to rank. He had a fluky injury (getting hit by a batted ball) but before being felled, he wasn’t exactly tearing it up this year. The projections still do not predict a significant decline despite being 33 years old. Never count out the Klubot – but by putting him here at #20, it kind of feels like I am.

21. Luis Severino

Shoulder issues aren’t a good thing to have – but the 25 year old Yankee threw 190+ IP the last two seasons (with a 10+ K9). That’s pretty undeniable. Because of the nature of the injury (and the memory that he tailed off considerably at the end of last year), I’ve dinged him pretty substantially (using 140 IP as his predicted inning workload for 2020). I too think that his 2020 outcomes will be binary: either he’ll be a top 10 pitcher or it’ll be a largely lost season. Let’s split the difference.

22. Aaron Nola

The Phillies ace has righted the ship a bit, but his arsenal metrics are weak. I can easily see this ranking looking terrible next year – for either reason. Lists are hard.

23. Tyler Glasnow

He had the beginnings of a 2019 breakout (continuing his 2018 Tampa Bay rebirth) by drastically reducing his walk rate (over 48 innings) to a 1.68 BB9 and the best xwOBA of any starting pitcher with minimum 100 PAs. But then, as you know, he got an arm injury (and still hasn’t come back). I think he will (knock on wood) be back in 2019 – but am kind of hoping he just gets shutdown to be ready for 2020. Trying to balance his considerable upside (breakout, pedigree, youth) with injury risk (and poor performance history when a Pirate), he lands here at #23.

24. James Paxton

The book on Paxton was that he is elite if he can stay healthy. Well, in 2019 so far he has been on pace for his normal (for him) 150 IP – but he hasn’t met expectations. His ERA and FIP are all north of 4.00, his WHIP is an unsightly 1.41, and his xwOBA is below average. Well, he should continue to get Wins on a strong Yankee team and the Ks and I’m counting on the bounceback. But maybe Big Maple just wasn’t made for the Big Apple.

25. Shohei Ohtani

The first thing I have to say is that this ranking is based only on starting pitcher performance. Because (in most leagues), he also brings tremendous value as a hitter, Ohtani should (and will be) be drafted ahead of a lot of the pitchers on this list. Assuming he picks up right where he left off in 2018, look for about 130 innings of 1.20 WHIP, 3.60 ERA and an 11 K9. Fun to watch this guy.

26. Yu Darvish

Ohtani’s fellow countryman has had a rebirth in the Windy City in the last 2 months. Somehow he harnessed his control which had vastly eluded him in the first half. He still has the stuff and the projection systems believe.

27. Lance Lynn

Lynn has his best K9, BB9 and FIP of his career…at the age of 32. He’s sustained it all year – which makes the sample size approach “meaningful”. I expect a lot of owners to draft him higher than this based on 2019 numbers – but I feel really weird about putting him this high. I won’t be owning him.

28. Matthew Boyd

The Tiger came out of nowhere and has kept it up all year…so much so that I have him just inside the top 30. The projection systems haven’t bought in yet (mostly because of the previous years of middling performance) but for all of 2019, his WHIP is still below 1.20 with a SIERA of 3.44. The ERA is above 4.00 (more a testament to the porous Tiger defense than anything) but the K-BB% of 25.5% is the 8th best among pitchers on this list. I believe it will continue into 2020 – and there are still whispers he will be dealt in the offseason, and Houston was linked earlier. That would be nice.

29. Hyun-Jin Ryu

He’s having an amazing year – but who knows where he’ll be pitching in 2020. Plus, how much of his success has been based on the Dodger doctors being able to diagnose phantom injuries to keep him fresh? His per-inning output is phenomenal – when he pitches… It’s tough to rank a feast-or-famine pitcher (which has been one of the through-lines of this piece). I think he is still a #2 so I’m ok with this rank.

30. German Marquez

Despite Coors, he is still a top 30 pitcher. He didn’t take it to the next level this year but he is only 24 years old. His LOB% has shown he is unlucky…but his xwOBA suggests he’s lucky. I still believe.

31. Sonny Gray

The Vanderbilt alumnus has had a rebirth of sorts in Cincinnati, posting a stellar WHIP of 1.13, an ERA of 3.10, and the highest K rate of his career. The peripherals don’t paint as rosy a picture however, as his SIERA is just under 4 and his whiff metrics are some of the worst of any pitcher on this list. He used to throw 200 innings back in Oakland but hasn’t reached 165 since 2015. This year he looks to hit about 175. In this environment, that’s pretty good.

The rest:

32. Brandon Woodruff

33. Andrew Heaney

34. Robbie Ray

The WHIP isn’t great but the 240 Ks help ease the pain.

35. Madison Bumgarner

36. Dinelson Lamet

37. Zack Wheeler

38. Kenta Maaeda

39. Brendan McKay

40. David Price

Surprises (read, controversies): Mike Soroka, Zack Greinke, Lucas Giolito, and Jose Berrios didn’t make this list. It definitely is puzzling. The model for the ranking weights projections for 2020 (with playing time tweaks) with StatCast data (and some other peripherals) and they don’t grade out well.

For Soroka, his projections have not fully bought into this level of performance yet. One thing is that because FIP is weighted higher than ERA in this, pitchability guys (like Hendricks or Soroka…or Greinke) who don’t rack up the strikeouts get dinged. In aggregate, this is probably correct – but as a result, Soroka is probably too low.

Greinke is not loved by the projections systems either for similar reasons. He doesn’t get that many strikeouts and his peripherals are not dominant. This is probably a weakness of the model.

Giolito is low because he’s had multiple years of terrible performance and one (the most recent) year of great performance. (Weighted) historical performance is a better indicator of future performance than recent performance. But historical performance is blind to real substantive changes. This could be a miss too, especially considering his age and pedigree – but I’ll probably not own him in a redraft.

Jose Berrios is another one like Greinke. His WHIP and ERA look great on the face – but the other peripherals are not strong compared to the others on the list. He is walking a tightrope. He’s still so young so he’s a very valuable asset in dynasties – but I’m nervous (and have been all year).

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