During his 2019 Hall of Fame induction speech one of the greatest closers in baseball history, Lee Smith said “it wasn’t just my arm that got me here, it was the whole community.” Very apt, especially when this season was supposed to see the evolution of the opener and the fall of the starting rotation.
The truth is that baseball organisations need to rely on a solid starting rotation more than ever. Of all the teams that are participating in the postseason, only the Tampa Bay Rays regularly used an opener and carried less than 5 starting pitchers in their rotation through the regular season.
So, let’s look at this season’s perfect starting 5 (and look out for the ones to watch for next season):
Let’s start in Houston shall we? Why, well the Astros have not one but two surefire, genuine aces: Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. I would not be surprised if members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America decide to simply flip a coin on who takes out the American League Cy Young award. They have both been sensational.
Both stars have clocked over 200 innings pitched and 20 wins. Cole boasts a 2.50 ERA to Verlander’s 2.58 and also has a better K/9 (13.82 vs 12.11) and FIP (2.64 vs 3.27). Gerrit Cole, with a WAR exactly a point higher than Verlander’s (7.4 vs 6.4), just edges it for me – his elite fastball is valued at 36.2 wFB (total runs saved by a pitcher using that pitch), simply phenomenal. The closest starting pitcher to Cole is the St. Louis Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty at 31.8 wFB according to FanGraphs.
The competition behind Cole is elite but in the end they only serve as honourable mentions here. Jacob deGrom followed up his Cy Young year in 2018 with a few wobbles but came through to record the second best WAR in the league for starting pitchers (behind Cole) with 7.0. The Los Angeles Dodgers were finally graced with a full season from Hyun-Jin Ryu for the first time since 2014. Ryu finished with a Major League Baseball-leading 2.32 ERA for qualifying starting pitchers.
Ones to watch: aforementioned Cardinals young buck Jack Flaherty had a second half to remember allowing an ERA of just 0.93 in his last 16 starts. He will be the ace for this exciting Cardinals organisation for the foreseeable future. Luis Castillo also impressed earning his first All Star appearance. The Dominican recorded career-best marks in innings pitched (178 2/3), FIP (3.63), HR/9 (1.01) and placed 8th in strikeout rate among NL starters with 28.9%.
Dancing in the Moonlight
Slotting in second in the rotation, behind Mike Clevinger, has suited Indians young gun Shane Bieber very nicely indeed. In only his second year in the majors, Bieber led the American League with number of starts with 7 innings plus pitched and less than 2 earned runs allowed (15). His curveball is a monster, boasting a 48% whiff rate; and his 6.48 K/BB is the best for a starting pitcher aged 24 and under since 1871…wow! His strikeout number (259) trails only Cole and Verlander. What’s not to love, lock him in as your big game guy!
Ideally, a rotation’s number 2 guy throws with the opposite arm as your ace. So, let’s give some lefty love to Clayton Kershaw. Abandoned by the fantasy baseball world at the start of the year due to a shoulder injury, the Dodgers star finished 16-5 with a 3.05 ERA over 177 innings and 28 starts (his most since 2015). Contributing to a rotation that gave the Dodgers a combined 19.7 WAR, second to only the Astros, Kershaw once again proved he is not to be excluded from the conversation about the top arms in the game today,
You could call it an insult, giving a guy you just handed a 6 year, $140m contract to the number 3 spot in the rotation. It clearly didn’t bother Patrick Corbin, the Washington Nationals’ newest pitching gem, however. To be fair when you pitch behind Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg the insult turns into a compliment. Corbin also proved to be the perfect complement to the Scherzer, Strasburg 1-2 punch as the crafty lefty finished with a 16-7 record.
Increased use of his devastating sinker (34.7 % of pitches thrown) along with his equally effective slider (37.0 %) proved to be the catalyst that propelled the Nationals back to the playoffs. Shrewd business in DC!
Another lefty deserves special mention after he racked up 17 wins (2nd in the National League) for the Atlanta Braves, who went on to win the NL East. Max Fried was dominant in the middle of the rotation in his second year, mainly thanks to a much improved overall command. His BB/9 dropping from 5.35 to 2.55 whilst delivering 176 strikeouts. He also threw a complete game in 76 pitches (thanks to a rain shortened contest).
Zach Wheeler was really fun to watch in New York this season. He set career highs in innings pitched (195) and strikeouts (195), his fastball ranking 4th in all Major League Baseball in vFA (average velocity) at 97.1 mph.
It was no surprise that Wheeler was in demand when rumours started to fly as the trade deadline approached. The Mets refused to trade him and Wheeler went 4-2 with a 2.66 ERA over his final 11 outings working behind deGrom, Thor and newly acquired Marcus Stroman. Boom!
He improved his BB/9 to a career best 2.30 in the majors, and finished the season with a 3.48 FIP, ranked 21st in the league and just behind Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty. Impressive.
To round out our perfect 2019 rotation we are looking for that diamond in the rough: a durable vet or breakout rookie that delivered in quality starts and delivered when his team needed him the most. I can think of a few off the top of my head: veterans such as Brett Anderson for the A’s and Gio Gonzalez for the Brewers were important in their teams making the post-season; Frankie Montas also an Oakland A was a young gun dealing fire before a suspension for PEDs.
I dug a bit deeper looking for a guy who provided something a bit different, something that consistently made him successful and set him apart from other back-end-of-the-rotation guys. Rising to the top was second year Cardinal arm, Dakota Hudson.
With a solid 16-7 record in his first season as a starter, Hudson pitched 174 innings across 32 starts. His low .275 BABIP is thanks to his elite ability to generate groundballs. Hudson led Major League Baseball with a 57.3% groundball rate among qualified starters, a valuable asset especially when you see today’s hitters love of the longball.
The 2019 Perfect Rotation
There you have it, ladies and gentleman, please applaud this season’s perfect starting rotation:
Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros
Shane Bieber, Cleveland Indians
Patrick Corbin, Washington Nationals
Zach Wheeler, New York Mets
Dakota Hudson, St. Louis Cardinals
*All stats above taken from FanGraphs and Baseball Reference