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The 2021 Stakes for the Era’s Best Aces

Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke have led a generation of pitchers—but each faces a distinct challenge this season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This is a time of transition for MLB aces. A quartet of pitchers dominated the 2010s: Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Zack Greinke. The foursome ranked 1-4 in innings pitched in the decade, and until last season, at least one of its members had finished in the top two in Cy Young voting every year since 2010.

But in the shortened 2020 season, Kershaw, with a ninth-place finish in the NL, was the only member to receive any votes at all. All four members are entering, or at least on the cusp of, a new phase in their career. And all four are headed for free agency after the 2021 season.

These four pitchers’ careers have intersected and overlapped in various, specific ways beyond just leading a generation of arms. Scherzer’s lone title came at Greinke’s expense, in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series, just as Verlander’s lone title had come at Kershaw’s expense two years before.

Or, over their whole careers, the most similar pitcher for Greinke, according to Baseball-Reference’s statistical similarity scores, is Verlander, and vice versa. The most similar pitcher for Kershaw is Scherzer—one spot ahead of Kershaw’s obvious natural comp, Sandy Koufax.

Yet despite those interlocking links, each faces a discrete challenge, or opportunity, in 2021. Here’s what’s at stake this season for the era’s best pitchers.

Here’s a fact that absolutely boggles the mind: We are now further away from Kershaw’s last Cy Young win than Kershaw’s last Cy Young win was from the start of his MLB career.

Just halfway through the 2010s, Kershaw had already locked up the “best of the decade” title. He won the NL Cy Young award in 2011, 2013, and 2014; if not for a miracle R.A. Dickey season in 2012, Kershaw would have won four in a row. In 2014, he also took home the MVP award, becoming the first pitcher to win NL MVP since Bob Gibson in 1968.

Then came the “playoff Kershaw” portion of his career. Already proven in the regular season, Kershaw spent the next half-decade losing painful playoff games. Now, that narrative is gone: Kershaw is, and forever will be, a World Series champion, and everyone can once again enjoy marveling at his career without any caveats or hesitation.

He might not be an award favorite anymore, but he still resides in the upper crust of MLB starters. Through the past three seasons, during which Kershaw has received scarcely any Cy Young support, he still ranked fifth with a 2.78 ERA (minimum 200 total innings). And now that the playoff shadow has dissipated, he’s feeling more comfortable himself. After a rough start this spring, he told The Athletic’s Andy McCullough, “I didn’t pitch that good last night, so I spent all day today trying to figure [it] out. But you can go back and say, ‘Well, we won the World Series. So it’s OK.’”

Also OK: his outlook this season, even after a few rough tune-up appearances. Given Kershaw’s track record, there’s no real reason for concern over his 10.22 ERA in four starts this spring. Ultimately, he has the most stable situation for any of these four pitchers: He’s the youngest, he had the best 2020, and he’s the only one who’s spent his entire career with one team. Surely, Kershaw will sign another extension this year and continue his Dodgers career.

Scherzer was a late entry to this group of elite pitchers. He didn’t receive his first award votes until age 28; Kershaw, for comparison, won all three of his Cy Youngs by 26. But Scherzer made up for that delayed start with incredible production once he reached his top level. In the half-decade from ages 30-34, his first five years as a National, Scherzer was worth seven bWAR per season. No pitcher had been so valuable at those ages in nearly half a century.

In that span, Scherzer also tallied two more Cy Young awards and a World Series trophy, which all combined to prop him up with Randy Johnson in Arizona and Greg Maddux in Atlanta as the greatest free-agent signings ever. Not bad for a deal that had inspired some rather skeptical commentary back in 2015—FanGraphs even placed it on a list of the “worst transactions” of that winter.

But as that seven-year, $210 million deal draws to a close, Scherzer finds himself in a much different, and more worrisome, place than he has at any other recent juncture. His 2019 season ended with a World Series triumph, but with it a succession of injuries, and in 2020, he regressed to a 3.74 ERA as the Nationals plummeted to their worst winning percentage in a decade.

The shortened season spun a perfect storm of underperformance for Scherzer. He allowed his highest walk rate since his first season with Detroit, back in 2010, as he hit the strike zone at a career-low rate; the highest home-run-per-fly-ball rate of his career; and the highest BABIP of his career.

As I wrote earlier this month about Stephen Strasburg’s return from injury, the Nationals have the second-best core of stars for any team, behind only the Dodgers—but the depth, as always, is lacking. For Washington to return to contention after a muted championship defense in 2020, Scherzer and Strasburg must throw like co-aces once again.

Perhaps Scherzer is about to tumble down a steep downslope; perhaps, conversely, last season’s hiccup resulted from an unfortunate mélange of injury after-effects and the pandemic and small sample strangeness. Take out his worst start, and that ERA figure drops to a much less frightening 3.19.

The question then becomes: Can Scherzer rebound to make the back half of his 30s as relatively strong as the front half? At this point, he’ll be a Hall of Famer either way; the only eligible three-time Cy Young winner who’s not in the Hall is Roger Clemens, and he’s not stuck outside because of a lack of accomplishments on the mound.

But for a moment, just a glimmer, back in 2018 or 2019, it seemed like Scherzer would have a chance to unseat Kershaw as the most accomplished pitcher of the generation. That potential has since been derailed. But Scherzer still has some portion of his legacy at stake this season and beyond.

Among these four pitchers, Verlander simultaneously has the most and least to work on in 2021. On the one hand, he won’t throw a single meaningful pitch; on the other, he has a more arduous task ahead of him than any of the other pitchers taking the mound every fifth day. That’s because he won’t pitch at all this season, but rather spend the year recovering after Tommy John surgery last September.

Verlander says he wants to pitch to age 45, but coming off this injury, as the oldest member of this quartet—he turned 38 in February—he might be the closest to the close of his career. There is almost no precedent for a player his age successfully coming back from this injury. Jon Roegele’s Tommy John database lists just nine such pitchers who returned to the majors after undergoing TJ surgery, and lefty reliever Arthur Rhodes is the only one who lasted at least 100 innings, or produced at least 1 WAR, thereafter.

Oldest Pitchers After Tommy John Surgery

Pitcher Age for Surgery Innings ERA WAR
Pitcher Age for Surgery Innings ERA WAR
Arthur Rhodes 37 176.7 2.75 4.6
Joe Nathan 40 6.3 0.00 0.4
John Franco 41 95.3 4.63 0.3
Jamie Moyer 47 53.7 5.70 0.1
José Contreras 40 5 9.00 -0.3
Rafael Betancourt 38 39.3 6.18 -0.6
Gary Lavelle 37 32 5.91 -0.6
Mike Fetters 38 18.7 8.68 -0.9
Bronson Arroyo 37 71 7.35 -1.5

Almost every pitcher here was a reliever; this is not an encouraging chart for Verlander. Yet one point in his favor is that Verlander is starting from a much higher baseline than, say, 37-year-old Bronson Arroyo was in his return. In his last full season, Verlander edged out teammate Gerrit Cole for the AL Cy Young award—somehow only his second, after three runner-up finishes by razor-thin margins.

In other words, Verlander has a lot of room to fall and still be an effective pitcher as he ages toward 40 and beyond. Like Kershaw and Scherzer, he’s a Hall of Fame shoo-in already—but the quality and quantity of his post-TJ innings will determine just how high he slots in the historical hierarchy.

The injury already looks to wreak havoc on Verlander’s potential to reach career milestones, both because it costs him more than a season’s worth of counting stats and because it makes it less likely he’ll keep producing at his usual rate. According to ZiPS projections, before last year, Verlander had a 32 percent chance to reach 300 wins and a 38 percent chance to reach 4,000 strikeouts. Now, those figures are 4 and 11 percent, respectively.

But with a strong year of rehab and recovery, Verlander can attempt to carve a new path and nudge those odds upward once again. On a related note, the pursuit of Verlander next offseason, and the kind of contract he might fetch, will be fascinating. Corey Kluber was in a similar situation this winter, after essentially losing two years—although not to an elbow injury—and had to settle for a one-year “prove it” deal with the Yankees.

Greinke doesn’t entirely belong with the other three pitchers. He’s won only a single Cy Young, not multiple; he’s never won a World Series; and he’s the only member of this quartet with a career strikeout rate below one per inning.

Yet Greinke still stands out from the rest of MLB’s pitchers—and even, in some respects, from his contemporaries. By bWAR, Greinke has the two best seasons for any member of this quartet: his 2009 Cy Young campaign, when he was worth 10.4 wins, and his 2015 season, when he was worth 8.9. Just six pitchers in MLB history have multiple seasons with an ERA+ of 200 or higher: Greinke, Clemens, Maddux, Pedro Martínez, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson.

And although Greinke’s best season came in 2009, he has pitched even better, and received more recognition, in the second half of his career. For reference in this chart, the dividing line is the offseason between 2012 and 2013, when Greinke signed with the Dodgers.

Zack Greinke’s Career by Halves

Statistic 2004-12 2013-20
Statistic 2004-12 2013-20
Innings 1492 1447
Record 91-78 117-48
ERA 3.77 2.95
FIP 3.45 3.28
WAR 31.2 35.9
All-Star nods 1 5
Gold Gloves 0 6

Greinke flies further under the radar in part because of a lack of awards; that fantastic 2015 season ended with a second-place Cy Young finish, in an all-time race between Greinke, Kershaw, and Jake Arrieta, the eventual winner for the Cubs. Greinke also has tended to excel with more subtle skills than the pure strikeout stuff associated with the best per-inning pitchers. (Granted, he’s still just 311 strikeouts away from 3,000 for his career; barring injury, he’ll reach the milestone at some point in 2022.)

For instance, Greinke is a six-time Gold Glove winner and, for a pitcher, extraordinarily productive at the plate. His .600 career OPS ranks third among all non-two-way pitchers in the DH era (minimum 500 plate appearances). Greinke is actually, narrowly, the overall WAR leader among all active pitchers because he’s added 5.1 wins at the plate.

He also boasts tremendous durability: From 2008 through 2019, he pitched at least 158 innings every year and exceeded 200 nine times. That metronomic consistency will be vital for Greinke and his team this season: With Verlander out for the year and Framber Valdéz out for a while with a broken finger on his pitching hand, Greinke will have to anchor Houston’s rotation. After the dueling disappointments of the 2019 World Series and 2020 ALCS, with Greinke slated for free agency next winter, this could be his last great chance at a title.

Also at stake for Greinke is a rare hitting milestone, which seems much less important but is a stated objective for the player himself: He’s stuck on nine career homers and nine career steals, and he shared earlier this year that achieving the 10-10 double is the “only milestone I pay attention to,” adding, “That’s my only goal.” Right now, the 10-10 club for pitchers consists of only Cy Young, Walter Johnson, and Bob Gibson. With the designated hitter widely expected to reach the NL in 2022, interleague play this season might be Greinke’s last chance—and the last chance for any pitcher, non-Ohtani division.

These four pitchers are, with some distance, the four best of their generation. The question of the best, full stop, isn’t quite as clear. It’s not as if other pitching eras lend themselves to clear hierarchies at the top, either—good luck choosing between Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, and Martínez for the ’90s generation.

Here’s one way to think about the current standing, as a reflection of both their in-the-moment perception and their historical record. This graph shows the progression in career Cy Young shares for each of these four pitchers. This statistic measures the proportion of the maximum possible Cy Young votes that a pitcher receives: In 2014, for instance, when Kershaw won the award unanimously, he received a 100 percent share for that season; in 2020, when he collected just a couple back-of-the-ballot votes, he received a mere 1 percent share.

Greinke was first to shoot up the board, with his magnificent 2009 campaign, but he quickly leveled off, and Verlander grabbed the lead after his Cy Young-MVP double in 2011. Then Kershaw took over and quickly distanced himself from the competition. Scherzer started latest, but enjoyed a rapid rise, and he and Verlander both began to close the gap to Kershaw—until last year.

Now, the pattern has settled into what most fans, I suspect, would consider the order of these four future Hall of Fame arms. Kershaw’s on top, followed by Verlander and Scherzer in some order, with Greinke back in fourth. But until the shortened 2020 season, with Verlander’s injury and Scherzer’s slump, that gap at the top was getting mighty thin.

The four pitchers here still have some story to tell, but now a new generation has overtaken most of the pitching conversation, and the leaderboards. Cole and Trevor Bauer, who were drafted the same year that Verlander and Kershaw won their first Cy Youngs, have signed record contracts in consecutive offseasons. Shane Bieber just won the AL Cy Young award at the age of 25. Two-time NL winner Jacob deGrom is just three months younger than Kershaw, but he seems to belong to a later generation of aces, too—he didn’t debut until 2014, Kershaw’s third Cy Young campaign, and when he beat Kershaw and Greinke in consecutive starts in the 2015 NLDS, he did so as an upstart upsetting the accomplished vets.

The 2021 season will help settle the quartet’s individual trajectories and its collective place atop the sport. At the very least, Kershaw, Scherzer, Verlander, and Greinke will dominate next winter when they’re all up for new contracts. They still have plenty at stake in the meantime.