With eight days remaining in the regular season, the list of 2019 aces has been firmly established. And as we start to look ahead to 2020, wise fantasy managers will want to know to what degree luck factored into this year’s best pitching lines. Here are the advanced stats surrounding the current crop of elite starters.
Verlander is pitching to his surroundings as well as anyone. He leads all qualified hurlers in fly-ball rate, and only eight pitchers top his 42.0 percent mark in hard-contact rate. A combination of hard-hit fly balls is usually a recipe for disaster, but the veteran makes it work by keeping the bases clean, working at a pitcher-friendly home park and relying on a stellar defensive group. Oh, and he also strikes out an absurd 35.3 percent of the batters he faces. Although his age continues to creep forward, Verlander remains someone to count on.
Gerrit Cole (Astros)
With a ridiculous 39.1 percent strikeout rate that is 3.8 points better than any other qualified hurler, Cole has all-but guaranteed himself a game-changing 2019 stat line. His 2.74 FIP is nearly identical to his 2.61 ERA, and his .274 BABIP, 82.2 percent strand rate and 17.0 percent HR/FB rate are all sustainable marks. Heading into his age-29 season, Cole should be the first pitcher off 2020 draft boards, provided that he returns to the Astros or finds another favorable destination in free agency.
Shane Bieber (Indians)
Bieber draws some similarities to Verlander. He doesn’t allow as many fly balls as his Houston counterpart, but the 24-year-old gives up more hard contact (43.8 percent) than we would like to see from an ace. His elite success comes from a 6.5 K:BB ratio, which results in the bases often being empty when he allows long balls (1.3 HR/9 rate). Pitchers who live inside the strike zone this often walk a fine line, but Bieber still belongs in the 2020 ace group.
Jacob deGrom (Mets)
deGrom experienced an expected luck correction on fly balls this year, making his 2019 season the one to follow for 2020 projections. The right-hander regularly handcuffs hitters (31.1 percent hard-contact rate, 5.8 K:BB ratio), and his 2.71 FIP resembles his 2.51 ERA. Everything in deGrom’s profile is sustainable, making him one of the safest aces to draft next season.
Zack Greinke (Astros)
Greinke may be 7-1 across nine starts with the Astros, but his skills were equally good prior to the deadline deal. The 35-year-old is working without elite swing-and-miss skills (22.7 percent strikeout rate), but his 3.7 percent walk rate ranks third in baseball and is the biggest reason for his success. I view Greinke as a low-end ace for 2020, as his age and strikeout rate have me convinced that any further reduction in whiffs will leave him battling too hard to keep the bases clean.
Strasburg has been regularly handcuffing hitters, as his 29.6 percent hard-contact rate ranks second in the Majors. He also sits ninth in groundball rate, which is a good place to be during an era in which balls are flying out of the yard at record rates. Although a second straight 30-start season from this injury prone hurler would be somewhat surprising, he should remain at an ace level on a per-outing basis.
Max Scherzer (Nationals)
Age (35) and 2019 injuries aside, Scherzer remains a boss. The right-hander owns the lowest FIP (2.37) of any qualified hurler, and his 30.0 percent K:BB ratio ranks third. He is actually dealing with a bloated .324 BABIP, which is 52 points higher than his rate during his initial four seasons with the Nats. While it is fair to have concerns about Scherzer making 30 starts next year, his skill set provides no hint of a skill decline.
Beyond the obvious (he finally stayed relatively healthy), Ryu has thrived this year by doing an elite job of limiting walks (3.6 percent) and fly balls (25.8 percent). Still, the southpaw’s strikeout abilities (22.1 percent whiff rate) are mediocre, and he owns a 3.12 FIP that is nearly a full run higher than his 2.35 ERA. Durability and regression concerns combine to push Ryu outside the tier of 2020 aces.
Charlie Morton (Rays)
Morton is one of the few hurlers on this list with a FIP (2.85) that is lower than his ERA (3.15). His 74.8 percent strand rate is a low mark for an ace, but the right-hander has never been good with runners on base (career 70.2 percent rate), which means that we shouldn’t expect any improvement next year. Morton’s progress this year has mainly come from boosting his K:BB ratio to a career-best 23.0 percent, although he has also benefited from an improved 10.6 percent HR/FB rate. Heading into his age-36 season, Morton feels like a fine No. 2 starter for 2020 mixed leagues.
Walker Buehler (Dodgers)
Buehler is eerily similar to Bieber from an advanced-stats perspective. The righty gives up too much hard contact (42.0 percent) but does such a stellar job pounding the strike zone (25.0 percent K:BB ratio) that he generally keeps the bases clean. Unlike Bieber, Buehler also has the benefit of pitching for an elite team and working in the National League. The 25-year-old could be even better next year, as his 70.4 percent strand rate is by far the lowest mark of anyone on this list.