On Friday, I introduced the All-MLB batters of the 2010s. Today, it’s time for the pitchers. You should know the drill by now.
1. Clayton Kershaw
One of the best ways to evaluate a baseball player is not how well he plays at his best, but at how well he plays at his so-called worst. And in Clayton Kershaw’s worst season of the 2010s, 2018 by either Baseball Reference or FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, Clayton Kershaw had a 2.73 ERA and a 3.19 FIP in 161 1/3 innings. Clayton Kershaw was a truly special pitcher–this could only be viewed as a disappointing season according to the lofty standards he established. During the decade, Kershaw was an All-Star eight times, a Cy Young Award winner three times, and one of two pitchers to win an MVP award. Kershaw had the NL’s best ERA for half of the seasons of the 2010s. That’s quite good.
2. Justin Verlander
The other MVP-winning pitcher of the decade, Justin Verlander had a mid-decade performance dip to a greater extent than anything Clayton Kershaw ever had, but his very high peaks make him a worthy #2. Verlander won the American League Cy Young Award in both the second season of the decade and the final season of the decade and was an All-Star six times over the decade. Verlander was not only superbly effective but he was the decade’s greatest workhorse–he led MLB in innings and was one of two pitchers to average over 200 innings per season (more on the other guy coming up, well, right now).
3. Max Scherzer
For the first half of the decade, Max Scherzer seemed like a guy who could sneak onto this team, but then once he went from the Detroit Tigers to the Washington Nationals, Scherzer became truly elite. The rare free agent player (especially rare free agent pitcher) who improved in his thirties, Scherzer led MLB over the decade in strikeouts by nearly a full season’s worth of strikeouts (192 more than Justin Verlander) and somehow managed to inherit the “best pitcher in the NL” mantle from Kershaw, who is nearly four years his junior. Seven All-Star appearances, three Cy Young Awards, two no-hitters, and an MLB record-tying twenty strikeouts in one game make for an incredible resume.
4. Chris Sale
Relative to the big three, who are pretty easy to assemble at the top of this rotation in some order, Chris Sale lacks longevity–he had 81.6% the total innings of Kershaw, who had the fewest innings of the top three. But on a rate basis, he was every bit as dominant. His 11.08 strikeouts per nine innings were tops among a pitcher with as many innings as he had, and his 3.03 ERA and sub-3 FIPs and xFIPs were quite invigorating. Althoug he never won a Cy Young Award, Sale was a seven-time All-Star and finished in the top six in AL Cy Young balloting for each of those seven seasons.
5. Zack Greinke
While Greinke’s finest season came in the final year of the previous decade, he remained a consistently effective starting pitcher throughout the entirety of the 2010s. More or less a nomad throughout the decade, Greinke pitched for six different teams throughout the decade, pitching in the postseason with four of those teams, and was five times an All-Star. An innings-eater, Greinke has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the sport’s most celebral pitchers and when his velocity plunged late in his career, he remained effective. Greinke always combined competent strikeout totals, strong control, and is arguably the best fielding and the best hitting (though this impact is mitigated now that he’s back in the AL) pitcher in the sport.
6. David Price
Spot starter slash long reliever on the 2010s team, David Price was a five-time All-Star and one-time Cy Young Award winner. A lifelong member of the American League, the more arduous offensive league, Price spent most of the decade with ERAs in the low threes or lower, and while his last three seasons with the Boston Red Sox have hampered his reputation both for innings accumulation and effectiveness, there is a reason Price finished in the top two in AL Cy Young balloting three times in the first six years of the decade.
He didn’t exhaust his rookie eligibility until 2011, and his 2019 was a disaster by any measurement, but no reliever in the 2010s had a more sustained period of absolute dominance than Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel had five full seasons on the decade in which his FIP was under 2, four of which he had an ERA to match. In his truly maddening 2012 season, Kimbrel finished with an ERA of 1.01, a FIP of 0.78, and an xFIP of 0.88; during that season, he struck out 16.66 batters per nine innings while walking a perfectly defensible 2.01 per nine.
While he had control issues that never really went away, Aroldis Chapman redefined what a fireballer was in baseball. A six-time All-Star, Chapman never went below 12.34 strikeouts per nine innings, once tallying 106 strikeouts in just 54 innings. While he was initially believed to be destined for a Major League rotation, his absurd velocity made him impossible to resist as a reliever for the Cincinnati Reds. And since I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it, he’s also a horrible monster!
Although he didn’t quite have the highs of Kimbrel and Chapman, Kenley Jansen was a very consistent piece on some of the most successful regular season teams of the 2010s with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He sported more control than either Kimbrel or Chapman and had nearly a full relief season’s worth of innings more than either over the course of the decade.
He began the decade as Mariano Rivera’s understudy with the New York Yankees, and while he never quite became Mo, David Robertson was largely successful and no matter his specific role at the moment, he was (his very abbreviated 2019 aside) a reliever whose floor was solid bullpen piece, though he frequently exceeded his floor. His best season came in 2011, when Robertson was an All-Star with a sub-2 FIP and ERA just a tick over 1.
Greg Holland is not a popular name among readers of this website, I assume, given how catastrophic his tenure was with the St. Louis Cardinals. But as a Kansas City Royal (and to a lesser extent as a Colorado Rockie and Washington National), Greg Holland was a superb reliever, serving as the primary closer for both pennant-winning teams of the mid-2010s and ranking sixth on the decade in total games saved despite only being a full-time closer for four seasons and missing the entire 2016 season. Holland was a three-time All-Star during the 2010s.
Despite not becoming a full-time Major Leaguer until 2014, facing two total batters in 2019, and never being a committed closer, the massive New York Yankees reliever was a vital part of one of the decade’s great bullpens. For five seasons, Betances was essentially a righty version of Aroldis Chapman (though far less problematic)–he would walk a less-than-ideal number of batters, but he would blow batters away. And he averaged 82 1/3 innings over a three-year stretch: in an era where relievers were increasingly specialized, he was an anomalous figure and worthy of further recognition.