Buster Olney’s top 10s for 2021: Ranking MLB’s best starting pitchers & relievers

  • Senior writer ESPN Magazine/ESPN.com
  • Analyst/reporter ESPN television
  • Author of “The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty”

Fingers crossed that the 2021 MLB season will begin on time — and that we get to see some live baseball at the ballpark this year.

As we wait, Buster Olney continues his annual ranking of the 10 best players at each position heading into the coming season, based on input from industry evaluators. He begins with pitchers — the top 10 starters and top 10 relievers. He’ll follow that Wednesday with infielders, outfielders on Thursday and teams on Friday.

Starting pitchers

Trevor Bauer sometime struts off the mound, and Marcus Stroman can be a fist-pumping machine. By their standard, Jacob deGrom is outwardly stoic. But if you look closely, there is extraordinary intensity in deGrom’s work, even when he throws a bullpen session in which the only spectators are New York Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner and a bullpen catcher.

If deGrom throws a pitch and it misses by an inch — maybe even less — deGrom will pause and glance toward the sky, the briefest pause as he reassesses what the hell just went wrong and why he just screwed up. This is the best pitcher on the planet challenging himself. “He holds himself to a very, very high standard,” Hefner said.

But mostly, deGrom channels that emotion at hapless hitters, and it’s as if he’s a young Mike Tyson seeing the fear and defeat in the eyes of an opponent, and moving in to finish the job. “Maybe killer instinct isn’t the right phrase to use in this day and age,” Hefner said, “but … it’s like he’s thinking, ‘I’m ready to pounce on this prey and not let him beat me, not let him get away.’ He’s fun-loving, he loves to joke around, but when it’s time to work, there’s a seriousness about him.”

Evidently. DeGrom ascended from being a really good pitcher into a superstar in the 2018 season, and over the past three years, his production has been spectacular: a 2.10 ERA, with 628 strikeouts over 489 innings, and just 36 homers allowed in 76 starts. He’s won two Cy Young Awards and finished third in another, and with an adjusted ERA+ of 188 — better than Sandy Koufax in the last three incredible years of that Hall of Famer’s career — from 1964 to 1966, Koufax had an adjusted ERA+ of 176.

Comparing the 2020 season to any prior year is folly, because the mitigating strains of last summer were so different. There was no weariness and aches that might’ve developed over 200 innings, but on the other hand, pitchers had to work without the adrenaline they can borrow from fans in the stands. Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino cited, as one example, the two-strike clap that grows in Yankee Stadium and in other places every time a batter is in the hole, reinforcing the defensiveness of the hitter and emotionally spurring the pitcher. That was not available to pitchers like deGrom.

But for the Mets’ ace it really didn’t matter. In some ways, deGrom was the perfect pitcher for a year of no fans in the stands because of his ability to focus on the crisis at hand and to overmatch hitters physically — with his pure stuff — and emotionally. “There’s this aura about him,” said Hefner. “He competes against the game, competes against himself. A lot of that other stuff doesn’t matter — fans or no fans, who’s in the box, whether it’s a playoff game or non-playoff game. He’s thinking, ‘I’m going to win today.'”

Over the past three seasons, deGrom has allowed more than three earned runs in only six of his 76 starts. In 61 of those starts, his opponents have scored two runs or fewer. He has become the model of what a lot of other pitchers want to become.

The top 10 starting pitchers, based on input from industry evaluators:

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