The 2013 Cy Young Awards went to Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw and Detroit Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer. It was Kershaw’s second and while it’s Scherzer’s first, the Tigers are certainly not unfamiliar with Cy Young winners since their ace Justin Verlander is, well, Justin Verlander, and he’s a contender every year — and the 2011 winner.
Pitching, in general, is on the upswing over the past few years; some believe that is due in part to the riddance of performance enhancing substances, but in the end there’s simply a boat load of premium arms coming up from the high school and college ranks. Each of the last four drafts have produced significant pitching talent, and some of that has already hit the big leagues, including Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Chris Sale, Jose Fernandez, Sonny Gray and Shelby Miller. And more are on their way.
As for this season, let’s take a look at the top candidates for the Cy Young Award in each league, via Adam H. Wong of Prospect Insider.
Justin Verlander, RHP — Detroit Tigers
Hard to count out Verlander, even after core muscle repair surgery in January. He’s been dominant since 2008, and he’s showed no signs of slowing down — 2013 might be the only blip in that time frame, but his K/9 was still well above the league average and he was able to suppress the long ball and finished in the top-7 in fWar. So, even in a “down” year, Justin Verlander is elite and a legitimate contender to win another Cy Young award.
Felix Hernandez, RHP — Seattle Mariners
Since 2009, Hernandez has struck out more than 210 batters a season, while maintaining a better than league average walk rate. In that time frame, that rate has steadily dropped, suggesting he’s hitting his stride, despite his velocity dropping into the 92 mph range the past three years after his first three seasons produced fastballs averaging more than 94 mph. Hernandez is about to enter his pitching prime, and even with diminishing velocity compared to the rest of his career, he has been able to maintain top 10 status in AL pitcher fWAR for the past five years.
Max Scherzer, RHP — Detroit Tigers
2013′s Cy Young Award winner has seem to hit his stride, as his Swinging Strike % jumped up to 12% in the last two seasons, well above the league average of 9%. I don’t expect Scherzer to gather the same numbers as last year — his BABIP dropped a staggering 70 points between 2012 and 2013 — but he’s shown he made the leap from league average to elite starter.
Yu Darvish, RHP — Texas Rangers
Since Darvish made the jump across the ocean, he’s been a strikeout machine, holding a 10.64 K/9 average, well over the league average 7.57 K/9. His BABIP dropped 30 points between 2012 and 2013, and though there might be some regression there, he has the pure stuff to stay competitive. Walks and home runs were a sore spot for him in 2013, but that didn’t stop Cy Young voters from voting him 2nd behind Scherzer.
Chris Sale, LHP — Chicago White Sox
One reason pundits want to “kill the win” is Sale — he went 17-8 in 2012 and 11-14 in 2013, but by most peripherals, he had a demonstrably better year last season than in 2012. An increased use of a changeup and increased velocity, this could be the year that Sale puts it all together.
David Price, LHP — Tampa Bay Rays
Price, the winner in 2012, could add a second Cy Young to his resume if he stays healthy in 2014, unlike a year ago when he missed six weeks with a triceps injury. At 28, Price is still in his prime years, but some in the industry are wondering if he’s showing some wear and tear — his velocity was down more than two miles per hour on average from 2012 and 1.3 mph down from 2011. Still, the fastball is huge at more than 93 on average and his secondary stuff and command suggest he’ll be just as good without the 95.5 mph heater.
Matt Moore, LHP — Tampa Bay Rays
On the basis of pure stuff, Moore gets a nod. He’s been slightly better than league average since he made the Tampa Bay’s rotation, but this could be the year he breaks out.
Jon Lester, LHP — Boston Red Sox
Since Lester made Boston’s rotation in 2008, he’s been nothing but a solider starter. If he can continue to lower his line drive rate and keep the ball in the park, he’ll be one to watch.
Masahiro Tanaka, RHP — New York Yankees
It’s hard to make a comparison from the MLB to NPB, but most studs that come from Japan arrive as advertised. We can’t come to a conclusion based off of NPB stats, but while Darvish had better peripherals than Tanaka in terms of strikeouts and strikeouts-per-9-innings, Tanaka was able to limit his walks and earn a 1.27 ERA two of the three previous seasons in Japan. He has major-league stuff, including plus command and an out pitch in his split-finger fastball.
Anibal Sanchez, RHP — Detroit Tigers
Sanchez made the jump from average starter to above average in 2013, and with a BABIP that hasn’t flucuated more than five points over the last three season, there are no telltale signs of regression on the horizon. He saw a slight velocity increase last year coupled with an increased strikeout rate, and if that continues, we’ll see him in the Cy Young Award running again in 2014.
On The Fringe
R.A. Dickey, RHP — Toronto Blue Jays
Dickey saw a slight dip in his knuckleball velocity last season, and if he can gain that back, he could return to his 2012 form. Dickey is unlike any other knuckleballer, and if he can get back to keeping the ball on the ground, he will be one to watch.
Jered Weaver, RHP — Los Angeles Angels
Weaver was one of the more dominant pitchers in 2010 and 2011, and if he can regain his velocity, he could return to form.
Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP — Seattle Mariners
Iwakuma is too good not to get a mention. His splitter is one of the best in baseball, but by starting the season on the disabled list, his Cy Young chances are hurt just a bit. If he comes out of the gate strong once he returns, he’ll be a Cy Young contender for a second year in a row.
Clayton Kershaw, LHP — Los Angeles Dodgers
Kershaw is probably the best pitcher in baseball right now. He might not have strikeout numbers like Scherzer or Sanchez, but he’s still able to keep runners off the bases. His line drive rate has steadily increased since 2010, but his ERA- has decreased — once runners get on base, Kershaw doesn’t let them advance. With two Cy Young Awards already under his belt, The Claw isn’t showing any signs of slowing down and No. 3 could be in the offing in 2014.
Jose Fernandez, RHP — Miami Marlins
Fernandez burst onto the scene last year, and with a heavy fastball and mean yaker, he has a chance to compete for the Cy Young. He’s league average in regards to walks, but if he can harness his stuff and maintain his dominating velocity, he’ll quickly become a household name.
Cliff Lee, LHP — Philadelphia Phillies
The last time southpaw Lee won the Cy Young Award was in 2008, but since then he’s had one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios in the game. Since moving from the AL to the NL, his strikeout rate has steadily increased. Lee is poised to lead Philadelphia’s rotation at the start of the season, and if things go his way, he could be their bastion the entire season.
Mat Latos, RHP — Cincinnati Reds
Latos has been a consistent workhorse for the Reds, and even with knee surgery this past month, Latos should lead Cincinati’s rotation right next to Johnny Cueto. Latos has been good at keeping the ball in the park, so if he can continue to increase his strikeout rate, he’ll emerge as a top candidate for the Cy Young Award.
Stephen Strasburg, RHP — Washington Nationals
The NL has the top three hardest throwing starters, in Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez and Stephen Strasburg. We know Strasburg has the pure stuff to be one of the best in the game, he just needs to put it all together. Since his debut, his line drive rate has declined and his groundball rate has increased. If he can keep this up, 2014 might be the year he emerges at the top of his game.
Adam Wainwright, RHP — St. Louis Cardinals
Wainwright had a landmark year last season, which is even more impressive after missing the 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery. The right-handed veteran has induced groundballs consistently, and although it’s unlikely he’ll maintain his 2013 walk rate, if his command is anywhere close to last season’s he’ll be a top contender for the year-end prize … again.
Zack Greinke, RHP — Los Angeles Dodgers
Dodgers fans have been waiting for Greinke to repeat his 2009 Cy Young Award winning season. The righty was able to prevent damage once runners got on base in 2013. Since 2009, his groundball rate has increased, and his strikeout rate has slightly decreased, but his overall effectiveness hasn’t changed much.
Madison Bumgarner, LHP — San Francisco Giants
Bumgarner has been above average since the Giants won the World Series in 2010, and he continues to get better with an improving strikeout rate and decreasing line drive rate. If these trends continue, he’ll make the jump from above average to elite.
Jordan Zimmermann, RHP — Washington Nationals
Zimmerman has been a consistent starter for the National’s since he broke into the rotation in 2011. Since 2010, his batters’ average against has slowly declined, while his groundball rate has increased.
Doug Fister, RHP — Washington Nationals
Since being traded to Detroit, Fister has come into his own. He was able to keep the ball on the ground and out of the stands in 2013, even with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder at the corner infield slots. If he can keep runners off the basepads and continue to increase his groundball rate, he’ll be able number to put up numbers that’ll make even Brandon McCarthy blush. His trade to Washington doesn’t alter his chances a whole lot in either direction, but the infield defense will be better at all four spots.
On The Fringe
Cole Hamels, LHP — Philadelphia Phillies
Hamels has been nothing but a plus starter for Philadelphia. He won’t be ready for Opening Day, but if he continues to be above average, this could be a big season for the lefty.
Shelby Miller, RHP — St. Louis Cardinals
Miller could be the Harvey of 2014. He has one of the top fastball velocities in the game with a huge velocity separation between his curveball. Under the tutelage of Wainwright, Miller just might breakout.
Craig Kimbrel, RHP — Atlanta Braves
If any reliever could win the Cy Young, it would be Kimbrel — he even placed ahead of Cliff Lee in 2013. Although his 2013 campaign wasn’t as dominant as 2012, his curveball has turned into a weapon beside his fastball. If he can limit his walks, he could return to his 2012 form and continue to stay in the running for the Cy Young Award.