MLB Predictions 2012: 10 Under-the-Radar Cy Young Candidates Set to Break out

Zachary Petersel@@ZPeterselFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2012

MLB Predictions 2012: 10 Under-the-Radar Cy Young Candidates Set to Break out

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    With spring training just around the corner, it is that time of year again to look towards the start of the season. Every year, there are players that break out and have seasons that come out of nowhere. Clayton Kershaw did not receive one Cy Young vote in 2010, but dominated the league last year and won the 2011 Cy Young in a land slide.

    Part of what makes baseball such a great game is how much it changes year to year. Some players trend up while others trend down, but there are always those special few who make a huge leap.

    These are not 10 pitchers who will be the favorites for the Cy Young heading into the year, but rather the players that are poised to take that aforementioned type of leap. 

1. Matt Garza, Chicago Cubs

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    After being traded from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Chicago Cubs, leaving the powerful AL East for the mediocrity of the NL Central, Matt Garza was supposed to have a breakout year. However, Garza finished the season 10-10, and he was unable to have the type of impact the Cubs had hoped.

    Statistically speaking, Garza had by far the best season of his career. He posted career bests in ERA (3.32), SO/9 (9.0), SO/BB (3.13), and most importantly FIP (2.95) which calculates how a pitcher does solely based on the things he can control: walks, strike outs and home runs. FIP does a much better job of projecting a pitcher’s value going forward, and since Garza’s 2.95 FIP last season was the eighth best in all of baseball, I’d say 2012 is looking up for him.

    Another plus looking forward was how dominant Matt was in the second half of last season. After a first half where he was 4-7 with a 4.26 ERA and 1.34 WHIP, Garza was 6-3 in the second half with a 2.45 ERA and 1.18 WHIP.

    All he has to do now is get lucky…so to speak. If he pitches with the same sort of success, some more wins will come his way. If he ends the season with 15-20 wins and 200 SO’s, he will find himself right in the middle of the Cy Young race. 

2. Brandon McCarthy, Oakland Athletics

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    If I gave you 100 guesses as to who led the American league in FIP last season, I would still bet against you guessing the correct answer. CC Sabathia? Nope. Jered Weaver? Nope. It had to be Cy Young winner and league MVP Justin Verlander, right? Wrong again.

    The pitcher who, according to FIP, was the best pitcher in the American League last season was none other than Oakland Athletics right-hander Brandon McCarthy.

    McCarthy is a former top prospect for both the Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers. After pitching sporadically for both organizations and always dealing with various injuries, Brandon found himself a free agent heading into the 2010 offseason. After joining the Oakland Athletics for the 2011 season, he broke out, posting his lowest walk rate, lowest ERA, lowest FIP, and highest ground ball rate of his entire career!

    There are three reasons why he can prove 2011 to be no fluke. One reason is his former status as a top prospect shows he always had potential. The second reason is that he pitches in the Oakland Coliseum that greatly favors the pitcher. Third and most importantly, he already has one incredible season under his belt so he obviously did something right. Provided he stays healthy, I see McCarthy establishing himself into the discussion of the top pitchers in the American League. 

3. Zack Greinke, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Zack Greinke is a name you probably already know. However, after a lackluster debut for the Milwaukee Brewers, he qualifies for this list having not receiving a single vote for the 2011 NL Cy Young.

    Despite a sparkling 16-6 record, Greinke got off to a terrible start. Before the season even started, he broke his ribs playing pickup basketball which caused him to miss the start of the season. When he debuted in May, he was deceptively incredible. Despite a 5.63 ERA for May and June combined, Zack went 7-3 because of an outstanding 6.67 SO/BB ratio. The main reason his ERA was so high was because of an abnormally high BABIP of .357 and .354 for May and June respectively. Once those numbers settled back to Greinke’s normal trends, his ERA and WHIP came back to earth as well.

    When July rolled around, Zack was the pitcher people expected, pitching to a 2.82 ERA with a 1.17 WHIP the rest of the way. His K/9 of 10.54 was the best in all of baseball, so if he can stay healthy and parlay his 9-3 second half into a full season, combined with that strike out rate, he will assuredly find himself near the top of the Cy Young race at the end of the 2012 season.

4. Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Morrow makes this list because his stuff is simply too good to keep off it. Morrow’s SO/9 rate in 2010 of 10.95 was by far the highest of any starting pitcher who threw more than 100 innings. Last season, his SO/9 of 10.19 finished second only Zack Greinke’s aforementioned number of 10.54.

    Brandon was drafted fifth overall in the 2006 draft by the Seattle Mariners. After changing roles multiple times within the Mariners organization, going back and forth between relief pitcher and starter, Morrow was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2009 offseason.

    Despite posting ERA’s of 4.49 and 4.72 in his first two seasons, he has shown his incredible potential with Toronto. He has won double-digit games each season and had games with electric stuff, throwing 8.2 innings of no-hit ball with 17 strikeouts in one game.

    If Morrow can harness his potential, keep the SO rate up, and trim his ERA closer to his FIP, he could become a candidate to win the Cy Young in 2012.

5. Ubaldo Jimenez, Cleveland Indians

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    For Ubaldo Jimenez, the stuff has always been there. In 2010, it all came together.

    His 15-1 first half, with a 2.20 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 113 strikeouts set the world on fire. In the second half however, he left something to be desired. He pitched to a 4-7 record with a 3.80 ERA and 1.30 WHIP and ended up finishing third in the Cy Young race. Ubaldo never really settled down in 2011 and was traded from the Colorado Rockies midseason to the Cleveland Indians.

    This offseason, the Indians sent a trainer with Ubaldo to his home in the Dominican Republic. Jimenez has been conditioning all winter, focusing on his mechanics, and is reportedly in great shape. Many times, reports such as these surface after a pitcher has a poor season, but when Jimenez is in shape, he has shown what he is capable of. Maybe an offseason where people have written him off is exactly what he needed to re-motivate himself.

    Ubaldo will be 28 for the 2012 season, and it could be his best one yet.

6. Mat Latos, Cincinnati Reds

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    Mat Latos was the best pitcher to change teams this offseason.

    Latos’ calling card is his ability to miss bats, and he does it with the best of them. With a 24.2 percent strikeout rate over the past two seasons, Latos is living in the same rarefied air that belongs to the likes of Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, among others. Not too bad for a 23-year-old.

    On top of that, his stats were not as “Petco” driven as some may have thought. His career ERA was only 0.46 better at home and his WHIP was exactly the same pitching at home versus on the road. If for some reason he does struggle more at home he will have a much better offense behind him to provide support. The Reds offense is a lot more potent than the Padres offense ever was while Latos was in San Diego, and that will more than make up for the difference in home fields.

    After looking at these statistics, the only thing that worries me about Latos going forward is his health. Latos has not pitched 200 innings once in his big league career, and has missed time in each of his big league seasons with shoulder or arm injuries. However, after looking at these home/road splits and his abilities to miss bats consistently and avoid giving up the home run, I think Latos is about to have a break out season.

7. Michael Pineda, New York Yankees

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    Much like the previous two on this list, Michael Pineda is almost cheating with the stuff he possesses. At 23 years old, when Pineda stands on the mound at 6’7", 260 pounds, it looks like he got lost when he was looking for the football field. However, after you see him throw, you realize only the hitters are lost now.

    With a strikeout rate of 24.9 percent and an opponent’s batting average of .209, Pineda already ranks among the elite pitchers in the game, even though he has only pitched one season. Michael tailed off in the second half of the season, but again, considering it was his rookie year that was to be expected.

    After being traded from the Seattle Mariners to the New York Yankees this offseason, a lot changed for Pineda. He is now the No. 2 starter in the biggest market in the world, with a lot of expectations for the first time in his professional career. He also must transition from Safeco Field which ranked as the fifth best pitcher’s park, to Yankee Stadium, which was the 25th best pitchers park.

    All that being said, if Pineda can handle the bright lights, I don’t think any ballpark will hold back his talent. With the Yankees lineup behind him instead of the Mariners lineup, he will win a lot more games, and if he can maintain his blistering fastball and strike out rates, he could be taking home some hardware.

8. Jordan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals

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    This is my long shot for the National League, but after watching him pitch a couple of times for the Washington Nationals last season, he has the look of a guy who will compete for a Cy Young in the near future.

    Zimmerman had Tommy John surgery in the middle of his rookie season, causing him to miss parts of 2009 and 2010. Last season he came back strong, posting an ERA of 3.18 and FIP of 3.16. Since the injury, he has not been as potent getting strikeouts, but his statistics pre-injury (SO/9 of 9.07) and his 2011 second half (SO/9 of 8.2) show the potential is still there. In addition, Jordan has always had sparkling control. His career SO/BB ratio is 3.47, and he was even better last season, posting a 4.00 SO/BB, so even without a ton of strikeouts, he has proven to be a very effective pitcher.

    The Nationals are one of the league’s most improved teams heading into 2012. If Jordan can put stay healthy for 200 innings and continue to progress, he could find himself towards the top of the 2012 Cy Young ballot. 

9. Derek Holland, Texas Rangers

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    Derek Holland represents my long shot for the American League on this list. Pitching behind C.J. Wilson last season, Holland had the most unheralded 16 win season that I have seen in a long time. Part of that was due to his first half that was nothing more than average, but it was also because he really only had two good months last season.

    July and September were the only two months where Holland had an ERA under three. Outside of those two months, his ERA was 4.79! If Holland wants to be a part of the Cy Young race, he will have to become more consistent.

    The reason he made this list, however, is because of the dramatic improvements he made before and after the All-Star break. Post-break Holland went 9-1 with a 3.06 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 8.2 SO/9. Before the break, he went 7-4 and with a 4.68 ERA, 1.47 WHIP and 6.7 SO/9, so that is a great sign for Holland and the Rangers moving forward. Conversely, his home and away splits are not nearly as encouraging. His ERA at home, in one of the most hitter friendly environments, was 4.69 with a 1.57 WHIP whereas his ERA on the road was 3.39 with a 1.19 WHIP.

    Looking towards 2012, Holland’s impressive second half proves that he has Cy Young potential. However, until he can improve his performance in his home ballpark, his position in the Cy Young race may have to wait. Only time will tell.

10. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants

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    In 2009, Madison Bumgarner was ranked as Baseball America’s ninth best prospect in all of baseball. Entering 2010 he was 14th overall. In three seasons in the minors he went 34-6 with a 2.00 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP in 355 innings. He posted an even more impressive SO/BB of 4.09, showing impeccable control for such a young pitcher who just came out of high school.

    Somehow in 2011, especially in the second half, he got even better.

    April was rough for Bumgarner, posting a record of 0-4 with a 6.17 ERA, walking 11 batters in 23 innings. From May onwards however, he was flat out dominant.

    In June, he had 31 strikeouts against only three walks, good for a SO/BB ratio of 10.33. In July, he “slumped” to a 7.7 SO/BB ratio. While his ERAs were 4.28 and 3.69 for those two months respectively, his peripherals suggested something great was coming, and in August and September/October, he was better than great. He went a combined 7-3, with a 2.17 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, with a SO/9 of 9.2. Best of all, for the entire season, even after his April ERA of 6.17, his cumulative ERA was 3.27, with an FIP of 2.67, good for fourth best in all of baseball.

    In addition, Bumgarner benefits from pitching in the most pitcher friendly park in the league, not to mention a San Francisco Giants rotation loaded with talent. Pitching behind guys like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain means Madison won’t be facing the aces of other teams most of the time, but rather the third or fourth starter, giving him a decided advantage every time he takes the hill. In addition, the Giants finally added some offense this offseason in Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan and Buster Posey while maintaining a great bullpen, enhancing Madison’s chances of success even more.

    All of the candidates written about here are very qualified and could very easily win a Cy Young in 2012. However, with a rising K/9 and GB rate, combined with a lower BB/9, HR/FB and an unbelievable second half where he went 9-4 with a 2.52 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, my choice would be Madison Bumgarner.