10 Pitchers Most Likely To Be in the Cy Young Race This Season

William Brabrook@@WillBrabrookFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2016

10 Pitchers Most Likely To Be in the Cy Young Race This Season

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    Madison Bumgarner (left) and Clayton Kershaw (right) are two popular candidates to win the Cy Young Award. Who are some of the other candidates?
    Madison Bumgarner (left) and Clayton Kershaw (right) are two popular candidates to win the Cy Young Award. Who are some of the other candidates?Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    What does a pitcher need to win the Cy Young Award?

    This list will undoubtedly feature some of the top arms in the game. Several of the pitchers here have won the award before, while others have come close—but not close enough. 

    The top pitchers in baseball also have that certain pitch that they throw as well as anyone in the gamea true go-to pitch to get that elusive third strike. Clayton Kershaw has arguably the best curveball in the game, while Felix Hernandez's changeup has fooled many a hitter. Chris Sale's slider is as dominant as either of the former two pitches.

    Cy Young contenders not only have a go-to pitch but also have the consistency and situational awareness to win games. This gives them the ability to win those 1-0 and 2-1 games that simply "good" pitchers can't always win.

    The criteria for this list are mostly comprised of those elements, in addition to how well they can command those pitches and truly dominate their starts. Previously winning the award (or coming close) is a big help as well.

    You'll notice that each slide is accompanied by a video of the pitcher, showing him dominate or complete some sort of amazing feat. These are crucial elements in the making of a Cy Young-caliber pitcher.

    For the sake of this list, there is no league bias. Obviously, there is a separate Cy Young Award for the American and National Leagues, and typically one emerges as the more competitive race. However, this list is simply about individual abilities and will stand independent of league affiliation, although I will give my prediction for the Cy Young Award winner in each league when the corresponding player's slide appears.

    Now, let's take a look at the most likely candidates to win the Cy Young this season.

Honorable Mention

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    Before we delve into the top 10 candidates, here are five pitchers who are in the mix but just missed the cut:

    • No. 15: Matt Harvey (New York Mets)
    • No. 14: Jose Fernandez (Miami Marlins)
    • No. 13: Sonny Gray (Oakland Athletics)
    • No. 12: Corey Kluber (Cleveland Indians)
    • No. 11: Gerrit Cole (Pittsburgh Pirates)

    While there is a substantial argument for any of these pitchers to be on the list—and it wouldn't be much of a surprise if any of them win the Cy Young this year—they simply don't look like top-10 Cy Young candidates at this point. Still, it's a long season, and things change.

    Of the five candidates, Cole has the best odds to emerge as a Cy Young candidate. According to ESPN.com, his 19 wins and 2.60 ERA were tied for second and fifth, respectively, among NL pitchers.

    The above video does a fantastic job of showing off Cole's two best pitches: his fastball and slider. Both pitches look identical when they leave his hand, but the slider takes a nasty dip a few feet from the plate. Fast-forward to the 0:37 mark of the video to see the side-by-side comparison of the two pitches. 

    Yeah, that's difficult to hit. The 97 mph fastball is impressive, and Cole has topped 100 mph several times.

    For a Pirates club that has played well over the past few seasons, Cole is as valuable as any other player on the team.

No. 10: Jacob deGrom (New York Mets)

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    Yes, Jacob deGrom gets the edge over Cole on this list.

    Even though Cole finished higher in the NL Cy Young vote than deGrom did, the 27-year-old Mets ace was actually the better pitcher statistically in several key categories:

    NameWARERAHBBSOWHIP
    deGrom4.72.54149382050.979
    Cole4.52.60183442021.091

    Cole was a little too inconsistent and simply lacked deGrom's big-game dominance.

    While deGrom obviously had a fantastic season last year, he really started to gain national attention with his stellar performance at the 2015 All-Star Game, which is detailed in the above video.

    His 10-pitch performance in the sixth inning of that game was nothing short of stellar, as he mowed down three of the best hitters in the American League. (I would argue that Xander Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox deserved the shortstop nod over Detroit's Jose Iglesias, but that's an argument for another day.)

    In the inning, deGrom's electric four-seam fastball was on full display, and he showed no hesitation in attacking with it. His second strikeout victim of the inning—Jason Kipnis of the Cleveland Indians—was the result of an excellent four-pitch sequence; go to the 0:19 mark of the video to check out the sequence for yourself.

    Using four straight fastballs that each met or exceeded 97 mph, deGrom made a fool of the best second baseman in the league. DeGrom was a major reason that the Mets went to the World Series last year.

    Now in the prime of his career, he looks to make another big performance at 2016 All-Star Game this July, perhaps en route to a Cy Young Award.

No. 9: Madison Bumgarner (San Francisco Giants)

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    If postseason performance factored into the Cy Young voting process, Bumgarner would be atop this list.

    We all know about his performance in the 2014 postseason, particularly the World Series. But even based on regular-season numbers, MadBum is definitely a viable Cy Young candidate.

    Last season, Bumgarner finished fourth in the NL in both strikeouts (234) and wins (18) and ninth in ERA (2.93). He also finished sixth in the Cy Young vote, one spot ahead of deGrom.

    Bumgarner's delivery plays a major role in his success, as it allows him to deceive hitters. He embodies the stereotype of the tall, lanky left-hander, yet he also possesses good command, a diverse arsenal of pitches and his own quirky delivery motions to propel his dominance.

    In his piece before Game 1 of the 2014 World Series, MLB.com's Anthony DiComo gave a detailed analysis of Bumgarner's unique delivery:

    At first glance, Madison Bumgarner's delivery is an impossibility. It begins conventionally enough, with just the slightest twist of his torso away from home plate. But as Bumgarner transfers his weight from his left foot to his right, he swings the baseball oddly behind his head, swooping his arm down and releasing it at an extreme left-handed angle. The first time same-sided hitters catch a good look at the baseball, it appears to be hurtling toward the plate from behind them. Right-handers see the ball barreling in on their hands.

    Take a look at the above video for a good slow-motion visual on what exactly DiComo is referring to. You'll notice that the video is a few years old (Hector Sanchez is the catcher, after all), but the mechanics are nearly identical.

    Aside from his delivery, Bumgarner primarily relies on a trio of pitches: a four-seam fastball, cutter and curveball, with the former two being his best pitches. He doesn't throw very hard, but his delivery and accuracy more than make up for it.

    The most impressive thing about Bumgarner is his increased efficiency and effectiveness over the years. According to FanGraphs, his strikeout rate has risen since 2013, while his walk rate has decreased:

    SeasonK/9BB/9
    20138.902.77
    20149.071.78
    20159.651.61

    Still only 26 years old until August, Bumgarner is a three-time World Series champion with countless postseason accolades—not to mention two Silver Slugger Awards. All that's missing is the elusive Cy Young, and there's no doubt he'll be in that race until the end of the season.  

No. 8: Felix Hernandez (Seattle Mariners)

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    Unlike deGrom and Bumgarner, Felix Hernandez has already won the Cy Young Award.

    During 2010, King Felix was the best player on an absolutely awful Seattle Mariners record He went 13-12 that season despite leading the league with a 2.27 ERA and 232 strikeouts. 

    Yes, that was six seasons ago, but he's been just as good since then; in fact, his 2014 season was statistically better than the 2010 season, even though he lost out on the Cy Young to Kluber.

    Last season, Hernandez had a relapse, posting a 3.53 ERA, his worst since 2007. But he still managed to go 18-9 and was excellent except for three starts: June 12 vs. Houston, July 29 vs. Arizona and Aug. 15 vs. Boston. In those three starts, he racked up 25 earned runs over just 9.3 innings of work. 

    Heading into his age-30 season, Hernandez is undoubtedly nearing the end of his dominance. Still, he has at least another season or two before any true regression sets in. Part of that is due to his devastating changeup, which is arguably the best in the game.

    In the above video from June 8, 2014, Hernandez uses his changeup to rack up 15 strikeouts, still a single-game record for him.

    At the 0:35 mark, Hernandez fires an 89 mph changeup to strike out the Rays' Kevin Kiermaier and again at 1:30 to strike out Evan Longoria, one of the best offensive third basemen in the game. 

    The most impressive thing about Hernandez is the fact that he throws several plus-pitches; in fact, he barely used his changeup until 2010 when he won the Cy Young. Per FanGraphs, Hernandez actually used his sinker more than any other pitch that season (35.2 percent), and his changeup was used over three times more than the previous season (16.2 percent, up from 5.3 percent in 2009). 

    Of course, his evolution of pitch usage has maintained his level of dominance. Here are his pitch frequency percentages in 2010 and 2014, statistically his two best seasons:

    SeasonFastballCutterSinkerSliderCurveballChangeup
    201025.50.035.213.69.316.2
    201414.80.327.78.116.232.6

    As you can see, he went to his changeup more frequently and even added a cutter (he developed it in 2011), although it was seldom used.

    Simply put, Hernandez has been one of the best pitchers in baseball for several years, and there's no reason to think he can't add another Cy Young Award in 2016.

No. 7: Dallas Keuchel (Houston Astros)

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    Every season, at least one pitcher makes a meteoric rise to become one of the best in the game.

    Last year, Dallas Keuchel was one of those pitchers.

    To be fair, his 2014 season was by no means dismal. His 12-9 record and 2.93 ERA were more than respectable, and he even added a Gold Glove Award. 

    But last season, it was as though he was a whole new pitcher. He won the AL Cy Young Award, as his 20 wins led the league. His 2.48 ERA was also a big improvement over the previous season's; in fact, he improved in every category except for home runs allowed and finished fifth in the AL Most Valuable Player voting.

    Oh, and he brought home a second Gold Glove.

    Keuchel features both a two-seam and four-seam fastball, both of which enable him to get ground-ball outs. In the above video, however, he uses his slider several times to get the key strikeout.

    The best example comes at the 0:31 mark, where he uses a filthy 80 mph slider to get Jose Pirela. FanGraphs notes that he used the slider 20.3 percent of the time last season, which is a tough pitch for a right-handed hitter in particular.

    Now 28 years old, Keuchel has thus far taken advantage of the prime of his career. He has made significant improvements in each of the last two seasons.

    If he continues that trend, the 2016 season could well bring Keuchel a World Series ring in addition to a second Cy Young Award.

No. 6: Chris Sale (Chicago White Sox)

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    I noted that Bumgarner "embodies the stereotype of the "tall, lanky left-hander."

    If this is true, then Chris Sale is the epitome of this stereotype and has the success to boot.

    In his five consecutive starts between May 28 and June 19 last season—the latter of which is detailed in the above video—no pitcher came close to Sale's level of dominance. In each of those games, he struck out 12 or more batters, tied for the MLB record.

    Though Sale finished fourth in the AL Cy Young vote, his season was underrated, largely due to the ineptitude of the White Sox lineup. With a 13-11 record, five of his losses came in starts where he gave up three earned runs or less. 

    Another issue that Sale faced was his collapse in the final two-plus months of the season. With him boasting a 2.85 ERA after his July 25 win over the Cleveland Indians, the White Sox fell out of contention—and Sale's ERA ballooned as a result. After his final start of the season on Oct. 2, his ERA was 3.41. 

    Much like Hernandez, Sale has somewhat of a bounce-back year ahead of him, even though his season wasn't bad by any means. But with the White Sox having pulled off the steal of the offseason in getting Todd Frazier, a rejuvenated team should help restore Sale's record.

    Sale's success is attributed to many things, but among them is his wipeout slider, easily the best in the game. The pitch can be absolutely unhittable; just take a look at what it did to Torii Hunter.

    Even in the video, Sale's slider is clearly his go-to pitch. Watch how it ties up the leadoff hitter, Elvis Andrus, at the 0:13 mark. 

    Like many pitchers with a stellar off-speed pitch, however, Sale doesn't use his slider too much, per FanGraphs. His two-seam fastball (which hits 97 mph regularly) is his primary pitch at 51.1 percent, while he uses the slider every fifth pitch at 19.8 percent. He also features a nice changeup, which sits in the 87 mph range. 

    Simply put, Sale is a big name to watch in the Cy Young race. A 27-year-old by Opening Day, there's a distinct possibility that he'll have a Cy Young Award by the time his 28th birthday rolls around. 

No. 5: Zack Greinke (Arizona Diamondbacks)

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    Zack Greinke may be playing for a new team this season, but his dominance should follow him over from Los Angeles. 

    After agreeing to a ludicrous six-year, $206.5 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the 32-year-old sure cashed in. It's easy to see why Arizona felt confident about investing so much money into him.

    The runner-up for the NL Cy Young Award last season, Greinke posted a 1.66 ERA, his best ever. This easily topped his previous season-high of 2.16, set back in 2009 when he won the Cy Young with the Kansas City Royals. 

    Greinke doesn't have that one go-to pitch like Hernandez or Sale, but he has five pitches that he works well into his arsenal.

    He made some big changes going into the 2015 season, as he abandoned his seldom-used cutter in order to place more emphasis on his four-seam fastball, slider and changeup. He also cut his two-seam fastball usage practically in half and used his curveball slightly less. 

    In the above video, Greinke shows his great command and ability to use each pitch at the proper time—a skill which no doubt played a big role in his minuscule ERA last season.

    Perhaps the best pitch in the video was the first one, even though it wasn't a strikeout pitch. Rather, Greinke locates a two-seam fastball on the outer half of the plate, forcing Kole Calhoun to ground into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play. 

    The pitch was nothing special; it only hit 91 mph. But it was well-placed and saved Greinke from having to throw more pitches by going for the strikeout.

    Greinke faces an interesting scenario heading into the 2016 season. He and Shelby Miller will team up to form a one-two combo at the front end of the Diamondbacks' rotation. There's no telling as to whether the team has enough juice to win the difficult NL West, but if it does, Greinke will play a substantial role in it.

No. 4: Jake Arrieta (Chicago Cubs)

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    It's eerie how many similarities Dallas Keuchel and Jake Arrieta shared over the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

    Both pitchers put together respectable 2014 campaigns before becoming elite pitchers in 2015. Both finished the year as aces on playoff teams and, more importantly, Cy Young winners in their respective leagues. 

    Arrieta's 2015 season was more dominant overall, however; it was something you'd see from a 99 overall custom pitcher on MLB The Show. His 22 wins were the most in the entire MLB, and his 1.77 ERA was slightly behind Greinke's. He also finished sixth in the NL MVP voting.

    That's to say nothing of the no-hitter he threw back on Aug. 30 against the Dodgers, which is highlighted in the above video.

    Arrieta features four main pitches: a four-seam fastball, sinker, slider and curveball while also mixing in an occasional changeup. He also abandoned his cutter.

    Here's how Arrieta's 2014 and 2015 pitch frequency charts compare: 

    SeasonFastballCutterSinkerSliderCurveballChangeup
    201421.51.224.829.0 17.8 5.5 
    201515.60.035.7 28.8 15.5 4.2 

    As the chart indicates, the only significant change that Arrieta made to his pitch usage was easing off on the fastball and going to his sinker more often. Apparently, that change helped add to 12 additional wins and a Cy Young Award.

    In the video, Arrieta shuts down a talented Dodger lineup by mixing up his pitches in critical moments. He throws everything hard, as his fastball sits around 95 mph, while his sinker, slider and changeup each touch the low 90s. Even his curveball is a little above-average at 80 mph.

    Arrieta, a known workout enthusiast, will be 30 by Opening Day. His Chicago Cubs are as highly favored to win the World Series as ever before, and their hopes and dreams may well rest with him.  

No. 3: David Price (Boston Red Sox)

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    Consider David Price to be the American League version of Zack Greinke, at least in regard to how their last several months have gone.

    Much like Greinke, Price switched teams by signing a seven-year, $217 million megadeal this past offseason with the Boston Red Sox after finishing second for the Cy Young award in the AL. 

    But at 30 years old, the talented left-hander is younger than Greinke and has considerable success at Fenway Park, his new home. In his last three seasons, Price has started four games at Fenway, going 2-0 with a 1.53 ERA. Though it's a small sample size, Price is familiar with the stadium, and there shouldn't be any kinks to work out at the new hometown park.

    Price has also won the Cy Young Award before, back in 2012 with the Tampa Bay Rays. His stats from that season were fairly similar to last year's. In 2012, he went 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA, while last year, he went 18-5 with a 2.45 ERA, including a stellar 9-1 record with the Blue Jays after the midseason trade.

    Though he can throw six pitches, Price limits his range to five, having changed out his slider for a knuckle-curve in the last two seasons, per FanGraphs. He utilizes his four-seam and two-seam fastballs more than half the time (exactly 54.3 percent).

    When tracking the average velocity of his pitches, Price generally throws hard but has a noticeable velocity differential on each pitch. Whereas most hard-throwing pitchers generally place their fastball in the upper 90s and have a changeup that touches the low 90s, Price throws about 94 mph on his fastball and 85 mph on his changeup. His 89 mph cutter can also be difficult for hitters to discern as opposed to the changeup.

    The above video highlights his debut with the Blue Jays. The most noticeable trend in the early stages of the video (aside from the 11 strikeouts in the game, per the description) consists of Price placing fastballs on the outside to hitters. 

    The first two Minnesota Twins batters each strike out on this pitch, as do three of the first five hitters shown. Price also changes up between his two-seamer (the first batter) and his four-seamer (second and fifth batters). In fact, he retires each of these five hitters on a fastball, although the location, speed and type of out (strikeout or flyout) vary.

    Overall, Price provides the Red Sox with the reliable ace that they so desperately need. At this point, Price is my pick to win the American League Cy Young Award.

No. 2: Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers)

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    If the prediction for the Cy Young were based on performance over the past five seasons, Clayton Kershaw would win the award in the NL, and it wouldn't even be close.

    Since 2011, Kershaw has won the award three times, placed second once and placed third last year. Each year, he has made a legitimate case to win it, regardless of the actual outcome.

    What makes him so dominant?

    There are several key factors, but over the years, a clear trend has emerged in his pitch usage: Each season, he increases usage of both his slider and his curveball, per FanGraphs.

    The latter pitch is perhaps the most unhittable in the game. 

    For the video on Kershaw, I went with a compilation of his best curveballs from last season, overlooking the ill-placed music that accompanies the video. Yes, I picked it even over the highlights from his no-hitter.

    That's how much the curveball helps Kershaw and makes him the phenom that we see.

    Just look at the big names who have fallen victim to that pitch: Derek Norris, Justin Upton, Troy Tulowitzki (twice), Bumgarner (twice) and Ryan Braun.

    And that's just in the first 1:30 of the video.

    Of course, the curveball is simply the best pitch out of an impressive trio. His four-seam fastball and slider are his two most used pitches, and he spots them well. The fastball generally hits 93 or 94 mph, while the slider cuts hard at about 88 mph.

    The knock on Kershaw has always been his inability to win postseason games; however, that's not part of the Cy Young voting process. 

    Looking ahead to this season, Kershaw will enter at 28 years of age, in the prime of his career and likely with an increased curveball usage rate. The Dodgers are aching for another World Series title, and if Kershaw can string together a few solid postseason performances, there's a good chance they'll get it—along with a fourth Cy Young for Kershaw.

    And yet, I don't believe that he will win the NL Cy Young Award this season. 

No. 1: Max Scherzer (Washington Nationals)

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    Max Scherzer is my pick to win the NL Cy Young Award. 

    Coming over to the Washington Nationals last season after a stellar tenure in Detroit that netted him the 2013 AL Cy Young Award, Scherzer pitched well for the Nationals. 

    For anyone who points to his 14-12 record last season as a reason to not favor him this year, let me break that down for you.

    Of those 12 losses, 10 came in starts where Scherzer gave up four earned runs or less. He lacked run support in many of his starts, yet he still pitched very well—including an (almost) perfect ending to the season, detailed in the video above.

    Though he throws six pitches, the 31-year-old largely sticks to a quartet of plus-pitches: a four-seam fastball, slider, curveball and changeup, per FanGraphs.

    As shown in the video, his fastball is clearly the go-to strikeout pitch (he gets hitters to chase the high 96 mph heat), while the slider and curveball generate easy groundouts or flyouts.

    He also has an abnormally high strikeout rate and has since 2012. In each season since then, Scherzer has averaged 10 or more strikeouts per nine innings pitched, an incredible feat. 

    If you were to argue that Kershaw, Price, Arrieta or Greinke should be atop this list, I can see a reasonable argument for that. But when Scherzer is on his A-game, there's no one better.

    Throughout the 2016 season, we'll be seeing a lot of Scherzer's A-game.

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