It’s March. Which means we’re more aware than ever that picking favorites is no fun. It also means MLB is ramping up toward opening day and the best pitchers in the world are taking aim at the Cy Young.
At this time last year, you might have had a reasonable hunch that Milwaukee Brewers starter Corbin Burnes was going to build on his excellent 2020 rebound, yet he was at +3500 in spring training. Over in the AL, Robbie Ray seemed like a long shot to be a top three starter on his own team, much less the class of the entire league.
In the world of pitching, little changes can have huge effects. And dark horses do win Cy Young awards. Beyond the favorites, there are real hopes, and real winnings, to be found … if you know where to look.
Some history can help choose a Cy Young Cinderella for 2022. I pored over the last 25 unique winners — dating back to Johan Santana in 2004 — to find some patterns that can filter the field for the most promising breakout candidates.
Filter No. 1: Health
The last pitcher to win a Cy Young — favorite or surprise — a season after starting fewer than 24 games was Cliff Lee in 2008. Health concerns are a major red flag both for the existence of an earlier injury and for the likelihood that teams may be cautious with a pitcher good enough to compete for a Cy Young.
I wouldn’t rule out overwhelming NL favorite Jacob deGrom (+350 at BetMGM) based on this — he came out in his first spring training outing spotting 92 mph sliders on the corner — but if you’re spying riskier options, you may be better served skipping some otherwise appealing names like Justin Verlander (+2000 at BetMGM), Chris Sale (+1600 but already injured again) and Mike Clevinger (+5000).
Filter No. 2: Stability
Analytics have been particularly useful for pitchers, with innovations in biomechanics and pitch design allowing many to revamp their approaches in dramatic ways. In more than a handful of cases, changing teams has exposed talented pitchers to new ideas that unlock their potential.
Think Jake Arrieta going to the Cubs. There’s a temptation to think that new equals better. But it’s not an instant process. No one has taken home a Cy Young in their debut season with a new club since Roy Halladay with the Phillies in 2010, and he wasn’t exactly a breakout case — he’d already won the award in the other league.
This is a vanishingly small sample, and shouldn’t be taken as “predictive” so much as a gut check. Those cases of new team, new pitcher can be alluring, but have proven more likely to produce award-winning results in the second season (or the full season following a trade deadline acquisition, as was the case for Ray and the Blue Jays). So in seeking this year’s Ray, skip his Toronto replacements Kevin Gausman (+2000) and Yusei Kikuchi (+8000), as well as new Giants starter Carlos Rodon, who also barely clears the injury risk bar. Also: Ray himself (+1000) as he makes the move to Seattle.
Filter No. 3: Age
Over our sample — from which I removed the anomalous knuckleballer R.A. Dickey — first-time Cy winners are overwhelmingly between 26 and 29 years old. The average age is 26.95, and the median is 26.5. Now, no one said our dark horse has to be a first-time winner, but most of the previous winners who are both healthy and allowed to play right now are squarely among the favorites.
Aside from Dickey, deGrom was the oldest breakthrough winner since Bartolo Colon in 2005. You also have to go back to Clayton Kershaw in 2011 to find a first-time winner who was under the age of 25.
Filter No. 4: Reason to believe
The mushiest but perhaps most crucial consideration in picking an unexpected pitcher to be the league’s best? Spotting some evidence they are prepared to launch themselves beyond the Max Scherzers, Shane Biebers and Corbin Burneses of the world, even briefly.
A rudimentary peek back through history says there is usually a hint of something changing. You want to drill down beyond ERA and other results measures that might have little to do with the pitcher’s ability, so I took a look at K-BB%, which zeroes in on how well an arsenal is performing and how well it is commanded. All but one of the last 10 new Cy Young winners have bested their career-to-date K-BB% in the second half of the season prior to their first Cy-winning campaign. (The one who didn’t was Ray, who provided reason for hope in a different way by wrangling a career-threatening control issue.)
Some have made more obvious improvements than others. If you spot someone pulling a deGrom and suddenly adding multiple ticks to their fastball and pinpointing a 92 mph slider, I recommend jumping on that bandwagon. It’s usually not that apparent. More often, it’s a subtle change like Rick Porcello’s shift toward throwing his fastball higher.
There are all sorts of ways to talk yourself into a star turn, and all sorts of ways it can happen without warning, but try to find an upswing somewhere. That took Lucas Giolito and Joe Musgrove off my board. Do I think they’re capable of glorious, hardware-winning seasons? Yes, but their 2022 progressions don’t show momentum toward a new peak.
So, with all that in mind, here are five arms who could make you look really smart in 2022 — Cy Young dark horses ready to strike.
Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
The closest thing to a favorite in this category is the Phillies co-ace who didn’t almost win the award in 2021. Nola — who finished third in 2018 — is challenging hitters as much as he ever has, and racking ups strikeouts in the process. Don’t let the 4.63 ERA scare you off. His Fielding Independent Pitching, a more predictive metric, was the 12th-best in baseball last season. The Phillies defense isn’t looking likely to lend more help, but the bullpen will probably strand more of his runners in 2022.
Dylan Cease, Chicago White Sox
The 26-year-old made huge strides toward harnessing his wicked arsenal last year, leading the AL in strikeouts per nine while chipping away at a walk rate that had been the worry. What he’s learning is that hitters can’t put the bat on his pitches even when they go right down the middle. His devastating slider — which moves like a curveball but comes in at 86 mph — got whiffs on more than half the swings it induced last year.
His progression from wild but intriguing to a potential ace could mimic the early career trajectory of Blake Snell, who won the 2018 AL award on the back of similarly nasty offerings. The main problem with Cease? Despite being the fifth-most famous starter in his own rotation, he’s got the attention of Vegas. There are only four pitchers with better Cy Young odds than him in the AL.
An alternative idea? Actual Blake Snell. He’s +3000 for NL Cy Young after a rough first season with the Padres. But he regained some form in the second half and could easily rebound alongside the rest of the team. He’s essentially just Cease with proof of concept.
José Berríos, Toronto Blue Jays
Here’s your Blue Jays starter to bet on. Berríos was one of the majors’ most consistent and durable starters during his years with the Minnesota Twins. He boosted his strikeout rate and cut his walk rate after joining Toronto at the deadline, and the team signed him to an extension in the offseason. He already made one mechanical tweak with the Blue Jays, and further honing of his pitch mix — which features dueling four-seam and two-seam fastballs — could help him level up on a good team.
Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins
All signs point up for the first jewel of the Marlins’ excellent pitching development program. He’s the hardest-throwing starter in the majors not named deGrom, and a demonstrable increase in confidence in his changeup made him a complete, 200-inning ace in 2021. The Marlins probably won’t contend, and that could be a drag, but wins haven’t been the end-all, be-all in a long time. Alcantara could make a case too good to pass up.
Julio Urías, Los Angeles Dodgers
Teammate Walker Buehler (+1000 at BetMGM) was pretty much created in a lab to win his first Cy Young, but Urías is a more intriguing bet. The lefty who famously debuted as a teenager may be The Coddled One in your head, but the Dodgers have gradually taken the training wheels off. He threw 185 2/3 innings over 32 starts in 2021, and posted the best rate stats of his career while doing it.
He also added 2 mph to his curveball, amped up its usage and wound up with one of the best pitches in the big leagues. He and Buehler will be sharing the front-of-the-rotation spotlight for baseball’s best team. Urias may very well walk away with the shine of a Cy Young win.
Who else fits the bill?
Buehler, World Series hero Max Fried (+1500) and second-wave Brewers star Freddy Peralta (+3000) could rise in the NL.
Two solid AL choices — Sean Manaea (+1500) and Frankie Montas (+2000) — are waylaid on the mid-teardown Oakland A’s. Being traded in season would likely doom their chances, but reconsider if they move before opening day.
Boston Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi (+2500) doesn’t technically make it through my age filter, but I might we willing to give him a look based on his progressively improving control. Finally, there’s reigning AL MVP Shohei Ohtani (+2500). He largely tamed his walk issue in the second half of 2021. He won’t throw as often as a usual ace due to his whole breaking baseball by going full contemporary Babe Ruth on the majors thing, but doubting his ability to transcend usual boundaries seems silly at this point.