As we approached the 2015 season, who could have foreseen Chicago Cubs 29-year-old right-hander Jake Arrieta — and his 34-32 career record and 4.48 career ERA — being even in sniffing distance of a Cy Young Award? Few people, if anyone, can honestly claim to have felt that would be the case.
However, sabermetrically speaking, there were at least indications as far back as June 2014 that Arrieta would have a breakthrough season in 2015. He did. Magic was made. He was nearly unhittable the last two months of the season. Which leads me to ponder this question on the day the 2015 Cy Young Award winners are announced: Who is next year’s Arrieta?
I’m talking about a pitcher who is nowhere near Cy Young consideration this year but has at least offered indications that a giant step forward is possible.
The first thing that’s necessary in an exercise like this is to learn from history, so I looked at Steamer projections for past Cy Young winners headed into their award-winning seasons, then compared their actual results to their projected numbers. That juxtaposition gives us some facts about past winners, and those facts might give us a road map to find future winners. First, let’s look at what past award winners have taught us.
Young and Good
Since 2010, the Cy Young award winners have been 28 years old on average. That’s a magical age, because after 28 years old, starting pitchers generally see their strikeout, walk and home run rates get worse with each coming year. So our best pitchers are usually at their peak, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.
We all remember R.A. Dickey winning in 2012, and Jake Arrieta is in the mix for the award this year. So maybe its a little bit more surprising that, for the most part, the Cy Young award has gone to a pitcher that was a preseason favorite.
I ranked all starting pitchers by volume and fielding-independent statistics like strikeouts, walks, and home runs. The average pre-season rank for a Cy winner was 33. If you take Dickey out, the average winning pitcher was in the top 13. Roy Halladay was projected to be the best pitcher when he won, and Corey Kluber was projected to be 61st-best in 2014, but on average, you’re looking in the top 30 for your next winner.
Luck and Skills
Beyond age, the recipe for a Cy Young award includes good luck. The winners were projected to have a .292 batting average on ball in play, and they actually had a .272 BABIP. Even the best pitchers have to get a little lucky in order to separate themselves from the other great pitchers.
But the affect of luck might be smaller than you’d expect. That change represents a 7% improvement. If you look at their actual strikeout rate compared to their projected one, winners saw an 18% improvement in strikeout rate. They improved their walk rate by 23%. So Cy Young pitchers got better in their award seasons, and that improvement outpaced the role of luck in their outcomes.
Following the Map
So we’re looking for a 27-29 year old that’s projected to be in the top 30 starters next year, first of all. That will help cull our list at least. Then we can look for a few cases where the pitcher has shown signs of improving their skills in order to make that jump.
Stephen Strasburg leaps to the top of the list. He’s just turned 27 years old, he’s projected to be the tenth-best pitcher in baseball next year, and he improved quietly in the second half last season. In fact, by pumping his strikeouts per nine innings up by two and dropping a walk per nine off his walk rate, he improved those two rates more than anyone else that’s projected to be in the top 35 pitchers next season. For him, the luck is probably injury-related, but if he can stay in one piece, he has Cy Young stuff.
If you sort next year’s young top 35 by second-half improvements in walk and strikeout rates, you get Jacob deGrom and Dallas Keuchel, and those are completely believable names. Of course, they might win hardware this year, so neither would make much of a sleeper pick for next year.
Instead, let’s look at a few names down list that would make a bigger splash if they win the Cy Young award next year.
The Indians already took one of their under-rated pitchers to Cy greatness — maybe Carlos Carrasco can follow Corey Kluber next year. Carrasco had a great, if short, 2014, and all eyes were on him for a repeat, especially in the velocity category. The 28-year-old had added velocity when he went to the bullpen, and it was reasonable to wonder if he’d lose that velocity again in the rotation.
Carrasco has now pitched more than 250 innings since he left the bullpen, and he’s maintained a 95 mph fastball velocity for most of that time. As an added bonus, he added a strikeout and a half to his second-half strikeout rate and also improved his ground-ball rate by 15%. Looks like the sinker he started using more in the second half might be the final tweak that could get him on the podium.
Both Carlos Martinez and Tyson Ross improved their second-half walk rates and are young men projected to be in the top 35 next year. They also share a league with Clayton Kershaw, who has won three of the last four awards going into today’s announcement… and might win today as well. Hard to bet on two youngsters to rise up against him right now.
But on the American League side, there is another young man who has award-winning type stuff who also improved in the second half last year. Yordano Ventura is 24 years old, has a big fastball, and added a strikeout and a half to his second half strikeout rate last year.
Ventura may have a little bit of a problem getting extension on his fastball, but if Jacob deGrom managed to jump further off the rubber in 2015 than he did in 2014, maybe Ventura can manage the feat, too. And his changeup is probably more average than plus — but at least it’s average. Ventura’s curve ball got the sixth-most whiffs among starters last year, and most of his second-half improvement came from throwing it more.
Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale are projected to be the best pitchers in their respective leagues next year. Past Cy Young award winners — Kershaw himself — were thought to be that good going into the season. It wouldn’t be surprising at all if we have two lefty Cys next year.
But the average year has more surprising candidates as well. R.A. Dickey, Corey Kluber, and maybe Jake Arrieta have all shown us that there’s hope for the sleepers. And the road map those winners have provided says that it might be Carlos Carrasco, Yordano Ventura, or Stephen Strasburg with the hardware next season. They check all the right boxes at least.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.