I’ve been putting together a list of dark horse Cy Young candidates since 2015 when I was writing for a different site. The topic was assigned to me by my editor and, since then, it’s been a little pet project of mine, and when I say dark horses, I mean dark. I had major success in my debut season, as two of my dark horses actually won the prestigious award. Aside from 2015, I haven’t had a place to publish my candidates save for Twitter and Google Docs, so I decided to issue it on The First Out At Third, an — up until now — exclusively Milwaukee Brewers website. This post, along with one at the end of the season reviewing the candidates, will be the only two non-Brewers pieces you’ll find here.
I only have three requirements when picking my candidates:
- They haven’t won the Cy Young award in the past
- They haven’t received a single Cy Young vote in the past three years
Now, without further ado, here are my 2018 dark horse Cy Young candidates.
1. RHP Zack Godley – Arizona Diamondbacks
Godley is coming off his first full season as a starter, and the 27 year old performed like a No. 1 pitcher in Arizona’s rotation. His 3.37 ERA was backed up by his 3.41 FIP and 3.32 xFIP, while his strikeout rate increased by nearly nine percent from 2016 (when he was mainly used as a reliever). The main thing that intrigues me about Godley is his ability to generate whiffs. Among pitchers who threw at least 150 innings last year, Godley ranked ninth in swinging-strike rate (13.3 percent). That’s a higher percentage than Jacob DeGrom, Stephen Strasburg and teammate Zack Greinke.
The Diamondbacks are set to install a humidor in Chase Field in which they’ll store their baseballs and, as a result, the baseballs will become heavier due to the water they’ll absorb. And that means there will be fewer home runs hit in Chase Field. FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan has more on the issue, but we can reasonably expect Chase Field to see a rather large reduction in home runs. Now, Godley isn’t a fly-ball pitcher, but his 14.7& home-run-to-fly ball ratio — which was the 26th highest mark in all of baseball (minimum 150 IP) — suggests the humidor will absolutely help Godley keep the ball in the park. And that along with his strikeouts should aid him in taking the next step to “ace” this season.
The Diamondbacks have quietly put together a strong rotation, and I’m betting Godley is the best one in that group in 2018.
2. RHP Luis Castillo – Cincinnati Reds
Castillo has just 89.1 major league innings under his belt, all of which came in 2018. But he was spectacular in those 89.1 innings, and I’m all in on this youngster.
The right-hander skipped over Triple-A after putting together a 2.58 ERA and 2.50 FIP for Cincinnati’s Double-A affiliate, and when he got to The Show he didn’t skip a beat. Castillo struck out over 27 percent of batters faced, while posting a 3.12 ERA and 3.74 FIP. His FIP screams that Castillo may be in for some negative regression in 2018, but I’m not buying that narrative. Sixty percent of his allowed batted balls were grounders, and his four-seam fastball and sinker averaged over 97 mph. He has one heck of an arm, and though he probably relies on his four-seam a bit too much, it has the capability to be a devastating pitch.
Castillo’s chances of winning the Cy Young award are miniscule, but that’s why they call it a dark horse, right? Look out for him 2018.
3. RHP Kenta Maeda – Los Angeles Dodgers
Maeda accumulated an ERA over 4 in 2017 and, as a 29-year-old pitcher, his prime should soon be winding down, yet here he is on my list.
Assuming he begins the season in the rotation, Maeda should have no trouble shutting down hitters, and while he took a step back numbers-wise from his rookie season, he made big strides in a few noteworthy categories by upping his K/9, lowering his BB/9, and raising his swinging-strike rate. The results didn’t reflect those improvements, mainly due to his trouble keeping the ball inside the stadium, as he gave up 22 home runs in just 134.1 innings.
If Maeda can keep the ball from flying out and continue to raise his strikeout game, he should see some positive regression in 2018. He allowed a .306 wOBA last season while his xwOBA was .281; that’s not a terribly big difference, but it does mean that Maeda pitched better than his final stats indicated.
4. RHP Jeff Samardzija – San Francisco Giants
Of every pitcher who threw a pitch last year, Samardzija may have been the unluckiest. He posted a 4.42 ERA, yet I would argue that he was dominant. He’s on my list in 2018 because I think he’ll be dominant again, except this time with the stats to back it up.
Samardzija posted baseball’s 13th-highest K-BB% last season, with a 20.4 percent mark. He struck out 24.2 percent of hitters — his highest rate since 2012 — and walked just 3.8 percent — the lowest of his career. Furthermore, his ERA-FIP was the second-largest gap among qualified pitchers, which highlights just how much better Samardzija was than what the naked eye sees. Samardzija will be very good in 2018, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he finished with a sub-3 ERA.
The former Notre Dame star is getting up there in age, so this could be his last shot for a true chance at the Cy Young. I think he has the best chance of all my dark horses.
5. LHP Andrew Heaney – Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The darkest of the dark of my candidates, I believe Heaney — if he can finally stay healthy — can be an ace-like starter for the Angels.
Heaney has pitched just 27.2 innings over the last two years due to a plethora of injuries, including Tommy John surgery in 2016. The 26-year-old lefty has made 23 starts in his career and has a 4.48 ERA to go along with a 4.81 FIP, but during his time in the minors and his brief stint in the majors last season, there’s a lot to like. In 21.2 innings, he struck out 26.7 percent (11.22 K/9) of batters, and while I know that’s an incredibly small sample size, it ranked among the top 25 in that category among starting pitchers. However, Heaney was terrible in 2018, finishing with a 7.06 ERA and 9.11 FIP. That was mostly due to a 40 percent home-run-to-fly-ball ratio, which is just nuts and unsustainable.
Heaney has always had success in the minors, and health has been his biggest hurdle. His only healthy season in the majors came in 2015 when he posted a 3.49 ERA in 105 innings. If Heaney can prove he can continue to pile up the strikeouts with a low-90s fastball and sinker while maintaining a clean bill of health, he has the chance to finally reach his potential.