Welcome to the 2020 edition of my dark horse Cy Young candidates.
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 ever since then, it’s been a little pet project of mine. I had major success in my debut season, with two of my dark horses winning 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 — other than this yearly article — exclusively Milwaukee Brewers website.
I only have two 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
You can find my past picks here, and once the 2020 season begins, I’ll post a link on Twitter that allows you to follow along with my candidates.
RHP Brandon Woodruff
Brandon Woodruff is just a few small steps away from becoming one of the best starting pitchers in the game. In 2019 he posted a 3.62 ERA, which ranked 27th in baseball among starters with at least 120 innings pitched. Woodruff’s FIP, however, was tied for the sixth-lowest mark under the same parameters. He actually pitched a lot better than his 3.62 ERA suggested, mainly due to the fact that his strikeout rate (29%) was sky high while his walk rate (6.1%) was low. His K%-BB% — which is a strong way to predict future performance — of 22.9% was the 14th-best mark in baseball.
And just look at his RW23 projection:
If he manages to come close to that projection, it’s almost a certainty Woodruff will garner Cy Young votes. Health will play a significant role, though, as he missed a month with an oblique injury last season and finished with just 121.2 innings. The Brewers — considered to have a weak rotation once again — expect to rely heavily on their ace, and Woodruff has the stuff to carry the rotation himself and help the Brewers reach the playoffs for the third-straight year for the first time in franchise history.
LHP Max Fried
Max Fried needs to do just one thing to become an ace; limit home runs. In 225.1 career innings, the 26-year-old left-handed pitcher owns a 20.3% home-run-to-fly-ball ratio. His 20.2% HR/FB% last year was the second-highest in baseball behind Yu Darvish among qualified pitchers. And yet he still finished with a respectable stat line. His 3.72 FIP and 3.32 xFIP outperformed his 4.03 ERA, and he drastically cut down his walks from previous seasons while racking up his fair share of strikeouts (24.6%).
A cause behind Fried’s knack for giving up home runs is that he allows relatively high exit velocities. He allowed an average exit velocity of 88.3 last season, which put him in the not-so-good 41st percentile. That will obviously need to change in order to unlock his potential. But the rest of the traits are there. He’s among the top players in swinging-strike percentage and forces more ground balls than nearly any other starting pitcher. Only four qualified starters had a higher ground-ball rate than Fried in 2019.
If Fried takes the next step and cuts down the home runs, don’t be surprised if you see his name among the Cy Young finalists.
RHP Dinelson Lamet
Dinelson Lamet missed the entire 2018 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but returned to start 14 games for the Padres this past season. And the results were impressive. In 73 innings, the 27 year old struck out 33.6% of batters he faced. Among starting pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched, Lamet’s strikeout rate was the sixth highest. He has unbelievably nasty stuff that includes a fastball that sits in the mid-90s. Even Statcast agrees.
Red means great and there’s a lot of red on that chart. If he can stay healthy and pitches enough innings, it wouldn’t shock me if he ends up leading the league in strikeouts. Walks and home runs are an issue for the hurler, but he can easily overcome those obstacles with more time and experience. Lamet is finally entering a season fully healthy and has everything he needs to put it all together and become a stud pitcher.
LHP Matthew Boyd
Matthew Boyd is maybe the darkest dark horse on my list, but he’s also my favorite pick. He’s the darkest of the dark because he owns a career 4.92 ERA and finished last year with a 4.56 ERA. So why is he among my candidates?
Did you know that through Boyd’s first 72 innings of 2019 he had a 2.84 ERA and a 2.88 FIP? He was absolutely lights out during the first two months. He finished the season, however, in a miserable fashion, posting ERA’s above 5 in both June and August. Boyd’s first half ERA was a respectable 3.87 while his second half ERA was an abysmal 5.51. That’s night and day. But I’m buying — I’m actually all in — in on his first-half production.
In spite of Boyd’s ERA in 2019, he had fantastic peripherals, including a career-high strikeout rate. Take a look at his last three seasons and see what jumps out to you.
First off, Boyd learned how to strike hitters out at an impressive rate. His jump of nearly eight percent is rare for a starting pitcher in just one season. And though his walks declined with his increase in strikeouts, his home runs ballooned like Will Smith’s face in Hitch. Only Mike Leake gave up more than Boyd’s 39 home runs last year. With the amount of swings and misses Boyd forces, that home run number seems unsustainable to me. Couple that with the fact that he might a have a new curveball, that home-run rate should fall considerably.
Though he’s never actually proved it, I believe Boyd has turned into the pitcher he was in the first half of 2019 rather than the second half. His K%-BB% was among the top 10, right behind Walker Buehler and Lucas Giolito, and I’m willing to bet his home run surge was a fluke. If he can continue striking out hitters at such high rate, he has the chance to be an absolute ace for the lowly Tigers.
RHP Chris Paddack
Yes, yes, another San Diego Padre on my list.
In his rookie season, Paddack — who was on an innings limit and was eventually shut down — posted a 3.33 ERA and a 3.95 FIP. He showed excellent command (5.5% BB%) and was among the top 25 in strikeout rate. Not a bad way to begin your MLB career. And now I expect Paddack to take the next leap to stardom.
Without a strict pitch count or innings limit to hold him back, Paddack should be ready to unleash everything he has for his sophomore season. It’ll be interesting to see if his curveball — his worst pitch — has improved at all. His curveball’s spin rate ranks in the 11th percentile and hitters batted .267 against it. And while that average might not seem high, hitters only hit .204 and .190 against his four-seam fastball and changeup, respectively.
Basically, Paddack is on my dark horse Cy Young list because of his impressive rookie season, and if he somehow gets even better results over a full season with no restrictions, it’ll be tough to see him left out of the Cy Young conversation.