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Sunday, March 07, 2010

21st-Century Cy

Not every year does a relatively unheralded pitcher come, as though from out of nowhere, to win his profession's most prestigious award.  It has happened, however, in each of the last two seasons, and seven times in the last decade (during which, of course, twenty Cy Youngs have been awarded.)

Way back in 2002, a 24-year-old Barry Zito won 23 games in what has proved to be the best season of his career.  The season prior to it he had been very good (17-8, 3.49 ERA), but certainly not superlative, and going into '02 he was still considered the #3 starter on his own team.

In 2004, Johan Santana "arrived."  Although his arm had been gaining him notoriety for a couple years, he had spent most of his career prior to '04 in the bullpen.  That year, however, he made 34 starts, won 20 of them, and led the league in strikeouts (265) and ERA (2.61).

The very next year, a 30-year-old Chris Carpenter, after seven seasons floundering with the Blue Jays and struggling with injuries and control, suddenly became one of the best pitchers in baseball, going 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA in his second year under the tutelage of Dave Duncan in St. Louis.

There was another first-time Cy Young vote-getter in 2006, when Brandon Webb won the award with his 16 wins and 3.10 ERA.

And, most recently, as you will remember, Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke finished their somewhat unlikely ascents to the top of the American League, and Tim Lincecum won the NL version of the award in his first full season in the majors in '08.

So, who's going to be the next unexpected Cy?  Here are some criteria for making the prediction.  With the exception of Cliff Lee, none of the pitchers discussed above had placed in the Cy Young voting prior to the year they won it, but all were coming off pretty solid seasons, in which they won at least 12 games and had an ERA lower than 3.80 (Lincecum didn't get enough starts to meet this criteria in his rookie year, but in all likelihood he would've easily matched it).

Although Lee had a notoriously bad run in '06 and '07, he had previously logged three seasons with 14 or more wins and finished as high as fourth in Cy Young voting in 2005.  So, what I'm looking for primarily, is a player who won 12-15 games in '09 and posted an ERA between 3.50 and 4.00 with some positive trends in his other numbers.

I'm also looking for somebody in their mid-twenties who was, at one point or another, even if it was five or six years ago, considered a top prospect.  Four of my seven Cys were first-round picks and Santana certainly would have been (he signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela).  Five won the award for the first time between the ages of 24 and 27, while Lee won it at 29 and Carpenter was 30.  With those factors in mind, here are the top candidates:

Chad Billingsley - Los Angeles Dodgers - 25 - 1st Rd. (2003)

I include Billingsley despite the fact his 4.03 ERA in '09 was a touch outside the qualifying margin, because obviously it was unduly influenced by his especially poor finish.  At the beginning of July he was 9-4 with a 3.14 ERA.  At that point, nobody would've imagined that the Dodgers would be entering 2010 with doubts as to whether they had a legitimate Ace.  Injuries really slowed his second half and cost him at least one postseason start.  Billingsley now has three full seasons in the big leagues and will come into 2010 with something to prove.

John Danks - Chicago White Sox - 25 - 1st Rd. (2003)

Danks seems to have inherited teammate Mark Buehrle's talent for flying under the radar.  The 25-year-old made 32+ starts for his second consecutive season in '09, netting 13 wins and posting a solid 3.77 ERA.  His walk and homerun rates are somewhat concerning, but he is certainly durable and a modest improvement in his control could turn him into a front-of-the-rotation option in Chicago.  Unlike some of the other guys on this list, there is nobody expecting Danks to fill the role of Ace for his team, as the White Sox have Buehrle and Jake Peavy ahead of him.  The lower pressure situation could work to his advantage.

Yovani Gallardo - Milwakee Brewers - 24 - 2nd Rd. (2004)

Gallardo missed almost the entirety of the Brewer's '08 season, but came back with a vengeance during their playoff run, posting a 1.45 ERA in five starts in September and October.  In '09, after the departure of C. C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets, the 23-year-old Gallardo, who had less than 150 innings of big-league experience, was asked to assume the role of Ace.  He did an fair job, going 13-12 with a 3.73 ERA and 204 strikeouts in 186 innings.  Clearly, hitters had a very hard time with Gallardo, but, not unlike Danks and Billingsley, he gave away too many free passes (4.6 BB/9).  However, that walk rate is much higher than it was during Gallardo's minor-league career and even in his first season in Milwaukee.  It would not be a complete surprise if Gallardo required a full season to get back his control and arm strength following elbow surgery.  So, his '09 production may be merely a glimmer of what he's capable of.

Edwin Jackson - Arizona Diamondbacks - 26 - 6th Rd. (2001)

Imagine that you found this on your SAT test:

'07 - 31 GS, 161 IP, 5.76 ERA, 1.76 WHIP, 4.9 BB/9
'08 - 31 GS, 183 IP, 4.42 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 3.8 BB/9
'09 - 33 GS, 214 IP, 3.62 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 2.9 BB/9
'10 - ?

Based on the rates of improvement over the first three seasons, what would be the statistics for 2010?

'10- 34 GS, 241 IP, 2.55 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 1.9 BB/9

If that isn't a Cy Young season, I don't know what is.  Obviously, that's a pretty optimistic projection, but Jackson has been durable throughout his career, he's still young enough to continue improving, and he now gets to face the opposing pitcher two or three times every game.  Even if you split the difference between his '09 stats and my '10 projections, the outcome is pretty darn good.  Hell, if he just repeats the '09 version, but has the normal .25-.50 improvement in ERA that usually accompanies a move to the NL, he'll one of the best pitchers in the league.

Ubaldo Jimenez - Colorado Rockies - 26 - Amateur Free Agent

Jimenez had a bit of a coming out party in Game 4 of the NLDS, when he battled Cliff Lee more or less pitch for pitch for seven innings and limited the mighty Phillies to a pair of solo homers.  Prior to that, he breakout season had gone largely unnoticed.  He won fifteen games, threw 218 innings, and, most importantly, brought his walk rate way down (from 4.7 to 3.5).  The season looks even better if you throw out his rough start (1-4 in first five games).  From May 6th to the end of the season he went 14-8 with a 3.05 ERA.  It's hard to win a Cy Young pitching in Colorado (so far, it's been impossible), but Jimenez is the best candidate they've ever had.

John Lannan - Washington Nationals - 25 - 11 Rd. (2005)

I had to give Lannan a break on a couple of our criteria, as he's never won more than nine games and he was never really considered a blue chip prospect.  Double digit wins is tough task pitching for the Nationals, after all, and Lannan's recent production has more than made up for his early mediocrity.  Lannan was pretty dreadful in his first two professional seasons, but in 2007 he figured something out and jumped all the way from A-ball to the major leagues.  Over the past two seasons, the youngster has become what passes for an Ace in D.C., averaging 32 starts, 194 innings, a 3.89 ERA, and a 1.34 WHIP.  He won't miss a lot of bats like most of the other guys on this list, but his groundball rate in '09 was 10th best in all of baseball, neck-and-neck with renowned double-play artists like Adam Wainwright and Roy Halladay.

Ricky Nolasco - Florida Marlins - 27 - 4th Rd. (2001)

Nolasco's overall ERA last season was atrocious (5.06), well outside the range we were looking for, but I gave Nolasco a pass because of his resemblance to Cliff Lee.  Like Lee, Nolasco was a fourth-round pick and, like Lee, he got traded before he even pitched a big-league innning.  Also, like Lee (and like Roy Halladay, for that matter), Nolasco had immediate success at the big-league level, but couldn't maintain it.  In 2006, Nolasco made 22 starts and posted decent rookie numbers (11-11, 4.82 ERA), but after a rough stretch in 2007 he got sent all the way back to the rookie leagues.  Then, in 2008, Nolasco was a breakout 15-game winner, at the age of 25.  However, he was so bad in the first six weeks of '09 that he ended up getting himself demoted again.  His return was much quicker this time around and from June 7 until the end of the season he went 11-4 with a 3.82 ERA and 158 K in 141 IP.  If Nolasco can skip the April showers in 2010, he'll officially be a Lee doppelganger.

Jered Weaver - Los Angeles Angels - 27 - 1st Rd. (2004)

Weaver's been right on the cusp of super-stardom since 2006, when he went 11-2 with a 2.56 ERA in his rookie year (fans of Tommy Hanson should take note).  He back-tracked somewhat and was basically a solid #4 starter for the Angels over the next two seasons (averaging 12 W, 169 IP, 4.13 ERA, 1.33 WHIP).  Then, in '09, he took a sizable leap forward (as many, including myself, had been predicting), throwing 200+ innings, winning 16 games, and acting as the most dependable pitcher in the Angels rotation.  This year he'll be competing with Scott Kazmir and Ervin Santana to take over the Ace role abandoned by John Lackey.  It remains to be seen how he'll handle the added responsibility.

Here are a couple of other pitchers who matched some of our criteria, but for one reason or another just missed my list:

Zach Duke - Pittsburgh Pirates - 27 - 20th Rd. (2001)
Scott Kazmir - Los Angeles Angels - 26 - 1st Rd. (2002)
Ian Kennedy - Arizona Diamondbacks - 25 - 1st Rd. (2006)
Francisco Liriano - Minnesota Twins - 26 - Amateur Free Agent
David Price - Tampa Bay Rays - 24 - 1st Rd. (2007)
Ervin Santana - Los Angeles Angels - 27 - Amateur Free Agent

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