Last season’s Cy Young Award winners could hardly have been considered surprises.
In the American League, Justin Verlander was coming off a runner-up finish in 2018, and is likely on his way to the Hall of Fame. In the National League, Jacob deGrom won for the second year in a row.
But these results aren’t always so easy to predict, and you only have to go back to 2018 for an example of a pitcher putting together a surprise Cy campaign. In that case, it was the Rays’ Blake Snell, who quickly blossomed into an ace and dropped his ERA by more than two runs from the year before.
In that spirit, MLB.com enlisted five reporters to pick dark horse Cy Young Award candidates for 2020, with each selecting one pitcher per league. “Dark horse” is, of course, a subjective designation. In this case, the 19 pitchers who received votes for last year’s awards were not considered. Other pitchers who clearly did not fit the description -- say Snell or Chris Sale -- were also excluded.
With those parameters in mind, here are the picks:
José Berríos -- RHP, Twins
Key number: 17 inches avg. horizontal movement on curveball
The Indians’ Mike Clevinger was the pick here before his recent knee injury dealt a blow to his chances, but Berríos is a worthy replacement. The 25-year-old has taken the ace reins in Minnesota, and one key is his curveball, which he throws nearly 30% of the time. The pitch has some of the most extreme horizontal movement in the game, coming in seven inches above average, compared to curves thrown with a similar velocity and release point. He may not be a high-velo, swing-and-miss, strikeout pitcher, but Berríos is almost guaranteed to end up on a list of nastiest pitches, which definitely helps his case. So does the backing of a loaded Twins lineup. If he can make an adjustment or two and fix his tendency for second-half swoons, it stands to reason that Berríos will lead the rotation and be in line for the first Cy Young votes of his career.
-- Sarah Langs
Matthew Boyd -- LHP, Tigers
Key number: 30.2% strikeout rate
You might have forgotten about Boyd, because after a great start last season, he ended up with a 4.56 ERA and an AL-high 39 homers allowed. But listen: This guy is a strikeout artist, and that's the most important thing looking ahead to 2020. Boyd had 238 K's last season, top 10 in the Majors, and he was one of 10 qualified starters who struck out over 30% of the batters he faced -- a who's who group of baseball's best pitchers, topped by names like Gerrit Cole, Verlander, Max Scherzer and deGrom. Boyd's got a wipeout fastball-slider combo. The lefty's 223 combined strikeouts on those two pitch types were third-most behind Cole (268) and Verlander (231). Top-tier strikeout stuff is what you want in a dark horse Cy Young candidate. Those homers are going to come down, and Boyd's stat line is going to look good.
-- David Adler
Carlos Carrasco -- RHP, Indians
Key number: 31.2% whiff rate
No one has any idea what to expect from Carrasco, but he’s already done the heaviest lifting by returning from leukemia. The warning signs were there before Carrasco’s diagnosis: His fastball velocity was dipping, and he was getting hit harder than ever before. But one thing that didn’t change was his bat-missing ability. Carrasco’s 31.2% whiff rate was nearly equal to his 2018 rate -- and higher than his rates in 2015-17 -- at a time when his body was compromised. This is a guy who’s come close to winning the Cy Young before (see his terrific ’17 campaign), and the 97 mph fastballs that Carrasco ripped upon his return showed there’s stuff left in the tank. Who knows how many innings Carrasco will pitch, or whether he’ll even stay in the rotation through the summer -- he experienced discomfort in his right leg during Wednesday’s workout and will undergo testing and imaging to determine a diagnosis, the Indians said on Thursday. But if he’s pitching like the Carrasco of old by Sept. 1, that’s a feel-good story that’s very difficult to root against.
-- Matt Kelly
Tyler Glasnow -- RHP, Rays
Key number: .230 xwOBA
If Glasnow didn’t sustain a right forearm strain last May that cost him four months, he may well have pitched himself right off this list. At the time, Glasnow was a leading Cy Young contender, with a 1.86 ERA through eight mostly dominant outings. The imposing 6-foot-8 righty returned to make four brief starts in September, and two more in the postseason, but still finished with fewer than 70 total innings. His MLB track record remains limited, but the tools are there: a high-octane fastball, a wipeout curve with elite spin and movement, and greatly improved control (Now, imagine if he successfully adds a splitter). Glasnow’s ability to miss bats, limit walks and induce low-quality contact is reflected in that expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), which was the fourth lowest allowed by any pitcher in 2019 (minimum 100 batters faced), and lowest among starters.
-- Andrew Simon
Frankie Montas -- RHP, A's
Key number: 3.00 FIP
Montas appeared to be on his way to receiving some Cy Young attention last season, but he was stalled by an 80-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. As a result, he became an afterthought as the A's marched to their second straight 97-win campaign and AL Wild Card berth. Montas ended his year on a positive note, however, returning to toss six innings of one-run ball on Sept. 25. The 26-year-old's 2.63 ERA was backed by a 103-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 96 innings, and in a record-setting year for homers around MLB, Montas yielded a mere eight roundtrippers, with his 3.8% barrel rate ranking among the game's best. If he gets through a full season in 2020, the hard-throwing righty could make a serious run at some hardware.
-- Thomas Harrigan
Chris Paddack -- RHP, Padres
Key number: 33.3% chase rate
Although Paddack never pitched above Double-A in the Minors, he earned a spot in the Padres' Opening Day rotation with a stellar performance during Spring Training last year and continued his dominance once the games started counting. Paddack essentially was a two-pitch pitcher, but he was incredibly successful at getting opposing batters to expand the zone, as he played his terrific changeup off a 94-mph four-seam fastball. In fact, his chase rate ranked 10th among the 112 hurlers who threw at least 1,000 out-of-zone pitches in 2019, which led to strikeouts galore (26.9% K-rate), few walks (5.5% BB-rate) and plenty of weak contact (32.3% hard-hit rate). While Paddack did slow down a bit in the second half, it's important to note that he missed all of 2017 while recovering from Tommy John surgery and threw only 90 innings in '18. Now that his arm is built up a bit more, the 24-year-old could have an even better campaign in store for 2020.
Brandon Woodruff -- RHP, Brewers
Key number: 3.01 FIP
The only NL pitchers with at least 100 innings and a lower FIP than Woodruff last year were deGrom and Scherzer. Woodruff earned that with one of MLB’s top 20 strikeout rates (29%), a better-than-average walk rate (6.1%) and an elite homer rate (0.89 per nine innings), although an oblique injury limited him to 22 starts. Armed with a four-seamer and sinker that both average around 96 mph, Woodruff is able to combine K's with ground balls and weak contact. Opponents in 2019 produced a barrel -- a batted ball with optimal exit velocity and launch angle -- in just 2.6% of their plate appearances, lowest among regular starters. If Woodruff can further hone his slider or changeup as a strong secondary pitch, especially against lefties, the best may be yet to come.
Dinelson Lamet -- RHP, Padres
Key number: .116 BAA on breaking balls
Paddack is San Diego’s high-profile ace of the future, but the guess here is that Lamet outpitches him in 2020. Fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, Lamet should be able to eat some innings, especially if the Padres’ busy offseason has them contending for a Wild Card spot. Lamet has ace-level velocity in his 96-mph four-seamer, 96-mph two-seamer and 92-mph changeup. But his Cy Young campaign will be built off his hellacious curveball-slider combo. Last year, opponents went 15-for-129 (.116) against those two offerings. When they swung at Lamet’s breakers, they missed nearly half the time (49.2%). Those are vintage Corey Kluber numbers. We’ve seen pitchers lean heavily on their offspeed stuff to find success, and Lamet should do the same. His fastball command has room to improve, and yet he still struck out 33.6% of his opponents last year -- better than any starter with 70-plus innings except Cole, Sale, Verlander, Scherzer and Clevinger. That’s some Cy Young company.
Max Fried -- LHP, Braves
Key number: 2,844 RPM curveball spin rate
Have you seen this kid's curveball? It's the reincarnation of Clayton Kershaw's, a left-handed, mid-70s raindrop that's got high spin, top-five vertical movement overall and top-10 movement compared to pitchers who throw a similar style of curve. Now, a Cy Young contender needs more than one pretty pitch, and Fried loses his control sometimes and gets knocked around, like in the Braves' Game 5 NLDS loss to the Cardinals. But then you look at the stuff beyond the curveball. Fried is a free-and-easy mid-90s with his fastball, and he dials it up to the high 90s to rise to the moment. Plus the slider he added last year makes a big difference keeping hitters off his curve. Here's betting the 26-year-old southpaw turns into an ace alongside Mike Soroka.
Marcus Stroman -- RHP, Mets
Key number: .192 wOBA vs. slider
It’s hard to imagine a Mets pitcher other than deGrom (or perhaps Noah Syndergaard) winning the Cy Young in 2020, but if the team is in the mix for a postseason spot, it’ll likely involve another starter stepping up, too. As a sinkerballer, there was some question as to how Stroman’s game would play in Flushing upon his trade there last July, considering that the Mets did not have the best infield defense. But if shortstop Amed Rosario maintains the defensive improvement that began last May, that may be less of a concern. The number to watch here, however, has to do with Stroman’s second-most frequently used pitch: his slider. He allowed a .192 wOBA in plate appearances ending on the pitch in 2019. That ranked fifth out of 89 starting pitchers with at least 75 opponent plate appearances ending on sliders last season, behind Verlander, Scherzer, Sonny Gray and John Means.