Don't sleep on these 10 Cy Young candidates

March 23rd, 2021

Much of the 2020 season was unpredictable, and that included Cy Young Award winners, too. Though Shane Bieber and Trevor Bauer were both well-regarded pitchers already, neither was a favorite to win his league’s award last season.

And then what happened? Bieber approached and set strikeout records left and right, beginning with a 14-strikeout performance on Opening Day, which tied for the second-most in a team’s opener.

His former teammate Bauer put together his own season for the ages, with a 1.73 ERA and a signature 12-strikeout performance on three days’ rest to keep his team in the playoff hunt in late September.

It just goes to show -- you really can’t predict baseball. While Bieber and Bauer are now part of the group of favorites in their leagues for 2021, along with notables like Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole and Lucas Giolito, there’s always room for a dark horse to emerge and win the award.

With that in mind, enlisted five reporters to pick dark horse Cy Young Award candidates for 2021, with each selecting one pitcher per league. “Dark horse” is, of course, a subjective concept. In this case, any pitcher to receive a vote for Cy Young in 2019 or 2020 was excluded, as was any pitcher with an All-Star selection on his resume. Other pitchers who clearly don’t fit the description were excluded too -- the common-sense understanding of “dark horse” applied.

With those parameters in mind, here are the picks:


Triston McKenzie -- RHP, Indians
Key number: 33.1 strikeout rate in 2020

McKenzie wasted absolutely no time flashing his big league potential, racking up 10 strikeouts over six innings in his Aug. 22 MLB debut. The key here will be whether the 23-year-old right-hander can stay healthy -- and if Cleveland will give him enough work. Prior to his Major League debut, McKenzie hadn't started a game since 2018 due to back and forearm injuries. He logged just 33 1/3 innings in 2020 and made his final three appearances out of the bullpen, including one postseason outing. The Indians will undoubtedly monitor his workload carefully in '21, but the possibilities of what he could do with a full season are certainly intriguing.

After all, McKenzie posted a strikeout rate of 33.1% last season. Here's the full list of pitchers to strike out at least 33% of batters while making at least five starts in their first MLB season (not all rookie-eligible players, just players in their first year in the Majors): McKenzie (2020), Stephen Strasburg (2010), Kerry Wood (1998) and Henry Porter (1884). That's it. As for last year, the only qualified starters with a higher strikeout rate were Shane Bieber (41.1), Jacob deGrom (38.8), Trevor Bauer (36.0), Dinelson Lamet (34.8), Lucas Giolito (33.7) and Aaron Nola (33.2). Bieber and Bauer won the Cy Young Award in their respective leagues, while the other four each received a share of Cy Young votes. McKenzie obviously has the potential -- and what better organization to help him reach it than a Cleveland club that has produced two of the last four AL Cy Young Award winners (Bieber and Corey Kluber).

-- Paul Casella

Jesús Luzardo -- LHP, Athletics
Key number: 45.7% whiff rate with curveball; 44.1% whiff rate with changeup in 2020

Luzardo pitched to mixed results in his rookie season, but a couple shaky relief appearances clouded a solid performance as a starter. In nine starts, the left-hander recorded a 3.83 ERA with 52 strikeouts and 11 walks over 49 1/3 innings. His 20.0 K-BB% ranked 27th among Major League starters (min. 40 innings), while his 3.73 SIERA was 25th.

Hitters had a tough time making contact against Luzardo’s secondary pitches, recording a whiff rate over 44% against both his curveball and changeup. His four-seam fastball, meanwhile, has the potential to be an elite pitch. His fastball velocity ranked in the 84th percentile last season, while his spin rate was in the 80th percentile. With Luzardo also planning to unleash a slower breaking ball he calls the “turkey sub,” facing the 23-year-old is going to be no picnic in 2021.

-- Thomas Harrigan

Dylan Cease -- RHP, White Sox
Key number: +8.4 inches of curveball drop above avg., +5.8 inches of slider drop above avg. in 2020

Considering he'd have to outpitch two Cy Young frontrunners (Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn) and a former winner (Dallas Keuchel) in his own rotation, Cease is a really dark horse. But the 25-year-old has the stuff to match anybody. His fastball averages 97.5 mph with high spin. His curveball drops 8.4 inches more than an average curve, and his slider drops 5.8 inches more than average and breaks horizontally 2.4 inches more than average. Cease's four-seamer and breaking balls also have spin axes that fairly closely mirror each other, which should create deception for hitters.

Now Cease just needs to learn how to throw strikes and command the zone. Which is not easy. But he's been working with new pitching coach Ethan Katz, who helped remake Giolito into an ace, and he's looked nasty early in Spring Training. He's got a shot at a big breakout year.

-- David Adler

Zach Plesac -- RHP, Indians
Key number: .069 opponent batting average on slider in 2020

The fact that two of the picks in the AL came from the Indians shouldn’t be overlooked. This is the team that had a Cy Young winner in Bieber in 2020, not long removed from Corey Kluber’s two awards in ‘14 and ‘17, and is set up for prime pitching for years to come. And that’s with Kluber long gone at this point, and Mike Clevinger no longer there either. Plesac’s slider made the prospect of a full season from him very hard to pass up. The only pitcher with a pitch that had a lower opponent average in 2020 was Devin Williams -- with the changeup, his Airbender, that led him all the way to NL Rookie of the Year (min 50 plate appearances).

Plesac’s expected ERA of 5.52 in 2019 indicated that he may have outperformed what should’ve happened, when he had a 3.81 ERA in 115 ⅔ innings, but 2020 told a better story for his quality of contact and results. He had a 2.28 ERA and 3.43 expected ERA, and though there’s still a difference there, at least the contact wasn’t telling us he should’ve been significantly worse in ‘20. He also had a huge increase in strikeout rate, from 18.5% to 27.7%, and it truly feels like the sky’s the limit with this Indians pitching staff...yet again.

-- Sarah Langs

Yusei Kikuchi -- LHP, Mariners
Key number: 3.37 expected ERA in 2020

At first glance, Kikuchi’s transition from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball to MLB appears to have been a rough one. The left-hander posted a 5.46 ERA as a 28-year-old rookie in 2019, then a 5.17 mark over nine starts in the shortened ‘20 campaign. But beneath the surface, Kikuchi showed major improvement in his second year, albeit in a small sample. He added significant velocity (2.5 mph) and vertical movement to his four-seamer, roughly doubling its whiff rate, while introducing an effective cutter to his repertoire and dramatically raising the whiff rate on a revamped slider.

In short, Kikuchi looked like a completely different pitcher -- one with four effective offerings who was able to both limit the quantity and quality of contact (71st percentile in whiff rate, 86th percentile barrel rate allowed). As’s Mike Petriello pointed out, he was part of an impressive group of eight pitchers (minimum 40 innings) to post at least a 50% ground-ball rate and 24% K-rate. Both Kikuchi’s FIP (3.30) and xERA suggest a pitcher who deserved a much better ERA, and if his command can take a step forward, there’s a chance he emerges this year as a front-line starter.

-- Andrew Simon


Pablo López -- RHP, Marlins
Key number: 3.16 expected ERA in 2020

That group of eight pitchers mentioned above with at least a 50% grounder rate and 24% K-rate last year? López was another member, along with Kikuchi and the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Hyun Jin Ryu, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray. The big right-hander (listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds) has always generated grounders and weak contact, and he’s raised his K-rate from 18.6% to 24.6% over three big league seasons. López notched a 3.61 ERA over 11 starts in 2020, but if you replaced one disastrous outing against Atlanta (Sept. 9) with his postseason start against that same Braves club, that would drop to 2.67.

In 2020, López’s addition of a cutter gave him four highly effective pitches, along with a four-seamer, a sinker and a devilish changeup that he has leaned on more and more (30% last year). If he can succeed at developing a solid breaking ball to go with that, it might be the missing piece in the 25-year-old’s ascent to ace status.

-- Andrew Simon

Ian Anderson -- RHP, Braves
Key number: 2.46 expected ERA in 2020

We got a glimpse of what Anderson could do in 2020, when he made six regular season starts and four in the postseason. He’s part of a stacked rotation in Atlanta, with 2020 Cy Young candidate Max Fried, 2019 candidate Mike Soroka, plus newcomer Charlie Morton, and others. In other words, it might take a lot for Anderson to be the best pitcher on his team, let alone in the NL -- but it’s also within the realm of possibility.

Anderson had a 2.46 expected ERA last season. Only six pitchers faced at least 100 batters and had a lower xERA than that. Sure, it isn’t as low as his 1.95 actual ERA, but the expected number is based on quality of contact and gives us some insight into what was happening on batted balls Anderson allowed. If he can sustain that type of opponent contact over the course of the season, he can have a great year. Plus, Fernando Valenzuela is still the only pitcher to win Rookie of the Year and Cy Young in the same season, and it'd be fun to add to that list in '21, whether with Anderson or another rookie.

-- Sarah Langs

Kevin Gausman, RHP, Giants
Key number: 49% whiff rate, .097 BA allowed vs. splitter

Gausman's resurgence in San Francisco last year (3.62 ERA, 11.9 K/9) should catch your eye. There are solid underlying reasons to believe the 30-year-old right-hander can pitch at an ace level in 2021. First of all, Gausman gained more than a full mph of fastball velocity from 2019-20, with his four-seamer jumping from 93.9 mph to 95.1 mph -- and he just came into Spring Training pumping it in the upper 90s, prompting teammate Evan Longoria to say, "I wouldn't mind if I didn't have to face someone throwing 97 mph again until the end of the spring." Gausman's splitter is also one of the best in the game. It gets sharp horizontal and vertical movement and plays well off his four-seamer, which is why hitters whiffed on almost half their swings against it in 2020 while batting .097 against it. The four-seam/splitter combo can carry Gausman to big things this season.

-- David Adler

Sixto Sánchez -- RHP, Marlins
Key number: 3.02 expected ERA in 2020

Miami quietly has constructed a rotation that could be one of the game’s best, and Sánchez arguably has the highest ceiling of any of the club’s pitchers. Sánchez’s top-of-the-scale velocity is the first thing that jumps out, but his changeup was actually his most-used offering in 2020, and for good reason. The right-hander limited hitters to a .148 average with 18 strikeouts and zero extra-base hits in 54 at-bats ending on the pitch.

For someone with his stuff, Sánchez had a surprisingly low strikeout rate in 2020 (20.9%), but he made up for it by avoiding damaging contact. Only 9.8% of the batted balls Sánchez allowed last season were hard hit (95+ mph exit velocity) and hit in the sweet-spot zone (launch angle between 8-32 degrees), the second-lowest rate in MLB (min. 100 batted balls) behind Max Fried. Even if he doesn’t find a way to miss more bats in 2021, the 22-year-old could cement himself as one of the NL’s top pitchers -- and a legitimate Cy Young contender.

-- Thomas Harrigan

Julio Urías -- LHP, Dodgers
Key number: 28.6 hard-hit percentage in 2020

Sure, there are plenty of arguments against Urías. There are arguably three better Cy Young choices in the Dodgers' rotation alone in Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Trevor Bauer, not to mention that Urías hasn't even locked up a spot in the starting rotation yet. Those minor hiccups aside, Urías showed what he's capable of during Los Angeles' 2020 World Series run. The 24-year-old southpaw posted a 1.17 ERA over 23 postseason innings, while holding opponents to a .138 batting average. Four of his six playoff outings came in relief, though all lasted at least three innings with the exception of when he recorded the final seven outs (four strikeouts) of the Dodgers' title-clinching victory.

Though Urías' strikeout numbers dipped last season (20.1 K% in 2020 compared to 26.1% in '19), he specialized in limiting hard contact. Only three pitchers -- Max Fried, Kenta Maeda and Ryan Yarbrough -- allowed a hard-hit percentage lower than Urías' total of 28.6%. Opponents had very little success against Urías' fastball (.193 batting average) and curveball (.162), which is a pretty good recipe for success considering he throws one of those two pitches more than 80% of the time. He'll need to secure a starting job and somehow outperform the trio of superstars already in the Dodgers' rotation, but Urías proved in October that he's not going to back down from any challenge.

-- Paul Casella