5 dark horse Cy Young candidates in '23

March 7th, 2023

We've had ample evidence in recent years that the Cy Young Award in each league is no lock for pitchers with track records that suggest they're favorites to win the honor. Just last year, Marlins right-hander Sandy Alcantara was named the National League Cy Young Award winner with a breakout season, and the year before that, Robbie Ray seemingly came out of nowhere to dominate opposing hitters and win the American League Cy Young Award.

Heading into the 2023 season, which pitchers are dark horses to take home the prestigious award this year? We asked five MLB.com writers to weigh in.

Cristian Javier, Astros
Key stat: 1.05 ERA over final 12 starts (including postseason)

Framber Valdez is the obvious choice to take up the mantle of Houston’s staff ace after the departure of reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander as a free agent. After all, Valdez threw 201 1/3 innings of 2.82 ERA ball and earned a fifth-place Cy Young finish in his own right last season. But don’t overlook the 25-year-old Javier in the Cy Young race.

Javier started not one, but two combined no-hitters last season, including the second no-no in World Series history, so he’s not an unknown commodity by any means. But given he didn’t even have a permanent rotation spot until last May, and has just 304 1/3 innings under his belt in the Majors, he’s not exactly a Cy Young favorite, either. If there’s any concern about Javier’s ability to maintain his performance as he scales up his innings, consider that he actually got stronger in the latter stages of 2022, posting a 1.05 ERA in his final 12 starts (postseason included), with no runs allowed in his last six.

Javier doesn’t have top-tier velocity, but the elite rising action he gets on his four-seam fastball makes it incredibly tough to handle, even when he throws it in the strike zone. Javier allowed a .187 batting average on four-seamers in the zone last season, nearly 100 points lower than the batting average (.275) hitters posted on those pitches MLB-wide. He complements his fastball with a nasty slider that has proven to be one of the game’s hardest-to-hit pitches the past two seasons, yielding a .109 average -- the third lowest of any pitch type.

That impressive two-pitch package could propel Javier to new heights in his first season as a full-time starter, perhaps even to the top of the AL Cy Young Award voting. -- Thomas Harrigan

Triston McKenzie, Guardians
Key stat: 6.3 hits per nine innings in his career

If you’re searching for a lesser-known pitcher to emerge as a Cy Young contender, the Cleveland Pitching Factory is a good place to look. McKenzie checks a lot of boxes in that he’s been hidden a bit in Shane Bieber’s shadow, and the young righty is coming off a season that was better than you realize: a 2.96 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 190 strikeouts in 191 1/3 innings.

The 25-year-old’s 6.3 hits-per-nine rate since his 2020 debut is second-best among all pitchers with at least 300 frames in that span, behind only Javier and ahead of Corbin Burnes, Alek Manoah and Carlos Rodón. He also quietly registered three games with 12-plus strikeouts and zero walks in 2022, becoming just the 14th pitcher in MLB history to pull off that many such games in a season.

McKenzie’s dynamite curveball is his biggest weapon: He permitted a .120 average and .203 slugging percentage on the offering last year. And his .165 xwOBA on the deuce was among the 10 best in the sport -- on any pitch. He also registered an elite 45.0% whiff rate on the curve, accordingly upping its usage from 18.0% to 21.9% last year.

Concerns? McKenzie’s tendency to surrender the long ball (1.4 career HR/9) and his ability to hold up over 30 starts again given his slender frame (6-foot-5, 165 pounds) and injury history as a prospect. That said, anything close to a repeat performance will garner award attention as McKenzie continues to establish himself -- and maybe make yours truly 2-for-2 in this category. -- Jason Catania

Pablo López, Twins
Key stat: 2.30 ERA through first 12 starts of 2022

López was enjoying a breakout season that was on track to garner serious NL Cy Young Award consideration until about halfway through. After being struck on his right wrist by a Michael Brantley line drive in Houston, the right-hander just wasn’t the same. On that day, López owned a 2.30 ERA over 70 1/3 innings. From there on out, he made 20 starts over which his ERA was more than twice that, at 4.68.

With his five-pitch mix and a presumably healthy right wrist, not to mention a trade from the Marlins to the Twins, López is looking at a fresh start in more ways than one. Add to that his new home ballpark -- Target Field is one of the more pitcher-friendly venues in baseball -- and we could be looking at a Cy Young Award winner we didn’t exactly see coming after he struggled in the second half of last season. -- Manny Randhawa

Hunter Greene, Reds
Key stat: 337 pitches thrown 100-plus mph in 2022

Greene is going to be the breakout ace of 2023. Just look at the way he closed out his rookie year: four starts in September and October, a 0.78 ERA, 14.5 K/9 and a fastball that averaged 99.8 mph. Yes, his fastball sits at 100 mph as a starter. That's Jacob deGrom level. Actually, it was Jacob deGrom-plus -- Greene's fastball velo over the final month was the fastest by any starter for any month of 2022, ahead of deGrom's 99.3 mph in August. Greene hit triple digits 99 times in September and October, five times more than the next-closest starters, deGrom and Alcantara.

Greene figuring out how to get the most out of his explosive fastball was the key to his success down the stretch -- he threw it more often, elevated it more often and turned it into his No. 1 put-away pitch. Greene recorded the four fastest strikeouts by a starting pitcher all season (102.4 mph, 102.1 mph, 101.9 mph and 101.8 mph) … and all four came in September and October. The 23-year-old's stuff is so good that a full breakout season for Greene means a Cy Young-level pitcher. -- David Adler

George Kirby, Mariners
Key stat: 15 walks in final 15 starts

He did finish sixth in the Rookie of the Year voting, but he received zero Cy Young support, so we’re considering this horse dark enough. Kirby, as a rookie, got off to a decent enough start, with a 4.08 ERA through his first two months of play. But then he learned how to throw a sinker and turned his cutter into something more like a slider, and all of a sudden, he posted a 2.92 ERA over his final three months (15 starts), during which he walked all of 15 batters, or one per game. For an encore, he’s now apparently working on a splitter modeled on Kevin Gausman’s. If he’s already proven he can change his pitches in-season, what happens when he has all winter to work on a new one? -- Mike Petriello