5 dark horse Cy Young candidates for 2022

April 4th, 2022

It's safe to say very few people, if any, predicted Robbie Ray would win the AL Cy Young Award last season. The left-hander was coming off a disastrous 2020 campaign in which he posted a 6.62 ERA and 1.90 WHIP while leading the Majors in walks.

Then, Ray rattled off an AL-best 2.84 ERA, led the Majors with 248 strikeouts and received 29 of the 30 possible first-place votes for the 2021 AL Cy Young Award.

He was the epitome of a preseason dark horse candidate.

To get ahead of any potential surprises this season, here are five dark-horse Cy Young candidates for the 2022 season.

Sandy Alcantara, RHP -- Marlins
Key stat: 33.8% chase rate (95th percentile)

How would you feel about a pitcher’s Cy Young Award candidacy if he posted a 2.47 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP with 197 strikeouts over 200 2/3 innings? Well, those were Alcantara’s 2021 numbers, if you take away two disaster outings: eight runs on seven hits in 1 1/3 frames on May 14 at the Dodgers, and 10 runs on 10 hits in 3 2/3 innings at Coors Field on Aug. 6. While you can’t simply wave away a hurler’s worst starts, those were the only times the hard-throwing righty gave up more than four earned runs and two of just four outings he went fewer than five frames.

That speaks to Alcantara’s consistency as he established himself as an in-his-prime workhorse by simultaneously harnessing his stuff (career-best 6.0 percent walk rate) and spiking his strikeout rate to 24.0 percent last year from 18.0 percent in his first full season in ’19. At the heart of the latter stat? A 33.8 percent chase rate that ranked in the 95th percentile.

Alcantara also uses his power sinker to great effect, resulting in a ground-ball rate of 54.0 percent – sixth best among starters (minimum 200 batted balls). Add in his increased changeup usage to combat lefty hitters, and the 26-year-old Alcantara has the stuff, the control, the batted-ball profile and the repertoire to make a Cy Young push. -- Jason Catania

Trevor Rogers, LHP -- Marlins
Key stat: 5.0% barrel rate allowed in 2021

Rogers’ strong rookie season netted him a second-place Rookie of the Year voting finish. After a 6.11 ERA in seven starts in 2020, he had a 2.64 mark in ‘21. His expected ERA, based on quality of contact, was a bit higher, at 3.37, but still a number worthy of a reliable, ace-caliber pitcher. Even in ‘20, when he struggled results-wise, his xERA was 3.50 – far below that 6.11 actual number. The common thread here is that Rogers is quite good at limiting optimal contact against him. He had a 5.0% barrel rate in ‘21, tied for 8th-lowest among 98 Statcast-qualified pitchers. That’s a list that was led by NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes. And in 2020, despite results that were less than stellar, he allowed a 5.3% barrel rate. Limiting hard and ideal contact will get you far, so keep an eye on Rogers down in Miami. -- Sarah Langs

Logan Webb, RHP -- Giants
Key stat: 62.2% ground-ball rate

Going into his start last May 11, Webb owned a 5.36 ERA in 28 Major League games (25 starts) spread across three seasons. That’s a long way from even dark horse status, but what happened over the next five months completely changed that perception. From May 11 on, among MLB pitchers with 100-plus innings, Webb ranked third in ERA (2.40) and second in FIP (2.41). If there was any lingering doubt about the legitimacy of that run, Webb doused it by holding the Dodgers to one run across 14 2/3 innings in a pair of dominant NLDS starts.

The 25-year-old righty didn’t get any Cy Young votes last year, but look for that to change in 2022, thanks to an approach that’s a bit different from many of today’s top pitchers. Webb’s ‘21 breakout came after he mostly ditched his four-seam fastball in favor of a biting sinker that induced nearly 70% ground balls, combined with a slider that missed a ton of bats. That pairing allowed Webb to roll through opposing lineups, logging seven-plus innings in eight of his final 12 starts (including playoffs). Add in his stellar expected stats, and it’s easy to see why Webb seems poised to become a bigger name in ‘22. -- Andrew Simon

Michael Kopech, RHP -- White Sox
Key stat: 36.1% strikeout rate, 13.37 K/9 in 2021

Get this kid into the rotation all season and never look back. This is the year for Kopech. Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodón just had this same type of "Cy Young contender" breakout for the White Sox. Kopech could be better than both of them. Even with Cease, Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito also in the rotation, Kopech's ceiling is being the most dominant arm in Chicago.

He's been back from Tommy John for a whole year now. He was electric as a bullpen swingman in 2021. He's just turning 26. He's throwing 100 mph with a wipeout slider and striking out 36% of the batters he faces. The White Sox might get creative in managing Kopech's innings in 2022, but he'll throw enough to overpower the league and vault into Cy Young contention.

Kopech's four-seamer averages 97.3 mph and is one of the best "rising" fastballs in the Majors. His slider gets tight movement, with both its drop and break being several inches above average, and it tunnels extremely well with his fastball as a combo to attack the strike zone vertically. He'll need his changeup as a third pitch as a starter, but when it's on, it's on -- Kopech's teammate and changeup savant Giolito said recently: "He brought the changeup out a few times [in 2021], and the best ones he threw were just ridiculous." -- David Adler

Dylan Cease, RHP -- White Sox
Key stat: 12.3 K/9 IP last season (best in MLB)

Only four players in MLB history have averaged at least 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings while making at least 30 starts in a season: Randy Johnson, Chris Sale, Gerrit Cole ... and Dylan Cease. Cease racked up 226 strikeouts in just 165 2/3 innings over 32 starts last season, but therein lies the key to reaching the next level. The 26-year-old righty averaged just a tick over five innings per start due, in part, to some command problems. Along with the high strikeout rate, Cease also uncorked an AL-most 13 wild pitches and handed out 3.7 walks per nine. While still a concern, those numbers were actually a significant improvement for Cease, who walked 5.2 batters per nine in 2020 and had a 1.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.3 in '21).

Cease threw 47.1% of his pitches in the strike zone last season, compared to just 44.6% in '20. He also got opposing hitters to chase pitches at a rate of 28.8% (up from 22.8% the previous year) and whiff at a rate of 34.6% (up from 25.3%). If Cease is able to take another step in that direction in '22, the rest of his numbers just might fall in line with his gaudy strikeout rates. -- Paul Casella