The candidates to win a Cy Young in '20, ranked

March 4th, 2020

Do you know who is going to win the a Cy Young Award this season? Of course not. Neither do we. But that doesn't mean we can't have some fun for a minute to look ahead to rank the likeliest contenders, so that's exactly what's Will Leitch and Mike Petriello are going to do, following in their draft-making fury of Most Valuable Players and World Series winners.

The rules here are simple: Eight months from now, who's going to win this thing? We're not worried about the two leagues. We're not worried about rules, really; this is, after all, a made-up draft meant for us to entertain ourselves, and hopefully you as well. Will got to go first. No pressure, Will.

1. Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets

Leitch: I got a little bit of gruff from some Mets fans for neither of us choosing him for our MVP candidate list, but considering he was basically perfect in 2018 and still finished fifth, I couldn’t in good conscience select him for MVP. But for a third straight Cy Young? Yes, please. He was brilliant in his first spring start, he has maybe the best offense he’s had as a Met behind him and there’s no reason to think this shouldn’t be his absolute prime. Fun fact: According to bWAR, he’s the sixth-best Met of all time, and with a season like last year’s, he’ll be fourth. Two more seasons like last year, he’ll pass Dwight Gooden. But I don’t have to worry about that just yet. No one has won three straight Cy Youngs since Randy Johnson won four from 1999-2002. There’s no safer bet than deGrom.

2. Gerrit Cole, RHP, Yankees

Petriello: Well, this is quite the hot take, isn’t it? I thought Cole should have won the Cy Young over his teammate Justin Verlander in 2019, and I thought he should have been top three in 2018, and then I ranked him as the best overall starting pitcher in baseball entering 2020 only a few weeks ago. He just set the all-time single-season strikeout rate mark (39.9%) ahead of 1999 Pedro and 2001 Randy, and no, you don’t need last names to know who those legends are. Oh, and he gets to escape the Houston quagmire to be the highest-profile pitcher on baseball’s highest-profile team.

Yes, I think he’s going to win the Cy Young Award, thank you.

3. Max Scherzer, RHP, Nationals

Leitch: I know the cool thing would be to pick one of those early-twenty-something pitchers who look ready to storm the gates, and maybe I’ll get a chance a little later on. But the story of starting pitchers these days remains the incredible persistence of the old guys. Scherzer had the least healthy year of his career last year, and he still made 27 starts and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting. He thinks he has corrected the issue (give or take some fatigue side effects this spring), and if you are asking if I am the person who will walk up to him and tell him he is wrong, you should know that, no, I am not that person. And he’s still, somehow, all these years later, the starting pitcher I’m most excited to watch.

4. Walker Buehler, RHP, Dodgers

Petriello: Clayton Kershaw isn’t the Dodgers' ace any longer. Buehler is. Can I just stop there? I can’t? OK. Buehler did just finish ninth in the Cy voting, so this isn’t an out-of-nowhere pick, but last year, he upped his strikeout rate, lowered his walk rate and cut down his hard-hit rate. He struck out nearly six times as many as he walked. He’s got five good pitches. If you care about things like where he’s being drafted in fantasy leagues, the answer is fourth -- fourth! -- and he also gets headlines written about him like this one at last October: “He’s the most confident human being on the planet.” I am, too, just in his ability to destroy the entire National League this year.

5. Charlie Morton, RHP, Rays

Leitch: I’m keeping the run of thirty-somethings going. I love the Rays, man: Now this is a surgical strike in free agency. It still blows me away that this guy shares the same social security number as that Pirates pitcher who used to lull you to sleep in the middle of the last decade. Morton was his best self last year by doing the two things that great pitchers have to do in 2020: He strikes dudes out and gives up very, very few home runs. That he has found himself late in life gives hope to us all. Or maybe just to me.

6. Justin Verlander, RHP, Astros

Petriello: Can’t believe you’re picking a guy who will turn 37 this November, Will. You should get on my level and pick a guy who turned 37 just a few weeks ago. I mean, Roger Clemens won a Cy at 41 ... not that he’s, uh, exactly the kind of precedent we want to look to here. Where was I? That’s right: Verlander just won the Cy. It was my opinion he should have won the 2018 Cy over Blake Snell. His three best strikeout-to-walk rates of his career came in the past three years, and it’s easier to believe that award voters would go for a Houston pitcher than they would a hitter.

I accept that at his age, the downside risk is large. I accept, also, that his lat strain may cost him some early-season time. I am accepting the risk. It's maybe more than I should be comfortable with. He was just so good last year.

7. Jack Flaherty, RHP, Cardinals

Leitch: How good was Flaherty the second half of last year? Well, he had a 0.91 ERA in 15 starts after the All-Star break and it was legitimately stunning every time he gave up a hit: You could actually hear a little gasp from the crowd when someone reached on him, even if it was in, like, the second inning. There goes the no-hitter! That’s how good Flaherty was, and there’s no reason to think he won’t build on it this year. He also has the advantage of a terrific defense behind him, as well as a knowledge of how to pitch to it. He has a real Chris Carpenter vibe to him, but with some young Gen Z swag and orneriness to him. The Cardinals would love to sign him to an extension, but he’s just the sort of gunslinger who will keep betting on himself down the line. It strikes me as an awfully smart bet.

8. Yu Darvish, RHP, Cubs

Petriello: Well look, if we’re into the “insanely good second half” portion of the show, then I will happily snatch up Darvish, who shook off a rough Chicago debut to just go nuts over the season’s final four months -- in his final 18 starts, he struck out 151 and walked 12. 151 to 12. Unlike Flaherty, Darvish has some track record to fall back upon here, like the four All-Star appearances, like the Cy Young votes in 2012 and ‘13. Did you know he has the second-best strikeout rate (29.8%) of any pitcher (minimum 1,000 innings) in history? Did you also know that he deserves to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer just for doing things like throwing sliders left-handed and throwing 10 different pitch types and, most of all, being the only good person on Twitter? Do those things matter in Cy Young Awards? Of course not! But they do to me.

9. Noah Syndergaard, RHP, Mets

Leitch: Wow, I’ve picked two Mets. Still: You can see it, though, right? Syndergaard still feels like he’s going to have that put-it-all-together year at some point; his stuff is electric in a way that almost no one else’s is. Of course, pitching is tricky and scary and hard, and it’s even more so when you have his history of injuries and inconsistency, and especially when you have the defense he has behind him and the fact that he is incapable of holding runners (basestealers are 74-for-80 against him over the last two seasons). But we’re still in the “picking guys with upside” mode here, and Thor will always be the ultimate upside guy for me.

10: Shane Bieber, RHP, Indians

Petriello: You: Making jokes about Justin. Me: Look at this dude pitch!

I don’t actually think Bieber is the best pitcher on his own staff. Mike Clevinger is. But Clevinger’s down with a knee injury, after also missing time last year with back and ankle injuries, so I’m more than happy to go with his teammate Bieber, who, in his first full season, merely struck out 259 batters while walking only 40. It was immediately one of the best pitching seasons in Cleveland history, and this is a franchise that has had a few pitchers in its past. He only turns 25 in May, and when we asked players to fill out ballots for The Vault, Bieber got a lot of mentions. I’m not betting against a guy this good this young. We can’t only go with the olds here, Will.

11. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals

Leitch: There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the Nationals’ deal with Strasburg, which hands $245 million to a 31-year-old who led his league in innings last year. But if you’re in the back half of a draft like this, as we now are, you can talk yourself into Strasburg having a top-of-his-range year and many of the guys above him on this list either falling short or getting hurt. Strasburg will miss some time over the next seven years: He’s a pitcher. But he’s as sure a bet as any on this list to throw 200 quality innings. Not many teams even bother to ask pitchers to do that anymore.

12. Tyler Glasnow, RHP, Rays

Petriello: Strasburg felt like the last true A-list guy available to me. So instead, I’ll make a bet on huge upside with Glasnow, who posted a 1.78 ERA with 76/14 K/BB in 60 2/3 innings last year. In terms of pure raw talent, there’s not many who can match Glasnow, who averaged 96.9 mph on his fastball and has 95th percentile curveball spin. When he’s healthy, he is legitimately unfair, and maybe he’ll add a great new pitch this spring. Of course, “when he’s healthy” is doing a lot of work in that sentence, because, you know, “only 60 2/3 innings.” This is going to be the year though. I can feel it. Probably.

Go ahead, Will. Pick Chris Sale. You know you want to. Don’t look at the headlines. Do it.

13: Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers

Leitch: Did you see he hit 93 on the gun already this spring? Obviously, in this age of velocity, 93 doesn’t make your eyes pop, but considering how slow he was throwing at times last year, it’s particularly encouraging. Especially since … Kershaw was still really good last year (3.03 ERA in 28 starts)! There are lots of Feeling Great This Spring! vibes from Kershaw, and while you should take that with all the sodium you can muster, if he’s feeling better, and last year was the floor … well, shoot, Mike, it’s the age of the old pitcher, why would I count out Kershaw now? He’s not even that old!

14. Chris Paddack, RHP, Padres

Petriello: Paddack arrived in the big leagues with all sorts of hype last year, and he basically lived up to it, didn’t he? At 23 years old, he managed to make 26 starts and whiff 153 in 140 2/3 innings, and he did it largely with two pitches; he’s working to improve that curveball this spring. PECOTA already has him projected as the 17th-best starter in baseball, and, of those 26 starts, he walked more than two guys exactly twice. Also, while I know that I should not really care about this too much, I still really dug how strongly he finished his rookie year: over his final four starts, he struck out 32, walked four, and allowed two earned runs. That’s a 0.77 ERA. That's during the time when most rookies are wearing down, not revving up. Yes, please.

15. Zack Greinke, RHP, Astros

Leitch: Wanna get weird? Let’s get weird. It’s actually not that hard to make a case for Greinke. He’s still a fantastic pitcher, he is with an organization that has proven it can make Hall of Fame pitchers on the back half of their career even better and because he just got there at the end of last year. And honestly: Greinke having a career year at the age of 36, with a team that people are cheering against because of a scandal that predates him, and grabbing a second Cy Young (11 years after his last one) out of it would be an extremely Greinke thing to do.

16. Zack Wheeler, RHP, Phillies

Petriello: It’s not weird at all. I actually love that Greinke pick. I also feel like we’re both overlooking Patrick Corbin a little, but it’s also hard to see a guy who’s the third-best starter on his own team collecting a lot of Cy Young support. So instead, let’s go with some more upside potential here, with no disrespect intended to Wheeler’s new Philadelphia teammate Aaron Nola. If I’m picking “who is going to have the better season,” I’ll likely go Nola. But if I’m picking “who is going to go nuts and really blow up” odds, I might go with Wheeler, for the reasons you all know already. His pitches look like Cole’s, in some ways. He’s already having a spirited back-and-forth with his former general manager, Brodie Van Wagenen, which is great fun for the rest of us. Maybe a new home and some extra motivation brings out his true greatness and he shoves.

17. Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP, Blue Jays

Leitch: I don’t think this is going to happen. He’s not going to throw enough innings, he’s pitching in a dramatically different environment, he has to face the Yankees and Red Sox as often as he used to have to face the Giants and Padres and he can’t possibly keep up that low walk rate forever. But if you are going to offer me a guy who finished second in Cy Young voting just last year all the way down at No. 17, I am going to take you up on that offer.

18. Luis Castillo, RHP, Reds

Petriello: If this was the Cy Young of “one pitch that I really love to watch,” then Castillo’s changeup would probably get my vote. I mean, just look at it! It’s beautiful.

He also throws 97 and struck out 226 hitters last year and the Reds could be good this year. If they are, so is he.

19. Mike Soroka, RHP, Braves

Leitch: Soroka’s signature ability in his rookie year was avoiding home runs, a skill that comes particularly handy in this specific day and age. He’s not overpowering, but he proved durable, even if he wasn’t quite as dominant down the stretch as he was at times early on. The big thing for Soroka is learning how to pitch at his home field: That 1.55 road ERA (vs. 4.14 at home) even affected how the Braves deployed him in the postseason and maybe led to that Game 5 nightmare. Soraka’s cerebral approach seems to fit what the Braves are doing. There are other, perhaps more purely stuff-driven pitchers coming in the Braves' system. But he’s here first. And he may remain the best the whole time.

20. Germán Márquez, RHP, Rockies

Petriello: I should probably pick Nola, or Corbin, or Snell, or Lucas Giolito, or maybe even lean into how much I like Clevinger here. But for the final pick, I’m going with someone I kind of want to see win. Márquez, in 2018, was absolutely fantastic. For all the Colorado hype over Kyle Freeland that year, it was Márquez who set a Rockies record for strikeouts (230). Even though his 2019 wasn’t quite as successful, he did cut his walk rate nearly in half, but let’s be honest here: It would be very satisfying to see a Coors Field pitcher win a Cy Young Award. It is never, ever going to happen. But I want it. So here we are.