The competition for each league's Cy Young Award will be fierce once again in 2019.
Chris Sale is still searching for his first Cy Young, and Max Scherzer is a favorite until proven otherwise. But you could rattle off about 10 more contenders without pause, because that's how good Major League pitching is right now. Trevor Bauer, Walker Buehler, Gerrit Cole and Aaron Nola all looked like Cy Young contenders last year, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard aren't going anywhere, and we haven't even mentioned the "old guard" aces like Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander.
But allow us to dream a little deeper and look at some true dark-horse candidates, ranging from those who might be one leap away to some truly off-the-wall choices. No one picked Blake Snell to be last season's American League winner; could the next sleeper pick be hidden below?
Mike Foltynewicz, Braves
2018 stats: 13-10, 2.85 ERA, 183 IP, 202 K's, 68 BB
Foltynewicz has been one of MLB's hardest-throwing starters for years now, but opponents were still knocking his fastballs around. The difference now is that Folty has found a dynamite mix of secondary pitches: His microscopic .127 average allowed on non-fastballs last year tied Kluber for the lowest of any full-time starter. Snell was the only starter to have more starts of five-plus innings and two or fewer hits allowed.
If the Braves come out of the highly competitive NL East on top, Folty will probably be a big reason why.
Jack Flaherty, Cardinals
2018 stats: 8-9, 3.34 ERA, 151 IP, 182 K's, 59 BB
Buehler was last year's emerging ace du jour, but Flaherty was arguably just as effective. Opponents simply had trouble squaring up the St. Louis rookie, who posted the NL's sixth-lowest expected slugging percentage (based on strikeouts and quality of contact, per Statcast™) behind Buehler, Syndergaard and the league's three Cy Young finalists. Flaherty's breaking ball assortment, which elicited a whiff rate of nearly 50 percent, is his bread and butter. He might slot in third in the Cardinals' rotation, but his ceiling is about as high as any sophomore pitcher in the game.
Jameson Taillon, Pirates
2018 stats: 14-10, 3.20 ERA, 191 IP, 179 K's, 46 BB
Taillon was already one of baseball's best starters at missing barrels, and then he got better at missing bats altogether. Taillon is one of many pitchers now who have found success switching to a four-seam/curveball combination, and he compiled a 2.63 ERA in the 21 starts after he fully incorporated a new slider into his mix. That slider turned Taillon from a two-pitch starter to an emerging ace, and his 4.7 bWAR tied for fifth among NL starters alongside the next pitcher on this list.
German Márquez, Rockies
2018 stats: 14-11, 3.77 ERA, 196 IP, 230 K's, 57 BB
Marquez honed his own slider that paid big dividends last year, and his 100 post-All-Star break strikeouts on breaking pitches led MLB by a wide margin. There's that other pitch, too; Marquez's high-octane fastball can hit triple-digits, creating as much as 25 mph of difference between that heater upstairs and his 12-to-6 curveball. Opponents hit just .215/.266/.338 against Marquez during the second half, and the bet here is that he carries that confidence into a big 2019.
Yu Darvish, Cubs
2018 stats: 1-3, 4.95 ERA, 40 IP, 49 K's, 21 BB
Did you forget about this guy? Darvish's tough debut was a backbreaker for Chicago, but he's not far removed from two electric starts in the 2017 NL postseason. Maybe he starts throwing his high-spin four-seamer up in the zone more, and maybe he turns back into the ace who was routinely putting up 30-percent strikeout rates. There's a lot of "maybes" involved with Darvish right now -- most importantly, his health -- but his velocity stayed with him in '18, and he's still just 32. It's too early to give up on this guy's pure stuff just yet.
Nick Pivetta, Phillies
2018 stats: 7-14, 4.77 ERA, 164 IP, 188 K's, 51 BB
Pivetta got the right mix of results last year: He was one of just seven qualified starters with a strikeout rate above 25 percent and a ground-ball rate above 45 percent, joining Carlos Carrasco, Patrick Corbin, deGrom, Marquez, Charlie Morton and Nola. But his baseball card numbers didn't match the quality of those other six pitchers, and so this pick is predicated on Pivetta finding out why. He had five different starts with at least six earned runs allowed, so limiting those disastrous outings would be a start. MLB.com's Mike Petriello also found that the Phillies' defense was of little help to its starters. Perhaps some improvements there can help Pivetta turn his luck around in a major way.
Nathan Eovaldi, Red Sox
2018 stats: 6-7, 3.81 ERA, 111 IP, 101 K's, 20 BB
Boston would have had a much tougher time in October without Eovaldi, and he appears to be a big part of its repeat plans. Eovaldi looked like a pitcher who put it all together during last year's stretch run, locating his triple-digit heat higher in the zone while developing a real secondary weapon in his cutter. There could also be hidden spin potential that makes Eovaldi's fastball even more devastating. Sale is obviously a Cy Young favorite, but the Red Sox could have a monster right behind him in the rotation.
José Berríos, Twins
2018 stats: 12-11, 3.84 ERA, 192 1/3 IP, 202 K's, 61 BB
There were high points -- like a three-hit shutout at Camden Yards to begin the year -- and low points throughout 2018 for Berrios. That mix of potential and backfires have defined his young career. But there's simply too much raw talent here to not believe Berrios can put everything together sooner rather than later, starting with his frisbee-like curveball. Command is the next step -- if Berrios can consistently repeat his mechanics from start to start, the rest of the AL Central is in trouble.
James Paxton, Yankees
2018 stats: 11-6, 3.76 ERA, 160 1/3 IP, 208 K's, 42 BB
Paxton won't need to carry a rotation like he did in Seattle, and narrative will be on his side if he comes to the Bronx and helps the Yankees take back the AL East. The southpaw's arsenal is unassailable: Few pitchers in the game get as many whiffs on fastballs, his curve consistently yields grounders and hitters are now whiffing half the time against his cutter. Paxton gave up too many homers last year, and his health is always a concern. But this is a big-time pitcher who should be highly motivated to win over a discerning new fanbase.
Mike Clevinger, Indians
2018 stats: 13-8, 3.02 ERA, 200 IP, 207 K's, 67 BB
Kluber is always in the Cy Young discussion. Carrasco is always on the verge of that discussion. Bauer had a good shot at last year's award before he was injured. But let us offer a fourth Cleveland starter for your consideration. Clevinger actually added life to his fastball down last year's stretch run thanks to a mechanical adjustment, and he showed the durability to be a consistent workhorse in the years to come. Clevinger is another pitcher on this list who's developed a dominant offspeed assortment (only Milwaukee's Chase Anderson allowed a lower hard-hit rate on secondary pitches in 2018), and he's part of one of MLB's best pitching classes in the Tribe's rotation.
Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays
2018 stats: 4-9, 5.54 ERA, 102 1/3 IP, 77 K's, 36 BB
Scoff at Stroman's 5.54 ERA from last year if you'd like, but this author believes he's still much closer to the pitcher who broke out in 2017. Injuries got Stroman to an off-kilter start last spring, but a look under the hood shows that his elite ground-ball ability returned over his last 11 starts. In fact, Stroman's second-half expected weighed on-base average (xwOBA, Statcast™'s all-purpose metric explained in detail here) was the same as Corbin, who just signed a massive deal with the Nationals. Stroman's a prime trade candidate as Toronto re-tools, so the bold prediction here is that he gets dealt to a contender and makes a huge impact like David Price did for the Blue Jays in 2015.
Yusei Kikuchi, Mariners
2018 stats (NPB): 14-4, 3.08 ERA, 163 2/3 IP, 153 K's, 45 BB
We haven't seen Kikuchi face a single Major League hitter, but his delivery and repertoire elicits comparisons from Corbin to Rich Hill to Kershaw. Kikcuhi throws upper-90s heat from the left side, he'll work in a pitcher's park and he'll be someone AL hitters have never seen before, perhaps giving him a leg up in Year 1. We've seen that same advantage pay off for other Japanese stars like Hideo Nomo, Masahiro Tanaka and, yes, Shohei Ohtani, in their American debuts, so maybe Seattle caught some lightning in a bottle.