Yesterday the RotoFanatic team discussed our “Dark Horse” picks for the MVP award. Today we are on to the pitchers. The 60-game season has completely changed the dynamic in which we value pitchers in fantasy baseball. There are reports of some teams limiting innings across the board (Yankees/Braves), or possibly utilizing their bullpen in an entirely different fashion.
We can expect 6-man rotations, 5-man rotations, and then there is Trevor Bauer. Bauer reportedly is willing to pitch every 4th day during the shortened MLB season. Either way, we are looking at new variables in 2020 that we have never seen before.
Innings will be at a premium, and every inning will count exponentially. “Blowup” games will be harder to recover from, while volume will be needed to collect strikeouts. Ratio pitchers, such as Kyle Hendricks, may lose value due to their inability to make a lasting impact over 162-games.
Whatever the strategy you choose to implement, we could be looking at some interesting names come award season. Players with innings limits due to age (rookie or veteran) like Jesus Luzardo or Charlie Morton may benefit, while players whose value may be tied to their innings potential (Kluber) may suffer.
So let’s get right into it. Here are the Dark Horse Cy Young picks from the RotoFanatic staff:
Frankie Montas, SP, Oakland Athletics
Matt Williams’ (@MattWi77iams) pick
Frankie Montas broke out in a huge way in 2019, posting a 2.63 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 26.1 K% with all the peripheral data to back it up. Unfortunately, we only saw a 96 inning sample size due to an 80-game drug suspension for using Ostarine (PED).
I have a hard time believing performance was (completely) drug-induced due to the fact that Montas was always able to throw 100 mph. Nothing he did over a short sample size suggested that the drugs themselves were responsible for his results. That being said, we don’t know for certain.
The most important thing for Montas is the three-year improvement in BB%:
Keeping opposing hitters off the basepaths in addition to an uptick in chase rate (due to a devastating new pitch) is almost enough data by itself to explain the breakout.
Montas made great strides in the quality of contact he was giving up last season. He was able to increase his GB% while pulling away from both his opponents’ LD% & FB%.
K’s + GB = Success
Add in a Barrel rate that was top-4% of the league & there is plenty to like.
Montas’ slider drew a 10.3 pVAL, accompanied by a:
Montas pounded the lower corner of the strike zone, limiting opposing hitters to a mere .286 xwOBAcon (MLB avg .369) & 1.6 Barrel%. Although a .254 BABIP suggests slight regression may come. But the slider is not the pitch we are interested in. Let’s talk about this split-finger fastball.
This pitch is AMAZING. The splitter along w/ his slider gave Montas two secondary pitches w/ high swing-and-miss potential. A 45.7% O-Swing, 30.9% zone rate, & 21.3 SwStr% make this pitch devastating to opposing hitters:
Split-Finger (86.8 mph)
— Matt Williams (@MattWi77iams) June 24, 2020
Unfortunately, for now, he throws it only 18.2% of the time (peak 23.8) due to it literally being a hard pitch to throw (painful even). But that is ok if his slider can continue to be a workhorse pitch along w/ his two-seamer. This pitch mix works & he does not need to change a thing.
Zack Greinke, SP, Houston Astros
Jeff Zimmerman’s (@jeffwzimmerman) pick
Over the season’s two months, some pitcher is going to have some undefeated record and leads his team to the playoffs. And how much would it grind the gears of the fans and media if it was the Astros Zack Greinke? It’s a weird season and I’m all-in to embrace it some more. Especially if he’s making batter look like fools with sub-60 mph curves.
I think the key for this year’s Cy Young will be:
1. Good to great talent
2. The ability to go late into games
3. An above average supporting cast.
Greinke meets all these requirements.
The one requirement I think is being overshadowed is the innings per start. I believe the winner will come out of the gate going seven to eight innings for a Win. This start will be in contrast to the starters being piggy-backed on other teams. Sometimes the recency bias will wear off. There isn’t time this year leading to Zack Greinke being the face of 2020. Embrace weirdness.
Tyler Glasnow, SP, Tampa Bay Rays
Chris Clegg’s (@RotoClegg) pick
Brandon Woodruff, SP, Milwaukee Brewers
Cory Ott’s (@Cory5Ott) pick
In a normalized 162 game season, Brandon Woodruff would likely not be considered by many analysts as a pitcher capable of sustaining a good enough season to earn the coveted CY Young Award. Given the obtuse circumstances, shortened schedule, and major rule changes implemented for the 2020 season, it is very possible that the CY Young Award could truly be a reality for any of the dominant pitchers residing in the AL or NL Central Division.
The NL Central houses some very hitter-friendly ballparks, but with the new divisional merge and addition of the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals to the Central Division, a couple of complete-game- shutouts could actually lie on the horizon for an emerging stud like Woodruff.
Each of his five pitches garnered both a Barrel rate (4.1 percent) and Average Exit Velocity (85.6 MPH) lower than league-average, which catapulted him into the top 6 percent of the league in Average Exit Velocity and into the top 9 percent in Hard Hit rate. He has started to become a master at suppressing hard contact while also earning ground ball rates north of 45 percent.
Many people have already written off Woodruff’s potential for becoming an even better pitcher than he was in 2019, but the combination of his ability to miss bats and suppress hard contact sort him into the same up trending bin as Luis Castillo. Woodruff improved the Spin Rates on all four of his pitches in 2019, which likely contributed to three of those pitches (Fastball, Slider, Sinker) inducing PutAway% rates north of 21 percent!
He makes his money living on the horizontal plane, meaning that all of his pitches possess above league average Horizontal Movement but lack effectiveness along the vertical plane as his slider is the only pitch with above-average Vertical Movement. His command has improved from year to year while neither of his pitches consistently live in the heart of the strike zone, but rather on the edges of the plate and between the shadow and chase zones. Brandon Woodruff’s proven skillset checks all of the necessary boxes for him to potentially become a CY Young Award winner.
If he can yield a strikeout rate of near 30 percent, a walk rate of near 6 percent, a ground ball rate closer to 50 percent, and PutAway% rates north of 20 percent then Woodruff will have equally as good of an opportunity to earn a CY Young Award as any other pitcher in the MLB.
Nick Anderson, RP, Tampa Bay Rays
Brad Johnson’s (@BaseballATeam) pick
Traditionally, the argument against awarding the Cy Young to the reliever is a matter of workload. A typical closer throws a third as many innings as a workhorse starting pitcher. This season, the workhorses will toss in the neighborhood of 70 frames. I expect top relievers to handle a hair under 40 innings. With a tighter workload ratio, this is an excellent opportunity for award voters to recognize the greater importance of reliever innings.
I’ve selected Nick Anderson for a few reasons. The Rays should be playing a lot of tight ballgames against good opponents which should encourage them to lean on Anderson early and often in high leverage situations. Somewhere, a reliever is going to pop off 35 innings of two-run ball with a crazy strikeout rate. Ryan Pressly would have fit the narrative in early 2019. I believe Anderson is one of the best bets to be a part of the conversation in 2020. An extreme fly ball pitcher, he works the upper edges of the zone with a 96-mph heater complemented by an unhittable curve. The fastball is modestly prone to home runs and hard contact, making this a high variance Cy Young pick.
Last but not least, Anderson’s greatest weakness (home runs and hard contact) could receive an upgrade if the league is no longer using the juicy 2019 regular season ball.
Nick Anderson, 98mph Paint. 🖌️🎨🖼️ pic.twitter.com/kCT0N3vRq9
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 9, 2019
James Paxton, SP, New York Yankees
Michael Govier’s (@mjgovier) pick
Paxton’s surgery during spring training part one was the latest in a string of ailments that derail his chances of ever nabbing some hardware. His career-best IP in 7 seasons is 160. That’s why he’s the perfect selection for this 60 game season. He doesn’t have to make 30 starts to cash in on the top pitching trophy.
When healthy, The Big Maple is one of the most physically imposing pitchers on the bump. He had an elite 32% whiff rate in 2018 that dipped only to 29% in 2019. Still good for 186 Ks in 150 IP. Unfortunately, he gave up 23 HR and a career-worst 55 walks, Yet, after giving up 7 ER on July 26th at Fenway, Paxton had one more start the rest of the year where he gave up more than 3 ER (4 earned against Cleveland August 17th). The rest of the season he gave up 3 ER or less.
The long ball issues may be difficult to diminish if the 2019 ball is in effect at homer-happy Yankee Stadium. However, with his impending free agency in his age 31 season, if he can reduce the walks and string together the best 80 IP of his career, then Paxton has as good a shot as any pitcher in the uncertain 2020 sprint.
Kirby Yates, RP, San Diego Padres
Joe Barbuto’s (@RotoJ03) pick
I think the toughest thing to predict for the 2020 season will be Starting Pitchers in general. Their fitness, strength, and preparation, given interrupted Spring Training, mixed with unknown Team/Management plans and philosophies around workloads makes it near impossible to project statistics and results for most Arms.
On the other hand, Relievers – especially high-leverage and late-game Relievers’ roles are much more easily forecasted and cemented. We know elite Bullpen roles and we know those roles and their expected workloads won’t differ much. With this in mind, I can easily see a top Closer winning the Cy Young in 2020. Although it hasn’t been done since 2003 (Eric Gagné), 2020 will prove to be anything but ordinary, and I think Kirby Yates breaks the mold and can take home the hardware.
Yates was downright dominant throughout his past 2 seasons and has really come into his own for the Padres in his 30s. His job for a much-improved, young, and motivated team is quite secure and I can certainly see the excitement building in San Diego. This can lead to the momentum required for a run to the Playoffs in the shortened season.
In 60.2 2019 Innings, Yates allowed a measly 8 (EIGHT!) Earned Runs, equating to a minuscule 1.19 ERA. His FIP was not too far behind at 1.30 and he threw up a 0.89 WHIP.
The lack of baserunners he allowed led to some extremely impressive stretches. From April 5th-June 23rd, Yates allowed 3 Earned Runs. After a “hiccup” on that day, he bounced back with 14 scoreless outings in his next 16 appearances. From there, all he did was finish the year with a scoreless entire final month.
It may sound ridiculous, but I don’t think it’s overly outlandish to say that Yates could quite possibly go through 2020 without allowing a single earned run. Seriously.
His 41%+ K-Rate mixed with an ever-declining Walk-Rate and a true wipeout Splitter has all the makings of continued dominance. Don’t be surprised to see even more impressive numbers from Kirby this year. If those numbers are even more impressive, how could the Voters look past him when it comes to the most coveted award amongst Major League Pitchers?
Matthew Boyd, SP, Detroit Tigers
Dave Swan’s (@davithius) pick
On the surface, it’s easy to overlook the potential of Matthew Boyd as a potential ace. He plays for a last-place team and has a bit of a problem giving up the longball. His 9-12 record and 4.56 ERA, leave plenty to the imagination as a Cy Young candidate.
There is a bit to like about Boyd as he enters the shortened season. His pitch mix changed, and the focus turned to a heavy fastball and slider combo. The whiff% on this slider is beyond elite as its grown every season since 2016. The trouble came from the four-seam fastball as it had a career-high HR/FB rate. Let’s partially chalk that up to the bouncy ball of 2019. The huge benefactor to this pitch mix change was an explosion of strikeouts and a decrease in walks. Boyd’s 23.9 K-BB% was eighth-best in the MLB.
Luckily, the Cy Young isn’t decided by solely the wins category. Previous winners like deGrom and King Felix won with only a one-game above .500 record to their name. Detroit’s addition of CJ Cron and Jonathan Schoop could bolster some offense to help with that. There is also a very weak bullpen in Detroit, and for them to secure victories, he may need to go deeper into games than most. Innings pitched along with his elite strikeout skill put Boyd in the conversation. Just keep the ball in the yard, please.
Kenta Maeda, SP, Minnesota Twins
Dave Funnel’s (@sportz_nutt51) pick
Kenta Maeda was a big part of the Mookie Betts trade fiasco that seems like ages ago. He’s spent the past few years playing for the Dodgers and has done very well for himself in that time. Part of his success was that his starts were spread out situationally in Los Angeles, as the Dodgers like to use bullpen arms and spot starters to give their pitchers extra rest.
He also comes armed with a deadly slider that possessed a batting average against of .158 and a strikeout percentage of 34.3 in 2019. His changeup is improving too, despite being thrown only 23% of the time last year. Getting better over time, it yielded a .183 batting average and a 23.7% strikeout percentage itself. Quite a 1-2 punch.
Now he arrives in Minnesota, where the Twins play a third of their games vs two of the league’s worst offenses in the Kansas City Royals and the Detroit Tigers. They also get to play the NL Central, which is the weakest division in the National League according to projected winning percentages.
All in all, this points to a successful Twins’ debut for Maeda to not only maintain last season’s numbers but also improve upon them as the Twins propel themselves to an AL Central Divisional Title.
Sonny Gray, SP, Cincinnati Reds
Justin Johnson’s (@JJ_JetFlyin) pick
Sonny Gray is being disrespected heading into 2020. It is understandable that he burned too many people over his three-year rough stretch prior to last season, but he got back to the Sonny Gray of old. Actually, he got even better than ever.
Across 31 starts last season, Gray did not give up more than four earned runs in any start. He gave up four earned runs three times in those 31 starts. Gray got better as the season went along too. Across 32.1 innings pitched in July, he had a 2.23 ERA and a 32.2 strikeout percentage. Across 36.2 innings pitched in August, he had a 0.74 ERA with a 29.3 strikeout percentage. What he did was throw his fastball less, and upped his elite curveball and slider usage.
It still doesn’t make sense to me how a pitcher with a 2.87 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP, and 205 strikeouts across 31 games was being drafted near the 100-overall pick. Gray arguably has even more value now and adds the weak AL Central to his schedule. If Gray is clicking all season, don’t be surprised if he wins the Cy Young award.
Charlie Morton, SP, Tampa Bay Rays
Mike Carter aka Mr. Doctor’s (@mdrc0508) pick
All Charlie Morton has done is quietly put up outstanding numbers in the last three seasons. At 36, he appears to be getting better in some ways. In 2019, he went 16-6 with an 11.10 K/9 and a 3.05 ERA. The 240 strikeouts in 194 innings are stats that you need. He threw his sinker less, because it got hit hard, and threw his curveball more.
The curveball showed a 17.64 swinging-strike rate and a .150 average against; elite numbers. He threw the curve 37% of the time and pairs it with reliable fastball while inducing high groundball rates.
In a short season that will resemble a sprint, veteran pitchers will be key to success for your staff. Morton has been a late bloomer in some ways and could dominate with only 12-13 starts this year. He is a dark horse candidate for the AL Cy Young Award.
People will be concerned with his age, which is understandable, but he has gone 45-16 over the last three years and maybe getting better despite his age, like a fine wine. Invest with confidence! He may pitch later into games given Tampa’s and Kevin Cash’s love of starters and bullpens to be paired with other, less talented pitchers.
Mike Clevinger, SP, Cleveland Indians
Rob Cocuzzo’s (@RobCocuzzo) “not really a dark horse” pick
Had the 2020 season started on time, “Sunshine” would have missed at least the first month, thwarting his Cy Young efforts almost entirely. However, with the delay, he has had the opportunity to fully recover from February’s knee surgery.
Clevinger has never had a problem finding success. The 29-year-old has pieced together some of the best performances in the AL year after year. His issue has just been staying healthy. In addition to the aforementioned off-season knee surgery, Clevinger was also sidelined for a portion of the 2019 regular season with a back injury that limited him to 126 innings.
The right-hander has arguably the most overpowering stuff in the American League. He has a blazing fastball that he complements with a nasty slider, curveball, and changeup. His velocity has been ticking north since 2017 and so has his success. Courtesy of Baseball Savant, let’s take a look at how Clevinger stacked up against the rest of baseball last year.
Not bad, huh?
Contrary to Gerrit Cole on the East Coast, Mike Clevinger actually largely benefits from the realigned divisions. The AL West and East are loaded with firepower, but with all non-division games being interleague play, the Indians will square off against the much less potent NL Central.
With only 12 starts being asked of Sunshine, he should be able to stay healthy and supplant himself on the top of almost all leaderboards across the sport, ultimately netting him his first Cy Young award.