In the third year of “The Decade of the Pitcher,” who will be the breakout Ace?

The Clayton Kershaw Model:

On a technical level, Kershaw was an “unexpected” Cy Young. After all, he’d never received a vote in any previous season. He hadn’t made an All-Star team or taken home any major hardware. But nobody was really surprised by Kershaw’s award-winning performance. He had, after all, posted a 2.85 ERA over the course of his previous 375 major-league innings. He was appointment viewing for any Dodger fan from the moment he reached the bigs in 2008 after being ranked Baseball America’s #7 prospect that spring. While no first-time winner can really be called an “obvious candidate” when they’re up against Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum, pitchers who follow the Kershaw Model aren’t exactly darkhorses either.

1. Madison Bumgarner – Giants – 22 (13-13, 205 IP, 3.21 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 8.4 K/9)

If the awards were based on advanced stats, Bumgarner actually would’ve been a serious Cy Young contender last year, at the ripe age of 21, as he was fourth in the NL in fWAR and FIP, behind only Kershaw, Halladay, and Lee. Bumgarner’s high BABIP, poor team defense, and abysmal run support conspired to keep him out of contention, but better luck combined with the Giants modestly improved offense and infield defense in 2012 could bring Bumgarner into the national spotlight. (By the way, Bumgarner did get one lonely third-place vote from some strangely saber-minded or, more likely, Giants-centric BBWAA member, so technically he shouldn’t be on this list. But since they’re my arbitrary rules, I’ll break them if I want to.)

2. Jeremy Hellickson – Rays – 25 (13-10, 189 IP, 2.95 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 5.6 K/9)

Highly-touted prospect breaks into the league amid much anticipation. Strikes out some Yankees and some Red Sox. Pundits speculate about his postseason role, project he will be best pitcher in all the land. This sort of thing seems to happen in Tampa Bay every year. Hellickson’s 2011 campaign was overshadowed by Matt Moore doing his best impression of Hellickson circa 2010 (or David Price circa 2008). There were several great storylines from Tampa’s second half. Hellickson posting a 2.72 ERA after the break and winning the AL Rookie of the Year kind of got lost in the shuffle. But, yeah, he basically just did what he was expected to do.

3. Gio Gonzalez – Nationals – 26 (16-12, 202 IP, 3.12 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 8.9 K/9)

Gonzalez leaves one of the friendlier confines in all of baseball, but he heads to the NL just as all the most talented hitters flee for the AL (or something like that). Nationals Park has only been a marginally harder on pitchers than the Coliseum since it opened, so the net advantage definitely still works in his favor. If I were going to wager on who was going to throw a no-hitter this season, my first bet would on Gio…against the Mets.

Honorable Mentions: Jaime Garcia (Cardinals), Tommy Hanson (Braves), Michael Pineda (Yankees)

The Zack Greinke Model:

Perhaps the biggest difference between Greinke and Kershaw is the fact that Greinke played in the media vacuum of late-Naughties Kansas City. The following pitchers will seem more like darkhorses, despite comparable track records and pedigrees, merely because they’ve been doing their work in the flyover zones, for pushover franchises, and/or took unconventional paths to major-league rotations.

1. Daniel Hudson – D-Backs – 25 (16-12, 222 IP, 3.49 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 6.9 K/9)

Ian Kennedy was Arizona’s Cy Young contender, thanks in large part to his 21-4 record, but most every other indicator suggests that Hudson was equally good last season, perhaps even better down the stretch. He posted a 3.08 ERA and better than 3-to-1 K/BB ratio in his last 21 starts.

2. Jhoulys Chacin – Rockies – 24 (11-14, 195 IP, 3.56 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 7.2 K/9)

The innings may have piled up on Chacin towards the end of last year, but in a 23-start stretch running from the last month of ’10 to the middle of ’11, Chacin put together a 12-6 record with a 2.29 ERA and .199 OAVG. He’ll have to prove he can handle the workload in his second full season, but his talent is definitely elite.

3. Derek Holland – Rangers – 25 (16-5, 198 IP, 3.95 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 7.4 K/9)

Almost miraculously, midway through 2011, Derek Holland discovered the strikezone. When he stopped putting men on base, he almost immediately became one of the most dominant pitchers in the league, putting together a 15-start stretch in which he went 10-1 with a 2.77 ERA and three complete-game shutouts. He dominated the Cardinals for 8+ innings in Game Four of the World Series as well. If Holland can retain his control, it will be very easy for the Rangers to forget about C. J. Wilson.

Honorable Mentions: Doug Fister (Tigers), Matt Harrison (Rangers), Mike Leake (Reds), Jordan Zimmerman (Nationals)

The Cliff Lee Model:

This could also be called the Doug Drabek Model or the Pat Hentgen Model, or maybe even the Steve Stone Model: pitchers who have been in the league for several years and by virtue of consistently good, but never great, production, are viewed as finished products, even though they are young enough to still take an additional leap.

1. Anibal Sanchez – Miami Marlins – 28 (8-9, 194 IP, 3.67 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 9.3 K/9)

Sanchez’s outstanding rookie campaign, highlighted by a no-hitter, was way back in 2006, and it was followed by three consecutive seasons shortened by injury. So, it’s no wonder Sanchez is frequently fodder for the “unrealized potential” narrative. However, he’s hardly past his prime. He’s posted back-to-back healthy seasons and completely shed the control problems of his youth (3.16 K/BB in ’11). He might quietly be the best pitcher on the revitalized Marlins staff.

2. Chad Billingsley – Los Angeles Dodgers – 27 (11-11, 188 IP, 4.21 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 7.3 K/9)

At one time, not terribly long ago, Chad Billingsley was the top-rated prospect in an organization that also featured Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Russell Martin. Thusfar he has been unable to reach his potential, while Kershaw and Kemp have obviously emerged as superstars. But Billingsley has been a workhorse, never missing time and putting together a string of very serviceable seasons. Over the last four years he’s averaged 32 starts, 13 wins, and 194 innings per year, with a 3.73 ERA and 1.35 WHIP amidst various complaints about his maturity, endurance, and work ethic.

3. Edwin Jackson – Washington Nationals – 28 (12-9, 200 IP, 3.79 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 6.7 K/9)

Another former Dodgers blue-chipper, Jackson has had dominant stretches in Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis, while also piling up innings year after year (averaging 202 over last four seasons), but he’s never put it all together for the six-month haul. His inability to get a long term deal this past offseason, despite being a durable starter in his prime, has to provide motivation.

Honorable Mentions: John Danks (White Sox), Johnny Cueto (Reds), Matt Garza (Cubs)

The Chris Carpenter Model:

Both Cliff Lee and Zack Grienke are also versions of the Chris Carpenter Model: pitchers who have faced adversity, in terms of injuries, mechanical problems, off-the-field distractions, or merely bad luck, but who have skill sets which suggest they are always on the verge of becoming elite Aces, if they can just get on the better side of the breaks. 

1. Brandon McCarthy – Oakland Athletics – 28 (9-9, 171 IP, 3.32 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 6.6 K/9)

When the White Sox steamrolled the American League and then swept the Astros in the ’05 World Series, McCarthy was a 21-year-old prospect who many Chicago talk radio hosts believed should be in the playoff rotation, even though the incumbent starters had been outstanding all year. After a couple surgeries, a couple disappointing seasons, and a couple years buried in the Texas farm system, McCarthy finally emerged in Oakland as a pitcher worthy of the now long-dormant hype.

2. Max Scherzer – Detroit Tigers – 27 (15-9, 195 IP, 4.43 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 8.0 K/9)

Like Jackson, who the Tigers traded to get him, Scherzer has thusfar been durable, but not dependable. When Scherzer returned from his surprise demotion in May of 2010 to post a 2.46 ERA and 9.3 K/9 in 23 starts, then began the 2011 season with six straight victories, it seemed like he was on the verge of superstardom. But he put up a 5.11 ERA in his final 24 starts and nearly played his way out of the Tigers postseason rotation, so…

3. Brett Cecil – Toronto Blue Jays – 25 (4-11, 124 IP, 4.73 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 6.3 K/9)

After going 15-7 as a 23-year-old in his first full season, Cecil regressed in 2011 and found himself back at AAA for a couple months. He was a little better upon returning (4.30 ERA), but still a long way short of the Jays’ high expectations. The news from camp, however, is that he’s shed some 30 lbs. and enters Spring Training like a man on a mission. It’s a familiar refrain.

Honorable Mentions: Kevin Slowey (Rockies), Chris Volstad (Cubs)

The Tim Lincecum Model:

Perhaps, most famously, the Doc Gooden Model. On the rarest of occasions, a pitcher with less that a year of MLB experience will manage to dominate right out of the gate. 

1. Yu Darvish – Texas Rangers – 25

It’s the easy pick, but Darvish put up video game numbers in Japan, suggesting his potential to dominate. He logged 232 innings in 2011, so, unlike the other players in this category, he won’t be subject to innings restrictions. And he’s got a killer team around him, which may help inflate his record, which Cy voters love.

2. Stephen Strasburg – Washington Nationals – 23 (1-1, 24 IP, 1.50 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 9.0 K/9)

Obviously, Strasburg’s stats at every level suggest he’s destined to be a perennial candidate. His brief return to the mound last fall, climaxing with six innings of one-hit ball and 10 K in his final outing, suggested he was fully recovered from Tommy John. So, this is about as bullish as one can be about a 23-year-old coming off major surgery who has less than 150 professional innings on his resume.

3. Matt Moore – Tampa Bay Rays – 22 (1-0, 9 IP, 2.89 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 14.5 K/9)

Between minors and majors last year, including the postseason, Moore pitched exactly 175 innings, so he could pitch a full season without drastically increasing his workload. I expect, however, that Joe Maddon will play it conservative, giving him extra days off whenever possible and keeping him on a short lease. Moore has only made 10 starts above AA and, though his strikeout rates have been gaudy throughout his professional career, he’s not likely to avoid the growing pains that almost every top prospect faces during his first full season in the majors.

About Matt Seybold

Matt teaches at The University of Alabama. Roll Tide. He specializes in American Literature and Rhetorical Economics. Fate chose for him the peculiar perdition of rooting for the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Clippers.

8 thoughts on “In the third year of “The Decade of the Pitcher,” who will be the breakout Ace?

  1. I really enjoyed that post. Kudos for pointing out the success of Anibal Sanchez, because he has always been one of my favorites, and always produces big strikeout numbers. If he has a big year the Marlins are gonna do some damage in the NL.

  2. Cool post. I really liked the Chris Carpenter Model. I think that all three of those guys have a good chance to breakout this season.

  3. I didn't get to reply the other day but this posting is fantastic, Hippeaux.

    I'd love to see some sort of odds placed for each nominee in each category, some way to rank or whatnot. Can we track this throughout the year?

  4. Thanks for all the positive feedback. I don't know how to calculate the odds, but I'm sure some of the online sportsbooks will have Cy Young props as the seasons nears. I'd also be interested in how they treat these guys. If I were going to rank them in order of likelihood, it'd probably go like this:

    1. Bumgarner, 2. Hudson, 3. Sanchez, 4. Billingsley, 5. Hellickson, 6. Gonzalez, 7. Darvish, 8. McCarthy, 9. Scherzer, 10. Chacin, 11. Holland, 12. Strasburg, 13. Jackson, 14. Cecil, 15. Moore

    Also, for those of you who are interested in how this had faired as a predicting measure in the past, here are the 2010 and 2011 fields (with fWAR):

    2010: 1. U. Jimenez (6.3), 2. J. Weaver (5.9), 3. Y. Gallardo (4.6), 4. C. Billingsley (4.6), 5. J. Danks (4.3), 6. R. Nolasco (2.5), 7. E. Jackson (3.8), 8. J. Lannan (1.2)

    2011: 1. F. Liriano (1.0), 2. T. Hanson (1.8), 3. I. Kennedy (5.0), 4. G. Gonzalez (3.5), 5. R. Romero (2.9), 6. M. Scherzer (2.7), 7. A. Sanchez (3.8), 8. J. Cueto (2.8), 9. M. Garza (5.0), 10. J. Vargas (2.4), 11. D. Braden (0.3), 12. Mike Pelfrey (0.7)

  5. Great post. Sorry it took me so long to voice my complete agreement. What can I say, I'm a follower.