Cy Young Picks, Predictions: Using History to Identify Candidates for 2023 AL, NL Awards

Cy Young Picks, Predictions: Using History to Identify Candidates for 2023 AL, NL Awards article feature image

Dylan Buell/Getty Images. Pictured: Clayton Kershaw

Previously in this series: Jim Turvey's methodology on the MVP races for the American League and National League.

In the run-up to the season, I have walked through key factors to look at when betting the MVP race in the preseason. The Cy Young is a little different; there aren’t necessarily several key factors, as just one thing that matters: ERA.

Among the past 12 winners handed out, not a single one has finished lower than second in their league’s ERA race. That’s an incredible streak.

In landing on this one key factor, I did look at others along the way that just didn’t prove as closely correlated. 

For MVP, age was a huge factor, but there have been five pitchers over 30 to win the award in the last decade, including us being fresh off 39-year-old Verlander collecting his third Cy Young. Voters don’t seem to mind a pitcher coming from out of nowhere, as there have been multiple players to win this award without ever having received a vote before. Again, we don’t have to look beyond last season for one such case (Sandy Alcantara).

We all remember 2010 as the year that Felix Hernandez killed the win’s relevancy in the Cy Young, but 2016 was quietly a big pivot point as well. That season, Rick Porcello won the award with a 3.15 ERA that ranked fifth in the AL. It was one of the more mocked winners even in the moment, and the fact that Porcello faded so fast has only seemed to solidify in the voting block the importance of an elite ERA.

Winning does again help, but only to a degree. It may actually surprise folks that winning does still matter to any degree since we are fresh off Alcantara winning for a 69-win Marlins team, but that was by far the worst team record of any winner in the past decade. There was only one other winner from a team under .500, compared to three winners from 100-win teams. This could be a bit of causation to go along with a bit of correlation, though, and regardless, it’s not nearly the determining factor that ERA is. 

Among counting stats, innings don’t matter much beyond just needing to be qualified for the ERA title. Just since 2016, there have been three winners outside the top 13 in their league in IP. Strikeouts do still matter, but only to a degree. In the last decade, every single winner has finished in the top 10 in their league in Ks their Cy Young season. And to a degree the WARs still matter too (pitching WAR varies a lot more between FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference than position player), but none of these counting stats align as closely as just looking at the ERA rankings.

To reiterate: eight of the last 12 winners have just straight-up been their league’s ERA leader, with the other four all finishing second. That’s what this award has become, so let’s find some names who could potentially finish near the top of their league lead in ERA.

For this breakdown, since there’s one mega factor, I’m not going to go through every player listed at the books, because for most of the guys I’m not interested in, it will just be the case that I don’t believe in their ERA ceiling (even for a guy like Alek Manoah).

There are a few guys not listed here (Carlos Rodon and Luis Severino come to mind) who I do have interest in watching how they rehab and potentially jumping into the market for, if they progress well. But as I have mentioned, these awards watch pieces will be coming out all season, so there’s no rush. We’ll get to discussing everyone eventually. This is just the pitchers who deserve mention in the preseason moment.

Ok, let’s tackle the National League first.

National League Cy Young Picks

Addressing the Favorites 

Sandy Alcantara (+550 Caesars) — As noted in the NL MVP article, Alcantara’s FIP was far less mind-melting than his ERA last season (Tarik Skubal having the lower FIP last season was the hammer). Now he plays in a stadium that can do that at times, but as the betting favorite, I’m not with the market there.

Corbin Burnes (+600 FanDuel) — By Derek Carty’s THE BAT projections, Burnes actually has the seventh-best projected ERA among starters in the National League this season. Burnes also saw his metrics basically move in the wrong direction in every statistical category last season: his ERA and FIP rose, his strikeout rate dropped; and his walk and home run rates jumped. He’s still just 28 with very few MLB innings on his arm, but being the second-favorite is way too high for me.

Justin Verlander (+700 FanDuel) — The man is a freak, and we know he can win this award, but that is really short odds for a 39-year-old who won the award just last season. Back-to-back Cy Youngs are more common than back-to-back MVPs in the modern era, but it’s still a monumental task for a pitcher Verlander’s age, and the odds are too short for me as such.

Max Scherzer (+800 FanDuel) — Another older pitcher, Verlander has proven that aging for pitchers is a bit different in this hyper modern era, but Scherzer has quietly seen his innings drop below his typical standards in the last three full seasons. His strikeout rate in 2022 was also the lowest it has been since 2014. Of course, he still posted a 2.29 ERA last season and will be front and center in baseball’s most star-studded rotation, and you can get longer odds than the previous two, so I’m mildly intrigued but ultimately will pass.

Guys I’ll be eyeing

Max Fried (+1500 Caesars) — Fried is the type to be underrated by smart baseball fans because he is trying to consistently outperform the metrics saying he should come back to earth (FIP, xFIP, xERA, etc). But as we’ve seen since the rise of these analytics, there are indeed a few guys who appear to be able to dance with the devil at least for significant chunks of their career (Johnny Cueto and Matt Cain being examples). I’m a believer that Fried can be that guy for the 2020s, so while it’s not a best bet, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye here.

Julio Urias (+2000 FanDuel) — Last year’s qualified NL ERA leader has to at least be in the discussion. But the fact that he is 20:1 isn’t all that surprising, as his 3.71 FIP was a lonnnnng way from leading the NL. Urias has shown a bit of Fried’s ability to ‘beat his FIP’, but personally I am more skeptical of Urias than Fried. But he demands to have an eye on him. 

Dustin May (+6500 Caesars) — Now here’s a Dodger I’m potentially more interested in for the price. May has never put together a season of more than 56 innings, but as we’ve said, the Cy Young doesn’t really follow any rules beyond: ERA is King. And May has flashed the potential to go low with his ERA. He’s projected for the 14th-lowest ERA in the NL, but is closer to the mid-20s when it comes to where he is in the odds. Any time there’s that big a delta, it’s worth a look.

Zach Wheeler (+1800 Caesars) — Here’s your safe, ‘build your portfolio’ play. He’s consistently had a sub-3.00 ERA the last three seasons, and has only missed one small chunk of time over that stretch. He had the ninth-best FIP last season in the NL and is projected for the eighth-lowest ERA in 2023. Just super safe if you like to build a portfolio throughout the season.

Spencer Strider (+1000 FanDuel) — If you follow in the app (@TurveyBets), you’ll know this one was one of the first bets I jumped on when books released their lines. If you tailed then, you got +1500, but I don’t hate it at +1000. If I were making the lines personally, Strider would be among the very top favorites, if not the favorite. He had by far the lowest FIP among pitchers with at least 100 IP in the NL last season. Among that data set, the gap between Strider in first (1.87) and Clayton Kershaw in second (2.57) was the same as the gap between Kershaw and Tony Gonsolin in 18th. 

Strider is projected for the lowest ERA by THE BAT, as well as just about every projection system. The biggest thing will be whether he can reach the 150-160 innings necessary to win this award. The Braves converted him from reliever to starter throughout the season in 2022 to save him a few innings, and I could see them trying to make sure he’s still fresh for the postseason by having him go every six days every now and then. But if stays healthy, he feels like a lock to be in the conversation. That’s a big if, but it’s a big if for just about every pitcher, especially this season with the introduction of the pitch clock.

Alex Cobb (+15000 FanDuel) — This will turn some heads, but here’s a little Player A/Player B exercise for you:

Player A: 149 2/3 IP, 17.1 K-BB%, 3.73 ERA, 3.15 xERA, 2.80 FIP, 2.89 xFIP
Player B: 228 2/3 IP, 17.7 K-BB%, 2.28 ERA, 2.92 xERA, 2.99 FIP, 3.29 xFIP

Player B clearly had the better actual impact in 2022, with more WAY innings and a significantly lower ERA, but once we get across to the predictive stats, it’s very close, if not giving the edge to Player A. You’d expect Player B to definitely be a bit higher in the odds than Player A, but you wouldn’t guess that you can get a nearly-30 times (!!) payout for Player A.

Ok, let’s reveal names because this is getting confusing. Player A is Alex Cobb of course, and Player B is Sandy Alcantara, the current favorite in the league. You can get Cobb for 150:1. It’s truly hard to imagine a world in which Cobb wins this year’s Cy Young, but stranger things have happened.

Jordan Montgomery (+15000 FanDuel) — Another real long shot, but Montgomery posted a 3.01 FIP after his move to St. Louis last season. He’s also a big groundball pitcher, and he has the best infield defense in baseball behind him to vacuum up everything in sight. Was Jim Palmer just Jordan Montgomery with an underwear ad endorsement?! We’ll discuss after this commercial break. 

Best Bets

Aaron Nola (+1300 FanDuel) — Nola is who I would have as the shortest odds to win the NL Cy Young this season. Of the pitchers returning to the National League and who threw a qualified number of innings last season, he had the lowest FIP, xFIP and xERA. It was really just luck (and potentially a bit of Phillies defense) that kept him from competing for an ERA crown last season.

Now, that Phillies defense isn’t going to be a ton better this season, but I’d still expect that gap between his peripherals and his ERA to shrink a bit and put him in a great spot to be among the league leaders in run prevention. If he gets a bit of good luck instead of bad luck, he’ll be a top-three candidate for sure. For all the things a pitcher can control, Nola is arguably the class of the NL, or at least right there with the Striders, Verlanders, Scherzers of the world, but you’re getting him at a much better price.

Blake Snell (+5000 FanDuel) — Snell has gone low with his ERA before, and he was rewarded for it with a Cy Young in 2018. Last season, he posted a solid 3.38 ERA, but his 2.80 FIP was actually the lowest of his career—yes, even lower than his 1.89 ERA Cy Young campaign five years back.

He'll be 30 this season, and he’ll be on a team in every baseball conversation going this summer. Snell can tend to have larger variance bars than most pitchers, and I do worry about his floor with the pitch clock this season. However, I am far less worried about floor when the odds are 50:1. This is entirely a ceiling bet, and Snell has ceiling.  

Hunter Greene (+5000 FanDuel) — Speaking of ceiling, I’d genuinely be surprised if this guy doesn’t win a Cy Young at some point in his career. This season might be an early arrival on his mantelpiece, but as noted, this award doesn’t mind a surprise.

To once again plug the Action Network app, I logged this bet at +8000 a few months ago, and clearly the market has agreed with me, as he now has significantly shorter odds. I still like this bet, though, and it comes in large part thanks to the corner that Greene turned in the second half of last season. He had a 3.36 ERA in his final 14 starts, and a miniscule 1.02 ERA in his final six.

That’s obviously a small sample to be targeting, but there’s reason to believe there’s signal to that noise. Greene made changes to his pitch locating, and the results spoke for themselves. He’s a former number overall pick and in 2023 we may fully get to see why.

Clayton Kershaw (+8000 FanDuel) — This is my favorite bet of them all. We’ve talked a lot about ceiling here, but Kershaw has the ultimate floor. In his last 14 seasons (every season after his rookie campaign), his highest ERA has been 3.55. For his career, his ERA is 2.48 — an unreal number that doesn’t get nearly enough mention. He’s coming off a season in which he was as good in terms of run prevention as ever, with a 2.28 ERA and 2.57 FIP that was his lowest since 2016.

Every advanced metric believes in him, the only thing in question in his innings. And yes, that is a big question. But he has been not far off of the number of innings needed to be in the discussion the past two seasons, coming in at 121 2/3 and 126 1/3. If he had been able to get into the 160 range, he’d start to have a mighty interesting case. And in the four seasons before COVID, he was averaging 166 per season. At 80:1 I love this look.

Ok, hope you’re not tired of Cy Young talk, because that was just the National League. Let’s move on to the American League.

American League Cy Young Picks

Favorites in Ascending Order of Preference

Dylan Cease (+900 PointsBet) — Like many in the analytics community, I’m lower on Cease than the market. Sometimes that makes for an opportunity to zag (see: Max Fried), but Cease’s control problems, added to the fact that he appears to have been quite lucky in his 2.20-ERA campaign last season makes this a definite stay away at this number.

Gerrit Cole (+700 FanDuel) — For as big a name as he is, Cole has only ever finished in the top two in his league’s ERA race once in his career (2019). He’s coming off a pair of seasons in which he has a combined 3.37 ERA, which is definitely solid, but far from amazing. He has about as high a floor as you'll find in either Cy Young race, so if you’re a portfolio builder, he’ll almost certainly make it in at some point, but buying for this short a price at the start of the season is not advised.

Jacob deGrom (+600 BetMGM) — Probably unsurprisingly, deGrom is my clear favorite of the favorites. He has by far the lowest projected ERA of any starter in baseball, and with him, it’s truly just a matter of can he stay healthy.

He hasn’t managed to do so the last two seasons, and at age 35 this season, he’s a little older than you’d imagine based on when he debuted.

This is the trickiest bet of the bunch because if he stays healthy the number is only going to get shorter. But if he misses a significant portion of time again it suddenly evaporates. I’ll be putting just a small amount here for now, and then if he has what should be a smaller injury I may use that dip to rebuy into his market.

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Fun Longshots

Jeffrey Springs (+20000 FanDuel) — Who? Far from the sexiest name, but once the Rays turned Springs into a starter last season, he posted a 2.66 ERA in 125 innings for them. If he gets a full run of starts this season, he would clear 160 IP, and although his 3.14 FIP was a bit off that sparkling ERA, at 200:1, why not toss a dollar here?

Tarik Skubal (+25000 Caesars) — Here’s the list of names in the American League with a lower FIP than Skubal in at least 100 IP last season: Gausman, Ohtani, Verlander, Bieber… That’s it. Now, clearly Skubal is not among that tier. Nor would any real baseball fan be confident saying he is actually better than Sandy Alcantara, who he did indeed post a lower FIP than last season. BUT, Skubal is a 26-year-old who does come with some former top prospect pedigree, and at 250:1, you’re just having some fun anyways.

Hunter Brown (no odds) — Ok here’s one that might not actually just be setting a dollar on fire. Sadly I can’t actually find odds for him anywhere, so if you do, feel free to DM me on Twitter and we can ride along together (@TurveyBets).

Brown is the Astros 2019 first-round draft pick, and he is expected to be given a shot at the rotation to start the season. Getting to a full 160 innings could be tricky, and he is a relative unknown, with just 20 1/3 IP to his major league career, but from what we’ve seen in that brief stint (0.89 ERA; 1.98 FIP) to go along with his minor league career (2.55 ERA in Triple-A last season) and pedigree, there’s a lot to like.

Here’s one final note, take it with a grain of salt. The only AL pitchers with a lower projected ERA in 100+ IP this season than Brown, per THE BAT: deGrom, Ohtani, Rodon, Glasnow, McClanahan, Valdez, Castillo, and Cole.

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Guys I’ll be eyeing

Shohei Ohtani (+1200 Caesars) — Ironically, for as out on Ohtani as I am for MVP, I’m actually intrigued by his Cy Young price. My case against Ohtani MVP rests most notably on his health, and while there are certainly paths to an injury that keeps him from pitching while allowing him to hit, it’s shocking the difference in price between his MVP and Cy Young numbers.

Ohtani had the second-best FIP and third-best ERAin the AL last season, and is once again projected to be among the elites in run prevention. In fact, only deGrom has a lower projected ERA. The injury risk is certainly still there, but I don’t mind it nearly as much at +1200 as I do at his MVP number of +220.

Shane McClanahan (+1400 FanDuel) — In the AL, no pitcher in THE BAT projections is projected for as low an ERA with as many innings as McClanahan is projected for this season. He’s coming off a season with a 2.54 ERA (3.00 FIP but 2.60 xFIP) and will be a 26-year-old in a great home stadium for pitching on a team that knows better than any how to get the most out of their run prevention.

I’ll be putting a bit here preseason, but he’s also the perfect candidate to slip under the radar to some more flashy names throughout the season and see his odds lengthen, only to be the last one standing come October with the best resume of the bunch. 

Luis Castillo (+1800 PointsBet) — Castillo comes with one of the best combinations of floor and ceiling of any pitcher in this market. He has tantalized us with his stuff for years, while just consistently posting ERAs in the 3.00s. After making the move to Seattle last season, he did post a 2.91 FIP, and he’s projected for the seventh-best ERA among AL starters right now. The market is probably close to correct here, I just will definitely be keeping an eye here.

Cristian Javier (+2100 FanDuel) — Your favorite baseball’s writer’s favorite sleeper pick for this season, there will be plenty of ink spilled on him this spring, so I’ll leave it to others since I’m a bit behind most on Javier.

George Kirby (+6000 FanDuel) — The longest odds outside of the pure longshots, Kirby is a bit under the radar in Seattle but not for long. He had the sixth-lowest FIP among any AL pitcher with at least 100 innings last season, and is now in the elite second cluster of pitchers in terms of projections. He has one of the higher ceilings of that grouping, given his age (25) and still limited experience at the big leagues. At 60:1, there’s a lot to like.

Near Best Bets

Similar to the NL MVP article, there just isn’t quite a bet that jumps off the page as Must Bet this second for the AL Cy Young. But as I noted there, we can bet a bit here for now and we’ll certainly be building the portfolio throughout the season in these regular awards check-ins.

Tyler Glasnow (+4100 FanDuel) — By talent alone, Glasnow belongs about three tiers higher than this pricing suggests. He’s projected for the fourth-best ERA among starters this season by THE BAT, and only deGrom has a higher projected strikeout rate.

Obviously there’s a catch. And with Glasnow the question is, and always has been, his ability to stay on the field. He has topped 100.0 IP in a season only once, and even that season he was a far cry from a qualifying number of innings (111.2 in 2018). Add on to that the fact that he has already picked up a knock this spring, and I can understand plenty of people avoiding this bet.

However, he’s an ERA God when healthy, and you knew he was going to miss a bit of the season no matter what. If anything, get it out of the way to start the season, and at 41:1, hope that that’s it for IL stints for the year. You can wait a bit, though, to see when he officially gets the OK to come back and bet him then. 

Kevin Gausman (+1600 BetMGM) — There’s A LOT to like here. Gausman had the lowest FIP and third-lowest xFIP in the American League last season, and he’s Eno Sarris’ bold prediction to win AL Cy Young this season.

On the one hand, it’s easy to look at his 3.35 ERA as just bad luck compared to his 2.38 FIP, but I’m a little more hesitant, and it’s why I can’t quite make this a best bet.

Even before last season, Gausman has shown a bit of a tendency to have a higher ERA than FIP. Kind of like the inverse of Max Fried, Gausman had a career 4.02 ERA to 3.88 FIP even previous to last season. There’s also the fact that the Blue Jays defense is slightly improved but still a far cry from the best defenses in the league.

Finally, the Jays brought in their fences this offseason. Add it all together, and it feels like Gausman is due for another season with a mid 2.00s FIP but low 3.00s ERA that disqualifies him from our search for miniscule ERAs. 

Framber Valdez (+2500 Caesars) — The Groundball King, Valdez is fresh off a fifth-place finish in the Cy Young and at 29-years-old and on the best team in the AL, he’ll be in the discussion for a while. That’s why this number is so surprising to me.

There’s not a whole lot to suggest Valdez should be an under-the-radar pick to win this award, and yet somehow he’s in the mid-teens in terms of pricing, behind plenty of pitchers who have much bigger question marks than him.

There’s a bit of Cole to Valdez in that his floor might be a touch higher than his ceiling, but given that he finished with a sub-3.00 ERA just last season, it’s really not hard to imagine him near the top of the ERA leaderboard come end of season. This is a best bet for me strictly on the price.

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