By Adam Brown
With the season a matter of days away, it’s time to divert our attention away from baseball’s tiresome, elongated pre-season and start thinking about the real thing. Well I’m sure the winners and wildcards of the divisions will be discussed ad nauseam, we’re going to give the individual honours some consideration. However, not to focus on the obvious candidates, it’s not rocket science to identify Mike Trout as an MVP candidate, or Clayton Kershaw as the CY Young favourite. It’s time to find the next Corey Kluber, to predict this season’s Michael Brantley.
Whilst we’ll look at all major awards, the National League CY Young award and the American League Most Valuable Player look pretty straightforward, the league’s other award is open to all contenders. We’ll identify five potential sleepers for each award and why they could mount an under-the-radar challenge at taking home some hardware.
We’ll start this by pouring some out for Marcus Stroman who would have unequivocally made this list. Injuries suck. Get well soon!
Let’s look at the criteria to be a dominant power pitcher. Can make bats miss. 120 strikeouts in 110 innings in 2014. Check! Good combination of control and command of your pitches. Strikeout to Walk (K/BB) ratio of 3.43. Check! Salazar, at the tender age of 24 is about to embark on his third season in the big leagues. He’s amassed 162 innings, with a FIP of 3.41. To make a story short, he’s really good, and is only going to trend one way. His fastball is an elite pitch, sits in the high 90’s, with two good supporting pitches, the slider and the splitter to create a small, but deadly arsenal of pitches.
What makes Salazar a good candidate to breakout is his age, his pitches, and his luck. Last season, Salazar pitched to a .354 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) which strikes as horrendous luck, league average should sit around .290. The law of averages suggests that will come down considerably this season. Maybe a year too soon to join the game’s elite, but Salazar does look primed to have a really good season.
This selection shouldn’t come as a great shock to anyone who has watched baseball in the last three years. Smyly is incredible. He has had stretches of absolute dominance, his 1.70 ERA in 47.2 innings since his trade to Tampa Bay exemplifies this. He has a career ERA+ of 125, which is well above average, has a WHIP (Walks, Hits per Innings Pitched) of just over 1.1, and had a WAR in excess of 2 last season. At just 25, he should still have strides and improvements to make, which should be a worrying prospect for hitters as Smyly harvests a career ERA of 3.26 as it stands.
Smyly’s repertoire consists of a Fastball which creeps up into the 90’s, a Cutter and a Slurve which was discussed on RantSports.com, “according to Fangraphs’ Pitch Values Data, the breaking ball was given a rating of 8.2 runs above average, making it his best pitch. According to PITCHf/x, Smyly had a swinging strike rate of 15.3 percent and a contact rate of 68.2 percent with the slider/curveball. Opponents were only able to muster a .186 batting average against it”. (Faber, 2015)
Although Smyly outperformed his peripherals last year, the Rays will hope his year on year growth as a pitcher could offset that regression, which doesn’t seem an unreasonable proposition.
Gausman just turned 24. He’s very young, yet already very accomplished at the Major League Level. He put up good numbers last year, pitching to a 3.41 FIP and a 107 ERA+. More impressive may have been his poise during the Orioles postseason run. Despite a miniscule sample size of just 8 innings, he surrendered just a solitary run. Not that it’s necessarily indicative of future performance, this does illuminate Gausman’s poise and composure, which makes him a good pick to breakout this season.
A high career BABIP of .314 should drop slightly, and putting together a Quality Start in 45% of his starts last season shows he could amass the innings to solidify himself in the upper echelons of American League pitchers.
At 27, Carrasco is the oldest member of this quintet, but he is also coming off the back of the most impressive season in 2014. An ERA of 2.55, K/BB of 4.83 to accompany how stingy he was on hitters, who could only muster 6.9 hits per 9 innings against him. Yet despite all of this, Carrasco underperformed his peripherals, his FIP sat at 2.44, and his BABIP is .311 for his career. This performance seems sustainable, and over 200 innings would immediately propel Carrasco in the CY Young conversation.
3.67… 3.36… 3.23. That’s Alex Cobb’s FIP over the last three seasons. Notice the trend… of course you do. He’s getting better every year, at a remarkably consistent rate. Also, he’s only 26. Consistency is the main facet that puts Cobb amongst this group of pitchers. He put a Quality Start together in 63% of his starts last season, a number which should help him towards the magical number of 200 innings.
.284… .298… .280… .285… Even the stats out of Cobb’s control are consistent. Those are his BABIP numbers over the last 4 seasons. Cobb’s consistent and gradual improvement makes him a very safe candidate to progress further, and with a bump in innings could easily find himself in then conversation come the latter stages of the season.
1. Chris Sale
2. Felix Hernandez
3. Sonny Gray