Breaking Down the 2016 National League Cy Young Contenders

Will Clayton Kershaw be rewarded again, or is there another dark horse candidate who's primed to win the award?

In 2015, Jake Arrieta surprised the baseball community by winning the NL Cy Young award despite historic seasons from Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.

The Chicago Cubs' pitcher went 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA and 236 strikeouts in 229 innings last season.

Arrieta is not the favorite to win in 2016, but he certainly has a strong chance to repeat against an increasingly impressive field of pitchers.

Let's take a look at NL pitchers who project to achieve the best combination of strikeout rate, walk rate, innings pitched, FIP, and ERA. The innings pitched criteria removes Jose Fernandez as a candidate because he will likely not go over 200 innings this season. Adam Wainwright will likely not have a strong enough strikeout rate to merit first place consideration, so we won't go there either.

The Favorite: Clayton Kershaw

Kershaw inexplicably did not win the 2015 NL Cy Young award despite posting the first 300 strikeout season in baseball since 2002, when Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson each went over 300 strikeouts. In addition to the 300 strikeouts, Kershaw posted the best strikeout rate, best K-BB%, best FIP, and the best SIERA of among qualified National League starters.

In terms of peripheral numbers, he posted the highest swinging strike rate (SwSk%; 15.9%) and lowest contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone (O-Contact%; 51.4%) of his career, per FanGraphs, meaning batters missed his pitches regardless of placement. It is hard not to see Kershaw picking up his fourth career Cy Young award in 2016.

Our projections see a big season ahead.

218.5 17 275 48 0 2.34 1.03 10.43

Reigning Champion: Jake Arrieta

Arrieta followed up a sterling 2014 breakout season with the Cubs with an amazing 2015 season that saw him throw a no-hitter on Sunday ight Baseball and take home the Cy Young award. Arrieta’s rate stats were duplicative of his 2014 season, except he maintained those rates over 70 more innings.

For 2016, there is little reason to expect Arrieta’s strikeout rate to decline much. However, considering Arrieta’s first pitch strike percentage (F-strike%) was just over 60%, it would not be surprising to see his walk rate (BB%) to jump 1-2% and level out around 6.5-7% (which is still very strong). Going back-to-back will be challenging for Arrieta since it is unlikely that he will post another 20-win season and will no longer have the Cubs' Cinderella narrative behind him.

2016 numberFire projection:

210.8 17 216 52 0 2.75 1.00 9.30

Done it Before: Max Scherzer

One of the seasons in the table above reflects Max Scherzer's 2013 AL Cy Young season and the other is his 2015 stat line. Can you guess which stat line belongs to the Cy Young season?

Year A 28.7 % 6.7 % 2.74 2.74 12.2 %
Year B 30.7 % 3.8 % 2.79 2.77 15.3 %

Year A: 2013 Cy Young season
Year B: 2015 season

Scherzer’s final line for 2015 was better than his 2013 AL Cy Young season. However, he stumbled in the month of August (6.43 ERA in 28 innings) and cost himself votes for the 2015 title. Had Scherzer posted his August numbers in April or May, he may have been more of a factor in NL voting last season (he finished fifth). From a rate standpoint, Scherzer may be the only pitcher the National League who can go toe-to-toe with Kershaw for an entire season.

2016 numberFire projection:

217.6 15 259 45 0 2.91 1.03 9.61

The Mets' Staff

Matt Harvey returned in 2015 after missing the entire 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery. In 2015, Harvey was about 95% of what he was in his 2013 breakout season, posting a 2.71 ERA that was supported by a 25% strikeout rate and a 5% walk rate. Harvey pitched off of his fastball slightly more than he did in his 2013 campaign (his average fastball velocity was actually higher than it was in 2013), while his slider usage decreased about 4.5%.

It will be interesting to see if Harvey utilizes the slider more in 2016 because he is another year removed from surgery. If Harvey does increase his slider usage, it will likely result in a spike in strikeout rate and a return to 2013 strikeout levels.

2015 Season K% BB% ERA FIP SWSK%
Matt Harvey 24.9 4.9 2.71 3.05 11.6
Jacob deGrom 27.3 5.1 2.54 2.70 12.7
Noah Syndergaard 27.5 5.1 3.24 3.25 12.2

Jacob deGrom probably receives the least amount of fanfare among the Mets' trio of elite starters, but he has been equally as successful as Harvey in his career. Like Harvey (68.2%), deGrom does a great job of pumping first pitch strikes to get ahead in the count (67.8% F-strike in 2015). deGrom’s pitch mix is very similar to Harvey’s, and the more you look at each of their numbers, the more they appear the same.

Harvey and deGrom will need to eclipse 215 innings to be viewed as viable Cy Young contenders. Neither has pitched more than 195 innings in a MLB regular season in their careers. However, it would not be surprising if each of them went over that mark in 2016.

Noah Syndergaard sizzled in his MLB debut last season. Syndergaard pitched just over 180 innings across Triple-A and the Majors. It would not be surprising if Syndergaard ended up striking out more batters by inning than Harvey or deGrom, while simultaneously posting a high ERA/FIP due to his propensity to lose command of his fastball in the zone.

One issue that all three will have when it comes to winning the Cy Young is that they are likely to cannibalize each other with voters because they are very likely to continue to post similar results for the same team.

Harvey 2016 numberFire projection:

207.5 14 198 44 0 3.17 1.06 7.45

deGrom 2016 numberFire projection:

213.1 16 207 50 0 3.05 1.06 8.59

Syndergaard 2016 numberFire projection:

175.9 11 193 41 0 3.25 1.12 5.30

The Consummate Disappointment: Stephen Strasburg

Stephen Strasburg has perhaps never quite lived up to the hype created as a result of his pedigree and MLB debut (striking out 14 Pirates in 7 innings). Strasburg's career has been marred by Tommy John surgery, being shut down prior to the playoffs as a result of Tommy John surgery, criticized in the media and blogosphere for “pouting on the mound,” and -- as a whole -- just not being quite on par wit pitchers such as h Clayton Kershaw or Matt Harvey.

Heading into the 2016, optimism is justified for Strasburg, who is entering probably his last season with the Nationals; he becomes a free agent once the 2016 season is over. In 2015, Strasburg struggled with neck and oblique injuries during the first half of the season. Strasburg also posted a high .355 BABIP in the first half, which contributed to his high 5.16 first half ERA.

When Strasburg was put back together in the second half, he dominated the National League, posting a 1.90 ERA over his final 66 innings that was supported by a whopping 37.4% strikeout rate and an excellent 3.3% walk rate. Strasburg will be poised to land a Kershaw-esque deal in addition to the Cy Young if he can harness those second half rates over the course of the entire 2016 season.

2016 numberFire projection:

177.3 13 206 38 0 3.30 1.10 6.18

West Coast Lefty: Madison Bumgarner

Madison Bumgarner posted his best regular season ever in 2015, possessing a 2.93 ERA over 218 innings while striking out 26.9% of the batters faced while walking only 4.5% of those batters.

Bumgarner, who is still only 26 years old, has already won multiple World Series with Giants and, in 2014, delivered one of the most dominant postseason performances in MLB history. If Bumgarner is able to maintain the level of excellence he has established over the next four to five, seasons he will have a great resume for Cooperstown when he retires. Bumgarner is currently missing one accolade from that resume: a Cy Young award. Last season, Bumgarner finished sixth in NL balloting (he finished fourth in 2014 and ninth in 2013).

In terms of getting over the hump, Bumgarner will likely need to eat up more innings to catch up with Kershaw or Scherzer. It feels like 2015 may represent Bumgarner’s peak in terms of strikeout rate and walk rate. If Bumgarner is able to maintain those rates but log more innings (240 to 250 innings), he could conceivably move past Kershaw in terms of WAR while posting lesser rates on a per inning basis.

From a pure narrative perspective, Bumgarner’s rich postseason past and rugged personality would create a very stark contrast in comparison to someone like Kershaw, since Kershaw is the prohibitive favorite to win the award every year but does not possess a narrative equal to Bumgarner on the big stage.

2016 numberFire projection:

215.0 16 215 45 0 2.99 1.07 8.96

The Darkhorse: Gerrit Cole

Gerrit Cole has quietly become one of the best pitchers in the National league over the past three seasons. In 2015, Cole finished fourth in NL balloting behind Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Arrieta. In 2015, Cole made a massive 70-inning jump from 138 innings pitched in 2014 to 208 last season. From a rates perspective, Cole posted a 24.3% strikeout rate and a low 5.3% walk rate. Heading into his fourth Major League season, Cole could see those rates increase.

Should Cole take a step forward with his strikeout rate and post a sub-three ERA, he could factor heavily into the discussion, especially if the Pirates leapfrog the Cardinals and the Cubs in the NL Central. Cole, unlike several other candidates on this list, will not have to worry about his votes being cannibalized by his teammates (Scherzer, Strasburg, Syndergaard, Harvey, and deGrom will all likely have this issue).

2016 numberFire projection:

214.7 16 200 53 0 3.06 1.14 7.78

Cowboy in the Desert: Zack Greinke

Zack Greinke's quest for a second Cy Young award will be more challenging in 2016 than in 2015, as he will be moving from Dodger Stadium to Chase Field. Greinke, who is regarded as one of the smartest players in the game, will be tested to keep his ERA below three.

Season Team Fast Ball% Slider% Cutter% Curveball% Changeup% Unknown%
2008 Royals 61.5% (93.3) 18.8% (85.3) 12.0% (74.4) 7.7% (82.0) 1.5%
2009 Royals 59.4% (93.7) 20.2% (86.1) 14.3% (73.8) 6.1% (84.1) 1.5%
2010 Royals 60.7% (93.5) 15.5% (86.9) 10.7% (74.3) 13.0% (85.2) 1.2%
2011 Brewers 56.0% (92.5) 18.7% (84.5) 16.8% (73.1) 8.5% (84.9)
2012 2 Teams 52.6% (92.4) 13.3% (83.2) 10.7% (89.3) 16.7% (73.4) 6.6% (85.6) 0.1%
2013 Dodgers 55.1% (91.7) 2.7% (82.2) 17.1% (86.4) 12.9% (72.8) 12.2% (86.5) 0.2%
2014 Dodgers 53.8% (91.9) 19.4% (84.9) 10.4% (71.9) 16.5% (87.2) 0.2%
2015 Dodgers 50.7% (91.8) 19.3% (86.9) 9.1% (73.6) 20.9% (88.5) 0.1%

Perhaps the biggest change for Greinke since he moved to the NL is the development of a changeup, which he has used more and more frequently over the past two seasons. The pitch generated a swing and  miss over 34% of the time in 2015. It will be interested to see if Greinke’s increased changeup usage continues as a Diamondback or if he pivots toward more fastballs or sliders while with the Diamondbacks.

Greinke will likely not post an ERA close to what he did in 2015 (1.66), and his FIP (3.22) is probably closer to what we can expect from Greinke pitching in Arizona.

2016 numberFire projection:

212.5 15 200 46 0 3.05 1.03 8.19

Other Notable Candidates

Adam Wainwright may post a decent ERA and log 220 innings, but he will not strikeout enough batters to be a true contender. Conversely, Tyson Ross could post good enough numbers on a rate basis but does not possess enough pitch economy to log the innings.

Michael Wacha will have to take a step forward in his rate stats and stay healthy. Carlos Martinez -- if he did not have shoulder issues to end the 2015 season -- would have been profiled above.

Jon Lester will need Arrieta to take a step back and will need to “win” 20 games to have a chance in balloting. Again, Jose Fernandez could be limited to about 180 innings for 2016, which removes him from consideration.

My Pick: Stephen Strasburg

I think Kershaw, by the numbers will have a superior year, like in 2015, but I also think voters have fatigued on his perennial greatness. I think Strasburg puts it all together for one year and matches the stat line of Kershaw, while the Nationals re-emerge in the NL East as World Series contenders.

In my opinion, Strasburg’s candidacy and narrative will be buoyed the Nationals success and he goes on to win his first NL Cy Young en route to a massive payday next offseason.