Previewing 2021 NL Cy Young Contenders

2021 NL Cy Young

Awards season is about eight months away but it is never too early to think about a possible NL Cy Young race. New York Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom won the award in 2018 and 2019, and finished third in 2020. Considering his recent performance and his Spring Training form, deGrom again is the favorite to win the Cy Young. Opening day is only two days away and deGrom will be taking the mound against another Cy Young hopeful, Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals. The two have won a combined five Cy Young awards. The National League has many pitchers who can vie for the NL Cy Young award. From the favorites to the outsiders, let’s look at who might be able to step up in 2021.

The Favorites

Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals

Max Scherzer will be in contention for the Cy Young as long as he is able to pitch. Scherzer won his first Cy Young award all the way back in 2013 with the Detroit Tigers. He won 21 games that year while pitching 214 innings with a 2.90 ERA. Since then, he won two more Cy Youngs with the Nationals in 2016 and 2017. In those two seasons, he averaged a 2.75 ERA, 214 innings, 276 SO, 11.6 K/9, and 159 ERA+. These two seasons combined with excellent showings in ’18 and ’19 have turned Scherzer into a surefire Hall of Famer. His 3.74 ERA in 2020 was the highest he has put up since 2012. However, he posted a 12.3 K/9 and was still one of the best strikeout pitchers in the game.

2021 is the last year of Scherzer’s mega-contract that he signed when he was 30 years old. He actually outperformed that $210 million deal which will go down as one of the best free-agent signings in history. Max Scherzer is still a top-five pitcher in the sport and a full healthy season should see him produce Cy Young type numbers.

Trevor Bauer, Los Angeles Dodgers

Trevor Bauer is the highest-paid player in baseball history. He is currently on a three-year deal worth around $102 million. The Los Angeles Dodgers have an embarrassment of riches, which includes three pitchers who could all contend for the NL Cy Young. Bauer won the Cy Young award in 2020 as he posted a 1.73 ERA, 12.3 K/9, 0.80 WHIP, and 287 ERA+ across 73 innings pitched. That along with fantastic peripherals made Bauer the NL’s best pitcher in 2020. Last year was only the second time in Bauer’s career that he posted an ERA lower than 4.00. Additionally, Bauer’s unusually high spin rate increases on all of his pitches call into question whether he was using any “foreign” substances. This is what makes people doubt if his 2020 season can be repeated. In any case, there is no doubt Bauer is a very smart and talented pitcher. At his best, he can pitch as well as anyone. Look for Bauer to continue to pitch with a chip on his shoulder and prove that his 2020 success was legitimate.

Yu Darvish, San Diego Padres

Did you know that Yu Darvish is the all-time leader with 11.1 K/9? He has been a fantastic pitcher since he first stepped on a major league mound. However, he struggled mightily in 2018, prompting people to think he was washed up or injury-prone. The second half of 2019 rolled around and Darvish took off. He made 13 starts, pitching to 2.76 ERA over 81 and one-third innings pitched, 13.0 K/9, and 118 SO to only seven walks. His excellence continued into 2020 as he finished second in NL Cy Young voting. Darvish pitched 76 innings, posting a 2.01 ERA and a league-leading 2.23 FIP, as well as 11.0 K/9 and a 212 ERA+. Per Baseball Savant, Darvish threw six different pitches in 2021, with each pitch posting good results. All of his pitches have elite spin yet Darvish was able to post a 4.7% walk rate that was one of the best in baseball. Now a member of the San Diego Padres, Darvish should be a good bet to finish high in the NL Cy Young voting.

The Outsiders

Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds

Luis Castillo is an ace in this league. His relatively short track record is the only thing stopping him from being a favorite. He has really only pitched three full years in the league. Regardless, Castillo is starting on opening day for the Cincinnati Reds and is primed to have his best season yet. He was an All-Star in 2019 as he posted a 3.40 ERA, 226 SO, 10.7 K/9, and 140 ERA+ across 192 and two-thirds innings pitched. In 2020, Castillo threw 70 innings, striking out 89 batters, good for 11.4 K/9. He combined that with a 2.65 FIP, 2.97 xERA+, and 154 ERA+. Additionally, he ranked in the 80th percentile or better in exit velocity, xSLG, xERA, whiff rate, strikeout rate, barrel rate, fastball spin, and xwOBA. There is no doubt that Castillo has turned into one of the upper tier starters in the sport. Lastly, his changeup is one of the sport’s most dominant pitches. Batters posted a .177 xBA and .233 xwOBA against it in 2020, and .133 xBA and .196 xwOBA in 2019.

Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies

Aaron Nola has been one of the NL’s best pitchers since 2018. In that span, he has posted a very strong 3.13 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 10.2 K/9, and 138 ERA+. He boasts very strong peripheral numbers as well. Not only did he strike out 12.1 batters per nine in 2020, but he also ranked in the 70th percentile or better in xERA, xwOBA, barrel rate, whiff rate, and strikeout rate. Nola finished third in Cy Young voting in 2018 and seventh in 2020. As the ace of the Philadelphia Phillies, Nola will be expected to produce a good season.

One pitch in Nola’s arsenal to keep an eye on is his curveball, which has looked downright filthy this spring. Since his breakout in 2017, here are the batting average numbers against his curveball: .172, .155, .201, and .187. That pitch also has an elite whiff rate of 41.8%. It is one of the best, and nicest looking, curveballs in the game. Nola’s reputation around the sport has increased in recent years and maybe 2021 will be his best season yet.

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Last year, Clayton Kershaw had his best season since 2017. He made 10 starts, throwing 58 1/3 innings, striking out 62 batters against only eight walks. Additionally, he posted a 2.16 ERA, 3.31 FIP, 3.06 xERA, 0.84 WHIP, and a 196 ERA+. While far from peak Kershaw, it was still one of the better stat lines posted by a pitcher in 2020. He followed that up with the best postseason of his career as he made five starts to the tune of a 2.93 ERA en route to his first World Series championship. There was a lot to like about his 2020 under the surface as well. His walk rate, xERA, xwOBA, and fastball spin all ranked in the 85th percentile or better. What was also very encouraging is that he increased his fastball velocity from 90.3 mph in 2019 to 91.6 mph in 2020. Kershaw has become a control artist in recent years and looks for that to continue in 2021. This is the last year of his contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, so an extension is likely to happen at some point this year as well.

Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers might surprise some people this year. Despite a relatively weak lineup, Their defense and pitching are very good. It is clear that Milwaukee is focusing more on run prevention than anything else to be successful in 2021. Brandon Woodruff will be at the heart of that. He has been in the league since 2017 but has not yet pitched a full 162-game season. He was an All-Star in 2019 but was limited to 22 starts that year. Despite this, he put up a 3.62 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 3.56 xERA, and a 123 ERA+. In 2020, Woodruff pitched a fully healthy season, making 13 starts, throwing 73 and two-thirds innings, with a 3.05 ERA, 3.20 FIP, and an elite 2.86 xERA. Woodruff’s fastball averaged 96.6 mph which ranks in the 91st percentile in baseball. Additionally, batters hit .194 with an expected average of .153 against his four-seamer. It is one of the best fastballs in the sport and will be at the heart of his success in 2021. This will finally be the year that Woodruff shows what he is capable of over a full 162-game season.

Final Thoughts

While Jacob deGrom is the true frontrunner for NL Cy Young, there are several other pitchers who have the potential, talent, and track record to win the award in 2021. Other pitchers considered were Jack Flaherty, Blake Snell, Max Fried, Zack Wheeler, and Corbin Burnes. Some pitchers are more well known than others, but each has metrics in their favor to show 2021 might be their finest seasons yet. The pitching talent in the National League is so rich, making for an interesting NL Cy Young Race. Whether each of these pitchers receives Cy Young votes or not, the 2021 awards season will be very exciting.

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Players Mentioned

Jack Flaherty, Blake Snell, Max Fried, Zack Wheeler, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola, Luis Castillo, Yu Darvish, Trevor Bauer, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, and Cy Young.