Previewing 2021 AL Cy Young Contenders

As one writer previewed last week in the NL, it is time to look at the possible AL Cy Young contenders. Unlike the National League, there is no clear-cut favorite. Gerrit Cole is arguably the best pitcher in the AL, yet Shane Bieber and Lucas Giolito are also seen as frontrunners for the award. All of these pitchers have made their season debuts already. Some debuts were great and others not. However, one start does not make or break a season, so they do not have any bearing on their status in this piece. As with Kenta Maeda in 2020 and Giolito in 2019, the AL possesses some talented pitchers who could bust out in a big way in 2021. From the favorites to the challengers, let’s look at who could be in the race by the season’s end.

The Favorites

The New York Yankees have a real gem in Gerrit Cole. What makes him even more special is the lack of certainty in the rotation behind him. Cole had a great year in 2020, but it was not quite at the 2019 levels that earned him a $324 million contract. He made all 12 of his starts, pitching 73 innings. He posted a 2.84 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 11.6 K/9, 1.7 HR/9, and a 149 ERA+. Cole set such a high standard for himself in 2019 that anything short of repeating it might be disappointing. Home runs were a major issue in 2020 as he allowed 14 homers and an unsightly 18.7% HR/FB rate. The league average is around 10%, so Cole might have had some bad luck on his side. Pitching half of his games at Yankee Stadium probably didn’t help much either.

2021 has started out on a much better note for Cole. In two starts, he has thrown 12.1 innings, allowing two earned runs and striking out 21 batters. This is good for a 1.46 ERA and 15.3 K/9. In fact, his Tuesday-night start against the Baltimore Orioles was the most dominant he has ever looked in a Yankee uniform. He pitched seven shutout innings allowing no runs and no walks while striking out 13 batters. Cole’s importance to the Yankees is more evident now than it ever was in 2020. This is what will increase his standing in the race, and the narrative surrounding his 2021 season.

Shane Bieber, Cleveland Indians

Shane Bieber put up one of the most dominant seasons ever in 2020. The only asterisk is that it was such a short season. The Cleveland Indians had one of the worst offenses in the league yet still made the playoffs in part to Bieber’s performance on the mound. He pitched 77 1/3 innings, posting a Major league-best 1.63 ERA, 14.2 K/9, 122 SO, and 2.07 FIP. Analytically speaking, there were not many pitchers as good as Bieber either. He ranked in the 93rd percentile or better in xwOBA, xERA, xBA, strikeout rate, and whiff rate. Despite being hit hard in his 2021 debut, Bieber still struck out 12 batters in six innings. While he may never replicate his 2020 success, Bieber has proven that he is one of the best pitchers in the sport. It is realistic to expect Bieber to be in the Cy Young race for several years to come.

Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox

While not as big of a favorite as Cole or Bieber, Giolito is a popular pick to take another step forward in his career. He allowed the most runs in the league in 2018 as he posted a 6.13 ERA. He turned a corner in 2019 as he started realizing his potential. In posting a 3.41 ERA and 11.6 K/9 in 176 2/3 innings in 2019, Giolito established himself as the ace of the Chicago White Sox. He followed that up with a 3.48 ERA, 3.19 FIP, and 12.1 K/9 in 72 1/3 innings in 2020. In fact, subtract Giolito’s first 2020 start and he put up a 2.75 ERA. It is clear that he is trending upwards and might put together a true Cy Young-worthy season in 2021.

With Giolito alongside Lance Lynn and Dallas Keuchel in the rotation, the White Sox look to have one of the better rotations in the sport. Giolito will be in the heart of that with his excellent fastball-change repertoire. His changeup is downright filthy, as batters hit .190 against it in 2019 and .157 in 2020. It is his ability to throw that pitch for strikes in any part of the zone that makes it such a good pitch. He has made two starts thus far in 2021, pitching 10 2/3 innings while striking out 18 batters. As long as Giolito can build upon his success from ’19 and ’20, then there is no doubt that he can finish 2021 with an AL Cy Young in hand.

Challengers

The Toronto Blue Jays need Hyun Jin Ryu perhaps more than any player is needed in baseball. The pitching staff is severely lacking in certainty behind Ryu. With Nate Pearson and Robbie Ray injured, Toronto needs Ryu to replicate 2020. He finished third in AL Cy Young voting as he pitched 67 innings to the tune of a 2.69 ERA, 3.01 FIP, and 162 ERA+. Ryu will not be pitching 200 innings, nor will he strike out many batters, but he will get soft contact. Since the advent of Statcast in 2015, Ryu has never allowed an average exit velocity higher than 87 mph. In 2020, he ranked in the 90th percentile or better in barrel rate and hard-hit rate. Ryu also gets tons of ground balls as his career 50.2% ground ball rate is much higher than the league average of 45.3%. He had a solid 2021 debut as he pitched 5 1/3 innings against the Yankees, striking out five and allowing two runs. Ryu will certainly get a boost in Cy Young voting should Toronto’s pitching staff exceed expectations.

Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay Rays

The baseball world gushes over Tyler Glasnow for good reason. He has the stuff to be the most dominant pitcher in the sport. With his 6’8 frame, Glasnow possesses an imposing matchup for anyone in the game. With a fastball that averages over 97 mph and a curveball with elite spin, Glasnow strikes out batters at an elite rate. The problem is he has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. Having never pitched more than 111 2/3 innings in a season, Glasnow’s longevity is in question. Even though he stayed healthy in 2020, he only posted a 4.08 ERA, albeit with a 3.66 FIP and 14.3 K/9. If he can just put it all together for even 175 innings, Glasnow will surely earn Cy Young votes. The Tampa Bay Rays no longer have the best rotation in baseball. Despite this, Glasnow is in the spotlight and has started 2021 on a great note. He has made two starts, throwing 12 innings, allowing five hits, and only one run while striking out 15 batters. Glasnow has the fourth-best odds to win the AL Cy Young Award (+950) but needs to show he can pitch a full 162-game season.

Kenta Maeda, Minnesota Twins

Kenta Maeda was a good pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers prior to 2020. However, no one could have predicted his fantastic 2020. Similar to Ryu, Maeda does not throw hard and will not post high strikeout totals. What he will do is locate his pitches and rely on soft contact. Prior to 2020, Maeda averaged a 3.87 ERA and 3.71 FIP. He vastly outperformed that for the Minnesota Twins in 2020 as he posted a 2.75 ERA and 3.00 FIP. His 0.75 WHIP was the lowest anyone has ever posted since Pedro Martinez in 2000. The advanced metrics were even more special as he ranked in the 90th percentile or better in exit velocity, hard-hit rate, xwOBA, xERA, and walk rate. All of this led to a second-place finish in AL Cy Young voting. His 2021 debut could have gone better as he pitched 4 1/3 innings, allowing six hits and one run, striking out five batters. Maeda and Jose Berrios give the Twins a very talented one-two punch that can be one of the best in the game.

Dylan Bundy, Los Angeles Angels

While there are many pitchers in the AL with better Cy Young odds, Bundy is a very intriguing dark horse for the award. Such pitchers include Lance Lynn, Jose Berrios, and Zack Greinke. The Los Angeles Angels present a popular pick to finally make it back to the playoffs. If that is to happen, Dylan Bundy has got to repeat his 2020 and more. It was by far the best year of his career, even if it came in a short season. He threw 65 2/3 innings, posting a 3.29 ERA, 2.92 FIP, and 3.06 xERA. It was a career year in every sense. By increasing his slider and changeup usage while lowering his fastball usage, Bundy became a more effective pitcher. Considering his fastball only averaged 90 mph in 2020, this change of strategy will work well for him long-term. Furthermore, it was the perfect complement to the change of scenery that Bundy made. As a flyball pitcher, starting your home games at pitcher-friendly Anaheim Stadium instead of the hitter-friendly Park at Camden Yards always helps. The changes Bundy has made reflect a pitcher whose 2020 success can hold up over a much larger sample. He is very much a dark horse for this award but do not be surprised if he ends up with enough votes to be a top-6 finisher in the race.

Final Thoughts

The American League has an intriguing batch of pitchers. The AL does not possess the depth of talented pitchers that the NL does. However, Cole, Bieber, and Giolito are arguably three of the ten best pitchers in the sport. From dark horses like Bundy to a favorite in Cole, the AL Cy Young race will be fascinating. While other pitchers such as Lynn, Greinke, or Berrios could make some noise in this race, the seven pitchers in this piece should do enough to earn Cy Young votes.

 

Players Mentioned:

Gerrit Cole, Shane Bieber, Lucas Giolito, Kenta Maeda, Lance Lynn, Dallas Keuchel, Nate Pearson, Robbie Ray, Tyler Glasnow, Zack Greinke, Jose Berrios, Dylan Bundy,

Hyun Jin Ryu

“Main Photo”
Embed from Getty Images


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