2011 AL Cy Young

Yesterday I went over my picks for the NL Cy Young, and I followed a similar method for today’s AL version.

Disclaimer: I don’t believe the Cy Young Award should put so much emphasis on Wins and ERA, however the writers that vote do think so. I am trying to guess which pitchers will have the best seasons in the eyes of the BWAA, the body of writers that vote for this award.

I think the AL has more pitchers this season with legitimate chances at a Cy Young Award. Here are my top prospects (3-season averages):

King Felix 2.69 3.28 3.42
Sabathia 3.07 3.27 3.48
Lester 3.29 3.31 3.44
Haren 3.47 3.33 3.23
Weaver 3.65 3.64 3.95
Verlander 3.84 3.27 3.76
Liriano 4.41 3.63 3.71

Francisco Liriano may look like an extreme underdog here, but Tommy John surgery ruined parts of 2008 and 2009 for him. He has two remarkable seasons under his belt in 2006 and 2010 that hint at his potential to be the best pitcher in the league. He combines the big three abilities that separate the best pitchers: high strikeout rates, low walk rates and he keeps the ball on the ground.

Felix Hernandez, the defending Cy Young champion, has the advantage of a friendly home ballpark in Safeco field—friendly meaning it’s the best pitchers’ ballpark in the American League. He and Liriano will both likely being pitching in front of two of the better defenses in the league as well, which should help to lower their ERAs even further.  Like Liriano, he combines the big three abilities (Ks, BBs, GBs).

However, despite a few upgrades, the Mariners offense will again suck this season. That same ballpark that helps Felix’s ERA will hurt his run support. Add in that this is a AAAA offense—code for “somewhere in between AAA and MLB”—and wins are going to be hard to come by for the King. Like he did last season, he’s going to have to pitch significantly better than the other guys on this list to make up for his team’s anemic offensive output.

C.C. Sabathia will get his wins, but he doesn’t have the strikeout stuff that a guy like Liriano has. He’s going to have to rely on a good record, a lot of innings pitched (the BWAA likes workhorses), and another lucky homerun rate. Sabathia has gotten away with low HR/Flyball rates the last couple seasons in the new Yankee Stadium, a ballpark that hasn’t been kind to most pitchers. Pitching in a hitters’ park in front of an average infield defense is going to lead to some regression. He’ll be good, but not good enough I don’t think.

Jon Lester is, in my mind, a better version of Sabathia, but hasn’t yet hit a high number of innings in any season. With possibly the best offense in the league putting up runs for him on the scoreboard, Lester has a legit shot at a low ERA and a high win total. AKA Cy Young material. His groundball rate has been on the rise, and his strikeout rates the past two seasons have been second to none in the AL. What hurts him most are Fenway park, and a subpar defense that just saw Adrian Beltre leave—the best defensive third baseman in the league.

Jered Weaver is a bit of a wildcard. His strikeout rates spiked out of nowhere last season, and his walks stayed low. It’s hard to say if he can maintain that. What he’s still missing is the groundball rate. Weaver is an extreme flyball pitcher which means more doubles, more homeruns, and less GIDPs. Like Sabathia, he can compete for the award if some things go his way, but I wouldn’t bet on it. One nice advantage will be getting to pitch against Seattle at least 3 or 4 times this season.

Dan Haren, pitching right behind Weaver in the Angels order, has produced excellent seasons in both the AL and the NL. That said, he’s another year older and shifting back to the AL where his strikeout numbers have never been as high as they were in Arizona (NL).  Combine that with a pedestrian groundball rate, and Haren is an outside contender for the award this season.

Justin Verlander might serve as a good comparison for Jered Weaver at season’s end. Verlander saw his strikeout rates rise to unprecedented levels in 2009 (10.1 K/9) only to see them fall back to earth a year later (8.8 K/9). With good-but-not-great walk rates, and a tendency to be a flyball pitcher, Verlander is another fringe candidate for the Cy Young.

Using a formula for ERA prediction, and regressing each players stats relative to their ballparks, defenses, and personal history (lots of guesswork, mind you), here are my projections for each player:

Felix 225 208 65 3.19 14
Sabathia 225 190 62 3.85 17
Lester 205 223 75 3.51 18
Haren 220 178 52 3.82 14
Weaver 220 225 58 3.67 15
Verlander 220 215 70 3.88 15
Liriano 190 198 59 3.15 16

If Liriano tops 200 innings, he’s my pick for the Cy Young. I happen to think he (along with Felix and Lester) is one of the best three pitchers in the AL. Additionally, in its first season of existence, Minnesota’s Target field played like a pitchers’ park, and the Twinkie’s offense and defense each ranked third in the AL. Add this all up, and Liriano seems like a logical projection for a low ERA, high wins (if he tops 200 innings), and a Cy Young award. Otherwise it’s going to be hard to dethrone King Felix with Safeco Field on his side, and his own excellent defense behind him.


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