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Reviewing Recent Cy Young Finalists (AL Edition) - Starting Pitcher Outlooks for 2024

Our three 2023 AL Cy Young finalists were Gerrit Cole of the Yankees, Kevin Gausman of the Blue Jays, and Sonny Gray of the Twins.

In 2022, Justin Verlander returned from an entire missed season to claim the award, while Dylan Cease and Alek Manoah were the runners-up.

In this article, I will break down the seasons of each finalist in the American League over the last two seasons using my FaBIO model. The goal here is to see if these awards finalists truly had elite seasons on the mound from a fantasy perspective, or if they were rewarded for superior surface stats. Winning the coveted award is a great honor for any pitcher, but does it indicate that they really had the best statistical season of any pitcher in their league?

Be sure to check all of our fantasy baseball lineup tools and weekly lineup resources:


Brief Explanation of the FaBIO Model

My Fielding- and Ballpark-Independent Outcomes (FaBIO) pitcher evaluation model sorts every plate appearance into one of 12 outcome bins (BB+HBP, K, IFFB, Pull-Third OFFB, Center-Third OFFB, Oppo-Third OFFB, Pull-Third LD, Center-Third LD, Oppo-Third LD, Pull-Third GB, Center-Third GB, Oppo-Third GB) and credits the pitcher with their league's mean runs value for said particular event that season. The most runs-punitive events for pitchers are Pull-Third OFFB, the three line-drive types, and BB+HBP. The most runs-preventing events for pitchers are K, IFFB, and Pull-Third GB.

Dividing their total number of expected runs by batters faced (BF) yields expected runs per batter that can be percentile ranked relative to the league mean and standard deviation for that parameter amongst league qualifier starters (else relievers) to arrive at their Overall Rating.

Its three subcomponents of Control Rating (CTL, based on BB+HBP per BF), Strikeout Rating (K, based on K per BF), and Batted Ball Profile Rating (expected runs per batted ball) are also reported to understand better the path the pitcher traveled to reach their Overall (reverse engineering Overall reveals that expected run avoidance is generally 44% Strikeouts, 34% Batted Ball Profile, and 22% Control).

To better understand the path to Batted Ball Profile, we will also examine percentile ratings for select batted ball event types (on a per batted ball basis). Lastly, to check how well expected batted ball outcomes matched real-world ones, we will compute percentile ratings for the avoidance of hits (AVG) and isolated power (ISO, or simply extra bases) on batted balls (recognizing full well that these two parameters are neither fielding- nor ballpark-independent outcomes).

A percentile rating of 97 amounts to plus-plus (two standard deviations above the mean), 84 is plus (one standard deviation above the mean), 69 is half plus, 50 is average, 31 is half minus, 16 is minus, and three is minus-minus.


2023 American League Cy Young Finalists

Let's begin with a look back at the six American League FaBIO campaigns of 2023 winner Cole.

Ironically, Cole's 2023 and lone Cy-Young-winning campaign rates fundamentally as the worst of his six AL seasons. Versus 2021 and 2022, Cole lost 1.4 standard deviations of K Rating relative to league peers while roughly matching the better of the two Batted Ball Profile Ratings (the half plus one).

Cole's unanimous selection was mostly fueled by overachievement on batted ball outcomes relative to the underlying batted ball fundamentals. A starter with his 2023 pair of IFFB and LD Avoid Ratings would ordinarily avoid hits (AVG) on batted balls circa the 40th percentile, yet here he is shown to be in the 92nd percentile (1.7 standard deviations above expectation).

Biasing the 2023 OFFB contact later (74 Pull OFFB Avoid >> 42 OFFB Avoid) would logically explain fewer extra bases per batted ball, yet his 93 ISO Avoid should be more in the 42 to 74 window of the two OFFB Avoids.

Even before Cole's elbow barked in early March 2024, it set up to be a semi-trap of a season for him (Yankees diehards, fantasy owners, etc.) in that repeating such extreme overperformance at avoiding hits and extra bases (that home right-center to right field corner fence is so close) would be highly improbable without substantial positive changes in the underlying batted ball profile fundamentals. And given how successful he had been in 2023, what motivation would he have to pursue a better batted ball profile?

Kevin Gausman - Toronto Blue Jays

Gausman has rated subpar at avoiding line drives and hits (AVG) as an offshoot on batted balls in just about every MLB season. It's a bug owed to a vertically-biased fastball-and-split-finger-heavy arsenal and approach but practically the only blemish that appears prominently in any season.

The pathology can be categorized as "singles disease" and the relative advantage of it being the lone defect in a pitcher's fundamentals portfolio is that at least two batted ball events and often three would be required to produce a single run. In contrast to fellow 2023 finalists, Gausman avoided hits (AVG) about as expected and underachieved somewhat at avoiding extra bases (ISO).

Per these four rows, Gausman projects to be relatively better, albeit still short on LD Avoid, batted ball profiler when he isn't overfilling the strike zone as he did in that 2022 97 CTL season (he seems to understand this per comments made to media). In skewing heavier on K and Oppo-Handed Batters outcomes, Gausman's typical FaBIO line is about what one would expect for a quite successful splitter-reliant pitcher.

Sonny Gray - St. Louis Cardinals

Now, let's get really wild and digest all 11 MLB seasons of Gray, who signed an offseason free-agent deal with the Cardinals in the National League.

Impressively, Gray rated plus or better at Batted Ball Profile in his first five MLB seasons, and six of the first seven around mostly average to half plus K Ratings.

But over the four MLB seasons since the Gray FaBIO profile, he has leaned more toward strikeouts with K Ratings in the half to full plus range and Batted Ball Profile Ratings between average and half plus. Over the last two campaigns, Gray has clearly been better at avoiding OFFB, Pull OFFB, and ISO on batted balls than he has at avoiding LD and AVG, making extra bases far harder to come by than hits in general.

Gray's 2023 Cy Young finalist finish was boosted by avoiding hits on batted balls (66 AVG Avoid) much better than a 22 LD Avoider typically does along with a half standard deviation of overachievement at avoiding extra bases on them (98 ISO Avoid > 91 OFFB Avoid and 90 Pull OFFB Avoid).

Taking the last three seasons into consideration and weighing more recent ones heavier, here is how FaBIO projects the fundamentals of the trio for 2024.

Among, say, 100 MLB pitchers who would log 500 or more batters faced in 2024, Cole projects to be seventh best at expected run avoidance, Gausman at eighth best, and Gray at 34th best. I will comfortably walk out on a limb and guess that Cole is being valued several spots higher than that in your full redraft league and that the valuation gap between Cole and Gausman is wider than one to two.

Cole and Gausman essentially have the same FaBIO projection save that Gausman's vulnerability to LD is forecast to continue and have adverse AVG consequences (if Gausman ever had that elusive up year at LD and AVG Avoids, he would probably win a Cy Young).

As always, consider how what you see in the table would factor into the points structure format of your fantasy league. Dynasty owners should imagine what this short-term forecast might portend for 2024 and later seasons. Gray is unlikely to rate much better than this 2024 projection in what remains of his MLB career. If one or more fantasy owners in your league presently value him as a top-three league starter, encourage it; or else, trade him to them immediately.


2022 American League Cy Young Finalists

Justin Verlander - Houston Astros

For much of his MLB career, 2022 AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander worked as an extreme fly baller who avoided the combination of walks and line drives well enough to limit the runs consequences of the extra bases trauma that sprang from such an aerial-extreme outcomes portfolio.

Houston's quirky ballpark having such close corner fences to left and right fields gradually tempered the outfield "fly balliness"(tread cautiously with extreme fly baller Josh Hader ahead), and his 2022 return from Tommy John would result in what figures to wind up a career outlier of a dominant all-around season boosted by an aberrantly diverse and strong batted ball profile.

Even after showing poor fundamentals in the 2022 postseason, broader declines in fundamentals of the extent seen in 2023 were wholly unexpected even recognizing that what he posted in 2022 would be practically impossible to replicate. Verlander's career looked over once, if not twice, toward the mid-2017 end of his Tigers tenure, but now we are studying the FaBIO line of a zero Youth Rating-ed starter whose zero grows a little more zero annually.

Dylan Cease - San Diego Padres

The 2022 Cy Young candidacy of K specialist Dylan Cease was especially fueled by a mix of what was a far too high LD Avoid (93) per the rest of the Path to Batted Ball Profile elements and an ISO Avoid (75) that was far too high for the combo of OFFB Avoid (15) and Pull OFFB Avoid (seven).

When LD Avoid flipped almost fully in the reverse direction to 11 during 2023, it helped sink Cease from a roughly plus Overall 2021 and 2022 AL SP to a league-average one who was essentially a RHB strikeout via slider specialist and one who had lost a full standard deviation of K versus 2021 and 2022. It is the general lack of dimensionality beyond strikeouts in Cease's three most recent season lines that now bars him from ranking among the game's best 20 or even 30 starting pitchers.

Alek Manoah - Toronto Blue Jays

Alek Manoah set the bar for the remainder of his career entirely too high in overachieving on batted ball outcomes to the degree he did in each of his first two MLB seasons. In twice posting AVG & ISO Avoids entirely within an 86 to 96 window despite Batted Ball Profile Ratings of 58 and 60, the regression monster was surely coming for Manoah in 2023, but that was hardly the only problem in a minus minus (2 Overall) season.

Manoah has under three years of MLB service time under his belt, and as such, he will be optionable to the minors for at least the next three seasons. That is precisely what I believe would have happened had he not come up lame in spring training. Now, look for the Jays to put him on the IL and later send him out on a rehab assignment before deciding on whether to activate or option him when the time deadline for the assignment is reached.

Manoah, either then or soon after, probably finds himself in the boat of having to post some variety of pitching fundamentals in the minors that are of a high enough caliber to suggest he could hold his own against MLB lineups over several starts. Other than that, he's no more than a spot starter call-up when the need presents. The postseason-relevant 2024 MLB Blue Jays cannot afford to allocate 400 batters faced to a starter posting 2nd percentile fundamentals as Manoah did in 2023 (or even 12th if not also 22nd percentile fundamentals, for that matter).

Turning the page to 2024 projections, FaBIO hasn't fully forgotten Verlander's astounding 2022 regular season but might he only have 100 or so innings left in his MLB career? Between how down versus past standards the 2023 NL+AL campaign was and a spring shoulder setback that will delay his regular-season debut, the Astros should be very satisfied if Verlander hits the forecast below inclusive of batters faced.

Barring injury, Cease is surer to deliver strikeouts value in fantasy. By the end of 2024, his new employer Padres would ideally have rehabbed Cease back into a starter who could realistically operate in the range of a middle-road SP2 to fringe SP1 by 2025 league standards, as opposed to the middle-SP2 to the middle-SP3 range that FaBIO has him pegged for in 2024.

For that to materialize, some movement must be added to the fastball arsenal to improve LD Avoid and IFFB outcomes. Getting more averse to Pull-Third OFFB via pitch location would also increase that probability (a high-velocity fastballer like him should not better avoid OFFB than Pull-Third OFFB). Cease's opposite-handed batters' outcomes especially need improvement.

Coupling a disaster of a 2023 season and very volatile temperament, the Blue Jays (and their rooters) should be thrilled if Manoah proves capable of delivering half minus (a 31 Overall SP4) to roughly league-average (a 50 Overall SP3) fundamentals in volume over the next few seasons.

He was just never likely to emerge as a viable Cy Young candidate again between the extent he had overachieved on batted balls in 2021 and 2022 and what the control and strikeout fundamentals were then. Dynasty fantasy owners shouldn't be overly hesitant to release him, or at least so until he demonstrates pitching fundamentals somewhere that merit roster spot retention.



Be wary of selecting prior season Cy Young finalists in redraft leagues. It is quite likely that their candidacy was boosted relative to peers by some measure of unsustainably favorable batted ball outcomes. Do your homework on batted ball outcomes and examine how well they mirror that season's batted ball profile.

Also, examine the extent to which that season's batted ball profile agrees with those that preceded it and consider whether one or more overly favorable components are repeatable ahead.

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