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Five Sleepers for the A.L. Cy Young Award

As I did last week over in the National League, I'm going to take a look at five guys who I think have a legitimate shot of contending for the Cy Young Award, most of them not being your typical household names.

This time I'll move over to the American League.

1.  Jeremy Bonderman, Detroit Tigers

Bonderman continues to mature by the season as he set career bests in just about every major pitching statistic such as ERA (4.04), innings pitched (214.0), K/9 (8.50), BB/9 (2.69), and HR/9 (0.76).  

Though his 4.04 ERA isn't exactly Cy Young caliber, there weren't too pitchers that pitched better than Bonderman peripheral-wise.  His PERA of 3.28 was one of the lowest figures among all American League starters including Chien-Ming Wang, Roy Halladay, Kenny Rogers and Justin Verlander:  Pitchers who each received votes for the Cy Young Award last season.

I'm a big fan of Jeremy Bonderman.  You don't find too many pitchers his age who carry the major league experience and upside he does.  Typically when you think of elite American League pitchers, names like Santana and Schilling come to mind.  Pretty soon Jeremy Bonderman will be included in the discussion.

PECOTA, CHONE, Bill James, and ZiPS all project for ERA's under 4.00 and at least 200 innings. Marcel is the only major projection system that does not project a sub-4 ERA for Bonderman next year.

I also think it's important to mention the quality of the Tigers defense and bullpen as well. Bonderman has good groundball tendencies and that should mix well with the Tigers strong infield defense (+46 from John Dewan last season).  The Tiger bullpen is also very strong, they should continue holding leads for their starters.

When you have a strong defense behind you and a tough bullpen that holds leads, you have to feel confident on the mound.

You heard it here:  Jeremy Boderman is close, really really close, to becoming one of baseball's best starting pitchers.

2.  Javier Vazquez, Chicago White Sox

Even with my White Sox bias aside, I think Vazquez has chance to be a legitimate Cy Young contender next year.  

Last season Vazquez was widely considered a disappointment among Sox fans as he posted an 4.84 ERA and went winless in his last 10 starts of the season, a critical time for the Sox who were still in the A.L. Central race at the time.

Vazquez, like Bonderman however, was solid on the peripheral front.  There was more than a one-run difference in his actual ERA (4.84) and PERA (3.82).  Vazquez showed good control (2.49 BB/9), a great strikeout pitch (8.17 K/9) and he kept the ball in the ballpark (1.02 HR/9) at a respectable rate considering he made half of his starts at the hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field.  

It's also interesting to note that Vazquez BABIP with runner in scoring position last season was .353 while his BABIP with nobody on was .284 which has bad luck written all over it.  

Looking at his 2007 projections, only Bill James projects and ERA under 4.00 and 200+ innings from Vazquez, but I think long term success from Vazquez next season is possible.

Vazquez is a very durable pitcher who has pitched 200+ innings in six different seasons.  He has a very good arm and if he pitches with similar peripherals next season, I really think he is a guy who could surprise us all.  

And by the way, PECOTA has a cool little tool called breakout rate which predicts the percentage a certain player will breakout next season. PECOTA's Breakout Rate likes Vazquez a lot, having him down at 25%.

So yes, there is someone else with some optimism that Vazquez can have a big season next year.

3.  Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

It's tough to call Felix a sleeper given the popularity and hype surrounding his name, but after last seasons sophomore slump, I'll include him in the discussion.

Hernandez was really really unlucky last season when it came to situational BABIP.  His BABIP with runners in scoring position was .364 while his BABIP with nobody on base was .274.  Much to the effect of Vazquez, Felix was a victim of bad luck.

And like others on this list, his peripherals were among the best in the American League.  Felix was a terrific groundball inducer who showed above average command and strikeout rates.  As a result his actual ERA (4.52) and PERA (3.84) differed greatly.

Looking forward just about all of our projection systems are optimistic in Hernandez in 2007.  All five of our projection systems call for an ERA under 4.00 with above average strikeout, walk and home run rates.  None of the projectors however predict 200+ innings pitched.

Like Bonderman, Hernandez is also a strong groundball pitcher.  Matter of fact, he's one of the best groundball pitchers in baseball.  The Mariners strong infield defense (+46 from John Dewan last season) should help Hernandez next year.

Also, PECOTA's breakout rate really really really likes Hernandez at 41% looking toward next season.

Bad luck really was the key contributor to Hernandez' problems last season.  If he can avoid those problems next year, The King will be back.

4.  A.J. Burnett, Toronto Blue Jays

Remember when everyone thought the Jays were crazy for signing Burnett to that 5-year/$55 million contract last winter?  

In today's market that deal doesn't look nearly as ludicrous as it looked two winters ago and could look really good if Burnett lives up to some of his projections.

Burnett of course began his first season in the A.L. with the Jays on the D.L. as he broke a piece of scar tissue in his pitching arm.  He later made another trip to the D.L. as a precautionary measure after experiencing soreness in his right arm following a start against the Red Sox.  As a result, Burnett was limited to 135.2 total innings.

But he was really effective in those 135+ innings.  

Burnett did four things real very well last season:  He continued to strike out hitters, but in the American League (7.83 K/9), he showed control improvements (2.59 BB/9), he kept the ball in the ballpark (0.93 HR/9) and he induced groundballs (50.5 GB%).

His PERA of 3.75 was better than that of Chien-Ming Wang, Kenny Rogers and Justin Verlander: Once again, all pitchers who received Cy Young award votes last season.

Sticking with the same theme, I also wanted to point out PECOTA likes his chances of breaking out next year:  His breakout rate is listed at 24% when looking toward next year.

Looking at the projections none of the big five project 200+ innings from Burnett which isn't surprising at all.  He's had injury problems his entire career and it's only natural to project less than a full season from Burnett.

However, many of the projectors like Burnett on the run-prevention front.  ZiPS, Bill James and CHONE all project for ERA's under 4.00, but Bill James is very optimistic.  BIS pitcher projections (Bill James) like Burnett to the tune of a 3.58 ERA next season which looks very good considering he is pitching in the American League East.

Even though he's not the most reliable of starters, Burnett is healthy now, and if he continues to adjust finely to the American League, he might challenge Roy Halladay as the ace of the Blue Jays staff in 2007.

5.  C.C. Sabathia, Cleveland Indians  

The Cleveland Indians were a major disappointment in baseball last season.  In 2005, the young Indians went 93-69 nearly making the playoffs.  They were expected to make a strong push at the A.L. Central title in 2006, but finished 78-84 instead finishing 4th in the division.

C.C. Sabathia however did not take a step back.  He missed just about all of April with a strained right oblique, but managed to pitch 192.2 innings of great baseball for the rest of the year.

Sabathia was third in the A.L. in ERA at 3.22 last season (which may defeat the purpose of a sleeper to some extent), but was shown no love in the Cy Young voting polls. Is it possible for Sabathia to have another strong season and this time, draw some respect from the voters?

Over the last three season C.C. Sabathia has improved many aspects of his game which is a major reason as to why I believe he's due for a huge season again next year.  

Over the last three seasons Sabathia has improved his K/9 mark (6.42 in 2003 to 8.03 in 2006), his BB/9 mark (3.01 to 2.06) and his HR/9 mark (0.87 to 0.79).

He is still very young as he enters his age 27 season there is reason to believe Sabathia will continue improving his peripherals.

Looking at the five projection systems, all love Sabathia on the run-prevention front projecting ERA's under 4.00.  And while PECOTA and Bill James only project 200+ innings, Sabathia is healthy and could eclipse that total given he is a horse and works efficiently.

If anyone on the list might take a step back next season it's Sabathia.  In all actuality, C.C. was really good last season, but was shown no love in the voting polls.  

He is entering the prime of his career however and if the Indians (specifically their bullpen) can bounce-back strong next season and hold leads for their starters, Sabathia is a good pick to pitch well, wins games and contend for the award.