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Five Sleepers for the N.L. Cy Young Award

Last season Brandon Webb won the National League Cy Young Award after receiving not a single vote for the award during any previous years of his major league existence.  In the American League Chien-Ming Wang would finish second in American League Cy Young voting behind winner Johan Santana.  It was Wang's sophomore season and relatively few expected him to contend for the award, much less finish in second place.  

In 2005 Bartolo Colon captured his first Cy Young Award winning it in the American League. I was difficult to expect Colon to contend for the award seeing as his ERA had ballooned to 5.01 the year before hand.  

Look back at the Cy Young Award in recent years and every year there are always a few pitchers who end up surprising baseball fans of all kinds and end up placing in Cy Young Award voting and in some cases, winning it.

For a little preseason fun, I'm going to name five guys who I think have a legitimate chance of making some noise in next season's N.L. Cy Young Award voting polls.

1.  Rich Hill, Chicago Cubs:

Hill's second half resurgence has been well documented among the Cub faithful, and though he still draws skepticism from some, I believe his run at the end of last season wasn't a fluke.  Hill has had quite a minor league career for the Cubs, which includes a 26-20 record and a 3.43 MiLB ERA. However, Hill has always been known for his good curveball and more importantly his robust strikeout rates.  Hill's minor league career K/9 stands at a ridiculous 12.49, which includes back to back years at AAA Iowa in which he struck out 12.74 and 12.15 hitters per nine innings respectively. Hill started the 2006 season in AAA and was called up in May for a start against Arizona.  It was here we would see the two sides of Rich Hill:

Like his inaugural call-up in 2005, Hill was simply horrible throughout May.  Nineteen and a third innings pitched isn't by any stretch a large sample size, but it's quite obvious that Hill really struggled in his first four starts of the 2006 season.  He was demoted to the minors and later called back up on July 27th for a start against the Cardinals.  From here until the end of the year, we would see a completely different Rich Hill, and for the better.  Hill started striking people out at a rate many believed he would and sliced his HR/9 mark in half.  He also saw a rise in his GB%, walked nearly 5 less batters per nine innings and had 3 starts in which he struck out 10 or more hitters.  

Hill's BABIP at the end of the season was .261 which is a bit low, but maybe this is because of his repertoire.  Hill reminds me a lot of Barry Zito in the respect of his big curveball, overall arsenal and the fact he is a lefty.  Hill, like Zito, might be the type of guy that consistently has seasons in which his BABIP per season is below average.  I could be very wrong here, but it's just a thought.  

PECOTA, Marcel and CHONE aren't overwhelmingly optimistic about Hill in 2007 but ZiPS and especially Bill James really think Hill is in for the ride of his life next season:  ZiPS projects Hill to pitch 175 innings, post a 3.65 ERA and strike out 9.77 hitters per nine innings.  Bill James projects even better:  201 innings, a 3.40 ERA and a strikeout rate 10.75 hitters per nine innings.

It's not too farfetched to believe Hill is going to pick up where he left off next season.  Just ask ZiPS and Bill James.  

2.  Scott Olsen, Florida Marlins:

Much like Hill, Olsen had one heck of a minor league career which featured 403 innings of work, a K/9 mark of 9.74, a HR/9 mark of 0.42 and a MiLB ERA of 3.06.

In his first full big league season, Olsen was solid for the Florida Marlins.  His ERA+ was 107, and he showed above average groundball tendencies.  As a 6'4" power-lefty, he featured a nasty fastball-slider combination and struck out 8.27 batters per nine innings.  Olsen of course also had his dark spots:  His control was hardly pin-point and after rarely allowing home runs in the minors, he allowed 1.15 home runs per nine innings in the majors.

Let's look at Olsen a little closer, on a month to month basis:

Looking at the big picture, Olsen really was just a slightly above average pitcher, but when looking at things from a month to month basis, its clear Olsen really struggled with consistency.  When combining his production in May and August, you get 62.1 total innings and a 6.81 ERA.  Everything else:  118.1 total innings and a 2.59 ERA.

Olsen's ability to dominate was evident, and it seems a major obstacle the 23-year old needs to overcome is the ability to avoid bad stretches.

Looking at each projection system, only Bill James and CHONE project for ERA's under 4.00.  None of the projection systems predict 200 or more innings from Olsen either.

Maybe its just a gut feeling with me, but I like what Olsen brings to the table.  I think many would agree that he presents the highest upside among any of the Marlins young hurlers, and if he can trim down his walks, find consistency, and stay away from the injury bug, 2007 could be a year to remember for Olsen.

3.  Randy Johnson, Arizona Diamondbacks

It's difficult to call Johnson a "sleeper" due to the great career he assembled with the D'Backs years back, but after having two relatively disappointing seasons for the Yankees, I think he fits in the "sleeper" category appropriately.

Johnson's run with the Yankees ended this winter with a trade back to the Desert.  Upon the trade many, including BP's Nate Silver, were quick to point out Johnson may have been a victim of bad luck.

For one, his BABIP with nobody on base was .239, while his BABIP with runners on was .369, which is almost certainly bad luck.  

I think it's also important to mention the National League suits Johnson perfectly.  As Marc Normandin noted in his Barry Zito Profile here at BtB, the N.L. is a three outcomes type of league:  Homeruns, walks, and strikeouts.  Johnson is still a good strikeout pitcher, still has very good control and during his tenure with the D'Backs, he kept the ball in the park.

PECOTA, CHONE, and ZiPS all project ERA's under 4.00 for R.J. next season, however, only ZiPS projects for 200+ innings.

4.  Anthony Reyes, St. Louis Cardinals

This might just be another gut-feeling I have, but many projections systems around like Reyes.

Reyes only pitched 85.1 innings for the world champs last year.  He showed both strengths and weaknesses last season, posting above average strikeout and walk rates while struggling with groundball tendencies and home runs.

I find it quite odd however that Reyes' HR/9 mark was almost 2.0 at home in the 37.2 innings he pitched at the new Busch Stadium.  Last season it was a bit tough to hit home runs at Busch (0.887 park factor) and I think in a full season Reyes will pitch better at home.  The sample size of 37.2 innings is quite small, and one year's worth of park factor data for Busch Stadium is hardly sufficient, but Reyes may have just had a little bad luck at home even with the high flyball rate.

It's also important to mention the quality if the Cardinals outfield defense.  Last season Cardinal outfielders were great on the defensive end (+19 from John Dewan), so being a flyball pitcher for St. Louis might not be all that bad after all.

PECOTA, Bill James, CHONE and ZiPS all project Reyes' ERA under the 4.00 mark, but none of our projection systems call for 200+ innings.

I don't think it's too silly to think Reyes can reach the 200 inning mark however.  The Cardinals still lack rotation depth and if Reyes can stay healthy, 25+ starts aren't out of the question, if anything they're a certainty.

Reyes is far from a perfect pitcher, but if he can increase his groundball tendencies a bit, you have to like his upside.

5.  Clay Hensley, San Diego Padres

Hensley suffered the same type of consistency problems Olsen did last season:

When you combine the months of April, June and July you have Hensley pitching 81 innings while posting a 5.22 ERA.  Combining the months of May, August and September:  106 innings and a 2.55 ERA.

Like Olsen, Hensley had both good and bad stretches of pitching.  Finding consistency is a key for 27-year old.

Hensley also has other problems:  His career strikeout rate of 5.87 K/9 isn't remotely intriguing and he still has some control issues.

However, Hensley is going to make roughly half of his starts in the most extreme pitchers park that is Petco Park, he avoids the longball well and has strong groundball tenancies which should mix well with the Padres strong defensive infield (+44 from John Dewan last season).

Marcel and Bill James like Hensley for an ERA under 4.00 next season, but it's James that is very optimistic about Hensley in 2007.  He projects Hensley to pitch 192.0 innings and post an ERA at 3.28 which could very well rank among the N.L.'s finest.

Predicting pitching is extremely difficult, much more difficult than predicting hitting. Anyone of these guys can bomb out next season, but as we've seen in recent seasons, its not surprising for one or two "sleeper" candidates from each league make a run at the Cy Young Award.