Blue Jays: Who will be the Next Cy Young Winner in Toronto?

ANAHEIM, CA - 1990: Pitcher Dave Stieb of the Toronto Blue Jays throws a pitch during an MLB game against the California Angels circa 1990 at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - 1990: Pitcher Dave Stieb of the Toronto Blue Jays throws a pitch during an MLB game against the California Angels circa 1990 at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images) /
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Since Roy Halladay won the AL Cy Young in 2003, no Blue Jays pitcher has won the award. But with a long history of aces, starting with arguably the best ever Toronto pitcher to never win a Cy Young, who could potentially be the next Jay to win?

An eagle-eyed reader and fellow Jays history buff pointed out Andrew Stoetens’s excellent recent story in The Athletic, about how Dave Stieb was robbed of the 1982 Cy Young award, and how it’s still affecting his spot in the Blue Jays pantheon and baseball history today.

Pat Hentgen would finally win a Cy Young for the Jays in 1996, and Rogers Clemens would win the pitching triple crown and Cy Young in both 1997 and 1998. Roy Halladay won in 2003 (and in 2010 with the Phillies). No Jay since then has won, although Chris Carpenter won with the Cards in 2005, and Alex Anthopoulos traded for R.A. Dickey and David Price, who’d both won in 2012.

Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro also knows a thing or two about Cy Young winners. He traded Bartolo Colon (who won in 2005 with the Angels) for Cliff Lee (who won in 2008), C.C. Sabathia won with Cleveland in 2007, and he also traded for Corey Kluber who would win in both 2014 and 2017.

So who might be the next great Jays Cy Young candidate?  A look at previous deserving and Cy Young winning Jays is instructive:

Dave Stieb

His 57.4 is the best career WAR of any Blue Jay. He won 140 games in the 1980s, the 2nd-highest total by a pitcher in that decade, behind only Hall of Famer Jack Morris. Stieb’s seven All-Star selections are a franchise record, and he has the only no-hitter in team history, famously missing two more with two outs in the bottom of the 9th.

However, Dave Stieb never won a Cy Young award despite two deserving campaigns in both 1982 and 1984. Possibly as a result, he is not in the Hall of Fame, and while he has been honoured as a member of the Jays’ “Level of Excellence”, his number 37 has never been retired by the organization, and has since been worn by marginal players Henderson Álvarez, Jo-Jo Reyes, Aaron Laffey and Teoscar Hernández.

In 1982, when 24-year old Dave Stieb was already the ace of a young Blue Jays’ team, he was robbed of the AL Cy Young, which has had implications for his baseball legacy. As per Stoeten,

"The Toronto Blue Jays’ ace for most of the 1980s, Stieb was a notable omission from the 10 names on this year’s Modern Baseball Era ballot, which was announced by the BBWAA on Monday [Nov. 4]. On Dec. 8 at the Baseball Winter Meetings, the 16-member Modern Baseball Era Committee will vote. Any candidate who receives votes on 75% of the ballots will be inducted in Cooperstown [next July]. Don Mattingly, Dave Parker and Steve Garvey are on [the] list, despite finishing more than 10 wins behind Stieb [in bWAR]."

Younger readers may be surprised to hear Stieb’s stats in 1982: 17-14, 19 CG, 3.25 ERA in 38 starts and 288 1/3 innings pitched, WHIP 1.2, bWAR 7.6.

Not bad for someone who was only four years removed from being a 5th round pick – No.106 overall – in the June 1978 amateur draft. But curiously, Stieb’s best ever Cy Young vote result was only 4th in 1982, and despite four straight 7 bWAR seasons from 1982-85, he finished 7th in the voting in both 1984 and 1985.

The 1982 Cy Young went to Pete Vuckovich, a former Blue Jay who got the save in the Jay’s first-ever game in April 1977. He’d gone 18-6 with a 3.34 ERA that year in 223 2/3 innings. His team, the Brewers, won the AL pennant with 95 wins, but lost the World Series to the Cards. Cy Young voters didn’t use WAR in those days, and Vuckovich had produced the best winning percentage in the majors over the previous two years. Back then, his .750 winning percentage and 18 wins, and the fact he was playing with future Hall of Famers Robin Yount (the AL MVP that year) and Paul Molitor on an AL Championship team all likely helped.

But overlaying bWAR – which doesn’t care that he lost 14 games, or that the young Jays were last in the AL East – with those 1982 stats, and he would have been the clear winner:

Bill James also wrote about Stieb, calling him the best starting pitcher of that era, and saying,

"I remember saying that I thought Stieb was clearly the best pitcher in the league, to which Jack Etkin [who covered the Royals for the Kansas City Star] replied, ‘Yeah, but are we ready to give the Cy Young Award to a 17-14 pitcher?’ To which the answer was ‘No, they weren’t ready.’ Stieb certainly would win it now, the way we think about things now."

Pat Hentgen

Hentgen became a Cy Young award winner in 1996, winning 20 games with a 3.22 ERA over 265 2/3 innings. He also helped lead the team to the 1993 World Series title after going 19-9 with a 3.87 ERA. His 8.6 bWAR in the ’96 season was the 3rd-highest WAR posted by any Jays pitcher in a single year.

Roger Clemens

Clemens would only pitch two years in Toronto before requesting a trade after the 1998 season, but he earned his free agent contract and then some. Roger had played the previous 13 seasons in Boston, posting a 192-111 record and a 3.06 ERA in 382 starts, with three Cy Young awards. In two seasons in Toronto, he went 41-13 with a 2.33 ERA in 67 starts and 498 2/3 innings with 563 Ks. He won his 4th and 5th Cy Young awards. They were the best back-to-back seasons by a pitcher in Jays history. His bWAR, for the two seasons was a stunning 20.1. Let’s just forget that he may have regained his mojo with the help of PEDs.

Roy Halladay

Halladay won the Cy Young in 2003. He pitched more than 2,000 innings and compiled a WAR of 48.5 in Toronto – the 2nd-highest mark in Blue Jays history. His 8.1 bWAR in 2003 is the fourth-best mark in club history for pitchers. In his 12 years in Toronto, Halladay posted excellent career averages: 3.47 FIP, 1.20 WHIP, 12 wins per season and a 3.29 K/BB ratio.

What does a Cy Young Winner Look Like?

Looking at Cy Young winners this decade, in addition to posting a bWAR >6 (but more often 7 or 8), they’ve all been:

  • Starting pitchers; Canadian Eric Gagne was the last closer to win in 2003
  • Power pitchers (apart from Dickey and Dallas Keuchel) with well-above average stuff, including off-speed out pitches.
  • Strikeout pitchers; apart from Rick Porcello, 19 winners this decade had >200 strikeouts, i.e. “Astros way”: start ’em off with high heat, then buckle ’em with the bender.
  • Outstanding at run prevention; excluding Porcello’s 3.15 ERA, every winner had an ERA under 3.0, with five winners preventing <2.0 per nine innings!
  • Between 6’3″ and 6’6″ tall with the stamina to pitch well over 200 innings
  • College kids. Apart from Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Porcello and Blake Snell, 65% of Cy Young winners this decade went to college before turning professional

Interestingly, both Kluber and Jacob deGrom were Stetson University Hatters. (Note to Ross Atkins: trade for Mariners prospect Logan Gilbert, a 6’6″ righty with a 97 mph fastball, and the first Hatter ever selected in the 1st round, two picks after Jordan Groshans at No.14 in 2018.)

Finally, as King Felix and deGrom have shown, win-loss record and winning percentage are no longer the determining factor like they were when Stieb was robbed by voters in 1982

Who will be the Next Cy Young Winner in Toronto?

Previous Jays winners were acquired through the draft (Hentgen and Halladay) and free agency (Clemens). Shapiro has also traded for two Cy Young winners in Cliff Lee and Corey Kluber, and was involved in the development of C.C. Sabathia.

Via the Draft

Using top prospects rankings, the top starting pitching prospects in the Jays farm system are Nate Pearson, Alek Manoah, Adam Kloffenstein, Eric Pardinho, Simeon Woods Richardson, Kendall Williams and Anthony Kay. Only Pearson and Kay are expected to pitch in the majors in 2020, with 2022 ETAs for Manoah, Kloffenstein, Pardinho and SWR, and 2023 for Williams.

Let’s exclude Pardinho and Kay from Cy Young candidate consideration as they don’t fit this decade’s profile: Pardinho is 5’10” and Kay is 6’0. Both project to be mid-rotation types.

1. Pearson clearly has the best potential to be our next homegrown Cy Young. He’s the #10 MLB prospect overall, stands 6’6″, 245 lbs, and, yes, went to junior college. He features an above average fastball (FanGraphs 70/80) and slider (60/65) and struck out 10.5 batters/nine innings in the minors this year. MLB’s scouting report on him says,

"Pearson features front-of-the-rotation stuff, including the best fastball and slider in Toronto’s system. His fastball sits in the upper 90s and routinely touches triple digits. His slider is thrown in the upper 80s with late, glove-side bite that leads to both whiffs & weak contact. Pearson uses his height [to create] a downhill angle to pound his fastball & slider down in the zone. Few pitching prospects match [his] high ceiling…"

2. Alek Manoah, the 11th overall pick in 2019, has the size at 6’6″, 260 lbs, and went to West Virginia. He features an above average fastball (MLB scouting grade 65) and slider (55), and struck out 14.3 batters/nine innings in Vancouver. MLB’s scouting report on him says,

"Manoah sits in the 94-97 mph range with his fastball, missing bats thanks to good sink. His slider flashes plus at times and has been a more reliable weapon. [He] has repeated his delivery to fill up the strike zone more effectively. With power stuff and natural strike-throwing ability, Manoah has the ingredients to become an impactful MLB starter."

3. Adam Kloffenstein also fits the bill at 6’5″, 243 lbs, even if he was drafted out of high school (where he played on the same team as Jordan Groshans). He features an above average fastball (FanGraphs 50/60) and slider (50/55) and struck out 9.2 batters/nine innings in Vancouver this year. MLB’s scouting report on him says,

"[He] can work in the low 90s with heavy sink on his two-seam fastball and a 96 mph four-seamer. His sharp slider, which flashes above-average potential, [can morph] into a bigger-breaking curveball or a harder cutter. He’s athletic and repeats his delivery well, allowing him to throw strikes, and scouts [praise] his competitive demeanor."

4. Simeon Woods Richardson just turned 19 and was part of the Marcus Stroman return. At 6’3″ and 201 lbs, he could still grow. He features an above average fastball (FanGraphs 55/55) and curveball (50/60) and struck out 9.2 batters/nine innings in Dunedin this year. MLB’s scouting report on him says,

"His size, arm speed and athleticism lets him get to 97 with a riding fastball. A quick arm from a high-three-quarters slot helps him snap off a sharp, top-to-bottom curveball that shows plus potential. He has a good delivery and repeats it well."

5. Kendall Williams is another 19-year old pick out of high school who debuted with the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays after being drafted #52 overall this year. His size fits at 6’6″ and 205 lbs, and he also features an above average fastball (FanGraphs 50/55) and curveball (45/55). He struck out 10.7 batters/nine innings in rookie ball. MLB’s scouting report on him says,

"[His velocity has] been ticking up, sitting 91-92 mph and regularly touching 94 mph. Scouts think the curve will work better coming from his high three-quarter slot. Williams tends to throw strikes and should have solid command and control, not to mention sharper stuff, once he figures out how to consistently repeat his delivery."

Via Free Agency

Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, and Zack Wheeler all fit the Cy Young profile and are available to any team willing to offer the most money and term. Note to Rogers: open your wallet, aces like these aren’t available often and don’t come cheap. And remember that Roger Clemens won the pitching triple crown and two Cy Young awards in Toronto in 1997 and 1998 after signing a 3 year/$24.75 million free agent deal. Money talks…

Via Trades

A number of potential future Cy Young candidates are possibly available via trade, including Luis Castillo from the Reds, Jon Gray from Colorado, Noah Syndergaard from the Mets, and any number of young starters on the Padres. 6’5″ lefty Joey Lucchesi would look nice in a Jays uniform.

Conclusion

Just four years after being drafted in the 5th round out of Southern Illinois University, Dave Stieb threw 288 1/3 innings in the major leagues with a 7.6 bWAR. In 1984 he had a 7.9 bWAR, the fifth best ever single season mark for a Blue Jays pitcher. The four better bWARs all led to Cy Young awards. So he’s the best Jays pitcher never to win a Cy Young, but his story provides hope that pitchers drafted and signed in 2016-19 could become Cy Young candidates over the next few seasons.

Shapiro and Atkins don’t have history in Toronto (yet) of making aggressive big splashes in free agency or on the trade market. Now entering their fifth offseason, their current projected 2020 starting rotation is Chase Anderson… and some guys. Many Jays fans would love to see moves like the ones Shapiro made as Cleveland’s GM, acquiring both Cliff Lee and Kluber in trades.

Why Dallas Keuchel is the best free agent fit. dark. Next

Until they prove otherwise, it’s fair to assume that the farm system and player development is the best hope to develop the next Cy Young winner in Toronto. Nate Pearson headlines a list of promising candidates, with prospects Alek Manoah and Adam Kloffenstein a few years behind.

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