via @theaceofspaeder

Your 2017 AL Cy Young: Lance McCullers Jr.

The Cy Young favorites for this season will likely be the usual American League aces: Corey Kluber, Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, or any of the other top line aces in the league. Any of these pitchers are great bets to make a run at the award, but there is a dark horse candidate that could run away with the award this year, and his name is Lance McCullers Jr.

Drafted 41st overall in the 2012 first year player draft, McCullers excelled in the Astros’ minor league system and made his debut in 2015. The Tampa Bay native has quietly been spectacular in his limited time with the major league club the past two seasons, and is primed to breakout in a big way in 2017. Although he has missed some time with injuries, he has posted a 3.22 ERA and a 10.2 k/9 over the past two seasons. He struggled with command in his 14 starts last season, but his previous work indicates that he was dealing with some rust. Although McCullers struggled to find the zone at times, he also excelled at missing bats. His k/9 in 81 innings pitched was a very impressive 11.78, which is better than the rates posted by league aces Noah Syndergaard and Max Scherzer.

What gives McCullers his astounding ability to miss bats is his 12–6 curveball. According to Baseball Savant, McCullers threw his curveball just under 50% of the time last season, and only allowed a .140 average and a .194 SLG percentage with the pitch. For comparison, Noah Syndergaard threw his slider just about as many times last season, and allowed a .162 average and a .229 slugging percentage. What is very impressive is that Syndergaard’s slider was his primary put away pitch, throwing it about 20% of the time. Whereas McCullers’ curveball is essentially his primary pitch — being thrown more than his fastball, and getting better results than Syndergaard’s slider. What makes his curveball so impressive is the extraordinary combination of spin rate and velocity. According to Baseball Savant, his curves spin rate sits in the 3000 mph range. Couple that with his average curveball velocity of 85.2 mph and McCullers simply has one of the best single pitches in baseball.

McCullers’ has the stuff to dominate, now all he needs is the innings. In 2015, McCullers was just a rookie and got the late call to the show. In 2016, he missed significant time with injury. He finished out last season with a strong, and more importantly, healthy showing. Coming into 2017, McCullers is in prime position to take over the role of Ace of the Astros, and to make a run at the 2017 Cy Young Award.

Now, when McCullers is announced as the 2017 AL Cy Young, you can be one of the people that saw it coming all year.