Let’s Throw a Logan Gilbert-For-Cy Young Prediction at the Wall and See if It Sticks

Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

I went to high school in a state with an extremely late calendar, and I took a lot of AP classes. Which meant that from about the second week of May until the end of the school year in late June, most of my class schedule was pretty pointless. It’s hard to get a bunch of overworked, checked-out teens to focus in class with nothing on the line, especially when said teens have just seen the sun for the first time in six months. Full credit to the teachers who were able to thread that needle, but in general we watched a lot of movies and played a lot of rummy while the clock ran out.

And that’s sort of where we are in spring training. With most rosters all but set and the Dodgers and Padres already playing meaningful games in Korea, the only thing left to do is find a live rooster — was it a live rooster? — to take the curse off Jake Cronenworth’s glove. And that’s not gonna take all week.

So let’s make a prediction.

Specifically, a dark horse prediction. A plausible, but low percentage prediction, the kind of prognostication that you can dine out on all year if you’re right but nobody (except the most embittered, partisan shut-ins on social media, and to hell with them anyway) will remember if you’re wrong.

Here’s mine. Logan Gilbert will win the AL Cy Young this year.

I’m not saying you should read this and go plonk down your next mortgage payment on some sketchy online sportsbook, but I think he’s a slightly under-the-radar candidate with a clear path to having a huge season.

Let’s start with this: Gilbert is really good already. Since the start of the 2022 season, he has an ERA- of 89 in 376 1/3 innings, which is the 11th-largest workload in baseball over that time. Before the Mariners traded Robbie Ray, there were persistent rumors that Seattle was looking to draw on its surfeit of starting pitchers to improve its roster elsewhere, and that Gilbert was the most likely to go.

And while I understand the logic insofar as Gilbert being valuable. If Aaron Nola is worth $172 million over seven seasons, having Gilbert for the next four on a much lower cost would be quite attractive. Gilbert is due to make $4.05 million in 2024, and while his salary will most likely go up quite a bit before he hits free agency, he won’t make his market rate until 2028.

But even though Seattle has Luis Castillo, George Kirby, Bryan Woo, and Bryce Miller, I didn’t think it made sense to trade Gilbert because, as much as he’d be valuable to a trade partner, he’s also valuable to the Mariners. Pitchers who can reliably throw 180 innings a year don’t grow on trees anymore. Less so 6-foot-6 physical monsters with multiple plus secondary pitches.

Last season, Gilbert threw four pitches regularly: a four-seamer, a slider, a split-change, and a knuckle-curve. (Gilbert’s repertoire hits all the aesthetically beautiful “cellar door”-type hybrid pitch names. “Knuckle-curve” is baseball’s “cumulonimbus.”)

Here’s a great interview from a couple weeks ago with Rob Friedman, who runs the Pitching Ninja account.

An incredulous Friedman’s first question was, “How big are your hands?” which is absolutely the most important issue here. Gilbert’s hands are enormous. He holds a baseball the way a normal person holds a key lime. He could palm a 5-year-old’s head like a basketball. He could play a chord across both fretboards of a double-neck guitar with one hand. He’s got mitts like a baby lynx.

Where was I?

So here’s how each of Gilbert’s pitches played last season.

Logan Gilbert’s Repertoire, 2023
Pitch Usage% Run Value BA wOBA Whiff%
Fastball 41.9 0 .280 .358 17.7
Slider 29.7 15 .211 .273 32.2
Splitter 14.8 3 .174 .221 35.0
Knuckle-Curve 13.4 -2 .214 .274 30.6
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Gilbert’s two best pitches are his slider — a beautiful falling-down-the-elevator-shaft vertical gyro breaking ball — and his splitter. In the above video, he compared the latter to Kodai Senga’s ghost fork; last June, I mentioned both Gilbert and Senga as comps for Braves prospect Hurston Waldrep’s grotesque low-spin splitter. I wouldn’t change a thing about either pitch.

The knuckle-curve got banged around a little, but Gilbert told Friedman he’s tweaking it, trying to throw it a little harder and with more horizontal movement this year. That’s good; as much as Gilbert could throw the kitchen sink at opponents, none of his pitches come with a ton of horizontal movement.

The real potential area for improvement is his fastball. That pitch averaged 95.7 mph, which is great for a starting pitcher, even a righty. Then, you factor in that because Gilbert is proportioned like a Santiago Calatrava building, he gets wicked extension that puts the ball on the hitter even quicker.

Last season, 276 pitchers threw at least 1,000 fastballs in the majors. Gilbert was 55th in average velocity. But in perceived velocity — factoring in extension — he was 16th, tied with Jordan Hicks and a third of a tick behind Spencer Strider and Eury Pérez.

So why did hitters slug almost .500 off his four-seamer?

Because even throwing 96 mph isn’t enough to keep opponents off a pitch with pretty lackluster movement, especially if there’s nothing else close to that velocity band. Gilbert’s splitter and slider are both mid-80s; the curveball (at least last year) was even slower. So he can change speeds extremely well, but if the hitter can read a fastball out of Gilbert’s hand, he can probably hit it hard. Gilbert knows he needs something else to throw in the 90s to keep hitters honest; he tinkered with a sinker in 2022 and 2023, but unsuccessfully. So why not try something new?

Which leads to the newest, most exciting addition to Gilbert’s family: a cutter. He told Friedman that he’s not going for big movement with his new pitch. He wants to throw it hard and with subtle horizontal movement. That’s not only in keeping with contemporary trends in pitch selection; it might be exactly what he needs to keep opponents from mashing his fastball they way they have recently.

Until now, this has been the story of a good pitcher making a couple offseason adjustments that — if they work — might take him to the next level. But a dark horse Cy Young prediction needs something bolder, the troubled conjurings a mind that’s already left the present behind.

So it’s time to address the squishy narrative factors that can swing an awards race, even among the most numerate voting bloc the BBWAA has ever assembled.

Playing time considerations notwithstanding, ZiPS projects Gilbert to be ninth in the AL in pitcher WAR this year. That hardly makes him the favorite, but it shows that he’s somewhere close to the conversation about the AL’s best pitchers.

So let’s have that conversation.

Last year’s unanimous AL Cy Young winner, Gerrit Cole, is hurt. Runner-up Sonny Gray? Also hurt, and no longer in the AL. Fourth-place finisher Kyle Bradish? Hurt. Shane McClanahan, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander? Hurt.

There are still plenty of good pitchers in the AL. Corbin Burnes, you might have heard of, as well as Framber Valdez, Kevin Gausman, Pablo López, Shane Bieber. Maybe Carlos Rodón has a big bounceback year in him. If Gilbert does win the Cy Young, it won’t be a walkover.

But I’ve been thinking about what makes a Cy Young candidate in this day and age. Mostly because Blake Snell went unsigned for so long that I spent more time contemplating his telos this winter than any other two topics put together. There’s been a lot of reasonable frustration that a two-time Cy Young winner would get into the third week of March and still be checking the classifieds, but that smooths over some legitimate criticisms about Snell’s game.

His two Cy Young campaigns — especially last year’s — weren’t exactly 1972 Steve Carlton or 1999 Pedro Martinez. We’ve adapted our standards to accommodate pitchers who perform extremely well on a per-inning basis but only barely get over the 162-inning bar to qualify for rate stat leaderboards. For an exceptional performance, like Burnes in 2021 or Snell in 2018, that’s reasonable. But it was only in the past 10 years that the first starting pitcher won the Cy Young for a full season’s work while coming in under 200 innings pitched. We’re still figuring out how to balance quantity versus quality in an age when 150 innings a year counts as high-volume.

In the end, Snell won the Cy Young easily, taking 28 of 30 first-place votes. But it was an odd class; in a less confusing timeline, Snell and Strider would’ve swapped ends on the FIP-to-ERA teeter-totter, the mustachioed Braves righty would’ve won the Triple Crown, and we wouldn’t be talking about any of this.

But I think we’re going to hit an inflection point where voters realize just how scarce a 200-inning starter is now and vote accordingly. Consider the difficulty Snell just had finding work, versus the alacrity with which the Phillies just signed up to pay Nola and Zack Wheeler almost $70 million a year between them.

Teams already value the hoss more than the glass cannon. Voters are going to come around eventually.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Doug Lampertmember
2 months ago

If your team has 8 relievers doing 1 inning each every other game on average (which probably means you’re bouncing the relievers up and down to AAA like yo-yo’s to get even that much out of them, only 4 relievers made 81 or more innings last year and not one got up to 85), then your 5 starter spots need to cover about 158.1 each.

Call it 162 since that’s a qualified starter and pretty close. There were 42 of those last year, but that’s roughly what an average starter spot needs to cover to make this MLB thing work, and you’d need 150 of those guys to do it with only one pitcher per starting spot.

It’s worse than that, because the number 5 starter gets fewer starts, being left off the rotation and often replaced by a short reliever when there are enough off days, so the remaining starts have to cover even more.

There simply aren’t enough durable starting pitchers good enough for the show to do this. So teams bounce the number 4 and 5 starters back and forth to AAA to try to cover those innings, they use position players to pitch fairly often, they stretch out relievers and send them down then call up the next guy. Teams are starting to experiment with a six day rotation so they can use 6 starters and spread the starting innings over more arms (making do with one less reliever).

Modern pitcher usage makes every inning that a good starter can give you above 162 golden.

2 months ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

This is a big problem in MLB that doesn’t get talked about enough. The average start last year was 5.14 IP. in 2022 it was 5.2 IP. Those are decimal fractions, not thirds of an inning, so the average start gets one out in the 6th about half the time. Those numbers get pulled down by “openers,” but not a lot.

So teams run into exactly the problem you said. It leaves 4 innings a game with most relievers only throwing one inning, which means, on average, every RP has to throw every other day. Data bears that out. The average relief appearance last year was 1.14 IP and 1.11 IP in 2022.

As you pointed out, there are very few pitchers in baseball that take on either an “average” starter or reliever workload (based on roster spot, not actual work done by individuals) over a whole season. As a team, you know that the 13 pitchers you break camp with can not be enough to get you through a year, even if you have no injuries and nobody needs to be demoted for chronic ineffectiveness. At some point, you will have to call up a fresh arm just to get your team through the next few days. That creates an environment where guys must be shuttled to AAA and back, sometimes through no fault of their own. That’s not really fair to players.

Something needs to change. I don’t like the idea of 30 man rosters and 12 man bullpens and I don’t see pitcher development or usage changing enough to fix the problem. I don’t know what the answer is.

2 months ago
Reply to  MikeS

I’d say expand the rosters, which the owners won’t do on economic grounds alone. I realize you don’t like it, but I think that really boils down to we’re not used to it. It’s the right thing to do for the health of their investments. Apparently penny wise and pound foolish describes a majority of MLB owners.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
2 months ago
Reply to  Alby

I mean there is also a reasonable aesthetic objection to it, which is that it worsens the already-bad “who the hell is this guy?” problem. The average non-obsessive fan already spends a bunch of innings watching their team run out RP they’ve never heard of, never mind the other team. The more innings of that you add, the less of the time the game on the field is at its narrative/aesthetic best for the fans. Of course this is also probably an unsolvable problem given the direction the game is headed.

Last edited 2 months ago by Roger McDowell Hot Foot
2 months ago

Presumably those next four relievers added will be the 9th – 12th best in the organization and teams already have trouble finding more than 4 good ones when they need 8.

I mean, those guys are already throwing a bunch of innings, but putting them on the shuttle to AAA all season means they lose service time and money which isn’t really fair to them.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
2 months ago
Reply to  MikeS

Yeah, if it were truly usage-neutral, then this objection would disappear and it’d be just a win for the players’ lives and working conditions, as you say. I’m not sure whether I believe that, though — most of the time, it seems like players who are more available by rule do end up getting used more.

Doug Lampertmember
2 months ago

I see no chance that expanding rosters would be usage neutral.

They are right on the edge of not being able to cover a full season, which is either a heck of a coincidence, or it means that the limit of needing to be able to cover a full season with the current roster size is a constraint and given more pitchers, they’d use more pitchers. Expand the rosters without changing anything else, and I think the average start just gets even shorter with even more innings being covered by ever more relievers.

If you want to stop roster churn, you need to make rules against roster churn or that discourage roster churn. Maybe if you send someone down after he pitches, he still counts as on the roster for the next 4 days (maybe an exception for DL, but then you need to really crack down on fake DL).

No more, “Great job covering those 3 innings of relief, we really needed that, now get thee to AAA so we can call up another 100 MPH reliever who’s only normally good for 1 inning every two days”.

2 months ago

Tbf if the answer to “who is this guy(?)” is “someone with a min salary and options left,” that’ll get the folks at home excited. If fans and potential fans are more aware that their team is Smart and good at Business (all hail!) then things will fall in place

2 months ago
Reply to  MikeS

Limit pitchers to 12 on a roster. That will increase the value of pitchers that can throw 6 or more innings and incentivize pitchers and teams to work toward that. An extra pinch hitter could mean a little more offense as well.

2 months ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

My solution is even less popular than roster size increases — roster size reduction and no DH and deadened ball. This allows starters to pitch longer, not be afraid of contact and maybe reduce TJS frequency with less max effort.

Also more hitters squaring up the ball into the gaps rather than always trying to pull fly balls makes for a more entertaining offense based on 2B and 3B rather than solo homers and strikeouts.

But I’m a tiny minority on this. For one thing players like the extra roster spots and highly paid DHs. I’m probably one of 5 people on earth who likes pitcher hitting.

Last edited 2 months ago by Ivan_Grushenko
1 month ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

I don’t think your going to get less effort though because the incentives for guys (especially more marginal guys) to throw with max effort are always going to be there.