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Keuchel, Arrieta, and Cy Young Redemption

The reason why MLB hands separate major awards for both the National League and the American League is simple: each league is unique and represents different ideals and styles of play. Pitchers know this all too well, as it is clearly an easier proposition to pitch in the Senior Circuit and directly face your peers, while the AL is not as forgiving. This is why the standards we use to evaluate pitchers in both leagues differ greatly, and why many stats have to be adjusted to be properly compared. But even while we do this, sometimes the narratives catch up and everything looks eerily similar, as it has happened with 2015’s Cy Young winners.

Before the season, few would have bet that pitchers like Dallas Keuchel or Jake Arrieta would be in contention for any kind of major awards. To wit, and even as fantasy baseball isn’t always the best way to measure a player’s worth, Arrieta’s average draft position placed him between the 10th and 11th round of a standard league, while Keuchel fell, on average, to the 18th round and below. This was understandable considering their history, as both followed disappointing start to their careers before a mini-breakout in 2014.

Now, they are both part of baseball history, with Keuchel winning in comfortable fashion over David Price, while Arrieta benefited from Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke splitting votes in the NL and took a narrow win over the two Dodgers. The improbable awards helped led their teams to the playoffs, and look eerily similar considering both pitchers’ career path. Arrieta was a 5th round pick for the Orioles in 2007, while Keuchel was picked by the Astros in 2009’s 7th round. The two of them debuted in the majors after three years, and were probably rushed to the big leagues before they were ready.

Here are their career numbers divided by their spans of disappointment, the 2014 resurgence, and the 2015 that earned them a Cy Young.

Jake Arrieta

2010-2013: 72 starts, 24-27, 409.2 IP, 5.23 ERA, 6.9 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, 80 ERA+
2014: 25 starts, 10-5, 156.2 IP, 2.53 ERA, 9.6 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 150 ERA+
2015: 33 starts, 22-6, 229 IP, 1.77 ERA, 9.3 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 222 ERA+

Dallas Keuchel

2012-2013: 38 starts, 9-18, 239 IP, 5.20 ERA, 6.1 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 78 ERA+
2014: 29 starts, 12-9, 200 IP, 2.93 ERA, 6.6 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 132 ERA+
2015: 33 starts, 20-8, 232 IP, 2.48 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 162 ERA+

For both of them, adjustments have been key to get over their disappointment career beginnings to the point they have reached today, as well as the importance of being part of increasingly successful franchises. This has been especially evident for Arrieta, who went from being a bust in Baltimore to a big success in Chicago, where he has become the ace even ahead of Jon Lester.

In what could end up becoming one of the most lopsided trades in recent history, he arrived in Chicago in a transaction along with Pedro Strop for Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman, who have combined to give the Orioles a 1.0 WAR. Instead, Arrieta just posted 14 WAR over the past two seasons in Chicago, and doing it at bargain prices. 2015 was his first year receiving an arbitration raise, which he will also get in 2016 and 2017, unless he is signed to a long-term deal by the Cubs before he becomes a free agent in 2018.

Even as the righty broke down in the playoffs after pitching more than 70 innings above his previous career high, he projects to be an elite pitcher for the next few seasons, especially as he will only turn 30 next March. With his newfound power fastball and the solid defense playing behind him, Arrieta should remain a fixture for the Cubs in the foreseeable future, even if his magical second half of 2015 (12-1, 0.75 ERA) is almost impossible to match.

For his part, Keuchel arrived in Houston during a time of rebuilding and terrible rosters, and slowly settled as the team’s ace despite his peculiar set of skills. Keuchel was never much of a prospect due to his lack of strikeouts, but he was always capable of producing soft contact and a ton of grounders, which is something he has exploited at the major league level. Since his debut in 2012, he is second among qualified starters in groundball rate, with a staggering 59.4%.

That proficiency to induce grounders was even greater in 2015, when 61.7% of his at-bats ended with a groundball, and Keuchel was able to mix in a solid dose of strikeouts to increase his dominance. At 8.4 strikeouts per 9 innings, the lefty topped his previous career high of 7.20 by a mile, all this while taking advantage of the shifty-happy Astros and a much improved infield. Even as FIP undersells Keuchel by a bit, there is no way to deny that his combo of easy outs and an improved penchant for K’s have turned him into one of the best pitchers in the league.

The fact that he still did it for league-minimum salary makes it all the sweeter for Houston, who will have to award Keuchel with a big arbitration raise in 2016 but still has him under team control until at least 2019. In many ways, Keuchel’s Cy Young looks a lot like Corey Kluber’s just a year ago, in terms that a pitcher with good stuff suddenly putting it all together to win pitching’s ultimate prize.

In the end, it is amazing how two middling pitchers overcame long odds to become Cy Young's in the same year, and how they have become essential parts of franchises on the rise. The Cubs and Astros share the trait of having deep, young cores of talent to contend for many years, while both also have deep pockets to make big moves in free agency and compete amid crowded divisions. For those plans to continue, Arrieta and Keuchel will need to remain among baseball’s elite, which they certainly profile to do.

Baseball is a tricky game where player development tends to be hard to predict, as we have seen with these two hurlers, who will certainly be drafted way higher in fantasy drafts in 2016.

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