When you think of AL Cy Young contenders, you probably think of Gerrit Cole, Robbie Ray, Justin Verlander, or Lucas Giolito. The start of this season has seen a different group of pitchers lead the league, with Martin Perez, who is off to the start of a career year, Alek Manoah, and Nestor Cortez at the top of the AL leaderboard in ERA.
The pitcher right behind them in ERA is Shane McClanahan. McClanahan is in his second regular season in the MLB and was a former top prospect in the Rays’ system. Over the last few years, McClanahan hasn’t emerged as a widely known player, but he is quietly putting together the start to a Cy Young caliber season.
McClanahan’s Start to 2022
McClanahan’s first few months of 2022 have been among the best in the entire MLB. Beyond just his ERA, McClanahan ranks first in strikeouts in the American League, along with second in strikeouts per nine innings, while ranking sixth in walks per nine innings.
Advanced statistics support McClanahan’s performance this year. The second-year player has limited hard contact at an excellent rate in addition to the strikeouts, ranking in the 79th percentile in hard-hit rate. McClanahan’s results in expected ERA, expected batting average, and expected slugging percentage all are in the 80th percentile or better.
For most of his career, McClanahan has used his fastball around 40% of the time, using it 40.9% of the time in 2021, which is down about 4.0% to 37.1% in 2022. McClanahan’s fastball is excellent, with a 97 mph average velocity, and even better movement qualities. His fastball has three fewer inches of drop as compared to league average, which is desirable on a fastball, to go along with 10.7 inches of average horizontal break, 4.1 inches better than league average.
His fastball isn’t his only quality pitch, with his curveball, his second most frequently used pitch, being an extremely valuable offering. McClanahan’s curveball averages 82 mph, a 15 mph difference from his fastball, and is above average in spin rate and both horizontal and vertical break. Opponents are batting just .149 against the pitch while slugging just .189.
The curveball has taken the place of his slider, which was his second most used pitch in 2021 at 34.7%, but is a pitch he now throws just 16.6% of the time, the least of any of his pitches. The pitch is probably his most inconsistent, with hitters getting most of their slugging against McClanahan through the slider, which has been his hardest-hit pitch so far this season.
In addition to the curveball, McClanahan’s changeup has emerged as a great pitch this season, with him using it 12% more in 2022 than he did in 2021. In 2021, hitters averaged .393 against the pitch with a slugging percentage over .700, but in 2022 hitters have been unable to do any damage against the changeup, batting just .164 against it with no extra-base hits.
The development of McClanahan’s repertoire and the tweaking the Rays have made to how he uses his pitches and how often he throws them has helped him take a huge developmental step forward this year. His ERA last season of 3.43 and xERA of 4.60 have improved to a 1.87 ERA and 2.43 xERA this season, a drop of 1.56 and 2.17 from 2021 to 2022 respectively.
Cy Young Potential
As the season enters June the competition for awards begins to take shape, and McClanahan will certainly be one of the early candidates for the Cy Young Award. However, McClanahan and the Rays are also hoping to make another trip to the playoffs, and after a rookie season in which he only threw 123.1 innings, the Rays may look to lessen McClanahan’s workload to have him available and at his best in September and possibly October.
During Robbie Ray’s Cy Young campaign in 2021, he threw 193.1 innings. If McClanahan is unable to throw more than 180 innings, or the Rays choose to manage his workload to ensure he doesn’t, it will probably eliminate him from Cy Young contention.
Even if the second half of the season isn’t as spectacular as the first half of the season, and McClanahan doesn’t win the Cy Young award in 2022, the Rays would still have a rotation with two of the best young pitchers in baseball. McClanahan has seen his development take a huge step forward this year, and with Shane Baz rejoining the team this weekend against the Twins the Rays have an exciting future in their starting rotation.