Five sleeper 2015 Cy Young contenders

Thanks to his killer curveball and K rate, Houston's Collin McHugh could be this year's Corey Kluber. Bob Levey/Getty Images

Jerry Crasnick wrote about how the Cleveland Indians have cultivated an environment that has allowed young pitchers to grow.

Cleveland's shining light, of course, is Corey Kluber, who seemingly came out of nowhere last season to beat out Felix Hernandez for the American League Cy Young Award. "Nowhere" isn't quite accurate because Kluber, while never a top prospect, had quietly put together a solid 2013, making 24 starts and going 11-5 with a 3.85 ERA.

Let's check out what Kluber did in 2013 compared with the MLB average for starting pitchers (Kluber's totals include two relief appearances):

Strikeout rate: 22.4% (18.9%)

Walk rate: 5.4% (7.4%)

HR rate: 2.7% (2.9%)

Batting average allowed: .271 (.259)

BABIP: .333 (.298)

ERA: 3.85 (4.01)

As you can see, Kluber didn't necessarily stand out because his ERA was just below the MLB average. But his strikeout was above the average and his walk rate was well below it, indicating talent that was perhaps hidden by a high batting average allowed on balls in play.

Here's what Kluber did in 2014:

Strikeout rate: 28.3%

Walk rate: 5.4%

HR rate: 1.6%

Batting average allowed: .233

BABIP: .313

ERA: 2.44

Even though his BABIP was still above the league average, his batting average allowed went down as he increased his strikeout rate. He also allowed fewer home runs. Most of the improved strikeout rate came via his curveball (51 to 59 percent) and fastball (13 to 17 percent). His slider K rate remained the same and his changeup (which he threw far less often in 2014) rate declined.

Anyway, if we're looking for the next Corey Kluber, we should focus on somebody who meets at least two of the following three criteria: a better-than-average strikeout rate, a below-average walk rate and a high BABIP -- with an emphasis on the strikeout rate being above the MLB average. If he's a pitcher who was never highly rated as a prospect, even better. Of course, Kluber's transition -- winning the Cy Young at age 28 in his first full season -- is unprecedented, so we're not going to find a perfect match.

Here are five guys who could be sleeper Cy Young contenders in 2015 (Drew Smyly would have been another candidate, although he's currently out with a sore shoulder):

Collin McHugh, Astros

2014: 11-9, 2.73 ERA

K rate: 25.4%

BB rate: 6.6%

BABIP: .263

Considering that McHugh had a 2.73 ERA in 25 starts in 2014, you can argue that he already had his breakout season. But he didn't pitch quite enough innings to qualify for the leaderboards and was completely unheralded before the season -- the Astros claimed him off waivers from the Rockies -- so maybe McHugh still does fly under the radar a bit. His K and BB rates suggest he was for real, however, and like Kluber, he has a killer curveball as a strikeout pitch (batters hit .138 against it with 73 strikeouts in 144 plate appearances).

Danny Salazar, Indians

2014: 6-8, 4.25 ERA

K rate: 25.3%

BB rate: 7.4%

BABIP: .344

Kluber's teammate is hardly an unknown after bursting onto the scene in 2013 with his electric fastball, but Salazar's 2014 was disappointing, resulting in a demotion to the minors for a spell. He did have a 3.50 ERA in 12 starts in the second half, as he cut down on the strikeouts. He's actually been a reverse platoon guy in the majors; his changeup has been effective against lefties while righties pound his slider (.600 slugging percentage allowed in 2014). Keith Law scouted Salazar's outing on Wednesday and saw inconsistent results.

Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays

2014: 11-13, 4.48 ERA

K rate: 23.4%

BB rate: 7.6%

BABIP: .295

Hutchison returned from Tommy John surgery and made it through 32 starts. While he had a 4.48 ERA, his FIP was 3.85. His improvement has two keys: cutting down his walk rate and getting better against lefties, who slugged .477 against him. That means a better changeup, as lefties hit .355 with seven home runs against it.

Matt Shoemaker, Angels

2014: 16-4, 3.04 ERA

K rate: 22.8%

BB rate: 4.4%

BABIP: .289

Shoemaker received a fair amount of attention last year, especially after a hot string of starts down the stretch. So, like McHugh, consider this more of a confirmation that I don't think he was a fluke. He was a nonfactor before the season after posting high ERAs in Triple-A, but injuries eventually opened up a rotation slot for him -- and Shoemaker took advantage. He's also entering his age-28 season. Still, because he's not overpowering, he'll have to prove himself again. His K and BB rates were both better than league average and, similar to Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma, his splitter/changeup turns him into a good strikeout pitcher even without a big fastball.

Shane Greene, Tigers

2014: 5-4, 3.78 ERA

K rate: 23.5%

BB rate: 8.4%

BABIP: .330

He's the longest shot on the board. A marginal prospect entering 2014 -- Baseball America rated him as the Yankees' No. 16 prospect -- injuries in the rotation gave Greene a chance, and he performed well. His fastball averaged 93 mph, his slider was a swing-and-miss offering and he showcased a good cutter. His walk rate was a little high, and Derek Jeter didn't help his BABIP any, but if he improves his command and continues developing his changeup, breakout potential is there -- and the Tigers may have stolen a good starter from the Yankees.