MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Leap year: Top arms primed for breakout '17

2016 Cy Young Award winners offer blueprint for pitchers looking to take next step

Leap year: Top arms primed for breakout '17

Every pitcher would love to be like Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale. But let's get real.

Even many Cy Young Award winners need years and years of work to reach their potential, refining their mechanics and muscle memory to the point that they can hit the catcher's mitt repeatedly with fastballs and rarely leave their other pitches in the middle of the strike zone.

Max Scherzer, who just won his second Cy Young Award, epitomizes the learning curve for the modern pitcher. His talent kept him in the Tigers' rotation, but he was wildly inconsistent until late in 2012, which was his age-27 season.

Scherzer was 6-1 with a 1.65 ERA in his last nine starts that season -- pretty impressive for a guy who had compiled a 4.06 ERA in his first 744 2/3 Major League innings. He won his first Cy Young Award in 2013, and it wasn't a fluke.

He's gone 79-28 with a 2.87 ERA in his last 951 2/3 innings, cashing in with a $210 million contract after 2014 and since then delivering two top-of-the-market seasons for the Nationals.

Must C: Scherzer's second no-no

Jake Arrieta and Dallas Keuchel, who won the National League and American League Cy Young Awards, respectively, in 2015, similarly elevated their performance in their age-27 and age-28 seasons. Ditto 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello of the Red Sox, who had a 4.39 ERA over seven Major League seasons before putting all the pieces together in 2016, his age-27 season.

"I felt like I had the weapons this year and the command to get out just about anybody I'd encounter and any lineup," said Porcello, who went 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA. "It was one of those things where I had nothing to worry about going into a start.''

Pitchers dream of that feeling. Here are some who are entering the age/experience sweet spot that could see them make a leap forward into Cy Young Award contention in 2017 or '18:

Chris Archer, Rays: After finishing fifth in AL Cy Young Award voting in 2015, he's moving into his age-28 season after seemingly taking a step backward in '16. He threw his trademark slider more than ever after his fastballs got hit early in the season. Improved command of the fastball could make him a beast as he moves into his prime.

Archer fans 10 in seven innings

Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees: His age-28 season will be his fourth in America, and the needle is pointing upward in terms of his stuff, health and experience. He was seventh in AL Cy Young Award voting this season, and he has a clause in his contract that allows him to opt into free agency after 2017. The key is increasing the sharpness of his slider without losing any effectiveness with his split, which is deadly.

Tanaka's scoreless start

Michael Pineda, Yankees: Remember when he had just arrived from Seattle, looking like a future dominator? He's compiled a 4.10 ERA in three seasons in New York, lowering the expectations he carries, but he is poised to raise his game as he heads into his age-28 season. Like Arrieta heading into 2015, Pineda has been pitched lightly and been plagued by command issues. He showed there's a lot left in the tank in September, when he struck out 12.5 batters per nine innings. He would benefit from trusting his sinker and slider more, reducing the frequency of his cutter.

Pineda's six shutout innings

Dan Straily, Reds: He moves into his age-28 season coming off a year in which he very quietly turned a corner, going 14-8 with a 3.76 ERA over 191 1/3 innings. He had a 2.90 ERA at Great American Ball Park. His success has always come from his secondary pitches, but scouts point to his improved command of his fastball for making everything more effective. He held opponents to a .262 average with his fastball, which averaged only 90 mph, but he used it to set up a slow curve that sometimes flutters over the plate in the low-70s. He'll be fun to watch if he regains the confidence he carried into the Major Leagues after strong work in the high Minors for Oakland in 2012 and '13.

Straily's stellar outing

Trevor Bauer, Indians: He'll pitch at age 26 next season, so maybe it's too early to add him to this list, but nobody has gained more experience under fire early in their careers than this quirky brainiac. He's so distinctive in everything he does that you should be careful drawing any conclusions, but for a student of the game with a mid-90s fastball, it's time for him to pitch better than his 4.42 career ERA. He took a big step in that direction in 2016, but the major leap forward still lies in his future. Bauer is a true five-pitch pitcher, but the curveball was the only one that was consistently above-average last season. It gives him a weapon to build around.

Bauer fans seven in Game 5

Jimmy Nelson, Brewers: He heads into his age-28 season, and he looks like an excellent candidate for a change of scenery. He's got plenty of velocity (95-mph fastball) to work off his fastball and two breaking pitches that can be effective. He was a big winner in Triple-A (10-2, 1.46 ERA in 2014) but has lost his way. He hasn't been able to repeat his delivery well enough to eliminate his self-destructive tendencies. He should become at worst a middle-of-the-rotation starter for a strong team and could still become even better. It would be interesting to see how he'd do working out of the bullpen.

Nelson's scoreless outing

Drew Pomeranz, Red Sox: He's heading into his age-28 season off an encouraging year, with the caveat that he didn't maintain the progress he had showed in San Diego after a midseason trade to Boston. But Porcello wasn't great in his first season at Fenway Park either. Given how Pomeranz has bounced around, he could be revived by making 30 starts in the same uniform. It's his curveball that gets scouts talking, but he had more success with all of his pitches last season than the 4.59 ERA with Boston suggests. A little better command within the strike zone would help reduce his career home run rate at Fenway (eight in 32 innings).

Pomeranz strikes out 11

Julio Teheran, Braves: Like Bauer, he's a little young for this list. He's only 25 and is already a two-time All-Star. But the development ahead of him in his age-26 and age-27 seasons could make him one of the game's best pitchers. Teheran showed a better changeup last season than previous years, but he still didn't throw it often enough to truly complement his fastball-slider combination.

Teheran's one-hit gem

Danny Duffy, Royals: Like teammate Yordano Ventura, Duffy is a power pitcher who has been a big tease. He seemed to turn a corner in his age-27 season, moving into the rotation in mid-May and holding up well enough to finish with a 3.51 ERA over 179 2/3 innings. He cut his walk rate and increased his strikeout rate. He used his sinker more and his four-seam fastball less (even though he was throwing it harder, with an average velocity of 95.5 mph). His changeup became a weapon, not a pitch he had to be ordered to throw.

Duffy's complete-game victory

Matt Moore, Giants: He's in a great spot working behind Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, but he seems poised to emerge as more than a No. 4 starter. Don't be surprised if he's one of the top free agents next offseason as he enters his age-28 season primed for a breakout. Moore pitched better than his 4.08 ERA showed for much of last season. He just needs to find a little more consistency. He's reached the point in his career where that might very well happen -- just look at the last four Cy Young Award winners.

Moore fans 10, drives in run

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.