On Wednesday evening, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America will announce which two pitchers were determined to be the best in their respective leagues over the course of the 2018 season.
In the National League, reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer is a finalist alongside Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies’ Aaron Nola.
The consensus appears to be that deGrom will receive the nod after leading the majors with a 1.70 ERA in 32 starts, meaning Scherzer’s two-year run as the Senior Circuit’s Cy Young winner will come to an end. While he may not have a new trophy to add to his mantle, Scherzer earned himself an honorary title with yet another stellar campaign: the best pitcher in baseball.
When retired players are evaluated for the Baseball Hall of Fame, the BBWAA typically looks at each candidate through two different lenses: how consistent they were throughout their careers and how well they played during their peak years. Jay Jaffe, who’s famous for devising the JAWS statistic, determined that a player’s peak lasts seven years.
There’s no exact science for determining the best pitcher in the majors, but the Hall of Fame method is as good a place to start as any. Over the past seven seasons, 40 different pitchers have thrown at least 1,000 or more innings. Twenty-five of those arms struck out over 1,000 batters. Four sported a sub-3.00 ERA. Only one broke 120 wins.
Scherzer appears on each of those lists, leading the league with 1,500.2 innings, 1,851 strikeouts, 123 wins and three Cy Young awards since 2012. As for consistency, Scherzer has struck out 250 hitters and finished with an ERA under 3.00 four times over that span. Only two pitchers have more such seasons in their entire careers: Randy Johnson (7) and Nolan Ryan (5).
Top 10 Starting Pitchers by bWAR, 2012-18
As Scherzer built up his case for Cooperstown, former best-pitcher-in-baseball Clayton Kershaw saw his time on the field diminish as a result of injuries. Kershaw has still proven to be the more effective pitcher when healthy, but the 30-year-old left-hander hasn’t thrown 200 innings in a season since 2015. Scherzer hasn’t thrown fewer than 200 innings in a season since 2012.
It’s worth mentioning that one of Kershaw’s best seasons was in 2011, which is outside the seven-year range included in these statistics. However, Scherzer has made 28 more starts than Kershaw since 2012 — nearly the equivalent of a full season. The D.C. ace’s ability to stay on the field has erased the margin of difference between the two future of Hall of Famers.
While deGrom may win the Cy Young this year, he’s not yet in the running for best pitcher in baseball as he’d never led the NL in any major pitching category prior to 2018 and has a shaky injury history of his own. In the American League, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber all have strong cases for the honorary title but what separates Scherzer from the pack are his strikeout ability and consistency from start to start.
Scherzer’s 11.1 K/9 over the past seven seasons isn’t just the best mark in the MLB, it’s a number that’s never been sustained over the course of an entire career (min. 1,000 innings). He’s the most prolific strikeout pitcher in the game, which allows him to maintain a low ERA despite his tendency to give up home runs.
The pure volume of Scherzer’s starts allows him to edge out most competitors in counting numbers, but he holds his own in rate statistics as well. Consider this: Since the start of the 2012 season, Scherzer has tossed a quality start (6+ IP, 3 ER or fewer) in 72.8 percent of his outings. Only Kershaw (80 percent) has done so at a higher rate.
It’s hard to argue against deGrom’s case for the NL Cy Young Award, but that doesn’t make 2018 a lost season for Scherzer. The Nationals’ ace is the best pitcher in the game, and it’s up to the rest of the league to catch up before that title can be taken away from him.