So, who wants to pick a Cy Young winner?
The National League race has three aces in the running, but only one will be named the best pitcher in the Senior Circuit by season’s end.
Max Scherzer is in the midst of the best season of his career and could cement his place in Cooperstown with a third consecutive Cy Young. Jacob deGrom has been one of the few bright spots for the struggling New York Mets, leading the league in ERA. In Philadelphia, Aaron Nola has surged onto the scene with a breakout season.
There are many ways to look at this race. Some approaches are better than others; some are traditional, and others rely on new-age statistics. All three candidates stand out depending on how you look at them.
So, let’s take a look how these pitchers stack up through a couple different lenses.
The wins-over-everything approach
Many young fans may not believe this approach still exists, but the line of thinking came into play for the voters just two seasons ago. Rick Porcello took home the AL honor in 2016 after picking up an MLB-high 22 wins despite trailing Justin Verlander in WAR, ERA and strikeouts.
It was thought the BBWAA had bucked this trend back in 2010 when Felix Hernandez won the award with just 13 victories. However, it appears there are still some traditionalists in the ranks who still hold stock in pitcher wins.
If you take this route, Scherzer is your guy. He leads the NL with 16 wins and has plenty of other stats to support his case. In fact, the Nats’ right-hander also paces the NL in strikeouts, innings, WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Scherzer has been aided by some fairly strong run support (Washington averages 5.07 runs per game when Scherzer starts — the 13th highest mark in baseball) but has pitched well enough to warrant those wins anyway. Mad Max leads the MLB with 24 quality starts and averages 6.2 innings per appearance.
Of course, much has been made about deGrom’s low win total, which sits at eight on the season. He’s certainly been on the wrong end of some bad luck (given 3.56 runs of support per game, tied for the second-lowest in the MLB) and has just one fewer quality start than Scherzer.
So if wins aren’t your style, maybe you’ll favor…
The WAR-over-everything approach
On the other end of the spectrum, the sabermetric community has completely tossed out wins in favor of advanced metrics. WAR and FIP have replaced wins and ERA and more accurate measurements of a pitcher’s performance.
This method has been a pretty good indicator for predicting Cy Youngs. Six of the last eight winners led their respective league in bWAR, with the exceptions being Porcello in 2016 and Jake Arrieta in 2015.
In this case, you’ll have to pick between either deGrom or Nola depending on where you get your statistics. Baseball-Reference pegs Nola as the most valuable pitcher in the sport at 9.2 bWAR, whereas FanGraphs gives that nod to deGrom (7.3 fWAR).
Nola also leads the NL in opponents’ OPS (.537) while deGrom paces the league in FIP (2.03). Scherzer is aided by strong strikeout numbers (12.0 K/9) but a low groundball rate (35.7 percent) coupled with a penchant for giving up homers hurts his case from a sabermetric standpoint.
With no clear answer there, perhaps you’d prefer…
The what-have-you-done-for-me-lately approach
It’s natural for the voters to weigh the second half a little more heavily in their minds than the first, as it’s the most recent stretch of baseball to occur. They gave the nod to Corey Kluber in the AL last year for his strong second half and the aforementioned Arrieta was a beneficiary as well back in 2015.
Nola has been on a tear not just since the All-Star Break, but over the last 10 weeks as well. Since June 23, the Phillies’ ace has a 1.53 ERA across 12 starts. Both deGrom and Scherzer have also made 12 appearances over that span, posting 1.87 and 2.39 ERAs, respectively.
Nola has also outdueled Scherzer twice over the past few weeks, which certainly did no favors to latter’s case. Although it was back in May, it’s worth noting that Nola also beat deGrom — but with a caveat. deGrom had just returned from the DL but only lasted one inning before being removed for pitch-count reasons.
But one cannot forget the classic…
The give-another-guy-a-chance approach
Scherzer already has three Cy Young awards under his belt. Meanwhile, deGrom has been one of the better pitchers in baseball without any hardware other than a Rookie of the Year Award to show for it. Nola is bursting onto the scene, and that deserves recognition too, right?
When Clayton Kershaw won back-to-back NL honors in 2013 and 2014, he followed those campaigns up with a 300-strikeout season that saw him lead the majors in fWAR, FIP and innings pitched. Arrieta won the Cy Young for his spectacular second half, but Kershaw was as qualified a candidate as any.
Sure, some may write Scherzer down because they know a fourth Cy Young would be more valuable to the Nats’ righty as he tries to race Father Time in building a Hall of Fame case. But still others will probably look through the ballot and decide it’s time for a new name on the trophy.
deGrom has never finished higher than seventh in Cy Young voting. Nola just made his first All-Star Game this season. If deGrom wins the honor, he’ll have a chance to start building a Hall of Fame case around the same age Scherzer did. If Nola gets it, the narrative shifts to him being the face of the younger pitchers in the game. As media members who would be writing those stories, voters would be remiss to say they aren’t thinking about those factors.
There is no clear-cut winner of this race, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. Scherzer has the pedigree, the strikeouts and the best fastball in the game. deGrom has the sabermetric community leaning his way and the benefit of pitching in America’s biggest market. Nola has been on a fantastic tear and is pitching for a team still in the playoff hunt.
Do you have a final answer?