Max Scherzer Is Going to Win the Cy Young, And That’s Okay

When the American League Cy Young Award winner is announced on Wednesday night, Detroit’s Max Scherzer is almost certainly going to defeat Yu Darvish of the Rangers and Seattle’s Hisashi Iwakuma, potentially by a lot. Look at those wins! Twenty one of them, against only three losses! There’s absolutely no question that some percentage of the voters are going to simply see “21-3 for a playoff team” and cast their ballot without a second thought. It’s sad, even infuriating, but it’s true. Even though pitcher wins don’t matter, even though we’ve made progress from things like peak-level Johan Santana losing out to Bartolo Colon in 2005 because the Twins weren’t very good that year, in this context: yeah, they still do.

That fact of life has caused a nearly unlimited amount of aggravation among many of us, but it can also obscure this very important truth: just because Scherzer had the best record and we hate that many voters will focus on that, it doesn’t automatically mean that he’s not actually the best pitcher in the American League. He might be, or he might not be — there’s plenty of candidates — but nor is his likely victory going to be some sort of travesty.

That’s partially because of the non-win numbers, which we’ll get to in a second, but partially because even though wins tell you almost nothing about a pitcher’s skill, it’s still really, really hard to do what Scherzer did and not be among the best pitchers in baseball. For example, since the Cy Young was first given out to Don Newcombe in 1956, only five starters have done the same as what Scherzer did this year — collect at least 12 wins and have at least seven times as many wins as losses, basically fulfilling the “oh my lord look at his record I have the vapors now” requirement:

Year
Name
Wins
Losses
2013
Scherzer
21
3
2008
Lee
22
2
1995
Maddux
19
2
1995
Johnson
18
2
1981
Seaver
14
2
1978
Guidry
25
3

Cliff Lee, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Ron Guidry all won the Cy Young in those years, as you’d expect, and Tom Seaver might have done the same had he not run into the rookie season of Fernando Valenzuela, though they each received the same amount of first-place votes.

Now look at those same pitchers in terms of RA9-WAR, and where they ranked among their leagues:

Year
Name
RA9-WAR
League Rank
2013
Scherzer
6.2
3
2008
Lee
8.3
1
1995
Maddux
11.0
1
1995
Johnson
8.5
1
1981
Seaver
5
5
1978
Guidry
11.5
1

Other than Seaver, who somehow lucked his way into a .218 BABIP that season with a career-worst 4.71 K/9, each of those pitchers were actually either the best pitchers in their league by RA9-WAR or very close to it. They had a ton of wins and few losses, but they earned it through excellence — as well as, of course, playing for quality teams. (Four of the six went to the playoffs.)

Scherzer, you’ll notice, isn’t at the top of his league. Iwakuma was, and a popular argument for his candidacy is that in five more innings than Scherzer, he allowed four fewer runs, though that seems to be lost without a whole lot of context. If you back Iwakuma, RA9-WAR is a great way to do it. But if you prefer Scherzer, who finished a still-excellent third in RA9-WAR, you can point to the fact that he trounced Iwakuma in FIP-WAR (6.4 — 4.2) and had the lowest OBP against and lowest OPS, which is good if your definition of “best pitcher” is “allowed the fewest baserunners.” That’s not to say there’s a right answer or a wrong answer, just that the race is really so close that you can make the numbers support whomever you like.

You can still have other favorites for this year’s AL Cy, too, even beyond the three finalists. If you like ERA or FIP, you can easily support Scherzer’s Detroit teammate Anibal Sanchez, who managed to keep even more runs off the board in front of that same lousy Tigers infield defense. If you like K/BB ratio, no one even made it to 5.00 other than David Price, who had 5.59. Prefer the simplicity of missing bats? No one did it better than Darvish, either by SwStr% or by K/9, especially when he just had the third-best K/9 season by anyone other than Johnson since 1900. xFIP? That’s the great Felix Hernandez. Or if you still like quality starts for some reason, James Shields had the best percentage. All that, and we haven’t even touched on what a good year Chris Sale had.

This isn’t like the National League where Clayton Kershaw is going to just destroy the competition; here, there’s something like five or six different American League pitchers with valid cases to be made. I absolutely see the case for Iwakuma, for example, and if Sanchez had pitched more innings, I might be backing him. For me, it came down tightly to Darvish and Scherzer, and I very narrowly came out Scherzer, but your milage may vary in several directions.

I’ll get on board with the idea that Scherzer probably doesn’t deserve to win by the amount that he’s going to. But just because he’s the best at something we discard doesn’t mean he’s not the best at the things that matter, too.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times site, and is an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

17 Responses to “Max Scherzer Is Going to Win the Cy Young, And That’s Okay”

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  1. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    Is there an anti-Scherzer campaign? Why is there an anti-Scherzer campaign? The man had a dominant year by any statistic we might prefer to use, it will probably be the peak of a very good career, and I congratulate him. He earned it.

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  2. Frank C says:

    Absolutely agreed. Scherzer should win, but because he was excellent, not because of some magical W-L number.

    Also, and this is minor, but why the shot at quality starts? Not that it’s a perfect evaluative tool to say the least, but consistency is key and having 27 QS in one season is nothing to sneeze at. The amount of times a pitcher is able to give his team a chance to win the ball game is important.

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    • Daniel says:

      Yeah, but maybe only if we all agreed that the quality start, as defined now, gives your team a reasonable/ordinary chance to win.

      I think we should probably redefine it before it gets to be a little more useful.

      Of course, Scherzer will probably look good under either.

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  3. Wilin Rosario says:

    What about Bruce Chen dude?

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  4. This is a great article, Mike. Thanks for clarifying that Scherzer is not only a good pitcher because of wins and losses but because of other things. I personally think Darvish should win it, but the death threats against Scherzer are ridiculous, in my humble opinion.

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  5. waynetolleson says:

    Yeah. The guy was 21-3, had 240 K’s in 214 IP with a 2.90 ERA, and led baseball in Pitchers’ WAR.

    But you guys are too smart. We bow before you once again.

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  6. JayT says:

    I think you need to include Rick Sutcliffe’s 1984 in your list because he won the NL Cy Young, and only his NL stats were supposed to be considered. He was 16-1 with the Cubs and had a 4.9 WAR in comparison to Gooden’s 8.4 and Valenzuela’s 5.2. He would still have ranked third in the league though, so it doesn’t change the point, I just thought it should be mentioned.

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  7. Pale Hose Kyle says:

    “There’s absolutely no question that some percentage of the voters are going to simply see “21-3 for a playoff team” and cast their ballot without a second thought. It’s sad, even infuriating, but it’s true.”

    You know even though I agree with you on a lot of things in this article, I really think this attitude is condescending and mean. You are a better writer than that and you don’t need to resort to that kind of put-down. Not everyone on the other side is stupid.

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    • joser says:

      But enough of them are for this to be true.

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    • ben says:

      Not sure what the issue is. He says “some percentage of the voters,” not “everyone.” And it is somewhat sad if someone considers only W-L record when casting a Cy Young vote, because obviously they’re not qualified to vote.

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      • Pale Hose Kyle says:

        Fine. But in order for it to be “someone”, you need to point us to at least one person who is out there saying “I strictly voted on W-L”. Is there an article about Scherzer out there this year by a BBWAA guy who said that? I doubt it. Even the most anti-sabr writers at least peek at ERA and strikeouts to at least factor into their decisions.

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  8. Colin says:

    Scherzer lead the AL in pitcher WAR. I don’t understand the need for this. Is there an anti-Scherzer group somewhere?

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