Clayton Kershaw appears poised to regain his place among the best pitchers in baseball.
Though he missed 10 weeks of the 2016 season with a herniated disc in his back, Kershaw begins the 2017 looking for a fourth consecutive season with a sub-2.00 ERA over at least 100 innings. Such a season would put him in the company of 12 other pitchers — the first in the live-ball era — to hurl four such seasons in a career. Projections have Kershaw going 16-7 with a 2.33 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers, striking out 254 batters over 208 innings while producing 7.4 wins above replacement, the most in baseball, making him the odds-on favorite to win this year’s Cy Young Award.
But as good as Kershaw is, he can only pitch every fifth day, which is why the Washington Nationals, featuring Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, have the best 1-2 pitchers in the majors.
Max Scherzer was the National League’s only 20-game winner last season, producing a 2.96 ERA and an MLB-leading 284 strikeouts in 228.1 innings pitched (most in the NL), capping the season as the NL Cy Young Award winner. He is the sixth pitcher to earn the award in both leagues, joining Roger Clemens and Roy Halladay as well as Hall of Famers Gaylord Perry, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson.
Scherzer struggled with the command of his fastball last season — he had his lowest strikeout rate (25.3 percent) with the pitch since 2011 — but that may in part be attributable to a stress fracture in the lower knuckle of his right ring finger. He has resumed using a two-finger grip in spring training after experiencing soreness, and looks on track to start the season but not Opening Day.
Instead Nationals Manager Dutsy Baker will start Strasburg on April 3 at Nationals Park against the Miami Marlins.
Strasburg finished last season with a 15-4 record, setting a career high in strikeouts per nine innings pitched (11.2). His 2.92 FIP compared to his 3.60 ERA suggests he pitched even better than his record indicates, perhaps signaling an improved 2017 campaign. The forecast at FanGraphs is slightly less optimistic, suggesting Strasburg will finish the season 13-8 with a 3.20 ERA, striking out 205 batters over 174 innings.
Yet even if Strasburg does take this step back, his projected 4.4 fWAR, when added to Scherzer’s (5.7 fWAR), gives them the second-highest combined total in the majors. But because Kershaw accounts for almost two-thirds of the total fWAR between him and Kenta Maeda (2.8 fWAR), the No. 2 start for the Dodgers, you have to give the final nod to the Nationals’ two studs as the top starting-pitching duo.
One tandem that could push Scherzer and Strasburg out of the top spot is Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto of the San Francisco Giants.
A four-time All-Star and 2014 World Series MVP, Bumgarner is a gamer who has pitched more than 200 innings in each of the past six seasons and started a career-high 34 games last season, his strongest since joining the majors in 2010. Bumgarner posted a 15-9 record in 2016 with career bests in ERA (2.74), strikeouts (251) and innings pitched (226.2), so it is no surprise he will be the Opening Day starter for the fourth straight year when the Giants begin the season against the Arizona Diamondbacks on the road.
Cueto had nearly as strong a year as Bumgarner, finishing second in the NL in fWAR (5.6) but also led all of the NL in complete games with five, third in wins with 18 and third in innings pitched with 219.2.
According to Tom Tango’s simple Cy Young Tracker, which projects how the Baseball Writers’ Association of America will vote for the Cy Young Award, Bumgarner and Cueto should each be in the running once the final votes are announced.