Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer is the best pitcher in the game. That shouldn’t be up for debate. But it is also time to consider Scherzer the front-runner for the National League’s most valuable player award.

The three-time Cy Young winner is 10-3 with a 2.09 ERA with a major league-leading 161 strikeouts in 107.2 innings pitched. One of those was an immaculate inning — nine pitches, all strikes, and three strikeouts — against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 5, the second such inning of his career. Only 11 pitchers have won a Most Valuable Player Award since 1956, when the Cy Young Award was first introduced. Clayton Kershaw is the most recent winner, going 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014, earning 18 first-place votes. The full list of MVP pitchers since 1956 is:

Season Pitcher W L ERA Sv fWAR
1956 Don Newcombe 27 7 3.06 4.9
1963 Sandy Koufax 25 5 1.88 9.8
1968 Bob Gibson 22 9 1.12 9.5
1968 Denny McLain 31 6 1.96 6.8
1971 Vida Blue 24 8 1.82 8.7
1981 Rollie Fingers 6 3 1.04 28 2.5
1984 Willie Hernandez 9 3 1.92 32 3.0
1986 Roger Clemens 24 4 2.48 7.8
1992 Dennis Eckersley 7 1 1.91 51 3.0
2011 Justin Verlander 24 5 2.40 7.8
2014 Clayton Kershaw 21 3 1.77 7.6

Scherzer’s 2018 season is on par with Kershaw’s in 2014 and superior to Justin Verlander’s AL MVP year in 2011. For example, Scherzer is striking out 39 percent of batters faced this season while walking six percent, giving him a K-BB% rate of 33 percent. A pitcher’s K-BB% is preferred to other strikeout and walk ratios such as strikeouts per nine innings or strikeout-to-walk ratio because of its greater predictive value in assessing a pitcher’s talent.

Scherzer’s 195 ERA+ is also close to Kershaw’s and well above Verlander’s during their respective MVP campaigns. ERA+ compares pitching performance (as judged by ERA) to the league average. So when you see Scherzer has an ERA+ of 195, that means the league’s ERA is 95 percent higher than Scherzer’s 2.09.

Pitcher (Year) Lg ERA ERA+ K% BB% K-BB%
Justin Verlander (2011) AL 2.40 172 26% 6% 20%
Clayton Kershaw (2014) NL 1.77 197 32% 4% 28%
Max Scherzer (2018) NL 2.09 195 39% 6% 33%

In addition, Scherzer leads the league in wins above replacement with 4.6 fWAR in 2018. And that includes almost a full win more than New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom (3.8 fWAR) and more value than Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (3.5 fWAR), the top batter in the NL.

Leading the league in fWAR is significant: The past six NL MVP winners have all led the league in fWAR and so have nine of the past 10, the lone outlier being Ryan Braun’s 2011 campaign. Kershaw led the league in fWAR in 2014 (8.1 fWAR), the year he was named NL MVP. I chose fWAR because it uses Fielding Independent Pitching to calculate WAR for pitchers — making it defense independent.

And if you hope Scherzer will decline over the next few months to make this debate moot, think again. According to Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections found at FanGraphs, Scherzer is estimated to finish the season 19-7 with a 2.46 ERA and 7.8 fWAR, the highest in the NL and more than Kershaw finished with in 2014. Scherzer is also anticipated to be worth two full wins more than Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado (5.8) and Freeman (5.6) by season’s end, further solidifying his case as the No. 1 option for this year’s NL MVP race.

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