On Thursday, two of the best pitchers in baseball, Max Scherzer and Aaron Nola, went head to head and, according to ESPN, it was the first time a game featured two starters on the mound with ERAs under 2.25 in at least 150 innings since September 1985. Over the next few weeks, one of these pitchers might emerge as the league’s Cy Young Award winner, and right now Nola has all the momentum.
Scherzer pitched seven innings for the Washington Nationals, striking out 10 with four walks — the most since Sept. 13 of last year — and just two earned runs. The 34-year-old wasn’t able to pad his major league-leading win total (16), but he did push his strikeout total to an MLB-best 244 to go with a 2.13 ERA. Nola, meanwhile, threw eight innings for the Philadelphia Phillies, striking out nine with a walk and no earned runs, boosting his overall record to 15-3 with an identical 2.13 ERA.
“Right when we needed him most,” Phillies Manager Gabe Kapler told reporters after the game, “right when we needed him to step up, he really put the team on his shoulders and carried us. He just dominated.”
Nola has been the key cog for Philadelphia all season. He has been worth 5.4 wins above replacement, almost as much as teammates Nick Pivetta (2.8 fWAR) and Jake Arrieta (2.3 fWAR) combined, and has allowed 47 runs fewer than expected based on the number of outs and runners on base in each inning. Arrieta is second best on the team in that category, allowing close to five runs fewer than expected.
Plus, the Phillies are in the playoff race — FanGraphs gives them a 49 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason — while the Nationals all but threw in the towel by trading Daniel Murphy to the Chicago Cubs and Matt Adams to the St. Louis Cardinals. Voters don’t have to take that into account, but they could.
Scherzer also benefits from better run support. The Nationals provide him with 5.3 runs per game, the fourth-highest output in the league, whereas Nola gets a below-average 4.1 runs per game.
In addition, Washington gives Scherzer better defensive support, with its position players costing the team 30 runs in the field. That’s not great, but it is far better than Philadelphia’s efforts, which have cost the team 104 runs, the worst in the majors in 2018.
|Name||Starts||IP||W||L||ERA||SO||Run support per start||Defensive runs saved|
|Max Scherzer (WSH)||27||181.2||16||6||2.13||244||5.3||-30 (23rd)|
|Aaron Nola (PHI)||26||169.0||15||3||2.13||169||4.1||-104 (30th)|
Nola survives the shortcomings through his repertoire. Batters are hitting .195 with a .530 OPS against his fastball, which tops out at 96 mph. His change-up rarely gets hit in the air (71 percent groundball rate) and his curve is filthy, as 41 percent of at-bats finishing with that pitch have been strikeouts.
“It’s tough to account for three pitches and I think part of that is why Aaron Nola in my opinion is the Cy Young this year,” Kapler said after Thursday’s game. “Of course, Nola is our guy. But, I watch him every time out there and just the dependability, the consistency, the creativity, the numbers. The numbers speak for themselves.”
Perhaps, but it’s also possible they don’t speak loudly enough, because not only does Nola have to beat Scherzer in the Cy Young race, he has to make a better case than New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom, too.
DeGrom tossed six innings against the San Francisco Giants on Thursday, striking out 10 with just one earned run allowed, lowering his major league-leading ERA to a mere 1.71. If not for deGrom’s 8-8 record, he’d likely be the front-runner.
In the end, it is going to come down to which resume looks most impressive. 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, Scherzer figures to win in a landslide. Using Dan Szymborski’s end-of-season projections in the formula, Scherzer is estimated to finish 2018 with 104.1 points, six more than deGrom and 14 more than Nola, giving the Phillies superstar a lot of work to do over his next six or seven starts.
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