Stephen Strasburg brushed aside the notion that he and Max Scherzer might have talked about something as trivial as their near-matching ERAs, shutting the notion of an internal competition down without much tolerance for the proposition.
“No,” he said simply, when asked if there had been a friendly competition between him, with his 2.52 ERA, and Scherzer, with his 2.51 ERA.
“No,” he repeated, when prodded on the point. “You get into trouble when you start pitching for results or for numbers. I want to go out there and give it everything I got every time. That’s all I can do.”
Strasburg started 28 games this season; Scherzer started 31. Though both battled injury here and there, both finished the season as legitimate candidates for the National League Cy Young Award. Annual candidates Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, as well as former National Robbie Ray, will also warrant consideration. But Strasburg, Scherzer and Kershaw seem to have the strongest cases. Which has the best case?
Kershaw made 27 starts this year and threw 175 innings. He missed more than a month with back trouble, probably enough time for some voters to hold that missed time against him. Strasburg missed less than a month with the nerve impingement in his right elbow. He finished the season with 175 1/3 innings. If a voter holds missed time against Kershaw, that voter will probably also hold it against Strasburg.
Scherzer, however, might have the strongest case of the three: He leads all National League starters in FanGraphs WAR (6.0). He struck out more batters than any other National League starter (268) and the second-most batters per nine innings (12.02) behind Ray (12.11). His fielding independent pitching was 2.90, second only to Strasburg’s 2.72 in the National League. His 2.51 ERA was second to Kershaw. His 0.902 WHIP led the National League. His .176 batting average against was the lowest of all major league starters by 15 points.
Kershaw won 18 games. Scherzer won 16. Strasburg won 15. If wins matter to voters — and many say they do not — Kershaw has the advantage over Scherzer there, as well as in ERA. Strasburg has the advantage in FIP, but nothing else. Scherzer is the only one of the three to pitch more than 200 innings.
Though the competition changes from year to year, Scherzer actually had a better statistical year this season than he did in his Cy Young-winning 2016 season. His ERA was four-tenths of a run lower. He allowed fewer home runs per nine innings (1.0). He struck out more batters per nine. His FIP dropped by three-tenths of a run. His ERA plus, a statistic that adjusts ERA for ballpark factors, was 177 — 77 points above the average major league pitcher. Last year, his ERA plus was 144 — the best of his career up until that point. He allowed 5.7 hits per nine innings, by far the lowest ratio of his career and the lowest in the league.
But if Scherzer’s numbers suggest he is the favorite, Strasburg has certainly provided the most formidable competition in their three seasons as teammates. He finished fourth in strikeouts per nine innings (10.47), behind Ray, Scherzer and Jacob DeGrom. His FanGraphs WAR (5.6) was second only to Scherzer’s. His 1.02 WHIP trailed only Scherzer and Kershaw. Only Scherzer and Ray bested Strasburg’s .202 batting average against.
While Gio Gonzalez’s best season as a National certainly merits a mention here, he likely will not contend for the award. And voters would likely have a hard time making a statistical case for Strasburg over Scherzer, though anecdotally, Strasburg has been more dominant for the last month or so. If Scherzer were to win the Cy Young, it would be his third. Only eight pitchers in history have won three Cy Young Awards. Seven of them are Hall of Famers. The other is Kershaw, a future Hall of Famer.
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