LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — For the second straight autumn, Max Scherzer’s season ended in a state of wide-eyed shock. For the second straight autumn, a dose of redemption arrived a few weeks later when the Washington Nationals right-hander captured the National League Cy Young Award. Indians right-hander Corey Kluber beat out Red Sox lefty Chris Sale and Yankees right-hander Luis Severino to win the American League honor, his second.
Scherzer has won two Cy Youngs in the first three years of his seven-year contract with the Nationals and three overall (he won the AL Cy Young in 2013 while with Detroit). He became the sixth pitcher to win the award in both leagues when he earned last year’s honor. Wednesday, he became the 10th pitcher to win at least three. Of the other nine, only Roger Clemens and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, who finished second in this year’s voting, are not in the Hall of Fame.
“This one is special. When you start talking about winning it three times, I can’t even comprehend it at this point,” Scherzer said. “It’s such an unbelievable feeling, unbelievable moment, you probably can’t even process it until a year later.”
Scherzer finished first in the NL in strikeouts (268) and batting average against (.178), and second in ERA (2.51) and strikeouts per nine innings (12.02). Despite battling more injuries than he had in his first two seasons with the Nationals, beginning with a stress fracture in his knuckle that truncated his spring training, Scherzer threw at least 200 innings for a fifth straight season. Only seven pitchers have compiled more 200-inning seasons than he has since 2010.
Scherzer earned 27 of 30 first-place votes. Kershaw finished with the remaining three first-place votes. Nationals teammate Stephen Strasburg finished third. Strasburg had a compelling case of his own, finishing a point behind Scherzer in the league’s ERA race and third in batting average against. He threw 35 scoreless innings during a five-game stretch in August and September, the longest streak in Nationals history. He led the league in fielding independent pitching (FIP), a version of ERA corrected for the role of defense and other factors outside a pitcher’s control.
Kluber, meanwhile, led all major league starters with a 2.25 ERA and tied Kershaw for the major league lead in wins with 18. He became the first Indians pitcher to win the award twice, while Sale — who led the majors in strikeouts — struggled down the stretch, likely hurting his candidacy in the minds of BBWAA voters. Kluber earned 28 of the 30 first-place votes, and Sale got the other two. The Nationals nearly traded for Sale last winter, which would have meant three of the top six vote-getters for Cy Young would have been in the same rotation — though of course, who knows how that would have gone. The Nationals are perfectly content to have a three-time Cy Young winner anchoring their pitching staff.
While Kershaw and Strasburg lost substantial time because of injuries, Scherzer ascended to the status of favorite. He managed minor injuries well enough that he made just three fewer starts this season than in 2016. His season began with uncertainty, as the stress fracture that formed in his knuckle late last season was not fully healed when he arrived for spring training. Most of his first few weeks of throwing came with something smaller than a baseball, then with a three-fingered grip he only abandoned a few starts before Opening Day.
“I really have to thank the training staff. I dealt with a lot of injuries that maybe weren’t at the forefront of everyone’s mind,” Scherzer said. ” . . . everyone had a role in keeping me on the field and I’m very grateful for all their hard work, as without their hard work, I probably wouldn’t be here [winning the Cy Young].”
While he was not ready to make the Opening Day start, Scherzer posted a 2.94 ERA in an otherwise healthy April, settling back in at the top of the rotation with a 2.10 ERA in the season’s first half, earning the start for the National League at the All-Star Game. He worked through neck soreness and hamstring trouble in a slightly less dominant second half and was not healthy enough to start until Game 3 of the National League Division Series, in which he threw 6 1/3 innings, allowed one run and struck out seven. Then his season ended in debacle, with that calamitous fifth inning in Game 5 of the NLDS that left him stunned and stammering hours afterward — unable to watch more baseball for days, unable to shake the feeling for weeks.
“You linger on it. If you didn’t, I don’t think you’d be human. I couldn’t even watch the LCS at all. I couldn’t watch baseball for the next 10 days. I am a baseball fan, so I watched the World Series and it was an unbelievable World Series,” Scherzer said. “But that series against the Cubs will eat at me for the entire offseason.”
Part of what makes Scherzer an elite pitcher is the way failure nags at him, and the way he responds to it. That mentality, and the relentless competitiveness it fosters, is part of what made the Nationals decide he was worth the seven-year, $210 million investment before the 2015 season. The 33-year-old is now one of the more decorated starters of the decade and a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate that has left Nationals higher-ups confident he has more than justified the biggest contract the team has doled out.
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