Max Scherzer still had two more potential starts left when he acknowledged defeat in the National League Cy Young race — a defeat made official Wednesday when New York Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom was named the 2018 winner.
Scherzer and his Washington Nationals teammates were in the visitors’ clubhouse in Miami, filling out their players’ choice awards ballots — a humorous process during which exclamations such as “How do you spell his name?” or “I’m not voting for you, man!” fill the room. Scherzer sat quietly at his locker, head buried in the stats he was looking up on his phone.
Eventually, he stood up to solicit some suggestions, and the topic wound around to the Cy Young race.
“DeGrom has it,” he said, face stoic, which might as well be somber for the ever-energetic Scherzer. He knew he would beat deGrom in wins, where he had 18 and deGrom just 10, but figured the writers (a.k.a., the voters) don’t care about wins much anymore. He knew he would finish with more strikeouts than deGrom — and eventually he finished with an even 300 — but knew deGrom had not succumbed to the home run ball nearly as much. Scherzer needed no prodding to declare his division rival deserving.
DeGrom won his first career Cy Young Award on Wednesday night, dethroning Scherzer, who had won the previous two in the NL and made a compelling case for a third. DeGrom’s 1.70 ERA — the sixth-lowest for a starter since 1969 — vaulted him to a near-unanimous selection. Scherzer finished second with one first-place vote, while the Philadelphia Phillies' Aaron Nola finished third.
ERA featured prominently in this year’s Cy Young races, with Tampa Bay Rays lefty Blake Snell winning his first career Cy Young in the American League with a 1.89 mark. Snell, who also went 21-5, became the 13th starter since 1975 to finish a season with a sub-2.00 ERA.
Snell beat out Houston Astros right-hander Justin Verlander and Cleveland Indians right-hander Corey Kluber for the award. He narrowly edged Verlander. The 35-year-old, who led the American League in strikeouts in a resurgent season for the defending World Series champions, received 13 first-place votes and 13 second-place votes. Snell got 17 first-place votes and 11 second-place votes, becoming the first Ray to win the award since David Price did so in 2012.
DeGrom’s victory came as no surprise after a season in which the strongest argument against him was the offensive futility of his teammates, which cost him games he should have won and meant none of his outings came with any postseason implications. That argument did not withstand the scrutiny of the voters, however. The right-hander did not allow more than four runs in any of his 32 starts this season and set a major league record for consecutive starts allowing three runs or fewer.
Scherzer bested deGrom in strikeouts, innings pitched, wins, strikeout-to-walk ratio, hits per nine innings and several other statistical categories. But his ERA was eight-tenths higher, and he surrendered 23 home runs to deGrom’s 10.
In talking about deGrom’s candidacy for the award, Scherzer acknowledged that disparity. Some argue that pitchers are best assessed by the things they can control: strikeouts, walks and home runs — the three outcomes they determine unaffected by the efforts of their teammates. Scherzer gives up more home runs than most, which inflated his ERA late in the season, even as he led the league with the fewest hits allowed per nine innings.
That day in September, when Scherzer knew only a no-hitter or two could change his Cy Young fate, he was careful about his word choice when describing his feelings about the award. He appreciates it, he said, but doesn’t pitch for it. He cares about it but doesn’t use it as motivation. He would have liked a third straight but still says 2018 is the best season of his professional career, in part because of the way he had to prop up a teetering Nationals rotation time after time.
But the best season of his professional career was not enough to win another Cy Young Award. This year, sub-2.00 ERAs helped set a standard he could not meet. This year, the writers decided, deGrom and Snell were the best in baseball.