The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The one writer who voted Max Scherzer ahead of Jacob deGrom for Cy Young explains his ballot

Max Scherzer finished second in National League Cy Young voting. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom won the National League Cy Young Award on Wednesday and received 29 of 30 first-place votes in the process. The lone dissenter was San Diego Union-Tribune reporter John Maffei, who voted deGrom second behind two-time defending Cy Young winner Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals.

“I take this very seriously,” Maffei, 70, said in a phone interview Thursday. “I didn’t line up at the last minute and throw a dart and it hit Max’s name."

Maffei, who primarily writes about high school sports these days, is one of the official scorers at San Diego’s Petco Park and estimates that he attended about 70 Padres games this season. He said he watched each of Scherzer and deGrom’s last five starts on the “MLB Extra Innings” package before casting his vote, which was swayed by a conversation he had in September with a former National League Cy Young winner with great hair.

“What it came down to in my mind was wins and losses,” Maffei said. “I had a really nice conversation with Randy Jones, the Padres' 1976 Cy Young Award winner and a man I greatly respect. Randy goes: ‘Hey, wins over everything. It doesn’t matter what run support you get; you have to pitch to what your team is giving you. If they give you one, you got to throw a shutout. If they give you two, you can give up one. If they give you three, you can give up two.’ He said, ‘That’s taking nothing away from deGrom, but you need to pitch to what your team has given you.’ That was what kind of broke the tie in my mind.”

Scherzer was 18-7 with a 2.53 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP. DeGrom was 10-9 with a 1.70 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP. The Nationals averaged 5.27 runs in games that Scherzer started, while the Mets scored 3.53 runs in games started by deGrom, the second-worst run support in the majors.

“You couldn’t go wrong,” Maffei said. “These were two great pitchers. DeGrom had a historic season in his right, with the 1.70 ERA and all the other things. But Scherzer had a historic season, too, with 300 strikeouts. That can’t be overlooked. It wasn’t the deciding factor, but it was a factor. He was a dominant pitcher. With Randy’s talk being the tiebreaker, it was eight more wins and fewer losses, and a 2.53 ERA, which is pretty darned good.”

DeGrom made 24 consecutive quality starts, allowed three or fewer runs in 31 of his 32 starts, and one run or zero runs in 18 starts. He led all pitchers in the FanGraphs calculation of wins above replacement (8.8 to Scherzer’s 7.2) and fielding-independent pitching (1.99 to Scherzer’s 2.65), two of the advanced analytics that many writers value over wins when evaluating pitchers.

“I’m absolutely aware of the analytics,” Maffei said. “I do think that wins and losses are somewhat out of your control, but they’re also somewhat in your control. You need to pitch out of situations. There are times when you absolutely need to get out of a situation, you need a strikeout, or you need a groundball. You end up spiking a curveball and it goes to the backstop and you give up a run. That’s in your control. It’s something you look at."

Maffei was “stunned” that he was the only writer to cast a first-place vote for Scherzer.

“I thought deGrom would win, probably,” he said. “That seemed to be the trend, but I thought certainly that Scherzer would get somewhere between five and seven first-place votes.”

Interestingly, Maffei was among the few voters who didn’t cast a first-place vote for Scherzer when he won the award in 2016 and 2017. Last year, Maffei was one of three writers who put Clayton Kershaw ahead of Scherzer, who finished with two fewer wins than the Los Angeles Dodgers' ace, on their ballots. In 2016, Maffei cast the only first-place vote for Chicago Cubs starter Jon Lester, despite the fact that Scherzer led the league in wins.

Maffei has drawn the ire of Mets fans who, on top of rooting for a dreadful team, were denied the joy of being able to say deGrom was a unanimous Cy Young winner. On Wednesday night, Maffei agreed to go on WFAN sports radio in New York to explain his vote, but he ended the interview before it really began.

“John Maffei — not from Washington, where you would think homerism lives and thrives — John Maffei is with the San Diego Union-Tribune,” WFAN’s Steve Somers said by way of introduction. “John, can you look at yourself in the mirror. … John?”

“Can I?” Maffei said. “Absolutely.”

“No. No, no, no,” Somers replied. “You’re looking for 15 minutes of fame and attention.”

“Steve, this interview is over,” Maffei said. “Thank you, goodbye.”

Maffei hung up.

“It was insult right from the start,” Maffei said Thursday. “If you want a conversation and an explanation, I’ll give it to you. If you want to throw out insults, then we’re done. That’s the way he attacked it, so suddenly I’m a bad guy in New York because I insulted Steve Somers. His producer called back and apologized for his behavior."

On Thursday, Maffei penned a column explaining his vote for Scherzer in the Union-Tribune.

“Would I vote for Scherzer again?” he wrote. “Yes.”

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