We get it, Max Scherzer. You’re good.
The three-time Cy Young Award winner (and proud papa) has a 2.30 ERA through 129⅓ innings with a major league-leading 181 strikeouts for the Washington Nationals, giving him a chance to reach 300 strikeouts in a season for the second time in his career (and in as many seasons). His 16 quality starts — defined as one lasting six or more innings with three or fewer earned runs allowed — lead all pitchers and account for 84 percent of his outings.
Hitters have scored 29 fewer runs against him than expected after you account for the outs and men on base, the best mark in the National League. And yet Scherzer has thrown more pitches in tense situations than any other NL starter, per David Manel’s Pitcher Stress Index.
That’s why it’s time to shift the conversation away from the NL Cy Young Award — which Scherzer should have no trouble winning, assuming his stint on the 10-day injured list with a back strain does not turn into an extended stay — and instead start talking about Scherzer as the MVP.
Only 11 pitchers have won an MVP award since 1956, when the Cy Young was introduced. Clayton Kershaw is the most recent winner; he went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014, earning 18 of 30 first-place votes. Scherzer’s 2019 campaign compares favorably to Kershaw’s, especially after you adjust for the year played. For example, Kershaw struck out batters at a rate that was 55 percent higher than the league average in 2014; Scherzer is 53 percent above average this season. Kershaw’s ERA in 2014 was 49 percent lower than average, the same as Scherzer in 2019. In fact, the only starting pitchers to be as good or better than Scherzer in these two metrics — after accounting for league and park effects — are Kershaw, Pedro Martinez (1997) and Dwight Gooden (1985).
Plus, we wouldn’t be talking about the Nationals’ playoff chances if not for Scherzer. Since May 22, Scherzer has been a nightmare for opposing batters. Hitters have gone 40 for 232 (.172) with a .476 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against, whiffing 94 times in 64 innings against just nine walks. Scherzer’s ERA during that span is 0.84, and all of his pitches are working.
Scherzer won pitcher of the month honors in June after going 6-0 with a 1.00 ERA and 68 strikeouts with only five walks in 45 innings. He became the first pitcher in major league history to strike out at least 68 batters while issuing five or fewer walks in a calendar month, and he’s one of only five pitchers in the free agent era (since 1977) with 65 or more strikeouts and an ERA of 1.00 or better in the same month.
During Scherzer’s dominant run, the Nationals’ playoff chances have spiked from 28 percent to 78 percent, per FanGraphs.
The stiffest competition to Scherzer’s MVP bid comes from Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich. Bellinger is batting .336 with 30 home runs and a 1.124 OPS for the Dodgers, and Yelich, the reigning MVP, is batting .329 with a major league-leading 31 home runs and 1.140 OPS. Scherzer is second to Bellinger and ahead of Yelich in FanGraphs wins above replacement, which legitimizes Scherzer’s MVP candidacy.
Leading the league in the FanGraphs version of WAR has proved to be a harbinger of the award: Eight of the past 10 NL MVPs led the league, with the outliers being Ryan Braun’s 2011 campaign (sixth) and Yelich (third) last season.
“Here’s a guy that gets the ball once every fifth day, and he is willing his team to turn their season around every time he goes out there,” former Mets general manager Steve Phillips said of Scherzer on MLB Network Radio this month. “He is the most inspirational major league player, for me, of anybody. If I’m playing behind him, I desperately want to win for him because he desperately wants to win for the team."
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