We should honor Max Scherzer both for his recent performance and the entirety of his career, and that’s obvious.
But what he has accomplished, in becoming the 10th pitcher to accumulate at least three Cy Young Awards, isn’t as remarkable as the circumstances under which he has accomplished it. And what he has done to this point isn’t as intriguing as what comes next.
In the history of baseball, there have been 21 contracts of at least $100 million granted to pitchers. The first went to Kevin Brown, way back in 1999; the most recent to Stephen Strasburg, Scherzer’s Washington Nationals teammate, whose extension kicked in last year.
Several of those deals have been disasters. As a rule, they’re scary for teams.
Here’s why: Such contracts should be issued only to the best pitchers in the game. Yet just two pitchers working under the terms of such a lucrative deal have been deemed the best pitcher in their league in a certain year: Clayton Kershaw in 2014 and Scherzer each of the past two seasons.
Put another way: Ninety seasons have been pitched under these deals. Three have resulted in Cy Young Awards. Just 13 times — roughly one in seven — did these seasons result among the top three finishers in Cy Young voting.
I have, I admit, a mild obsession with $100 million contracts for pitchers. I have the yellow legal pads to prove it.
In my defense, I usually slide down this rabbit hole when trying to come up with a new way to articulate how much of an outlier Scherzer’s seven-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals has been — at least over its first three seasons. Plus, looking at these contracts provides a window into so much: the money flowing into baseball, the perils of committing to pitchers in their 30s, roster construction and on and on. The fact that Scherzer won his third Cy Young Award on Wednesday is just the latest jumping-off point.
So let’s reestablish how rare — heck, now we can say “unprecedented” — it is to do what Scherzer is doing.
Scherzer won his first Cy Young in 2013, when he pitched for the Detroit Tigers. This is typical for so many Cy winners in so many ways: He was 28 and contractually still under control of the club — meaning he didn’t yet have the requisite six years of service time needed to become a free agent, and he hadn’t signed an extension, so his salary that season was determined through arbitration.
(A logistical aside: For the first three full seasons of a major league career, the team essentially can assign a player his salary. Over the next three years, salary is determined through arbitration, in which the club and the player’s representatives look at players of similar service time and accomplishments and usually agree on a fair number. The bonanza of free agency follows.)
Scherzer’s circumstances for his first win reflect the age and contract status of the vast majority of Cy Young winners. In the American League, the last Cy Young winner who won while with a team with which he had signed as a free agent: Bartolo Colon with the Angels in 2005. Since then, all but one — Boston’s Rick Porcello in 2016 — have been won by pitchers working while under team control, and Porcello took his Cy Young in the first year of an extension signed with the Red Sox before he reached free agency.
Over that same period, the National League has produced just two free agent Cy Young winners: knuckleballer R.A. Dickey with the Mets in 2012 and Scherzer the past two seasons. The Cy Young lists are littered with pitchers in their 20s throwing for the teams with which they broke into the majors: Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, Houston’s Dallas Keuchel, Detroit’s Justin Verlander, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum — on and on.
Even Kershaw, the great Dodgers lefty, won his first two Cy Youngs, in 2011 and 2013, when he was still under club control. Kershaw’s most recent Cy came in 2014, the first season his seven-year, $215 million extension with Los Angeles — signed before he hit free agency — kicked in.
This is a long-winded way of saying something I’ve said a million times: Scherzer is outperforming the reasonable expectations for a contract of this stature. He approaches a $30-million-per-year bargain.
Now, the scary part: What happens next?
Go back and consider the (astonishing) list of pitchers with at least three Cy Young Awards. Six had collected all their Cys (with Kershaw’s career still ongoing) by their age-30 season, which means a season in which they were 30 by July 1: Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Kershaw. The only players from that group to win a Cy Young when they were older than 33: Steve Carlton, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson.
Scherzer’s age-33 season comes in 2018, which means we’re about to find out exactly how much of an outlier he really is.
There’s almost no question he can’t get better. But can he maintain this level? If so, for how long? Through the entirety of the contract, which expires after 2021? History would suggest that’s unlikely.
Those 90 seasons pitched by $100 million pitchers (seasons that include years lost to injury, in which pitchers such as Mike Hampton or Johan Santana were paid handsomely but couldn’t perform) yielded a combined 3.52 ERA. That’s across eras (steroid, strikeout, etc.), and it’s surely better than the cumulative ERA from 1999 to 2017 of 4.27. It’s hard to say exactly what it might mean.
But compare it to the years pitched by those expensive pitchers when they’re age 33 and above: The ERA in those 28 seasons is a combined 3.71 with 1.222 walks and hits per inning pitched. Perhaps not surprisingly, the performance, even of the pitchers deemed most worthy of long-term investment, falls off.
Scherzer, in the first three years of his contract: 2.76 ERA with a 0.931 WHIP.
He’ll decline, right? He’ll almost have to, because improving on elite performance — at 33 — would make him like, say, Clemens or Johnson.
Since 2013, the year he won his first Cy, Scherzer has thrown more innings than anyone in baseball. That fact is both admirable and scary. The middle season of his seven-year deal approaches. What’s past is already special. What’s ahead will either prove he’s some form of normal — or push him toward a club inhabited only by pure genius.