Both Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer have had hardware-worthy seasons. Without team success as a tiebreaker, who wins the NL Cy Young could come down to which historically significant feat the voters find more impressive…or the vote could turn on win total.
Max Scherzer, who has pitched adjacent generational pitchers like Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander, and owns dominating seasons like 2016 Jon Lester or 2015 Zack Greinke, has been in this debate before. Scherzer is a three-time Cy Young Award winner and has finished in the top-5 of voting five times. He beat out a 277-strikeout season from Yu Darvish in 2013; a 200-inning, 2.44 ERA season from Lester in 2016 and a sub-1.000 WHIP, 18-win season from Kershaw in 2017 to earn them. Scherzer’s last six years have been so extraordinary, he often finds himself compared to his past self, a debate reserved for only the best repeat performers.
This year, Scherzer may be facing his stiffest competition for baseball’s top pitching prize. Along with Scherzer, the Mets’ Jacob deGrom and the Phillies’ Aaron Nola form a +9 bWAR NL East trio that dominates nearly all of the positive pitcher stats in the NL. All three guys have been within the ballpark of each other across virtually all leaderboards. The notable exception is wins (more on that later.) Complicating the matter of parsing candidacies, all three pitch for teams absent from this postseason, which would be only the second time since 2010 that the top three pitchers on a Cy Young ballot all missed October (somewhat safely assuming Scherzer-deGrom-Nola are win, place and show.)
With respect to Nola, who deserves to stay in the conversation, the debate has tightened to Scherzer vs. deGrom during the 2018 homestretch, especially as, lacking team success, the two aces add historically significant accomplishments to their marathon masterpieces.
Scherzer is just the fifth pitcher since 2000 to reach 300 strikeouts and, at 34, the oldest to do it since Randy Johnson in 2002. Since 1900, only 17 pitchers have broken the 300 strikeout mark (2018 Scherzer included), collectively doing so 36 times. And, as MLB.com pointed out, if Tuesday night’s start was Scherzer’s last of the season, he’ll have surrendered the fewest hits in a 300 strikeout season ever. For a sport that loves its multi-criteria leaderboards, a dual-filtered stat that puts you at the top of an all-time list carries significant weight.
deGrom, meanwhile, has been a model of consistency at a level of excellence that consistent doesn’t intrinsically imply. After Wednesday’s eight-inning, no-run dazzler against the NL East-winning Atlanta Braves, deGrom has given up no more than three runs in 29 consecutive starts and has produced 24 straight quality starts, both of which are single-season records. He’s just the ninth starter in the wild card era to sport a sub-2.00 ERA. He’ll end up with one of the 20-best ERA+ seasons for starters with a sub-2.00 ERA since 1900. His 1.70 ERA is the sixth-lowest since the Bob Gibson Rule lowered the mound after 1968’s ‘year of the pitcher’.
If historic accomplishments don’t decide it for you, and if you think the difference between an expected postseason contender finishing outside the playoffs, second in their division, and an expected .500 team finishing sub-.500 and fourth in the same division isn’t a compelling tiebreaker, then perhaps you’ll find your vote decided by the hypothetical win total debate.
I’ve seen it suggested in a few places that a double-digit win total is necessary to deGrom’s candidacy. That criterion evolved from a plus-.500 record, which seemed to be the bare minimum around August, when deGrom fell two games under at the start of the month. With ten wins, there’s a sizable gap between deGrom and Scherzer’s 18 wins. And while baseball people are clearly aware that win-loss doesn’t accurately reflect a starter’s direct contribution, the voting has seemed to acknowledge more than contenders in the seven ballots since Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young with 13 wins in 2010. To wit, Mets play-by-play man Gary Cohen pointed out during Wednesday’s broadcast that Mets relievers are yielding two runs per game higher in deGrom starts than starts by any other pitcher, making it even harder to blame your best pitcher for not getting enough wins when he’s backed by the worst version of your bullpen, letting alone an anemic Mets offense. Since 2011, eight starters have finished in the top-vote of the Cy Young vote with 13 wins or less. The 14 award winners between 2011 and 2017 averaged 19.9.
But most baseball fans will recognize those win totals are missing a ton of context, both in supporting statistics and in performance relative to other Cy Young candidates in a given season. To put it simply: the eight-win difference between Scherzer and deGrom doesn’t accurately depict a divide—if there even is one—between their respective 2018 campaigns.
So, who will be the 2018 Cy Young winner? The conversation is leaning towards deGrom, especially after Wednesday’s 10 K, two-hit gem against Atlanta turned Scherzer’s 300th strikeout game the night prior into a dusty memory. Recency could still play a part in the final vote: if Dave Martinez gives Scherzer the ball for game 162, the favorite might yet shift again.
Ultimately, I think the award will go to deGrom. Putting together a brilliantly consistent season that has virtually no precedent in a sport which has as extensive a history as baseball does is nearly impossible to vote against. In five years, when you look back at noteworthy seasons from 2018, you’ll remember the story of deGrom’s top-level streak ahead of Scherzer’s mastery. (You’ll likely just remember Scherzer’s brilliance as part of a typically-brilliant, Cooperstown-grade body of work.)
It’s even possible that the vote may not be all that close. After Wednesday night’s outing, about as perfect a closing statement as deGrom could have made, the Cy Young should go to New York’s ace.
Khurram Kalim is a senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.