It’s starting to look like one of those years.
Every so often, a pitcher has the audacity to overstep his boundaries and creep into the MVP conversation. A guy who takes the field once every five days and whose game log has a mere 30-something entries bullies his way into the conversation for an award that, by most accounts, does not and should not belong to people of his kind. On occasion, if the planets line up just right, he even wins the thing. This could be one of those years.
Let’s start with the assumption that Max Scherzer will win the National League Cy Young Award. With seven weeks left in the regular season (remember, ballots are cast before the playoffs), it’s far from a foregone conclusion. But if current conditions hold, the case for Scherzer winning his third consecutive Cy Young is a relatively clear one.
Heading into his Sunday night start against the Chicago Cubs (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN), the Nationals ace leads the NL in innings, strikeouts, WHIP, K’s per nine innings, hits per nine innings, strikeout-to-walk ratio and batting average against. Oh, and wins — not that those matter anymore, but since we’re on the subject, he’s got three more of those than anyone else.
The only major category Scherzer doesn’t own right now is ERA, where his 2.28 ranks second to the Mets’ Jacob deGrom by a lot. More than half a run, to be exact. But with all due respect to deGrom and Philly’s Aaron Nola and maybe Zack Greinke of the Diamondbacks, the award is pretty much Scherzer’s to lose at this point.
If Mad Max doesn’t lose, it’ll be the fourth Cy Young of his career. In each of the previous three seasons he’s won the thing, he’s never finished higher than 10th in the MVP voting. But this year feels a little different. This year, it’s starting to feel like Scherzer has a legitimate chance of joining Clayton Kershaw (2014) and Justin Verlander (2011) as the only pitchers in the past quarter century to be named the league’s Most Valuable Player.
The general consensus is that for a hurler to heist the hardware from the hands of hardworking position players, the circumstances must be out of the ordinary. “For a pitcher to win, it’s got to be a somewhat historical year,” says Braves bench coach Walt Weiss, who was a teammate of Dennis Eckersley when the A’s reliever was named the 1992 American League MVP after a season in which he walked six batters in 80 innings and became just the second person to save 50 games. Weiss also managed Colorado in 2014, when Kershaw went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA for the Dodgers and tossed a no-hitter against the division-rival Rockies en route to winning National League MVP.
Four years later, Weiss is part of a surprising Atlanta team which has a pair of MVP contenders in first baseman Freddie Freeman and right fielder Nick Markakis. But neither of them is a runaway candidate. Truth is, there are no runaway candidates in the National League — not yet anyway — a fact that makes Scherzer’s case all the more intriguing. Says Weiss: “You have to see how the rest of the season plays out, but if there’s not a clear-cut position player, I think you could make a strong case for someone like Max.”
Although none of Scherzer’s numbers scream history in and of themselves, he’s on pace to win more than 20 games and strike out more than 300 batters. With a strong finish, an ERA that starts with a 1 isn’t out of the question. Even if his ERA remains in its current neighborhood, it would still be the best of his career, nearly a quarter of a run lower than the 2.51 he posted last season. One of the things that sticks out the most about Scherzer — one of the things that, in recent weeks, has folks in and around D.C. starting to use M-A-X and M-V-P in the same sentence — is what he’s doing with the bat.
Entering the weekend, Scherzer was hitting an even .300, second-best among starting pitchers behind Colorado’s German Marquez. If that keeps up, and if his K rate keeps up (on the mound, that is), Scherzer will become the first hurler since at least 1900 to whiff 300 and hit .300 in the same season. Even if the average takes a dive, it’s hard to ignore the impact he’s made with his stick this season.
“It’s invaluable, really,” says Nationals infielder Mark Reynolds. Although Reynolds is staunchly in the pitchers-should-never-win-the-MVP camp (“They have their own award”), he’s quick to note that in addition to the direct results of Scherzer’s production at the plate, there’s also the indirect effect. “It makes the other manager question whether to walk the 8-hole [hitter] to get to him. It gives [Matt] Wieters or whoever’s sitting there a chance to do some damage in front of him.” Adds Washington starter Jeremy Hellickson: “I think he’s in [MVP] contention just with his pitching numbers, but if you add in what he does at the plate, he’s won us a few games there, too.”
In theory, whatever value Scherzer’s offense has added to the Nationals should already be reflected in his own win total because, generally speaking, he is the pitcher of record whenever he digs into the batter’s box. But that doesn’t take into account how MVP voters view a pitcher’s win totals. It also fails to account for outliers like the June 2 game in which Scherzer didn’t take the hill but drilled a pinch-hit single in the 14th inning against the Braves, then came around to score the go-ahead run in Washington’s 5-3 victory. That’s where WAR comes in.
Ideally, wins above replacement factors in everything, giving us one-stop shopping when we’re looking to compare players. But WAR is far from perfect, and it’s even less perfect when it comes to pitchers. It’s less perfect still when we attempt to — don’t forget to scrub your hands and put on your surgical cap and respirator and plastic gloves — compare pitchers with position players. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
When it comes to position-player WAR, the difference right now between the No. 1 guy and the No. 5 guy in the NL is about a half a win, according to FanGraphs. Not a whole lot. Over at Baseball Reference, where, believe it or not, the top five includes the same exact players, it’s pretty much the same deal. From an MVP perspective, all five of those guys have a good case. But they all have warts, too:
Matt Carpenter, Cardinals (4.9 fWAR, 5.1 bWAR): Dude is on a ridiculous tear, no doubt. But he’s hitting around .280 and is on pace to drive in fewer than 90 runs. That second part isn’t his fault (he’s batted primarily leadoff), and I’d like to think we’ve evolved to the point where ribbies don’t matter. Like, at all. But the fact remains that in the wild-card era (since 1995), there’s never been an MVP who finished with fewer than 90 RBIs and hit less than .300. And the nine MVPs who finished with fewer than 100 RBIs had an average batting average of .332. Also under the category of “Things That Aren’t The MVP Candidate’s Fault” is a team’s playoff viability. Again, we’ve made strides here, as we’ve seen an MVP from a non-playoff team in each of the past three seasons (Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Giancarlo Stanton). But it typically takes some kind of jaw-dropping performance. With all due respect to Carpenter, whose Cardinals currently have a 13 percent chance to make the postseason per FanGraphs, the season he’s put together doesn’t appear to be that kind of season.
Nolan Arenado, Rockies (4.8 fWAR, 4.6 bWAR): Poor him. All the guy does is produce, year after year. And yet he’s never finished in the top three in the MVP voting. Most likely that’s because he gets penalized for playing at altitude. For his career, Arenado’s OPS on the road (.798) is almost 200 points lower than it is at home (.979). This year, the discrepancy is even larger. Not to mention that teammate Trevor Story is having a standout season, which dilutes Arenado’s MVP case some. As does the fact that the Rockies are a long shot to make the playoffs right now (11 percent).
Freddie Freeman, Braves (4.6 fWAR, 4.8 bWAR): He’s good. Really good. And yet he always seems to get overlooked. He’s sort of the East Coast version of Paul Goldschmidt. His numbers this year are as good as they’ve ever been. Problem is, you could say the same thing about teammate Nick Markakis, who made his first All-Star appearance this season at age 34 and who currently leads the National League in hitting. Splitting the vote doesn’t work nearly as well as rocking the vote.
Javier Baez, Cubs (4.2 fWAR, 4.6 bWAR): Pick a statistical category and this guy stuffs it. The only thing he doesn’t do is walk. On the season, he has just 17 free passes, a big reason why his on-base percentage is hovering around the .330 mark, 60 or so points lower than anyone else on this list. He makes up for it by mashing, though, as his 63 extra-base hits are second in the NL behind Carpenter.
Lorenzo Cain, Brewers (4.1 fWAR, 5.2 bWAR): In his first season in Milwaukee, he’s been fantastic. Particularly in center field, where his 18 runs saved leads all National League players. That defensive piece plays a big part in Cain’s WAR number. He’s been good offensively, too, but even in the age of analytic enlightenment, it’s hard to envision a guy finishing with 11 homers and 41 RBIs (his current pace) and winning the MVP. (Unless, of course, his name is Ichiro and he hits closer to .400 than .300. In that case, it’s totally legit.) Also, teammate Christian Yelich — who’s just outside the WAR top five — should steal some of Cain’s thunder. Or vice-versa.
That’s it. That’s your top five. As you can see, there’s not really one position player who’s clearly distinguished himself from the rest of the field. Then there’s Scherzer, whose value numbers (6.5 bWAR, 5.1 fWAR) are every bit as good as those guys’, if not better.
That’s not to say that Scherzer doesn’t have warts. He does. For starters, the Nationals might not even make the playoffs (they’re at 40 percent right now), which, as outlined above, isn’t insignificant.
Beyond that, he’s a pitcher. And pitchers aren’t supposed to win MVP awards. At least not under normal circumstances.
But it’s starting to look like one of those years.