One candidate is a Detroit Tiger putting together the type of season — in traditional statistics — not seen in decades.
His primary challenger comes from the American League West, armed with advantages in sabermetric categories.
Miguel Cabrera vs. Mike Trout? Nope, although we indeed may be headed for a reprise of the debate that set Twitter aflame one year ago.
Baseball’s new rhetorical barroom brawl will feature two different contestants: Detroit’s Max Scherzer and Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, in the race for the American League Cy Young Award.
Scherzer is 17-1 but can’t be described as the clear front-runner, because Hernandez has a distinct edge in ERA (2.28 to 2.85). The two have nearly identical totals in innings, strikeouts and walks. Thus, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America will face (another) dilemma for the ages: By what margin must Hernandez defeat Scherzer in WAR — or FIP, or ERA — for voters to favor him over, say, a 23-3 pitcher on a division-winning team?
The baseball gods have conjured yet another ideological perfect storm, putting BBWAA voters in the crosshairs of an intense campaign for the second consecutive autumn. (Unlike presidential elections, we don’t get three years off.)
We also must consider the possibility of a viable third-party candidate: Texas ace Yu Darvish has a lower ERA than Scherzer, leads the majors in strikeouts despite missing two starts, and is a perpetual threat to throw a no-hitter whenever he faces the Houston Astros.
(Let’s pause here to agree on something: Max, Felix and Yu are the coolest first names ever involved in a three-way awards debate.)
Last season, Cabrera defeated Trout in an epic MVP vote largely because of two old-school achievements: Cabrera won the first Triple Crown since 1967 and pushed the Tigers into the postseason with a monster September. This year, Cabrera’s teammate is building a similar resume. Scherzer became the first pitcher since Roger Clemens in 1986 — and the first Tiger ever — to begin a season 13-0.
By now, even many casual baseball fans know that a pitcher’s record can be a poor indicator of his performance. (Scherzer was in line for the loss Tuesday against the White Sox until his teammates rallied to tie the score after he exited.) Yes, the 17-1 record has a lot to do with Scherzer’s league-best 0.903 WHIP entering Tuesday. But he has been helped by the majors’ best run support, thanks to Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter & Co.
Scherzer acknowledged as much in a July interview, saying, “When you win, and you put into context how well I’ve been doing that, you do have to take a step back and realize you are having a great season from that perspective. At the same time, I’m not going to have a great season because I’m 12-0. I’m going to have a great season because of how well I’m doing the other things.”
Still, 17-1 is 17-1. It catches the eye. It conveys consistent excellence. Scherzer is one of only five pitchers in major league history to start a season 17-1 or 18-0, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That matters, even if some sabermetricians suggest we should abolish “W-L” from future baseball cards.
Because of his favorable strikeout-to-walk ratio — along with the Tigers’ elite offense and improved bullpen — it’s conceivable that Scherzer will finish with 23 or more victories and three or fewer losses. According to STATS LLC, only one pitcher has ended a season 23-3 or better: Ron Guidry, who went 25-3 in 1978.
For the record, Guidry won the Cy Young Award that year. We’re a long way from learning if Scherzer will do the same. Let the debate begin. Again.