DETROIT — When Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout play against one another, the MVP debate is inevitable. Cabrera has won that award in the American League in consecutive seasons, and Trout finished second both times.
However, Max Scherzer could enter into discussions regarding the 2014 MVP race.
Scherzer was the star of stars in pitching the Detroit Tigers to a 5-2 victory over the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday afternoon at Comerica Park. He struck out Trout three times and fanned nine over seven innings.
J.B. Shuck led off the game for the Angels with a homer, but then Scherzer struck out the side and closed the door. He gave up just two more hits — both singles — and retired 11 in a row before calling it a day.
Only one batter after the third inning managed to hit the ball out of the infield, and that was a harmless fly to right field by Hank Conger.
Scherzer was dealing. He had a great changeup that dropped out of the strike zone as if it had a little parachute on it. He got batters to chase his slider in the dirt and spotted his fastball. He tossed in some curves and carved up the Angels.
Although it’s early, I already wonder if Scherzer can do what teammate Justin Verlander did in 2011 and win the MVP award.
You might ask how Scherzer can make the jump from finishing 12th in MVP voting last year to winning it in 2014. If going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA and 214 strikeouts couldn’t crack the Top 10 in 2013, how can Scherzer hope to win it this year?
The answer is simple: By being even better.
And in perhaps the key pitching statistic in the eyes of award voters, Scherzer is much better. He’s posted a 2.33 ERA and is off to a much better start in that department.
After four starts in his Cy Young Award season of 2013, Scherzer was 2-0 with a 4.12 ERA, 36 strikeouts and seven walks in 24 innings. Those early wins came via 8-4 and 7-5 scores.
After four starts this year, Scherzer is 1-1 with nearly two fewer earned runs allowed, 34 strikeouts and seven walks in 27 innings.
Putting on a dazzling display and overwhelming Trout and Albert Pujols (two strikeouts and one walk against Scherzer) in a nationally-televised game is a good way to kick off an MVP campaign.
Verlander became the first pitcher since Oakland A’s closer Dennis Eckersley in 1992 and the first starter since Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox in 1986 to be named MVP. Verlander knows what it takes to pull off a real rarity.
"You have to start by having a team that makes the playoffs, and we did that," Verlander said. "You have to combine that with an unbelievable year. And yet, if I had the same season in the year that Miggy won the Triple Crown (2012), I was not going to win it.
"And there were a lot of guys who didn’t want to vote for me in the MVP because they think we (pitchers) have our own award with the Cy Young. But it will happen again. It’s just got to be the right mix."
For Verlander, that mix was going 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 219 strikeouts for a team that won 95 games and its division title. He received easily the most first-place MVP votes (13), and edged Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, 280-240, in the voting totals.
Ellsbury won a Gold Glove and hit .321 with 32 homers, 105 RBIs and 39 steals. But his team missed the playoffs.
Pitchers become MVPs by dominating the top competition, compiling eye-opening statistics and taking their teams to the playoffs — just like Verlander, Eckersley and Clemens did in their winning years.
Trout was asked what made Scherzer so dominant in this game.
"He threw pitches for strikes when he wanted," Trout said. "And he threw pitches for balls when he wanted. He was tough coming in and out, up and down. When he needed a slider, he’d flip a good one in there.
"I only faced him one other time two years ago, and he had electric stuff. Today, his velocity was down just a bit, but he painted the corners. He left me one slider to hit, and I fouled it off. Everything else, he was painting."
Scherzer shrugged off that lead-off homer to immediately bear down on Trout, Pujols and Raul Ibanez for strikeouts. He’d done pretty much the same thing 11 days earlier in Los Angeles, when Dodgers leadoff man Dee Gordon began the game with a homer and Scherzer allowed just one more run in the seventh inning.
Focus is what sets apart Scherzer, and he displayed that best in the fourth inning. He walked two, but appeared to get out of the inning when Ian Stewart was called out attempting to steal second base.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia asked for a replay review, and eight Tigers trotted off to the dugout. Scherzer, though, quickly retraced a few steps to take the mound and wait until the call was reversed.
"I had to take the mentality that it would be overturned and that I had to get (Erick) Aybar out," Scherzer said. "That was a very important out. I didn’t want to go in the dugout. I did not want to come down an inch emotionally.
"The at-bat of the game was the Aybar at-bat."
Scherzer got Aybar to go down swinging.
"I’m just going to keep attacking guys," Scherzer said. "I’m going to be aggressive. Nobody’s going to change my approach."
He’s fixated on putting away opponents and has the stuff to do just that. There’s no telling how far that focus and total command can take Scherzer this season.
Detroit just might have its fourth consecutive MVP in a third different player.