Max Scherzer is going for his 20th win tonight in Boston, getting it will be a tough chore against a good team and a good starter. Nonetheless, Scherzer looks very likely to get that 20th win at some point this month and also very likely to be the only pitcher in the majors to reach that mark – as no one else currently has more than 15 wins. And, that guy with 15 wins in the AL (there are 4 in the NL) is Chris Tillman of the O’s who has no shot whatsoever at Cy Young consideration. So the question is this: does Max Scherzer actually have any competition in the AL Cy Young race?
The fact is – Scherzer could have a few bad starts that push his ERA into the mid-3.00s, and that would cost him a lot of votes despite 20 wins. Though he is far ahead of the pack, he could still fall back to it.
Wins have always seemed to have a disproportionate influence over Cy Young voters, but they aren’t the only stat that matters and their influence may be on the wane. And wins are the only category in which Scherzer stands a head and shoulders above the pack. If we look at WAR, Scherzer is actually only 2nd in WAR in the AL behind Felix Hernandez. Hernandez won a Cy Young before that defied conventional wisdom, in that not only was his win total low he also pitched for a non-contender. But… though Hernandez is still eating a lot of innings (2nd in the AL in IP behind James Shields) this year he doesn’t have a sparkling ERA to lean on for Cy Young votes – his WAR is a function of his IP and his peripherals, which lead to low FIP and xFIP scores. It is not out of the realm of possibility that – should Scherzer stumble – a great September could make Hernandez the one to catch him but it’s probably not all that likely.
ERA matters a lot, probably more than WAR if not as much as wins. Scherzer is only 4th among qualified starters in the AL in ERA. However, there’s no other pitcher so far ahead of Scherzer and the rest (like Clayton Kershaw is in the NL) that he’d be a leading Cy Young contender despite the lack of wins. Number 1, at 2.68, is Anibal Sanchez – also 3rd in the AL in WAR. It’s possible that a great September (and a bad one for Scherzer) could put Sanchez in the running – it’s probably more likely that Sanchez’ midseason injury cost him a realistic shot at the award. A more likely winner would be ERA #2 Yu Darvish of the Rangers who, like Hernandez and Sanchez, has won only 12 games. However, Darvish leads the AL in strikeouts and strikeout rate. Scherzer is #2 in both categories, but he’s nowhere near Darvish. Were Scherzer to cease to exist, Darvish would probably be the leader of the rest.
#3 in ERA is a guy who should be getting consideration, but won’t be: Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda is 11-10 on the season, which believe it or not is more to his credit than a strike against him. The Yankees offense this season has been awful, Mariners awful, so considerations made for King Felix in general should apply to Kuroda this year. Kuroda leads all AL starters in WPA by being the best “clutch pitcher” among qualified starters. And remember that pitcher WPA only counts what happens when the guy is on the mound, not when his team is batting. If he starts the 7th with a 52% chance of winning and leaves with a 60% chance of winning, he added 8 percentage points no matter what happens in the bottom of the 7th. Number 1 in WPA is actually Rangers closer Joe Nathan, who has racked up 5 wins and 38 saves behind a 1.51 ERA. Nathan should be getting votes, but like Fernando Rodney last year we can be relatively sure he won’t get enough.
In the end – mediocre Septembers from Felix Hernandex, Yu Darvish and Anibal Sanchez would probably lock in the Cy Young for Scherzer – no matter how he pitched. If he keeps doing what he has been doing, he’ll also lock in the Cy Young. But… if Scherzer stinks it up late like Jered Weaver did in late August of 2012, he is not so impossibly far ahead that he couldn’t be caught.