If Max Scherzer beats the Red Sox on Tuesday night, he'll become just the second pitcher in major league history to open a season with a 20-1 record, joining Roger Clemens, who did it with the Yankees in 2001. Scherzer, who has a .950 winning percentage, has already tied the previous mark of 19-1 set by Rube Marquard in 1912 and matched only by Clemens prior to this season. The Tigers right-hander has already made one attempt at getting his 20th win, last Thursday at home against the A's. That turned out to be his worst start of the season (5 IP, 6 R, 5 ER). Detroit trailed 6-1 when Scherzer left the game, but he got a no-decision because Torii Hunter hit a walk-off three-run homer that gave the Tigers a 7-6 victory.
In 2001, Clemens won his 20th game in his 30th start, New York's 145th game, which also happened to be the team's first game after the September 11 attacks. The Yankees were 27-3 in Clemens' starts to that point in the season, while Clemens had a 3.42 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 3.10 K/BB and a .305 BABIP.
Scherzer's outing tonight will be his 28th start, and it will come in the Tigers' 138th game. He has a 2.90 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP, 9.9 K/9, 4.67 K/BB and a .252 BABIP and the Tigers are 22-5 in his starts.
Scherzer has pitched better this year than Clemens did in '01, though the gap isn't quite as large as the above numbers suggest. Both pitchers received roughly 5.7 runs of support per game, but scoring was much higher in 2001. The average American League team scored 4.86 runs per game that year compared to 4.34 runs per game this season. While the Tigers have actually been scoring at a higher rate than the '01 Yankees, their 5.7 runs of support per game is far more overwhelming in the current offensive environment than New York's similar support for Clemens.
Clemens was the overwhelming winner of the 2001 AL Cy Young, but I did not think he deserved the award. In fact, I didn't think he was the most deserving pitcher on his own team, given how well Mike Mussina pitched in his first season with the Yankees. Scherzer seems likely to bring home this year's award, but I have yet to rank him first in my Awards Watch. The Mariners' Felix Hernandez was my top pick the last time I examined the race, but his recent struggles (0-4, 7.84 ERA in his last four starts) are disqualifying. (I dinged Scherzer "because he comes up short in run prevention.") The Rangers' Yu Darvish (12-6, 2.73 ERA), who starts in Oakland on Wednesday, actually has a good chance to be my pick when I revisit the race on Thursday.
As for Tuesday night's game, Scherzer faces a tough task. He will be facing a Boston team that has the best record in the AL, and the second-most-potent lineup after Detroit's. Not only that, but he will also be pitching at Fenway Park, where the Red Sox have a .643 winning percentage this season. Scherzer is facing Boston ace Jon Lester, who has a 1.80 ERA over his last five starts, and who will be pitching to a Tigers lineup that is unlikely to include Miguel Cabrera (out with an abdominal strain since last Friday). Scherzer has faced the Red Sox once previously this season, holding them to two runs over seven innings in Detroit in late June and picking up the win. If Scherzer loses tonight, he'll have blown the chance to match Clemens as well as a chance to set the all-time single-season winning percentage mark. If he gets a no-decision, we'll do this all over again when the Tigers visit the White Sox on Monday. But if he wins, that Monday start in Chicago will be his chance to do something no pitcher has ever done: start a season 21-1.