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Clayton Kershaw should outlast Max Scherzer to win the 2017 NL Cy Young award.

September 26, 2017

1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

2. Max Scherzer, Nationals

3. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals

4. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals

5. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers

If Kershaw does win this award, remember the night of Sept. 13 in Washington. Scherzer, in consultation with manager Dusty Baker, determined before the game against the Braves that he wanted to run up his pitch count well past 100 to get ready for the playoffs. The game was tied at two when Scherzer, at 97 pitches, went back to the mound for the seventh instead of calling it a night.

Thusly went the fateful inning for Scherzer: walk, walk, walk, single, intentional walk. All five runners scored, including the three inherited runners against Brandon Kintzler, who gave up a grand slam. That inning alone is responsible for Scherzer’s ERA being 2.55 instead of 2.34, and pushing the difference in ERA between him and Kershaw from 0.13 to 0.34. Does that difference matter? In a race this close, yes.

Kershaw leads the league not only in ERA, but also in wins (18), strikeout to walk rate (6.67) and adjusted ERA (189).

Scherzer leads in strikeouts (263), WHIP (.907) and bWAR (6.9).

The key question is this: does a four-start, 26-inning edge in volume for Scherzer override the quality of Kershaw?

Let’s examine it through the modern view of starting pitching. With the rise of relief pitching, two factors drive starting pitching more than anything else these days: facing lineups for a third or fourth time (nothing influences managers’ game management more than when a starter begins to see the lineup for a third time; starters who can be trusted that deep into a game are golden) and, while individual wins have been devalued, “giving my team a chance to win”.

So first let’s see how the top candidates do in making life easier on a manager:

Batters Faced Third or Fourth Time

 

Player

PA

PA/G

AVG

HR

K/BB

Scherzer

243

8.1

.168

7

3.61

Gonzalez

240

8.0

.223

6

3.00

Kershaw

205

7.9

.237

10

6.67

Strasburg

198

7.3

.194

3

3.92

Edge: Scherzer, when it comes to forestalling bullpen work and keeping his stuff (that disaster with the Braves notwithstanding).

If “giving my team a chance to win” is more important these days than the individual win, who gets the edge there? The answer is Kershaw.

Team Record in Starts

 

Player

W-L

Winning Percentage

Kershaw

22–4

.846

Strasburg

21–6

.778

Scherzer

21–9

.700

Gonzalez

18–12

.600

Edge: Kershaw. Okay, fine, but who are you beating when you take the mound? Not all opponents are created equal. So let’s see how many times the top candidates faced a winning team, and examine their individual records in those games.

Vs. Winning Teams

 

Player

Games Started

W-L

ERA

Kershaw

12

7–2

2.50

Scherzer

8

5–1

1.84

Gonzalez

8

3–3

2.66

Strasburg

5

2–1

1.84

(What stands out is that Strasburg has faced losing teams in 22 of his 27 starts, but pitched well in his rare starts against good teams.)

There is one more major tipping point we should examine when it comes to which team wins and loses a baseball game, and it’s the most important: the fourth run. Given three runs of support or less, a pitcher’s team wins only 20 percent of the time. But once you add the fourth run, the win percentage more than triples to 72 percent.

So let’s see how the top candidates fare in terms of their teams’ winning percentage in games they are not supposed to win (with three runs or less) and how they do in the games they should win.

Team Record in Starts According to Run Support

 

Player

Three Runs or Less

Four Runs or Less

Kershaw

7–4

15–0

Strasburg

7–5

14–1

Scherzer

6–5

15–4

Gonzalez

4–9

14–3

Numbers like this won’t totally isolate the starting pitcher. A bullpen blowup might undo a good start. But over six months, as the sample size grows and starts to reduce the noise, some generalizations start to surface.

This is a razor-thin race between Scherzer and Kershaw. If you like pure stuff—striking people out, not giving up hits, holding stuff deep into a game—Scherzer is your Cy Young Award winner.

If you like excellence within the context of the competition and the old reliable of ERA, Kershaw is your man. Among the top candidates, Kershaw is the best at winning tough pitchers’ duels, the best at winning the games his team was supposed to win, the best at beating winning teams, and the best, by a clear margin, in ERA.

Oh, and polling stations remain open; Kershaw and Scherzer have one more start remaining.

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