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Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer or Aaron Nola? The NL Cy Young Race Is an Absolute Doozy

The 2018 NL Cy Young race is becoming one of the most tantalizing events of the year. Where does the race stand with one month left in the season?

Maybe the National League should hand out three Cy Young awards this season. That seems to be just about the only fair way to handle what’s turned into a ridiculously competitive race between the Mets’ Jacob deGrom, the Nationals’ Max Scherzer, and the Phillies’ Aaron Nola. Following a Tuesday night where deGrom dominated the Cubs and Nola out-dueled Scherzer in Philadelphia, the battle between the trio is fully engaged. But who has the edge going into the season’s final month?

The Case for Jacob deGrom

It starts with his ERA, which is a miniscule 1.68—the top mark in baseball (Chris Sale is second at 1.97). Since the pitcher’s mound was lowered to its current 10-inch height after the 1968 season, only two men have posted an ERA lower than deGrom’s over a full season: Zack Greinke with the Dodgers in 2015 (1.66) and Dwight Gooden with the Mets in 1985 (1.53).

There’s more to deGrom than just that shiny number, though. He also leads the NL in ERA+ (219) and FIP (2.02) as well as the major leagues in home-run rate (0.4 per nine). His 11.1 strikeout-per-nine rate is second only to Scherzer in the Senior Circuit, and his 2.0 walks-per-nine rate is fourth, trailing Miles Mikolas, Greinke and Ivan Nova (?!). His 8.0 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference edition) as a pitcher, meanwhile, ranks third behind Nola and Scherzer. When it comes to run prevention, though, no one’s been better than deGrom.

Then there’s the matter of the bonus points he should be awarded for doing all of this despite his team’s best efforts to crack him like an egg. The Mets haven’t just wasted deGrom’s brilliant season; they’ve been downright spiteful to it. Despite his excellence, deGrom has just eight wins to show for all his hard work, and his Mets are just 58–73. Last night was a perfect example: Despite holding the Cubs to a single run in eight frames, deGrom received only one run of support—which he drove in himself—and exited the game with a no-decision, already his 11th of the season in 27 starts. (His numbers in those no-decisions, by the way? A 1.41 ERA in 70 1/3 innings.)

It’s been that way all season for deGrom. The Mets have scored three or fewer runs in 18 of his starts and produced one or zero runs in eight of them. He hasn’t allowed three runs or more in a start since April 10—a run of 24 straight appearances, or tied with Gooden in 1985 for the longest such streak since 1913—and his record in that span is 6–8. Tuesday was the eighth time this season deGrom has gone seven innings or more and allowed one or zero runs but not gotten the win, which is tied for the most ever in a single season in the live-ball era (with, believe it or not, another Mets pitcher, Roger Craig, in 1963). No stat this year is more galling than New York’s 11–15 record in deGrom’s starts. (By contrast, the Nationals are 19–9 in Scherzer’s starts, and the Phillies are 19–8 behind Nola.)

Every single person in the Mets’ organization should walk around with their heads hung in shame over what they’ve done to deGrom this year. If nothing else, he deserves the Cy Young simply for persevering in the face of such ruthless and mind-boggling incompetence on the part of everyone around him. But his win, should he receive the award, would also likely be the final blow to the win itself. We can debate until we’re blue in the face what it means to be the most valuable player, and how much team performance matters in that regard. But there should be no such argument over the Cy Young: It goes to the best pitcher, and by most metrics, that’s deGrom, regardless of whether his trash fire of a team is capable of taking advantage of his brilliance. And for those who would argue that deGrom has done all of this far from the glare of a pennant race: 19 of his 27 starts have come against above-.500 clubs, and his ERA in those turns is 1.47. No matter the opponent, he’s been terrific. It’s hard to imagine a Cy Young case better than his.


The Case for Max Scherzer

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Nevertheless, deGrom isn’t the only pitcher fighting for this award. Down in D.C., Scherzer is putting together yet another strong campaign that features plenty of his signature accomplishment: strikeouts. The hard-throwing righthander leads the majors with 249 whiffs, and his 12.0 strikeout-per-nine rate is tops in the NL, as is his strikeout-to-walk rate of 5.53.

Beyond that, though, Scherzer’s case is harder to make. His 2.22 ERA is miles away from deGrom and trails Nola as well; the same is true in ERA+, with his 191 also ranking third to those two. That can be chalked up to Scherzer’s propensity to give up homers: His rate of 1.0 per nine isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s a far cry from deGrom and Nola, who both check in at 0.4. Nor does Scherzer have any advantage in terms of overall numbers: He leads the majors in innings pitched with 186 2/3, but that’s only four more than deGrom. Last night’s outing against the Phillies, in which he went just five innings and allowed three runs on two homers, did him no favors.

None of this is to suggest that Scherzer is a bad choice. He’s right there with deGrom and Nola in bWAR at 8.1 (as a pitcher; overall, he’s at 8.9 because of his work at the plate this season, with a great-for-a-pitcher .286/.322/.321 line in 64 plate appearances). But Scherzer would need a September for the ages to separate himself enough from the pack to make a third straight Cy Young win a lock.


The Case for Aaron Nola

On the surface, Nola would seem like a distant third in this race. His 2.10 ERA is good, but not as good as deGrom’s. He hasn’t thrown as many innings as either deGrom or Scherzer, with 176 to his name; he’s functionally a start behind the former and two behind the latter. His strikeout numbers also don’t come close to either: He’s punched out 177 for a 9.1 strikeout-per-nine rate that looks positively pedestrian compared to Scherzer’s high-octane output.

Yet there’s Nola atop the NL WAR leaderboard with a 9.2 mark. By that measure, he’s been not just the most valuable pitcher in the league, but also its best player. Given that Nola hasn’t been as good at run prevention as deGrom and isn’t piling up as many strikeouts as Scherzer, what gives there?

The answer lies in the team behind him. Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR takes several things into account, among them team defense. In that measure, the Phillies defense is brutalizing. The Phillies have the second lowest defensive efficiency in the NL at .681, better than only the Padres, and they’re dead last in both Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Average (-47) and Defensive Runs Saved (-102), which are the main defensive components of pitcher WAR. The remake of Suspiria should just be clips of balls scooting untouched through the Phillies’ awful left side of the infield, or of Rhys Hoskins’ butchery in the outfield. It’s a horror show out there, and it’s seriously hurt Nola, one of the most groundball-prone pitchers in the game. Take Tuesday for example: After six shutout innings to start the game, Nola’s only two runs allowed came on an error by Carlos Santana, who botched a throw from first base to home on a routine grounder.

Then again, deGrom has also had to work with an abysmal defense: the Mets are second worst in the NL in Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Average and Defensive Runs Saved. And while Nola routinely hands the ball to a bullpen that delights in spraying gasoline all over the place, deGrom’s relievers are even worse. Whatever handicaps Nola has to deal with, deGrom has him beat in spades; anything your team can’t do, my team can do it even worse.

Ultimately, the case for deGrom feels like the strongest, especially given how dominant he’s been. If nothing else, he deserves this award simply for not snapping and murdering his own teammates. But by the numbers he’s put up, he’s plenty worthy already.