Max Scherzer is perfect but it's not enough to lead AL Cy Young race
The debate about how much bearing a pitcher's won-loss record should have on the his Cy Young candidacy is nothing new, and this season is presenting yet another test case. The Tigers' Max Scherzer has gotten off to a 13-0 start, the best in the majors since Roger Clemens began 14-0 in 1986. That year, Clemens went on to win both the AL MVP and Cy Young awards. Scherzer is enjoying an excellent season, but at the moment, he doesn't even top the below rankings of contenders for the honor of being the AL's best pitcher.
In fact, with Clay Buchholz out for nearly four weeks now with shoulder bursitis and thus ceasing to qualify for the ERA title, the American League Cy Young award race is suddenly wide open, but also somewhat less compelling as none of the remaining competitors has been as dominant as Buchholz or the top National League competitors. The real excitement is in the NL, where the same five contenders return from four weeks ago, but with the race even tighter than it was then, if that's even possible.
Note: All stats are through Wednesday, July 3. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.
1. Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP, Mariners (2)
Season Stats: 7-3, 2.42 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 5.94 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 154 ERA+
Last Four Weeks (4 GS): 1-2, 4.00 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 5.50 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS
Iwakuma hasn't pitched like a potential Cy Young winner in his last three starts. He gave up four runs in each and five home runs in both of the last two. Nevertheless, he was so good prior to that, going 7-1 with a 1.79 ERA and only once allowing more than three runs in a start, that, with Buchholz having fallen out of the race due to injury, Iwakuma still leads the remaining pack.
2. Yu Darvish, RHP, Rangers (3)
Season Stats: 8-3, 2.78 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 12.0 K/9, 4.08 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 156 ERA+
Last Four Weeks (5 GS): 1-4, 2.81 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, 3.08 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS
Darvish has failed to complete six innings just twice this season and allowed just three runs in each of those starts. He has also not allowed more than four earned runs in any of his 17 starts this season. On the lone occasion that he allowed five runs, four were earned and he struck out 10 men against two walks in that game.
Darvish has yet to have three consecutive starts in which he allowed fewer than three runs each, but he has, with the exception of that five-run game, kept the Rangers in every game he has pitched while reliably giving the bullpen a breather. Combine that sort of reliability with the second-best ERA+ in the league and his dominance of the strike zone and he stays just ahead of Max Scherzer, at least for now.
3. Max Scherzer, RHP, Tigers
Season Stats: 13-0, 3.09 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 5.35 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 139 ERA+
Last Four Weeks (6 GS): 6-0, 2.46 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 6.00 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS
Scherzer isn't on this list because he's 13-0. He's here because of the way he's pitched en route to that perfect mark. He has pounded the strike zone, kept runners off base and runs off the board while going deep in to games (11 of his 17 starts have lasted seven or more innings). He's also been remarkably consistent. Scherzer's last nine starts have all been quality. He earned the win in eight of them and deserved the win in the ninth as well. He didn't, however, deserve a win when he allowed five runs in five innings on April 24, but he got one anyway.
That's not the only time Scherzer got a win he probably didn't deserve. He got one in his first start of the season despite allowing four runs in five innings. He also avoided a loss when he gave up five runs in seven innings against the lowly Astros on May 15.
That's not to say Scherzer is undeserving of consideration because his resume goes beyond wins and losses. He's second in the AL in strikeouts and WHIP, fifth in innings pitched and 10th in ERA. For the moment, however, he trails Iwakuma and Darvish in some important metrics listed above and that's why he trails them on this list.
4. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (4)
Season Stats: 8-4, 2.69 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 5.42 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 136 ERA+
Last Four Weeks (5 GS): 1-0, 3.00 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS
Hernandez has had three disaster starts this season (as many or more runs allowed as innings pitched), but he has never been knocked out before the end of the fifth inning, and he has allowed one or no earned runs in 10 other starts. He's also just a third of an inning off the AL lead in innings pitched (CC Sabathia and Justin Masterson have each recorded one more out) and is second in the league to rotation-mate Iwakuma in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
5. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox (5)
Season Stats: 5-7, 2.79 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 4.75 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 157 ERA+
Last Four Weeks (5 GS): 0-4, 3.47 ERA, 11.9 K/9, 6.00 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 1 CG
No pitcher in the American League has received less run support this season than Sale, who is just 5-7 despite leading the league in ERA+. Combine that with the rest of his stats above and not even the two starts he missed at the end of May could keep him off this list.
Off the list: Clay Buchholz
1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: 7-5, 1.93 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 3.82 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 189 ERA+
Last Four Weeks (5 GS): 2-1, 1.95 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS, 1 SHO
The highest Kershaw's ERA has been after any of his starts this season is 2.14. That was back on April 28. He threw eight scoreless innings in his next turn. The second highest it has been is 2.08. That was two starts ago. He shutout the Rockies in Denver in his last turn to become the only qualified pitcher as of this writing with a season ERA below 2.00. Kershaw, who leads the majors in innings pitched with 130 1/3, was arguably the best pitcher in baseball coming into the season, and he has only enhanced his case for that title so far.
2. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals (4)
Season Stats: 11-5, 2.22 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 9.50 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS, 4 CG, 2 SHO, 166 ERA+
Last Four Weeks (5 GS): 3-2, 1.96 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 1 CG
There are several ways in which Wainwright has been even more impressive than Kershaw this season. He leads the majors with four complete games and allowed a total of two runs in those four starts. He leads the majors in innings per start and needs just five innings pitched in his start against the Angels on Thursday night to pass Kershaw for the major league lead in total innings. He has allowed a home run in just two of his 17 starts on the season and, among qualified pitchers, only the Rockies' Jhoulys Chacin has allowed fewer than the four home runs Wainwright has allowed this year. Wainwright has also walked just 12 men in 17 starts and never more than two in any one game resulting in that major league leading strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Wainwright was a bit unlucky on balls in play in his first seven starts (.355 BABIP), a stretch over which he posted a 2.72 ERA. Since then, his BABIP has been a more reasonable .282 and he has posted a 1.89 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP across 10 starts. If he keeps up his strong performance, don't be surprised to see him top this list three weeks from now.
3. Matt Harvey, RHP, Mets (3)
Season Stats: 7-2, 2.27 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, 5.22 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 159 ERA+
Last Four Weeks (6 GS): 2-2, 2.48 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 11.7 K/9, 6.50 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS
Harvey gave up five runs in a start for the first time all season on Wednesday night against the Diamondbacks thanks to a three-run Cody Ross homer with two outs in the sixth inning. Prior to that, Harvey had only allowed four runs twice all year. There's a reverse Wainwright effect going on here as Harvey posted a 1.55 ERA with a .199 BABIP in his first nine starts, but a 3.03 ERA with a .333 BABIP in his last nine starts. Howevwer many hits are dropping in, Harvey remains one of the top strikeout pitchers in baseball, along with the American League's Yu Darvish and Max Scherzer.
4. Jordan Zimmermann, RHP, Nationals (2)
Season Stats: 12-3, 2.46 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 6.3 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 153 ERA+
Last Four Weeks (5 GS): 4-0, 3.27 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 5.33 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS
Since turning in a quality start in nine of his first 10 games this season, falling just an inning short in the lone exception, Zimmermann hasn't had three consecutive quality starts at any point in his last seven outings and is coming off a win against the Brewers in which he gave up four runs in six innings.
Zimmermann's bugaboo over those last seven starts has been the home run, as all three of his non-quality starts over that stretch have seen him allow multiple home runs, the only three games in which he has done so all season after allowing just three home runs in those fist 10 starts combined. That was largely a correction. Zimmermann's home run rates are now back in line with his previous two seasons and are still below league average.
5. Cliff Lee, LHP, Phillies (5)
Season Stats: 9-2, 2.59 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 5.48 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 150 ERA+
Last Four Weeks (5 GS): 2-0, 2.92 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 10.0 K/BB, 5.13 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS
Over his last 11 starts, all quality, Lee has gone 7-0 with a 2.15 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 5.79 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 7.6 innings per start while his opponents have hit a mere .199/.238/.304 against him.