Baseball is a game with very few sure answers to any specific question. That truth is part of what’s made Clayton Kershaw’s stay atop the list of the greatest active pitchers so special.
For years, no one could argue with the notion that Kershaw was setting the pace among his peers. With each passing Cy Young Award — three in total — Kershaw’s position as the best pitcher in MLB was only further cemented.
Now though, we’re being forced to re-examine what we’ve long known to be true. It’s not that Kershaw is dramatically fading. He’s still dominated at a level few pitchers can, as evidenced by his runner up finish in this year’s NL Cy Young voting.
But two pitchers who have been comfortably positioned behind Kershaw on that very short list, are now poised to pass him. If they haven’t already. Those men are Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals and Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians.
On Wednesday, Scherzer received 27 first-place votes to Kershaw’s three to win his second straight NL Cy Young Award. As the old saying goes, to be the man you gotta beat the man. Scherzer’s done that two straight years, and has done so convincingly. Overall it’s Scherzer’s third. He also took home the AL’s Cy Young while with the Detroit Tigers in 2013.
In the AL, Kluber received 28 first-place votes to win his second award since 2014. The wins put both he and Scherzer into elite company historically, and the numbers they’ve put up definitely put them in the conversation as baseball’s best pitcher.
Some people were already putting Scherzer in that position before he topped Kershaw again in the voting. At least a portion of that was no doubt influenced by Kershaw’s reputation as a poor postseason pitcher. Kershaw has made strides towards wiping that out, but it seems there’s at least one outing every postseason that allows that seed to grow a little more.
Other Scherzer supporters point to his production over the past three seasons. The 33-year-old right-hander has found another level of brilliance since joining the Nationals in 2015, combining dominance with durability that Kershaw simply hasn’t been able to match. Scherzer has made 98 starts during that stretch, posting a 2.76 ERA. Kershaw has been limited to 81 starts, though it hasn’t hampered his effectiveness as his 2.07 ERA supports.
When you’re attempting to separate two elite pitchers, which one is there more often for his team has to be a factor. Scherzer’s consistency is also notable. According to Baseball Reference, Scherzer’s 20.6 WAR over the last three seasons is the highest among pitchers. During that same time Kershaw has seen his WAR dip each season, from 7.5 to 5.6 to 4.6. In fact, this marked the first season since 2009 that Kershaw’s WAR was under 5.0.
If we’re being honest, that makes it difficult to argue against Scherzer being the man right now. Just don’t expect Scherzer himself to make that argument.
Does Max Scherzer think he's on Clayton Kershaw's level now? "That's not for me to say," Scherzer replied. "If I want to be an MLB analyst, I'll go work for @mlbnetwork."
— Tyler Kepner (@TylerKepner) November 16, 2017
We have no problem making the argument for him, or for Corey Kluber for that matter.
The Indians ace has pitched his way into the picture with his own brand of consistency, dominance and durability in the more hitter-friendly American League. In addition to winning two Cy Youngs, Kluber has a third and ninth place finish during the past four seasons. He’s logged an MLB-high 486 and one-third innings during that time, to go along with 737 strikeouts.
Kluber’s 18.6 WAR over the past three seasons is second only to Scherzer’s, which makes this a genuine three-man race.
By no means is this a closed case. Even the best designed stats and formulas don’t tell the whole story. What we see with our own eyes matters too, as do the playing conditions and other factors that simply can’t be measured. That’s why this debate will rage on and into the 2018 season, and possibly well beyond.
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