One of the most contested National League Cy Young Award races ever became an even closer race Thursday afternoon when Philadelphia Phillies starter Aaron Nola pitched eight shutout innings against Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals. Nola and Scherzer are two of the three leading contenders for the award, along with New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom.
When asked about his Cy Young Award case, Nola has deflected to talking about team goals. Scherzer and the Nationals, though in the midst of an extremely disappointing 2018 season, are still in the National League East race as well. Scherzer has also won two consecutive National League Cy Young Awards – along with the 2013 American League Cy Young Award that he won while pitching for the Detroit Tigers – so this has turned into just another year at the office for the potential future Hall of Famer. deGrom, however, has had a historically dominant season while pitching for the Mets, who will leave the weekend with a 58-72 record. The only thing worth monitoring for the Mets the rest of the 2018 season is whether or not deGrom is able to win the Cy Young Award, despite a lack of run support.
deGrom spoke extensively to Joel Sherman of The New York Post about the Cy Young race and admitted that he’s not entirely sure how he would vote on the award if given the chance:
This is 30-plus minutes on a Saturday afternoon, one-on-one with deGrom. He avoids the brag or all attempts to recalibrate the season from the team to himself. Yes, of course, he wants to win the award. He is curious enough to inquire about the mechanics of the voting and what those who fill out ballots favor. He just won’t campaign. He offered, for example, more detail on Scherzer’s statistics than his own.
“If I took myself out of it and put somebody where I am at, I would honestly have a tough time voting,” deGrom said.
“There is a lot of baseball left,” deGrom said. “I still have to go out seven times and throw to the best of my ability. A lot can happen in seven starts. I know how those other guys [Nola and Scherzer] are throwing. But my mindset doesn’t change. I take the mound, I am trying to put us in position to win.”
Now with short hair, deGrom has had a remarkable 2018 campaign. In 174.0 innings across 26 starts, deGrom has a microscopic 1.71 ERA, a 2.07 FIP, a 2.72 xFIP and a 6.9 fWAR. Unfortunately for him, he has just eight wins to show for it because of a lack of run support from the lowly Mets. Should deGrom be faulted for a low win total? No, but older school voters that still place an emphasis on wins will hold it against him.
Nola and Scherzer, who are scheduled to square off again this week at Citizens Bank Park, are neck-and-neck. Though Nola won their first head-to-head matchup, Scherzer still would seem to hold a slight advantage. Scherzer has thrown 12.2 more innings, has slightly lower WHIP, FIP and xFIP marks and tops Nola in fWAR. Both have a 2.13 ERA.
Of course, there are numbers that you can point to that suggest Nola should win the award. Nola’s 8.9 pitching bWAR tops both Scherzer and deGrom by comfortable margins. (However, when you factor in offense, Nola has an 8.6 bWAR and Scherzer has an MLB leading 8.9 bWAR.) Nola won the first head-to-head matchup against Scherzer and has found something extra when pitching against top competition. In four starts against Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Noah Syndergaard and Scherzer, Nola has an 0.90 ERA in 30 innings pitched.
It may be that history ultimately views this as one of the more difficult seasons to win the National League Cy Young Award. If deGrom wins the award, it doesn’t mean that in most years Nola and Scherzer wouldn’t have been worthy of winning the Cy Young Award. Think back to 2011: Roy Halladay went 19-6 with a career-low 2.35 ERA, a career-low 2.20 FIP and a career-high 8.3 fWAR. However, Halladay, who is likely to be elected to the Hall of Fame in the coming years, finished runner-up in the National League Cy Young Award race in 2011. Meanwhile, Cliff Lee – who went 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA, a 2.60 FIP and the highest bWAR total (8.9) that a Phillies pitcher has posted since Steve Carlton in 1980 – finished third. The aforementioned Kershaw won the first of three career National League Cy Young Awards in 2011.
There are years that the Cy Young Award race is just more contested than others. For example, Scherzer is probably having the finest season that he’s had since joining the Nationals in 2015. It may even be the finest season of his career. And instead of winning his third consecutive National League Cy Young Award, Scherzer could finish third in this year’s race. So while deGrom may ultimately prove to have had the best season of any pitcher in the sport, it doesn’t mean that the other two haven’t had seasons that normally would allow them to win the award.
Perhaps the best mark of how dominant all three have been in 2018 is that there’s a chance all three finish not only in the top five of the National League Cy Young race, but also the National League MVP race. Unfortunately, only one person can win each award.
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