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How far ahead are Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander in the Cy Young races?

Are they already locks? If now, how close are they?

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

We’re not even halfway into the Major League Baseball season, so it’s probably just a tad too early to be having a discussion about eventual award winners. Anyway, here we are, doing it anyway.

Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander are each pacing their respective leagues in the starting pitching department, and, as of now, it’s not particularly close. Scherzer, with his 3.9 fWAR, and Verlander, with his 3.5 fWAR, are in first and second in the majors in fWAR, respectively, and the rest of their leagues aren’t quite breathing down their necks, either, but I will get to that in just a little bit.

Does this mean that Scherzer and Verlander are near-guarantees to win their Cy Young awards this fall?

Max Scherzer’s NL Cy Young Case

Through his first 14 starts, Scherzer has been near-unhittable.

He’s thrown 94.2 innings to the tune of a 2.00 ERA with 142 strikeouts and 22 walks. At this current rate, Scherzer would “only” need to throw about 200 innings to strike out 300 batters. However, as we’ve seen recently, 300 strikeouts isn’t necessarily going to win you the Cy Young award outright. Chris Sale struck out 308 in 2017 and Clayton Kershaw struck out 301 in 2015, and neither of those pitchers won the Cy Young award. They were beat out pitchers with better ERAs, so Scherzer will need to keep his ERA down in order to guarantee himself the victory.

That might not be an issue. Scherzer’s 2.00 ERA isn’t the best in the National League — Jacob deGrom’s 1.57 ERA is better. But, winning the Cy Young is an inexact science, and the best ERAs aren’t the ones that always win. deGrom is already 14.1 innings pitched behind Scherzer due to his injury, and while he could certainly catch up in the innings department, Scherzer has that advantage over him too. We’ll see how the innings stack up by the end of the year, but as we’ve seen in years past, voters like to pick the guy who has not only been dominant, but has also been dominant over the most innings. For now, that’s Scherzer.

Of course, as I’ve said, we’re not even halfway though the season. Yet even if Scherzer falls off the table, he should still be in prime consideration to win the Cy Young award. If Scherzer makes 30 starts this season, pitching just shy of seven innings per start — his season average — check out his full-season numbers even with just NL-average outputs the rest of the way.

A league-average Max Scherzer

Numbers from... G IP TBF K BB ER K% BB% ERA
Numbers from... G IP TBF K BB ER K% BB% ERA
Scherzer, currently 14 94.67 366 142 22 21 38.8% 6.0% 2.00
League average NL SP 16 108 406 89 34 48 22.0% 8.4% 4.04
League average ROS Scherzer 30 202.67 772 231 56 69 29.9% 7.3% 3.09
Average NL Cy Young ('10-'17) 32 226 880 245 48 58 27.8% 5.5% 2.31

As you can see, even if Scherzer pitches to the league-average numbers for a NL starting pitcher, he will end the year with 231 strikeouts and a 29.9 strikeout percentage, the latter of which would still be higher than all but three of the NL Cy Young award winners since 2010. His 3.09 ERA would leave a lot to be desired, though, as the highest ERA among Cy Young winners since 2010 was 2.96 — from Scherzer in 2016.

Clearly, the odds are that Max Scherzer won’t become a league-average starting pitcher over his next 14+ starts. I’m considering that Scherzer’s worst-case scenario. Even in that, Scherzer’s chances of winning the Cy Young are still pretty solid, and if the voters are already willing to award it to someone with an ERA over 3.00 (ahem, Porcello in 2016), Scherzer might actually still be one of the favorites. It all depends on how deGrom pitches through the rest of the season.

Scherzer is pitching better than he ever has in the past, but what if he reverts to just his career-average numbers for the rest of the season?

An “average Max Scherzer” Scherzer

Numbers from... G IP TBF K BB ER K% BB% ERA
Numbers from... G IP TBF K BB ER K% BB% ERA
Scherzer, currently 14 94.67 366 142 22 21 38.8% 6.0% 2.00
Career average Scherzer 16 108 438 124 30 39 28.3% 6.9% 3.24
Career average ROS Scherzer 30 202.67 804 266 52 60 33.1% 6.5% 2.66
Average NL Cy Young ('10-'17) 32 226 880 245 48 58 27.8% 5.5% 2.31

Here, Scherzer probably wins the award, or at least is neck-and-neck with deGrom. If he pitches to his career-averages the rest of the way, Scherzer will finish with an ERA 0.35 points above the average NL Cy Young winner but with 21 more strikeouts in 24 fewer innings, assuming he makes only 30 starts. (He’ll probably make more.) Scherzer’s strikeout rate would be nearly six points higher with a walk rate just one point higher. That’s a pretty compelling case right there.

Then again, Scherzer’s career averages are still probably misleading. Scherzer had a 3.88 ERA in his first five seasons; he has a 2.80 ERA in the six since. As a result, it’s still probably pretty unlikely that he pitches to his career-average 3.24 ERA the rest of the way, but it goes to show how much of a head start he already has on the rest of the race, even with deGrom in the mix.

Just for kicks, here is Max Scherzer at his current pace.

Max Scherzer at current pace

Numbers from... G IP TBF K BB ER K% BB% ERA
Numbers from... G IP TBF K BB ER K% BB% ERA
Scherzer, currently 14 94.67 366 142 22 21 38.8% 6.0% 2.00
Scherzer, pace 30 202.67 784 304 47 45 38.8% 6.0% 2.00
Average NL Cy Young ('10-'17) 32 226 880 245 48 58 27.8% 5.5% 2.31

Even with three NL Cy Young winners since 2010 having ERAs below 2.00, Scherzer’s pace makes him potentially the best Cy Young winner in this span. His current 38.8 strikeout percentage would be four points higher than the next best, 2017 Max Scherzer. His 304 strikeouts would be the most from an NL Cy Young since 2002, when Randy Johnson won the award with 334 strikeouts. He had a 2.32 ERA that year.

As of now, Scherzer is probably the Cy Young. The strikeouts, combined with an absurdly low ERA, give him a huge advantage going forward. It’s still too early to call this race, but with only Jacob deGrom truly in the mix (sorry, Aaron Nola), Scherzer’s odds at winning the Cy Young are probably already at 75 or 80 percent.

Justin Verlander’s AL Cy Young Case

Like Scherzer, Verlander has been far-and-away the best pitcher in his respective league.

In some ways, Verlander has been better than Scherzer. He’s thrown 93.1 innings so far with a minuscule 1.45 ERA and 113 strikeouts to just 20 walks. Verlander faces more competition from his fellow American League starters than Scherzer does from his National League starters. Seven of the top ten starters in the Majors in fWAR pitch in the American League — Verlander, Luis Severino, Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Chris Sale and James Paxton. Because Verlander faces more competition than Scherzer, it’s less likely as of today that he ultimately ends up as the Cy Young, but he’s certainly the front-runner.

Doing the same exercise as I did with Scherzer, I also looked at Verlander if he pitched at the AL league-average pace, at his career-average pace and at his current pace.

First, Verlander at the league-average pace.

A league-average Justin Verlander

Numbers from... G IP TBF K BB ER K% BB% ERA
Numbers from... G IP TBF K BB ER K% BB% ERA
Verlander, currently 14 93.33 352 113 20 15 32.1% 5.7% 1.45
League average AL SP 16 106.67 451 97 36 51 21.4% 7.9% 4.29
League average ROS Verlander 30 200 803 210 56 66 26.2% 7.0% 2.96
Average AL Cy Young ('10-'17) 33 228 896 233 52 65 26.0% 5.8% 2.57

Here, Verlander has pitched well enough to win the AL Cy Young award in most years, but he probably has not pitched well enough to win it in 2018. A 2.96 ERA would only be lower than 2017 Rick Porcello’s, with Cy Young-average strikeout numbers. Verlander’s best trick this season has been limiting runs and racking up strikeouts, absolutely a recipe for pitching success, but if those numbers aren’t still eye-popping by the end of the season, he will not win the award.

An “average Justin Verlander” Verlander

Numbers from... G IP TBF K BB ER K% BB% ERA
Numbers from... G IP TBF K BB ER K% BB% ERA
Verlander, currently 14 93.33 352 113 20 15 32.1% 5.7% 1.45
Career average Verlander 16 106.67 439 102 32 40 23.3% 7.3% 3.39
Career average ROS Verlander 30 200 791 215 52 55 27.2% 6.6% 2.48
Average AL Cy Young ('10-'17) 33 228 896 233 52 65 26.0% 5.8% 2.57

These numbers are more promising. Verlander’s ERA would be below the Cy Young-average, while his strikeouts (and his walks) would be above it. Even today, though, Verlander does not have the luxury of already leading his league in strikeouts. In fact, he’s in third. So, while Scherzer has a 32-strikeout lead over Patrick Corbin for the NL-lead, Verlander still needs to play catch-up in that department.

If his strikeout rate falls, that will hurt him. Verlander is striking out more batters now than at any point over his career, but so are Gerrit Cole and James Paxton. Then, there is Chris Sale, who isn’t striking out more hitters now than ever before, but is still pitching like classic Chris Sale.

Unlike with Scherzer, who probably (though not for sure) wins the Cy Young at his career-average pace, Verlander probably doesn’t. And that’s not terrible news for him; Verlander is pitching better than he did during his career-average, but if he wants to take home the hardware for the second time in his career, he has to keep it up.

Justin Verlander at current pace

Numbers from... G IP TBF K BB ER K% BB% ERA
Numbers from... G IP TBF K BB ER K% BB% ERA
Verlander, currently 14 93.33 352 113 20 15 32.1% 5.7% 1.45
Verlander, pace 30 200 791 254 45 32 32.1% 5.7% 1.45
Average AL Cy Young ('10-'17) 33 228 896 233 52 65 26.0% 5.8% 2.57

At this pace that he’s pitching at right now, Verlander strikes out 21 more hitters than the average AL Cy Young in 28 fewer innings and posts an ERA that’s nearly a run lower. Unlike the National League, which has seen three Cy Young winners post an ERA sub-2.00 since 2010, the American League has not had their Cy Young post a sub-2.00 ERA since Pedro Martinez did it in 2000. For context on how long that actually is, I was not even born when Pedro did it.

If Verlander’s ERA remains below 2.00 at the end of the season, I do think he wins the AL Cy Young award outright. I think he’ll have enough strikeouts to compete for that title, but he does not have to win it in order to get the Cy Young. The key is keeping the ERA down, and that’s not an easy thing to do. With all the competition he has, I’ll put Verlander’s chances at winning the AL Cy Young today at 55 percent.

To Conclude...

We have two serious Cy Young contenders already. If the season ended today, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander would win the Cy Young awards, no doubt. But the season doesn’t end today, tomorrow or even next week. The season ends in October, and that’s a long way from today. We’ll see what happens, but for now, these two pitchers should feel very good about where they stand on June 13th.


Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.