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Breaking down the deGrom-Scherzer Cy Young battle

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Advanced metrics clarify who should win the NL Cy Young

Gatorade All-Star Workout Day Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

This was not the post I intended to write. Originally, I was going to show that Max Scherzer really does have a case for the NL Cy Young, even if you ignore win-loss record and just use advanced metrics. It turns out that it just isn’t true. By any meaningful measure, Jacob deGrom has been the best pitcher in baseball this year, despite his 9-9 record.

There are only four categories in which Scherzer has the edge over deGrom:

Wins

Scherzer leads the league in wins with 17. This matters not at all. The rules governing pitcher wins are so arbitrary and have so many factors outside the pitcher’s control, that they should be irrelevant for any meaningful pitcher comparison. Their only purposes are frivolity and trivia.

Strikeouts

This one actually is important. Scherzer leads baseball with 290 punch-outs. His 34.6 percent strikeout rate leads the NL. He is the most prolific strikeout artist in baseball, and this will be the third consecutive season in which leads the league. Give this legitimate category to Scherzer over deGrom.

Baserunners

Sherzer also has black ink in WHIP (0.917) and H/9 (6.1). While that does indicate that he’s been an excellent pitcher, it says little about quality of contact. More on this below.

Innings

At present, Scherzer’s 213 23 innings pitched are the most in baseball. deGrom is second with 209. It’s important to keep workload in mind when comparing rate state, but Scherzer’s advantage is razor thin. If deGrom starts two more games this year and Scherzer throws just once more, the lead could reverse.

In total, Scherzer’s only real advantage over deGrom is in strikeouts. Maybe we’ll give him half a point for innings as well. With this out of the way, let’s talk about deGrom. Here are all the ways in which he’s out-pitched Scherzer this season:

Runs and run estimators

The entire point of pitching is to prevent the other team from scoring. Given this inalienable truth, it should be easy to measure pitcher effectiveness, but of course it isn’t. The most common run estimator is ERA, but it’s highly flawed. Official scoring on what is and isn’t an error is even more ridiculous than pitcher wins. RA9 is a little better, because it takes errors out of the mix. However, FIP is even more accurate because it completely removes the variables of balls in play. Even FIP is flawed though, because some pitchers excel at limiting quality contact. That’s why Baseball Prospectus created DRA, which accounts for everything that a pitcher can theoretically control. Whichever run estimator you prefer, deGrom outperforms Scherzer:

deGrom vs. Scherzer in Run Estimators

Stat Jacob deGrom Max Scherzer
Stat Jacob deGrom Max Scherzer
ERA 1.77 2.57
RA9 2.07 2.74
FIP 2.03 2.71
DRA 2.10 2.24

Opponent batting

As noted above, Scherzer has allowed fewer hits and baserunners on a rate basis, but not all baserunners are equal. deGrom has only surrendered ten home runs all year, and leads the league with 0.4 home runs per nine innings. He’s given up more singles than Scherzer, but he’s been the better pitcher by far at limiting extra base hits and free passes.

deGrom vs. Scherzer in Baserunners

Stat Jacob deGrom Max Scherzer
Stat Jacob deGrom Max Scherzer
1B 110 82
2B 27 35
3B 3 5
HR 10 23
BB 46 51
HBP 5 11

Because deGrom prevents extra base hits so well, his slash line against is .200/.249/.284. Against Scherzer, batters hit .188/.248/.335. Both are excellent, but deGrom’s .235 wOBA against is superior to Scherzer’s .253.

Statcast-y stuff

With strikeout rates of 34.6 percent and 32.0 percent, both aces excel at preventing contact. However, all pitchers allow more balls in play than not, and deGrom and Scherzer are no exception. deGrom has allowed contact in 61.7 percent of plate appearances, and Scherzer 58.0 percent. Therefore, quality of contact allowed is arguably more important than fielder independent stats.

deGrom is clearly better than Scherzer in this area. He allows overall softer contact (85.5 mph average exit velocity compared to Scherzer’s 86.1) at a much lower launch angle (10.7 degrees against 19.9). It’s almost impossible to be a strikeout pitcher who also generates a lot of ground balls, but that’s exactly what deGrom is doing, hence the low launch angle. deGrom is also among the best in the league in hard hit percentage (28.8) and barrel percentage (4.2), whereas Scherzer (32.0 and 6.8) doesn’t rank in the top ten percent in the league.

WAR

WAR is designed to be all-encompassing, but if that were true, the three major WARs would agree with each other more often. Part of the reason for dissonance is that each WAR uses a different run estimator. Baseball-Reference’s bWAR uses ERA, FanGraphs’ fWAR favors FIP, and Baseball Prospectus’ WARP relies on DRA. WAR is still an important factor though, because it considers rate stats as well as workload. If Scherzer and deGrom were exactly equal in quality, Scherzer would have a slight advantage because he’s thrown 4 23 more innings and faced 29 more batters. Even with the innings advantage, Scherzer still comes up a little bit short in all three WARs.*

deGrom vs. Scherzer in WAR

Stat Jacob deGrom Max Scherzer
Stat Jacob deGrom Max Scherzer
bWAR 9.1 8.4
fWAR 8.3 6.8
WARP 7.7 7.6

The three Triple Crown stats of pitching are ERA, wins, and strikeouts. Scherzer leads the NL in two of the three, as well as innings pitched, WHIP, and hits per nine innings. Traditionally, that’s more than enough to win the Cy Young. Unfortunately, a deeper look at the numbers shows that deGrom is simply better.

It’s important to note that Scherzer is still an incredible pitcher having an outstanding season. His advanced metrics are definitely of high enough caliber to win a Cy Young (which is why he already has three of them), or even an MVP. If he takes home the hardware, it won’t be nearly as much of a sham as Rick Porcello’s in 2016 or Eric Gagne’s in 2003. He’s the second best pitcher in baseball right now, but deGrom is the absolute best and he deserves to win the award.


*WAR also factors in other contributions such as hitting and defense. Scherzer’s total bWAR is higher than deGrom’s because he’s a much better hitter. The WARs in this chart are only for pitching.


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983