Max Scherzer has already won three Cy Young awards, and if he’s keeping them on his mantel, he might need to do some remodeling, as he’s threatening to add a fourth. The 33-year-old righty is having, by some measures, the most dominant season of his career — and one of the most dominant of all time.
After carving apart the admittedly hapless Orioles on Wednesday night (eight innings, two hits, one walk, no runs, 12 strikeouts), Scherzer leads the NL in a host of statistical categories both traditional and advanced: wins (nine), innings (79.2), strikeouts (120), strikeout rate in two flavors (13.6 per nine and 38.7% of all batters faced), K-BB% (32.6), hits per nine (5.5), FIP (1.95), and WAR (3.2). Meanwhile, his 1.92 ERA ranks second behind Jacob deGrom, who right now looks like the only other NL Cy candidate with more than a puncher’s chance, which is to say that it will take somebody else going on an an unforeseen roll — perhaps Clayton Kershaw, whose 2016 and -17 injuries already factored into Scherzer’s hardware tally — to justify a place in the discussion.
In terms of ERA and FIP, our heterochromic hero has enjoyed strong stretches such as this at various points in his career — more or less annually since 2013:
However, Scherzer has never put together a full season this strong, which is to say Kershaw-esque. Where the Dodgers’ lefty ace has banked two seasons with both his ERA and FIP below 2.00 (2014 and ’16), Scherzer’s lowest full-season ERA was last year’s 2.51, while his lowest FIP was his 2.77 in 2015. Even in his award-winning seasons, he’s never led the league in either category, whereas Kershaw has five ERA titles (tied for third all-time with Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez and Christy Mathewson, trailing only Roger Clemens with seven and Lefty Grove with nine) and two FIP titles.
What’s driving Scherzer’s current statistical superiority isn’t just his career-low home run rate (0.68 per nine) but also the aforementioned strikeout rate, which is the currently second-highest single-season rate in MLB history among qualified starters; he’s been trading the lead back and forth with Gerrit Cole (39.4%) in recent weeks. Here’s the K% version of the leaderboard over the past decade (the K/9 version is here):
|3||Chris Sale||Red Sox||2017||36.2%|
|4||Chris Sale||Red Sox||2018||34.8%|
|14||Chris Sale||White Sox||2015||32.1%|
And here it is for all-time:
|3||Pedro Martinez||Red Sox||1999||37.5%|
|5||Chris Sale||Red Sox||2017||36.2%|
|6||Chris Sale||Red Sox||2018||34.8%|
|7||Pedro Martinez||Red Sox||2000||34.8%|
Note that three of the top six rates are from this year alone, that eight of the top 15 are from the past four seasons, and that all of the top 15 seasons are from the past 22 years. You’d have to be living under a rock to avoid knowing that we’re in a strikeout-heavy era, one in which a new MLB-wide record has been set in each of the past 11 seasons, with this year’s 22.4% surpassing last year’s 21.6% for the latest high. Between the reduced stigma of the strikeout for hitters and the parade of relievers pitching with maximum effort for one inning at high velocity — and collectively occupying a larger footprint in terms of innings relative to starers — K rates have been on a continued climb, for better or worse.
What’s needed, then, is to put a pitcher’s strikeout rate into context. Last year, while writing about Chris Sale’s 300-strikeout season for SI.com, I utilized a metric called Adjusted Strikeout Rate, K+, a simple indexing of a pitcher’s strikeout rate (strikeouts per plate appearance) to the league rate along the lines of wRC+, with 100 being league average, and 120 and 80 respectively representing pitchers striking out hitters 20% more or less frequently than the league average. Unlike wRC+ or ERA-, I’m forgoing park effects for the sake of simplicity, but this does put each league-season on equal footing, whether or not it had the DH. I’ve begged the folks at Baseball-Reference to add this and have reason to believe that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, we’ll have a user-accessible version of K+ here on FanGraphs.
(Here I should point out that the idea of indexing a pitcher’s strikeout rate actually predates my Sale article, something I was not aware of until shortly before this was published. In 2012, Bill Petti deployed what he called K%+ in writing about Stephen Strasburg and Dazzy Vance, though he apparently used the MLB-wide strikeout rate rather than a league-specific one. Great minds, etc.)
Scherzer’s 38.7% K rate in an NL where 22.6% is league average equates to a 171 K+. That’s slightly behind Cole for the lead among ERA qualifiers (one inning pitched per team scheduled game) over the past decade:
However, both Scherzer and Cole are in the lower half of the top 30 for the post-1994 strike era. Two Hall of Famers just flat out dominate the upper reaches of that list:
Ten of the top 11 seasons belong either to Johnson or Martinez; the Big Unit’s 1993 and -94 marks of 200 and 191 would make that 12 out of 13 had I chosen to dial back a couple more seasons. I could have omitted the strike-shortened 1995 season, as well, but for variety’s sake, the presence of Nomo’s rookie performance on the list is good for a smile, as is seeing the other interlopers such as Wood (in the year of his 20-strikeout masterpiece), Prior, Bedard (who would have thought?), Perez (who was good once upon a time!), Cone (a particularly outstanding pitcher on this front), and even BARTOLO. Martinez’s 238 mark is the highest since World War II, in case you were wondering.
Pretty cool, right? I’ll have more regarding K+ (and Vance, the secret king of this particular metric), both on the season and career level, in the coming weeks. We’ve got to iron out the technical issues, and there are arguments on both sides as to whether it’s worth adding park adjustment. On the one hand, it’s not as though there’s substantial variations in dimension from park to park the way that there is with fence distances; on the other, though, the different qualities of batters’ eyes, lighting, and mound heights (especially in earlier eras) suggests that the extra step is at least worth considering.
Anyway, back to Max. His career-best 17.5% swinging-strike rate — the best of the pitch-count era among ERA qualifiers, actually — owes something to the continued improvements of his slider and changeup. His slider generated whiffs on 17.8% of his pitches circa 2011 but has improved in all but one season since, to the point that it’s up to 28.9% this year. His changeup whiff rate hovered around 15% from 2008 to -14, but is now up to 19%. He’s actually throwing his slider less this year (14.7% of the time, down from 24.5% last year) and for the first time is using his cutter substantially (12.4%, up from 4.6% last year) — and it, too, has generated a good share of whiffs:
Those are some small sample sizes, so it’s worth keeping in mind that neither his curve nor his cutter were such meatballs last year; batters hit .192 and slugged .340 on 47 curves put into play, and .103/.180 on 39 cutters.
Scherzer’s dominance has been a constant through thick and thin for the 2018 Nationals. They won five of his six starts in March/April while going just 8-15 in games started by others, and have since won five of his six starts in May while going 14-6 otherwise. The team is now 32-23 overall, one-half game behind the Braves in the NL East, and has weathered the storm of so many early-season injuries. They’re due to get both Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy back from the disabled list over the next couple weeks and look to be in very good shape going forward: according to our Playoff Odds, both their 92.5% chance of reaching the postseason and 10.5% chance of winning the World Series are tops in the NL, though of course there’s still the small matter of actually winning a postseason series first. Scherzer is in the driver’s seat to put together the best season of his career, to join Clemens, Johnson, Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux on the short list of pitchers with four Cy Young awards, and to further his claim as one of the best pitchers of this decade.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.