When Clayton Kershaw went on the disabled list in late July, it seemed clear that for the second year in a row, a midsummer back injury would prevent baseball's best pitcher from claiming the National League Cy Young Award he rightfully deserved. Instead, Washington's Max Scherzer was left with a clear opening to run away with the award, just like he did last year.
But then Scherzer ran into health troubles of his own, missing much of August with a neck problem. And while he was impressive in his return on Monday night, the missed time -- along with an uncharacteristically down year from NL starting pitchers -- has at least opened the door for Kershaw to get back in the race. So as he makes his return to start against the Padres on Friday, Kershaw still has something to work toward besides tuning up for the postseason. Kershaw still has a shot to take home his fourth NL Cy Young Award -- something only four pitchers have done.
How is that possible? Part of it is because apart from Scherzer, the competition we usually see in the NL just isn't there. In the American League, there is Chris Sale, who will likely run away with the AL Cy Young Award and the MLB Award for Best Pitcher, but the field remains open in the NL.
But it's also because based on what we've seen from past voting patterns, Scherzer (167 1/3 innings, 2.21 ERA) has merely a good case in the race over Kershaw (141 1/3 innings, 2.04 ERA), not a stranglehold. To illustrate that, we turn to the Cy Young Prediction tool built by MLB.com analyst Tom Tango, just as we did last year.
The way it works is simple: (IP/2 - ER) + SO/10 + W, with an important wrinkle we'll get to in a second. There's some science behind the formula, but basically it exists that way because it's based on the voting patterns since 2010 (a year chosen because it's when Felix Hernandez won the AL Cy Young Award with just a 13-12 record, as pitcher wins and losses began to carry less importance), and that's an important distinction. It's not about who should win, however you choose to define that. It's about who may be most likely to win, based on recent voter behavior.
In 2015, for example, it predicted not just the winners, but the top five names, in order, in both leagues. Last year, it got Scherzer/Jon Lester/Kyle Hendricks right in the NL, and while it incorrectly expected Justin Verlander to top Rick Porcello in the AL, Verlander did get six more first-place votes than Porcello did, in one of the tightest races on record.
Now, if you prefer that voters go deeper than innings, earned runs, strikeouts and wins, you're not alone. For example, our most advanced Statcast™ metric, Expected wOBA, gives Scherzer (.237) a slight edge over Kershaw (.251), and he's done it in more innings. But again, that's not the point here. It's about looking at what voters have valued when they make their selections. So as you look at the points leaderboard right now, you would see that Scherzer (79) has the edge over Kershaw (71), and you'd think the race was over. But then, don't forget about that wrinkle we mentioned earlier. It's important. It gets Kershaw to the top.
National League Cy Young Award prediction tool leaders
- Kershaw, 71 points (*tops Scherzer due to leads in ERA, wins)
- Scherzer, 79 points
- Giovany Gonzalez, 68 points
- Zack Greinke, 62 points
- Jacob deGrom, 56 points
Here's where Kershaw has an opening: The one exception to the points formula is that a player automatically bubbles to the top if he has more wins and a better ERA than the player above him. Kershaw's 2.04 ERA tops Scherzer's 2.21; Kershaw's 15 wins tops Scherzer's 13. Regardless of the points, that pushes Kershaw ahead of Scherzer -- to the top of the list. (This all assumes, of course, that Kershaw will get the requisite 162 innings to qualify for the ERA title, which he will do if he stays healthy.)
You will almost certainly find reason to argue with that. Wins, after all, are seen as much more of a team stat than an individual stat -- correctly so. But this is based on history, remember. A pitcher who leads the AL or NL in wins and ERA just about always wins the honor, and Kershaw, the ERA leader, is just one win shy of the NL lead. Lest you think it doesn't matter, just remember how much Porcello's 22-4 factored in last season, even though it was largely fueled by the 6.6 runs per game of support the Boston offense gave him.
In 2015, for example, winners Dallas Keuchel and Jacob Arrieta each had the most pitcher wins. In '14, Kershaw led in both wins and ERA (as he did in 2011, when he won his first NL Cy Young Award) and AL winner Corey Kluber tied for the most wins. In '13, Kershaw had the lowest ERA in the NL and Scherzer had the most wins in the AL. Whether or not we want those things to matter, voters have proven they matter.
But this isn't just about a loophole. Back to the points formula itself, is eight points a big gap? It is, yet it's not insurmountable. Scherzer, for example, gained five points by whiffing 10 in seven innings, allowing one run, against the Marlins in his first game back. With a similar start on Friday against the light-hitting Padres, Kershaw would cut that gap to just three, a virtual tie.
All of which points back to this simple fact: Even with Kershaw missing more than a month of play, it's not time to engrave Scherzer's name on the NL Cy Young Award just yet. There's still a lot to be settled in September, and baseball's best pitcher still has more than a fighting chance.