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Scherzer the head of the class among aces

Dominance of Nationals' star over past five seasons sets him apart
MLB.com @MikeLupica

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- His name is John Graham, and there may have been kids happier to be at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on this day than he was. But probably not. Graham, who is 56, suffered a stroke last March, and was diagnosed with prostate cancer after that. He says that when he was first starting to get better, his goal was no more complicated than Spring Training baseball: Being well enough to go back and be at a ballpark like this.

"I thought about days like this," he said. "I thought about the chance to watch somebody like Max Scherzer pitch."

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- His name is John Graham, and there may have been kids happier to be at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on this day than he was. But probably not. Graham, who is 56, suffered a stroke last March, and was diagnosed with prostate cancer after that. He says that when he was first starting to get better, his goal was no more complicated than Spring Training baseball: Being well enough to go back and be at a ballpark like this.

"I thought about days like this," he said. "I thought about the chance to watch somebody like Max Scherzer pitch."

View Full Game Coverage

I asked him if he knew Scherzer might be pitching when he bought tickets for the first Sunday of Spring Training games here, Nationals against the Braves. He smiled and shook his head.

"I have a friend in the ticket office," he said. "He told me who was starting for the Nats." Graham nods at his wife sitting next to him. "When she got home from teaching yoga, I told her, 'We're going to the ballpark.' She said, 'We were just there two days ago.' I said, 'That was two days ago. One of the best pitchers in the world is pitching today.'"

He was talking about Scherzer -- and maybe Scherzer isn't merely one of the best pitchers in the world. He is possibly the best -- winning two Cy Young Awards in a row, and three in five years. We talk about Clayton Kershaw all the time. We also saw what Scherzer's old teammate, Justin Verlander, did for the Astros. There are other aces, though not as many as you think. Chris Sale of the Red Sox is one. Jake Arrieta, currently unemployed, has better numbers over the past five years than you might think.

Video: Scherzer accepts second straight NL Cy Young Award

But when you add it all up, it is not so hard to make the case that the ace of all the aces in baseball right now is Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals.

"When the Nats got him from Detroit, I thought he was just some guy they had who wasn't Verlander," Graham said. "Boy, was I wrong."

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Scherzer, great as he is, was absolutely in Verlander's shadow when they were both with the Tigers. He didn't start one of the first two games of the Nats' playoff series against the Cubs last season because he was recovering from a hamstring injury. So Scherzer only got one postseason start in the same October in which Verlander really did look like as much of an ace as he had ever been in his life in pitching a complete game against the Yankees in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series -- with the Astros down in the series, three games to two.

But when you look at his total body of work over the past five regular seasons and factor in those three Cy Young Awards, you can see why it isn't much of a challenge to say Scherzer is first among equals. Even if there aren't all that many equals.

Here are some stats from Matt Kelly at MLB.com:

ERA
1. Kershaw: 1.95
2. Greinke: 2.83
3. Arrieta: 2.86
4. Scherzer: 2.87
5. Sale: 3.01
6. Verlander: 3.56

Strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB)
1. Kershaw: 6.9
2. Sale: 5.8
3. Scherzer: 5.0
4. Greinke: 4.2
5. Verlander: 3.2
6. Arrieta: 3.1

Strikeout rate
1. Scherzer: 30.6 percent
2. Kershaw: 30.4 percent
3. Sale: 30.0 percent
4. Arrieta: 24.7 percent
5. Greinke: 23.5 percent
6. Verlander: 23.4 percent

Batting average against
1. Kershaw: .197
2. Arrieta: .204
3. Scherzer: .205
4. Sale: .221
5. Greinke: .230
6. Verlander: .238

OPS against
1. Kershaw: .529
2. Arriera: .595
3. Scherzer: .608
4. Sale: .624
5. Greinke: .639
6. Verlander: .678

Innings pitched
1. Scherzer: 1,092 1/3
2. Sale: 1,038
3. Verlander: 991 1/3
4. Kershaw: 991
5. Greinke: 963 2/3
6. Arrieta: 826 2/3

Wins
1. Scherzer: 89
2. Kershaw: 83
3. Greinke: 81
4. Sale: 70
5. Arrieta: 69
6. Verlander: 64

Home runs allowed
1. Arrieta: 63
2. Kershaw: 66
3. Greinke: 94
4. Verlander: 107
5. Sale: 110
6. Scherzer: 116

Video: Martinez on Scherzer's first start of the spring

Scherzer has given up more home runs than the other guys, yes he has. Here it is, see if you can hit it. He gave up a monster on Sunday afternoon in West Palm Beach to the second batter he faced, Dansby Swanson, who hit one over everything in left field until it landed in front of the Astros' "World Champion" sign out there. But he struck out Austin Riley, swinging, to end the first and struck out two more guys in the second. It was clear to see -- even in this small sampling, even on the first Sunday of spring games, with beer vendors yelling "Dilly Dilly" as they tried to sell Bud Light and fans like John Graham ridiculously happy to be here -- that you could have taken Scherzer's slider, in particular, from this first Sunday of spring games all the way to Opening Day.

Kershaw has a Hollywood stage, and such a famous baseball platform, in Los Angeles with the Dodgers. Verlander isn't just a champion now, he has his own profile raised by having a famous model wife like Kate Upton. The Dodgers wouldn't trade Kershaw for anybody. The Astros wouldn't trade Verlander for anybody. But Scherzer, at least so far in Washington, has more than been one of the great free-agent pitching acquisitions of all time -- even if the Nationals paid $210 million over seven years to get him.

Now three years into that deal, the 33-year-old is 51-25 in 98 starts for Washington, with an earned run average of 2.76, never making fewer than 30 starts. He has pitched a no-hitter. He has struck out 20 in a game. Now, his first Spring Training start of 2018. On the last Sunday in February, Scherzer already looked like he was ready for the last Thursday in March, which is when the Nationals will open their regular season in Cincinnati.

Scherzer's Sunday ended in the top of the second, when he struck out Dustin Peterson. Seven batters, three strikeouts, goodbye. He was walking off as soon as the ball was in the catcher's glove.

In the shade behind third base, John Graham smiled. Like a kid.

"The best," he said.

He was either talking about Scherzer. Or the day. Or both.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com. He also writes for the New York Daily News.

Washington Nationals, Max Scherzer