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Why Does It Feel Like Max Scherzer Has to Apologize for Being 19-1?

Detroit Tigers v Chicago White Sox

Over the weekend, Tigers’ righty Max Scherzer improved to 19-1 following Detroit’s 3-0 victory over the New York Mets, a game that also doubled as Matt Harvey’s last start for the immediate future. A funny thing has happened to baseball in the wake of Felix Hernandez winning the Cy Young award in 2010 with a 13-12 record. In the new world we live in, Scherzer’s gaudy record almost feels like a burden for him, where he needs to defend himself for having the audacity to be 19-1.

Here was Scherzer talking about his then 7-0 record back in May:

“That’s the thing — 7-0′s a nice thing, but I don’t really hang my hat on that. If I was 0-7 and still pitching well, giving my team a chance to win, I’d still be proud of it. For me, it’s all about going out there and making sure I’m going deep into games, keeping their offense down. I’ve been doing that for the most part this year.”

And here’s his take last week when he beat the Royals to get to 18-1:

“The team is playing well every time I go out and pitch,” Scherzer said. “Miggy always seem to show up and hit bombs, do damage every single time I go out there. The rest of the lineup does their job. Guys make great plays behind me.

“I just give the team a chance to win. When I’m able to do that, the team always seems to rally around that and that’s why I’m 18-1.”

By now everybody from crusty old school baseball types to spreadsheet-toting Sabermetricians agree: wins hardly come close to measuring a pitcher’s true merit. MLB Network’s Brian Kenny has made it his raison d’être on Twitter to spread the gospel of #KillTheWin. Problem is, there’s so much backlash out there and lingering animosity between the new-school and the old-school due to their constant battles over the years that it’s put Scherzer’s excellent 2013 season unfairly under the microscope.

We can agree wins, a stat devised back in the 1800s tells little — if anything — about how good or bad a pitcher throws over the course of a game. Wins, other than their place in newspaper or ticker listing the day’s starting pitchers, offer very little since it’s one of the few stats tied to team performance rather than the individual — a point Scherzer himself has driven home throughout the season.

As little as maybe five years ago Scherzer would have probably had the Cy Young locked up weeks ago. His win Sunday made him only the third pitcher in baseball history to start a season 19-1. The stat Scherzer detractors (let’s use the term loosely) point toward is his American League-high 5.9 runs per start as a reason for his gaudy record. Meanwhile let’s look at where Scherzer’s peripheral stats rank in the league, saying nothing of his 19 wins.

  • ERA: 2.73 (5th, Anibal Sanchez 2.61)
  • WHIP: 0.91 (1st)
  • Strikeouts: 191 (2nd, Yu Darvish 225)
  • K/BB ratio: 4.67 (5th, David Price 5.55)
  • K/9: 9.89 (2nd, Darvish 12.05)
  • Component ERA: 1.79 (1st)
  • BAPIP: .238 (1st)
  • WAR (T-1st, Chris Sale)

There’s also the Runs Saved stat that Peter Gammons linked on his site late Sunday compiled by Lee Sinis. Scherzer came in with an AL-best 30. (I’m assuming that’s a typo next to Darvish’s name given Gammons track record for sending butt-tweets.)

However you want to analyze it, even without Scherzer’s 19 wins he’s been very good and among the best in the league. Perhaps you still prefer Hernandez or Darvish or even Sale for the American League Cy Young. Perhaps you don’t want to take into account the fact the Tigers are in first place, thanks in part to Scherzer. Either way, we should be inching closer to a happy medium, which would include all BWAA writers voting for the Cy Young using more than wins and losses to make their pick and doing so without being shamed by the online community.

Gammons sums it up very nicely:

Some will hate Scherzer’s ratings, given some obsessions about the “meaningless” statistic known as wins, as if winning games and being the best pitcher cannot intertwine.

As much as this debate figures to rage over the next month, we have made progress from the days when wins were the be-all, end-all for Cy Young voters. Let’s look back to 1990 when Bob Welch won the award over Roger Clemens thanks mainly to his 27-6 record. Clemens went 21-6 that season, struck out nearly 100 more batters but Welch still took the vote 107-77. Peel away further, Clemens’ WAR was 10.56, while Welch’s was 2.99. Welch got credit for being the top pitcher on that powerhouse Oakland team that went 103-59 at the peak of the Bash Bros. powers, while Clemens was overlooked. (Bill James calls this the worst award selection of the 1990s in his “Historical Abstract.”)

Maybe I’ll wrap up this post on a semi-ironic note. As you may or may not know by now I’m a Tigers fan (and I won’t lose a minute of sleep if Scherzer wins the Cy Young or not). I’m locked in on all 162 games. If and when the team makes the postseason this October I want Jim Leyland handing the ball not to Scherzer for the first game of the ALDS, but rather Anibal Sanchez, the league leader in ERA who might just have better stuff. 

Wins don’t tell us much, but they also shouldn’t feel like they count against Scherzer’s excellent 2013 campaign.

The pendulum doesn’t automatically have to swing so far in the extreme opposite direction than where it was a decade ago, does it?

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Related: Hawk Harrelson: Sabermetrics are ‘The Biggest Joke I’ve Ever Seen’

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