There were a whole lot of people who believed in Max Scherzer coming into 2013. I was not particularly one of them.
Scherzer arrived with Detroit as part of the three-way deal between the Tigers, New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009 that resulted in Curtis Granderson, Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Ian Kennedy also switching teams. Over the next two years, Scherzer was an entirely acceptable pitcher: ERAs of 3.50 and 4.43, never more than 200 innings, and a strikeout to walk ratio that improved across the two seasons, from 2.63 to 3.11. In 2012, Scherzer did even better than that, posting a 3.85 K/BB, his 11.1 K/9 being the highest among qualified starters in MLB, along with a 3.74 ERA in 187.2 innings pitched. Tigers fans were ready to name him the best No. 2 starter in the game; I liked the progression, but didn't particularly see why he would be great in 2013, instead of merely good.
I also thought Justin Verlander was going to be the anchor of the rotation, Doug Fister would be the second-best pitcher in the rotation and Anibal Sanchez's repeatedly shredded shoulder would come back to haunt him. None of that came to pass, either.
I was wrong, and not only is the Tigers' rotation the class of the American League, but Max Scherzer -- not Justin Verlander -- is the Detroit pitcher with the most legitimate argument for the Cy Young Award going into the final six weeks of the season.
Scherzer's record is 18-1, and while that's a pretty pair of numbers that will endear him to voters, it's mostly a distraction. The true value of his work lies in his 2.82 ERA over 172.1 innings so far this season, with 185 strikeouts to just 38 walks. Barring injury, Scherzer will break 200 innings pitched for the first time in his career sometime in mid to late September. He will likely reach 20 wins, too, as the Tigers are a good baseball team that plates runs for its pitchers, and there's a stretch at the end of the season where he should get a pair of starts (at least) against two of the Mariners, White Sox, Twins and Marlins. While 20 pitcher wins looks nice on a baseball card, Scherzer remains compelling without them.
But if Scherzer is going to win his first Cy Young Award, first he has to distinguish himself from the rest of the American League, in a year that's been very good to pitchers. Merely eyeballing the leaderboards, there are two candidates who are at least as compelling as Scherzer: Chicago's Chris Sale and Seattle's Felix Hernandez. Sale is a bit behind on innings pitched, at 165.1 to Scherzer's 172.1 and King Felix's 178.2, but his 2.78 ERA is slightly better than Scherzer's, while Hernandez's 2.49 ERA is even better than that. King Felix has the worst ("worst") K/BB of the three at 4.79 strikeouts for every walk; Sale has 4.86, and Scherzer barely tops him at 4.87.
But even that gives a limited perspective on the race for the AL Cy Young Award. If you're a WAR(P) person for pitchers, Sale has half a win over Scherzer with Felix falling in a comfortable second place between the two of them, according to Baseball Reference's WAR: 6.1 for Sale, 5.8 for Hernandez, and 5.5 for Scherzer. Going by Fangraphs WAR, however, Hernandez and Scherzer are tied at 5.3, with Derek Holland coming in third at 4.8 and Sale lagging in fourth at 4.6. Holland is having a great season too -- 2.95 ERA over 168 innings -- but he's striking out fewer batters while walking a good number more, and unless he really turns it on over the last six weeks, he should end up around fourth place in the voting.
Finally, using Baseball Prospectus's WARP metric, Sale is the best pitcher in the AL (3.78), followed by Scherzer (3.58), and Felix Hernandez (2.81) is eighth, behind Hiroki Kuroda (3.03). Kuroda is proving himself to be one of the best Yankee free agent signings in recent memory: 160.1 innings of 2.41 ERA -- this leads the AL among qualified starters-with 116 strikeouts and 29 walks. He doesn't strikeout as many guys as Sale, Hernandez and Scherzer, but he does it at a better ratio, 4.00 exactly going into Tuesday's action.
Innings pitched do matter, however, and while Kuroda is having an elite season -- and would, on a better Yankees team, probably be breezing to his own first Cy Young -- he is still likely to end up short of the pace set by Hernandez and Scherzer by the year's end. Derek Holland's teammate in Texas, Yu Darvish, will get substantial attention in the voting as well. He currently leads the American League in strikeouts, both in aggregate total (214) and in rate (12.0 K/9). He too is a pitcher who has been extremely effective (2.68 ERA), but in roughly two starts less than the leaders, 161 innings pitched to Scherzer and Hernandez's mid-170s.
Essentially, then, with six weeks to go in the season, a reasonable person can make a case for any one of five pitchers (or six, if you're absolutely in love with Anibal Sanchez and his 2.50 ERA despite his low 133 innings pitched; he does lead the league with a 168 ERA+) for the American League Cy Young Award.
So what distinguishes Scherzer in particular from the pack?
Circumstance and good fortune, mostly. Scherzer is having an elite season, even considering the league-wide offensive downturn of the past couple years. But barring injury or extreme misfortune he will be a heavy favorite for the Cy Young, because the voters do love their pitcher wins, and at 18-1 already, Scherzer has a very appetizing tiebreaker. Felix Hernandez's 2010 Cy Young Award, given to him during a season when his record was merely 13-12, is commonly quoted as an example of the voters bucking win-loss record for ERA as a lynchpin stat. The thing to remember about 2010, however, is that the second place finisher, David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays, had an ERA over half a run greater than Hernandez's frankly ridiculous 2.27 in 249.2 innings. King Felix's ERA that year was the best in baseball, and his innings pitched the most in the American League.
This season, there's likely to be a lot more pitchers finishing within a half-run of each other -- that 2.45 to 2.95 range -- without anyone quite reaching the 240-inning threshold (though with a complete game or two from the leaders, it's not an unreasonable number), but with most of them breaking 210 innings. Hernandez also had six complete games in his Cy Young year, compared to Price and third-place finisher C.C. Sabathia's two. This year Sale leads the league with four complete games, and no other reasonable candidate has more than two.
In 2011, Justin Verlander won both the American League MVP and Cy Young Awards by virtue of having the best ERA in the American League, the most innings pitched in baseball, the most strikeouts in baseball, and a 24-5 record. He probably would have won the Cy Young again last season, instead of David Price, if voters hadn't been skittish about giving him the same reward for a season slightly worse than the last -- even though on the merits it was still better than Price's outstanding year. Wins and losses are still a big part of the Cy Young equation for voters, and that should help Scherzer even if all it means is that he pitched well in front of a good offense, while Sale and Hernandez had to make do with whatever the White Sox and Mariners could accomplish at the plate that day.
But even with the odds in his favor, Max Scherzer isn't aiming for the Cy Young Award, in the same way that his teammate Miguel Cabrera isn't aiming for another Most Valuable Player Award. Both things would be nice to have, and if the proper work is put in and the current production is sustained then both things will come to them -- but the Detroit Tigers have dominated the regular season awards voting for two years now, without backing those performances up with a title. So far, Max Scherzer has been the best pitcher in the best rotation on the best team in this year's American League. He doesn't need to win a Cy Young Award to prove all of that's for real. He needs to win a World Series.