Cy Young Awards just start of intriguing offseasons for Kershaw and Scherzer
The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and the Tigers’ Max Scherzer were named the 2013 Cy Young Award winners in the National and American Leagues, respectively, on Wednesday night. The two combined to pick up 57 of a possible 60 first-place votes with Kershaw falling one vote shy of a unanimous selection (that vote went to runner-up Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals) and Scherzer missing by two (with those votes going, curiously, to fourth-place Anibal Sanchez and fifth-place Chris Sale).
What is less certain is exactly what comes next for these two aces. Since late in spring training, Kershaw has been rumored to be on the verge of finalizing what will almost surely be the richest contract ever for a pitcher. Scherzer, according to reports, could potentially be traded by the Tigers this offseason.
For the 25-year-old Kershaw, such a deal — which could potentially go over $200 million — would certainly make sense given the historic pace that he’s on. He just won his second Cy Young Award in three seasons and has finished no lower than second in any of those years. That makes him just the fourth pitcher since the creation of the award in 1956 to finish in the top two of the voting three straight years and the youngest ever to do so.
Kershaw went 16-9 and threw the second-most innings in baseball this season (236) while leading the majors with a 1.83 ERA, 194 ERA+ and 0.92 WHIP and the National League with 232 strikeouts and two shutouts (one of which came on Opening Day, when he also hit a home run). His ERA+ was the best in either league since Zack Greinke’s 205 in his Cy Young season of 2009 and was the best by a pitcher who had thrown as many or more innings as Kershaw since Randy Johnson’s 195 in 2002. His unadjusted ERA, meanwhile, was the first below 2.00 by a qualified pitcher since Roger Clemens’ 1.87 in 2005, the lowest in the majors since Martinez’s 1.74 in 2000 and the lowest by a pitcher with as many or more innings pitched since Dwight Gooden’s landmark 1.53 in 1985.
Perhaps most impressively, by leading the major leagues in ERA again this season, Kershaw joined Lefty Grove (1929-31) and Greg Maddux (1993-95) as the only three pitchers in major league history ever to turn that trick. For those wondering, none of the three led the majors in ERA+ all three seasons; only Clemens from 1990-92 has done that. However, it’s worth noting that none of those three pitchers even started their run of ERA (or ERA+) titles before the age of 27, while Kershaw won’t be 26 until March.
As for the 29-year-old Scherzer, the story of his Cy Young award-winning season, his first, ultimately wasn’t his eye-catching 21-3 won-loss record, but his curveball. Yes, Scherzer became the first pitcher since Clemens in 1986 to start 13-0 and just the third man ever to open a season 19-1, but by now we know better than to put much stock in pitching wins, which are an inexact measure of a hurler’s effectiveness. Scherzer might have garnered the bulk of his support from the voters due to that record, but he deserved the award more for his 145 ERA+ (second-best in the AL behind Sanchez’s 163), league-leading WHIP (0.97) and 240 strikeouts at a rate of 10.1 per nine innings (both second in the majors to runner-up Yu Darvish’s 277 and 11.9).
Scherzer owes much of the success for his career-best year to his curveball, a pitch he first used in May 2012 and made a key part of his repertoire this season. As Scherzer himself has said, his curve not only gave him an extra pitch with which he could mix things up the second and third time through an opposing lineup, it gave him a third speed alongside his mid-90s fastball and mid-80s slider and changeup (his curve sits in the upper-70s). Perhaps most importantly, it also increased his options against lefthanded hitters.
The statistics back up all of those assertions. Scherzer use his curveball 7.3 percent of the time in 2013, with most of that use coming against lefties (11.0 percent compared to 1.7 against righties) and after the second inning (when the frequency went from to 5.6 percent to 8.1 percent). Prior to this season, lefthanded batters hit .273/.346/.440 against Scherzer. This year, lefties, who comprised 60 percent of the batters he faced, hit a mere .222/.278/.367 against him without particularly bad luck on balls in play (.283 BABIP). That strongly suggests that Scherzer’s breakout season was no fluke.
Perhaps the biggest curveball of Scherzer’s year came when reports surfaced in recent days that the Tigers would be open to trading him. As Joe Lemire wrote about elsewhere on SI.com on Wednesday, that would be misguided. In Scherzer and Justin Verlander, Detroit has had the best pitcher in the American League each of the last three seasons, and Verlander appeared to be rounding back into his Cy Young form down the stretch in 2013 while Sanchez was nailing down the AL ERA title. Perhaps with Sanchez and Verlander both under team control through 2018, the Tigers think they could do without Scherzer, who can be a free agent after next season, but they are unlikely to be a better team without him than they could be with a rotation featuring all three.