A stream of alcohol slammed into Max Scherzer’s right cheek when he received the news that he had won the 2016 National League Cy Young Award. His wife, Erica May-Scherzer, landed a kiss on Scherzer’s open mouth, Scherzer yelled, and the dousing of his head was just starting.
That was last year. This year, in a purple sweater and button-down shirt that made him look like the expectant father he is rather than a sneering mound stalker, Scherzer just let out a, “Yes!” when he learned he had won again.
Scherzer finished well ahead of Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw to win the 2017 National League Cy Young Award. The Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg rode a dominant second half of the season to a third-place finish, his best since entering the major leagues in 2009 as the No. 1 overall pick.
Scherzer was No. 1 on 27 ballots from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Kershaw received just three first-place votes.
Despite Kershaw’s dazzling stuff and Strasburg’s late-season surge, Wednesday was again Scherzer’s moment. It reaffirms that Washington made the right move when it paid Scherzer $210 million in 2015 despite having one of baseball’s better starting rotations. It also keeps Scherzer on pace to be recognized as an historically great pitcher.
Winning in 2017 made Scherzer a three-time recipient of the award — he won in 2013 with the Detroit Tigers in addition to his 2016 win in Washington — and just the 10th pitcher to win three or more Cy Young Awards. He and Kershaw are the lone active pitchers to win three times. Roger Clemens’ seven wins are the most all-time. He is the only retired pitcher to win the award more than three times but not be elected to baseball’s hall of fame. Scherzer is also just the sixth pitcher to win the Cy Young Award in both leagues, a feat he accomplished with his 2016 win.
“When you start talking about winning it three times — I can’t even comprehend it at this point in time because, I mean, it’s such an unbelievable feeling, unbelievable moment, that you won’t really process it until about a year later,” Scherzer said on a conference call. “That’s kind of what I’ve found when I’ve won these things… This moment, I’m on cloud nine.”
He’s reached this point in consecutive seasons because of staunch prevention of baserunners. Scherzer led the league in WHIP, walks plus hits divided by innings pitched, for the second consecutive season. He delivered a restrictive 0.902 WHIP thanks to a league-low 5.7 hits allowed per nine innings and his usual superior command of where his pitches went. Scherzer’s walk rate went up slightly this season (he was ninth in the National League), but so did his strikeout rate. He spent most of the season on pace to strike out more than 300 batters. That possibility was derailed by a trio of minor injuries later in the season that cost him three starts and cut short two others.
But, his workload was still larger than that of Kershaw, who for the second consecutive season probably lost the award because injuries reduced his time on the mound. Kershaw finished fifth in Cy Young voting last season despite making just 21 starts. He made 27 starts in 2017 and led the league in ERA, ERA plus (which adjusts for the pitcher’s park) and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Kershaw trailed Scherzer in two important categories: innings pitched and WAR. Scherzer pitched at a high level — one right in line with Kershaw — for a longer period of time. That allowed him to run up his value and win the award for the third time.
“What more can you say about Max?” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said in a statement. “To have taken home this award three times already in his career, to be among the shortest of lists when it comes to three-time winners, and an even shorter list of those who’ve won the award in both leagues, you realize just how special a pitcher we’re lucky enough to watch every fifth day.”
Scherzer’s usage of his off-speed pitches increased year-over-year. He threw his four-seam fastball 55.4 percent of the time in 2016. That number dwindled to 48.5 percent — the lowest of his career by far — in 2017, according to Fangraphs. Use of his changeup, slider and curveball all increased. Scherzer also threw a “cutter” more often. He would explain the pitch as a “power slider” that is effective against left-handed hitters.
Those changes reflect Scherzer’s ongoing pursuit of reinvention. He has spent three seasons working on his cutter. He goes through extensive preparation, both physical and mental, for each start. Persistent running helps him throw 98 mph in October. Studying patterns, both his and those belonging to the hitters he faces, allows him to maintain an one-step-ahead plan. Execution of that blueprint is what makes him a historically significant pitcher.
“You can’t get complacent and think you were great because you are great,” Scherzer said. “If you have a great start, you have to put in just as much work as possible to go back out there and pitch as well as you possibly can.”
Scherzer is 33 years old. He is under contract until 2021, when he will be 37. Another Cy Young is possible, 3,000 strikeouts in his career — and perhaps the fastest route to that total in history — is also possible, then, the ultimate step, enshrinement in Cooperstown, N.Y. He tries to keep those distant thoughts at bay. “You can get lost trying to think about those milestones,” Scherzer said during the season. “They distract from what’s at hand, at times. It’s better to keep the blinders on and keep marching forward.”
He did that again last season, ending it with another Cy Young Award.