The Hot Three-Way NL Cy Young Debate

The battle for the National League Cy Young Award is the most compelling of baseball’s individual award races as we head down the stretch. Three starting pitchers are making a strong case to win it and all are in the NL East—Max Scherzer in Washington, Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola and New York Mets’ ace Jacob de Grom. Here’s a basic outline on how the race looks, with each pitcher’s key statistics…

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Max Scherzer (Nationals): 16-6, 2.28 ERA, 193 IP
Scherzer leads the league in both wins and innings pitched, as a bright spot in what’s been an extremely disappointing year for the Nats. At age 34, Scherzer is already in rarefied air, with three Cy Youngs in the last five years. A fourth award would tie him with Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux, both in the Hall of Fame. Only Randy Johnson (5) and PED-disgraced Roger Clemens (7) would have more.

Aaron Nola (Phillies): 15-4, 2.23 ERA, 181 IP
On the other end of the career spectrum, Nola is in just his third year as a regular starting pitcher and his innings-pitched are already the most of his career. Nola’s case is built around value—he’s the clear ace for a team that’s been a nice surprise in getting into contention. The concern is this—will he fade down the stretch, due to the unprecedented workload? In that regard, a loss he took on Sunday when the Cubs knocked him around at home can be seen in an ominous light.

Jacob de Grom (Mets): 8-8, 1.68 ERA, 188 IP
He’s been simply dazzling trying to carry an awful Mets’ team and that’s reflected in the difficulties he has getting wins. The case for de Grom is pretty simple—he gives up fewer runs than any other starting pitcher, which is kind of the job description. The case against him is that his home park is easily the most favorable to pitchers of any of the three, which does explain at least part of his ERA edge.

De Grom is the most polarizing figure in this debate and that’s reflected in the projections of two reliable sources. ESPN’s Cy Young predictor, which is modeled on past voting patterns, says the Mets’ ace will come in fifth, with Chicago’s Jon Lester and Colorado’s Kyle Freeland coming in ahead of him. ESPN’s model has Scherzer as the favorite.

But if you look at the betting odds, Bovada has de Grom as the heavy favorite, a (-225) bet to win the award. Scherzer comes in well behind at (+225) and Nola’s backers can get a healthy (+850) price.

Who’s right? If the question is who I think will win, I’d probably fall back on Scherzer. In most cases, I defer to the oddsmakers, but ESPN’s models are pretty good and I trust them as a reasonable gauge of what the voters are likely to do.

But if the question is who I think should win, then the answer is that—based strictly on results to date—I would vote for Nola for the value-based reasons noted above. I’m definitely concerned about whether he keeps it going for his last 4-5 starts of the year, but as of September 5, he’d have my vote.