As expected, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer easily won the Cy Young Awards on Wednesday, with Kershaw capturing 29 of 30 first-place to win his second Cy Young Award, and Scherzer collecting 28 of 30 first-place votes to win his first.
Kershaw, with his 16-9 record and 1.83 ERA, was the clear choice in the National League. Jose Fernandez had a similar dominance over hitters -- Kershaw allowed a .195/.244/.277 batting line, Fernandez .182/.257/.265 -- but Kershaw pitched 63 more innings, making that comparison moot. Adam Wainwright was terrific, going 19-9 with a 2.94 ERA, walking just 35 batters in 34 starts while leading the majors in innings pitched, but he allowed 28 more runs while pitching just 5.2 more innings.
The American League race arguably had a little more flavor to it if you looked past Scherzer's shiny 21-3 record. Over at FanGraphs, Dave Cameron outlined the specifics of the debate when it came to using advanced metrics to evaluate the candidates:
We have two different models of pitcher WAR: one based on FIP, and one based on runs allowed. These represent the extreme opposite ends of the viewpoints on how much credit or blame a pitcher should receive for events in which his teammates have some significant influence. If you go with strictly a FIP-based model, a pitcher is only judged on his walks, strikeouts, and home runs, and the events of hits on balls in play and the sequencing of when events happen are not considered as part of the evaluation.
If you go with the RA9-based model, then everything that happens while the pitcher is on the mound -- and in some cases, what happens after they are removed for a relief pitcher -- is considered the pitcher's responsibility, and he's given full credit or blame for what his teammates do while he's pitching.
Scherzer fared best in the Fielding Independent Pitching version of WAR, with his terrific strikeout and walk rates; Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma, because they allowed slightly fewer runs in a similar number of innings, fared best in the runs-based model. Iwakuma, for example, led the AL in Baseball-Reference WAR, which focuses more on runs (while considering other factors like team defense and quality of opposition). But as Cameron pointed out, Scherzer rates high in both models. Scherzer likely won so easily because of his 21-3 record, but he's a deserving winner even if he'd gone 17-7.
Did either pitcher have a historic season? Scherzer did have the fifth-highest winning percentage for a pitcher who won 20 games:
Ron Guidry, 1978 Yankees: .893 (25-3)
Lefty Grove, 1931 A's, .886 (31-4)
Cliff Lee, 2008 Indians: .880 (22-3)
Preacher Roe, 1951 Dodgers: .880 (22-3)
Scherzer, 2013 Tigers: .875 (21-3)
But Scherzer's 2.90 ERA wasn't historical, and teammate Anibal Sanchez had an even lower ERA. Scherzer was hard to hit and had a high strikeout rate, but his .583 OPS allowed ranks just 31st during the wild-card era. I'm not trying to diminish Scherzer's season, just suggesting the win-loss record overstates his dominance a bit. He took a huge leap forward, however, and is now correctly labeled as one of the best in the majors.
It's easier to make the case for Kershaw. Since 1950, we've had just 33 seasons where a starter allowed an ERA under 2.00, with 21 of those coming in the 10-year span between 1963 and 1972, when pitching dominated. Going back to 1994 and the wild-card era, just seven times has a pitcher finished with an ERA under 2.00: Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez twice, Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens and now Kershaw. Kershaw's .521 OPS allowed is third-best in that era, behind Martinez in 2000 and Maddux in 1995. I would rate Kershaw's season behind those two since they pitched in much higher-scoring leagues.
In fact, Baseball-Reference isn't all that impressed with Kershaw's season, valuing it at 7.9 WAR -- just 38th since 1990. Consider the other factors in play: He pitched in a good pitcher's park, offense across the majors was at its lowest point since 1992 and he didn't face a particularly tough slate of opponents.
Not that 7.9 WAR isn't anything but awesome. It is awesome. Kershaw is clearly the best starter in the majors right now, having finished first, second and first in the past three Cy Young votes while leading the majors in ERA all three seasons. He doesn't turn 26 until next March. I don't think he's going to stop at two Cy Young Awards.