NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer or Jon Lester?

WASHINGTON — Max Scherzer had one of the strongest regular seasons in Nationals history. But was it good enough for the National League Cy Young Award?

He’s currently projected to beat out Chicago Cubs ace Jon Lester for the award, according to ESPN’s Cy Young predictor, but no other pitcher is especially close to that pair in the NL. Here’s how the stats shake out:

Max Scherzer: 228.1 innings, 20-7 record, 2.96 ERA, 0.968 WHIP, 284 strikeouts, 165 hits, 56 walks, 31 home runs, 11.2 strikeouts per 9 innings.

Jon Lester: 202.2 innings, 19-5 record, 2.44 ERA, 1.016 WHIP, 197 strikeouts, 154 hits, 52 walks, 21 home runs, 8.7 strikeouts per 9 innings.

Scherzer finished eighth in the NL in ERA and first in WHIP, and he was tops among NL pitchers in innings pitched. He struck out 31 more batters than any other NL pitcher, and he was the only one to win 20 games. Opposing hitters managed just a .199 batting average against him, the second-worst average in the league.

Lester, meanwhile, finished second in ERA and third in WHIP, and he was sixth in innings pitched. He struck out the seventh-most batters, and he was the only non-Scherzer pitcher to win more than 18 games. Opposing hitters managed a .211 average, the fourth-worst in the NL.

The biggest case against the Nationals ace is the home runs, which was his major flaw early in the season. He allowed five homers in his first five games, then he gave up 10 more in his six May starts and five more in six June starts. He settled down in July, allowing just two in five starts, then he allowed nine over his 12 starts in August-October. The home runs hurt his ERA tremendously, as his ERA didn’t drop below 4.00 for good until June 1.

Scherzer recovered well, but his ERA is still 0.52 higher than Lester’s, which could be what dooms him if Lester takes the award. ERA is, after all, the first stat most look at when determining a pitcher’s dominance, and there’s no small gap between the two pitchers in that category.

However, Scherzer gets the edge in just about every category, and he didn’t have the benefit of the Cubs offense behind him. Washington was no slouch at the plate, scoring 763 runs with a team average of .256, but Chicago scored 808 runs, also with a .256 average.

Not helping Scherzer is how he fared when his team didn’t support him. He went 0-5 in games in which he got two runs or fewer in run support, but he went 20-2 in games in which he got at least three runs. Meanwhile, Lester went 3-2 with two runs or fewer in run support and 16-3 with three or more runs.

As for other candidates, Lester’s teammate Kyle Hendricks led the NL with a 2.13 ERA, and his 0.98 WHIP was second only to Scherzer. However, his 16-8 record and 190.0 innings both fall short of the other two stars, and his 170 strikeouts is more than 100 less than Scherzer’s 2016 total.

Jake Arrieta, also with the Cubs, went 18-8 with a 3.10 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, and opponents hit an NL-worst .194 against him over 197.1 innings. He struck out 190 batters while walking 76.

Noah Syndergaard (14-9, 183.2 innings, 2.60 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 218 strikeouts, 43 walks) had a strong season with the New York Mets, and Madison Bumgarner (15-9, 226.2 innings, 2.74 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 251 strikeouts, 54 walks) was his typical dominant self.

But it seems likely that the competition will come down to Scherzer vs. Lester.

We’ll know the answer in November, after the Nationals’ and Cubs’ seasons have ended, for better or worse.

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