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Began In '96

No bad choice

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By Adam Cancryn

At 13-1, Max Scherzer seemed the clear-cut choice as the AL’s best pitcher. But a deeper look reveals the beginnings of a three-man race that should heat up over the next few months.

After about a week of debate over whose first half was most deserving, we have an answer: Max Scherzer will start the All-Star Game for the American League. 

The simple reason, given on July 15 by manager Jim Leyland, is a bit less satisfying for the sport’s progressive contingent: “13-1 Max Scherzer. I don’t think I need to explain any more than that.”

It seems us so-called “statheads” have a bit more work to do. 

But! The fact that there even was a debate among baseball’s writers and watchers is an encouraging sign of how far we’ve come in the past 10 years or so. And so while the 68-year-old Leyland might be done talking, it’s worth expanding on why (and whether) Scherzer’s first few months ranked as the best in the AL.

The Tigers hurler is 13-1, with the only blemish stemming from a failed attempt last Saturday at matching Roger Clemens’ record undefeated mark, set back in 1986. By any measure, that’s impressive.

Scherzer also strikes out a whopping 10.55 batters a game, at the same time allowing them to hit just .203 against him. And don’t forget, he plays for the division-leading Detroit Tigers. A strikeout artist who leads the league in wins for a likely playoff team?* By the conventional definition, Scherzer is the consensus All-Star starter.

*It should also be noted that Leyland is Scherzer’s manager, and that favoritism often makes the difference, all else equal.

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But we’ve escaped the days of a Topps card housing all the stats fit to print, thanks in large part to the man who Scherzer narrowly beat out. It was Felix Hernandez who three years ago won a Cy Young despite a 13-12 record for a squad that finished with 101 losses. His case then leaned heavily on his superior advanced statistics, and does again this year.

The 27-year-old is 10-4 for a fourth-place team, but holds a slight advantage on Scherzer in the alphabet soup (ERA+, FIP, xFIP) that sabermetricians swear by. Perhaps most importantly, Hernandez is slightly more valuable to his team than Scherzer. The Mariners ace finished the first half with a 4.2 wins above replacement mark as measured by Fangraphs, compared with Scherzer’s 4.0. Surf over to Baseball Reference, and the gap widens, 4.7-3.8.

Let’s throw one more in there: Scherzer’s Tigers score 5.9 runs on average when he starts. Hernandez benefits from just four runs behind him per game.

Given all that, the picture is suddenly a little more complicated. And that’s before even thinking about Chicago’s Chris Sale, who has a better ERA+ than either Scherzer or Hernandez and a greater percentage of quality starts. He’s 6-8 so far, the victim of a depressing 2.8 runs per game in support. Put him on the Tigers, and he might never lose.

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What must be said is that this is the All-Star Game. It’s a meaningless bit of summer fun before both the mercury and the pressure skyrocket. Scherzer’s start will not make his career, just as Hernandez’s credentials are not tarnished by appearing in the third rather than the first inning.

But what we’re seeing now are the seeds of a bigger, fiercer debate down the road. Scherzer or Hernandez for Cy Young? Or even Sale? Wins or WAR? Gut or head?

The good news is that that debate is becoming more intelligent every year. Save for a prehistoric few, the baseball world has moved on from who’s the best “winner” or “scrapper” to simply trying to determine who’s the best, given all the available info. 

Perhaps the better news is that between these three starters, all that available info nevertheless leaves the issue unresolved. When they take the mound tonight in New York, the All-Star Game will represent the first of many opportunities over the next three months for us to figure it out. 

Adam Cancryn is an editor and co-founder of Began in ‘96.