A quarter of the way through the season, the 2014 American League Cy Young race isn't lacking in participants. Masahiro Tanaka is one standout. So is Sonny Gray. And Mark Buehrle. And usual suspects Felix Hernandez and Yu Darvish.
But don't sleep on the guy who won it last year. Or underestimate him.
In fact, it's probably best if we all recognize that Max Scherzer is still the guy to beat.
The Detroit Tigers ace right-hander was at it again Friday night, taking on the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Though the rains came and tried to cool Scherzer off after he opened with three hitless innings, he shook off a lengthy delay to ultimately make it through six scoreless innings. He allowed three hits, walked four and struck out seven.
Torii Hunter's RBI single in the first proved to be enough, as four Detroit relievers combined to finish off what Scherzer started for a 1-0 Tigers victory.
Detroit is now 25-12 and, interestingly, holds both the best home record (13-8) and road record (12-4) in the American League.
According to MLB.com's Jason Beck, this is not lost on the man of the hour:
Scherzer on home/road records: "If we get good pitching, the way we have been, with this offense, we can beat anybody in anybody's place."— Jason Beck (@beckjason) May 17, 2014
Scherzer's actual performance, meanwhile, wasn't the most dominant we've seen from him since he rose to prominence in 2013. It did, however, succeed in launching him to the top of some key AL categories.
After entering the game tied with Buehrle for the AL lead in ERA at 2.04, Scherzer's now all alone at the top with a 1.83 ERA.
As for what Scherzer's seven punchouts accomplished, the Tigers' official Twitter feed can fill you in:
.@Max_Scherzer finished tonight's game with 7 strikeouts and now has an AL leading 73 strikeouts this season.— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) May 17, 2014
On a related note, Scherzer also leads the AL in strikeout rate with 11.14 strikeouts per nine innings. That's quite the improvement over the 10.08 K/9 he posted on his way to the Cy Young in 2013.
For the more sabermetrically-inclined, one thing Scherzer isn't leading the AL in like he did last year is FanGraphs WAR. He ranks fifth in fWAR, trailing Friday night opponent Jon Lester, Corey Kluber, Darvish and Hernandez.
But since FanGraphs WAR is based off of Fielding Independent Pitching, a metric that calculates what a pitcher's ERA should be, it's essentially WAR based on theoretical runs allowed. For WAR based on actual runs allowed, FanGraphs has RA-9 WAR (Runs Allowed per Nine WAR).
And there's where we find Scherzer at the top of the AL, and by half a point over Tanaka to boot.
You get the idea. Just like in 2013, it's becoming very easy to build a case for Scherzer as the best pitcher in the American League. If anything, it's even easier this year.
There's a good reason for that: Scherzer looking like a better pitcher can be traced to his efforts to become a better pitcher.
It's not hard to classify Scherzer. He's a guy with a mid-90s fastball, and any pitcher with one of those is a power pitcher. Check and mate.
But this leads us to something fascinating about Scherzer. Power pitcher though he is, it's remarkable how his game is continually becoming less about power.
This graphic from Brooks Baseball can explain:
All you're looking at is Scherzer's pitch selection over the years. What should stand out is the black dots that represent his fastball usage, and how the line connecting them is heading nowhere but down.
Ever so slowly, Scherzer the power pitcher has been trying more and more to craft himself into Scherzer the pitcher, with 2014 being just the latest step in that direction.
And yeah, it's working pretty well.
In light of how Scherzer's been throwing a few extra sliders and changeups in 2014, it's an awfully good look that the whiff rates on both pitches have gone up. Another benefit of the changeup in particular is that its extra usage has also helped Scherzer's ground-ball rate.
And while the less-than-awesome 3.05 BB/9 rate that Scherzer currently boasts suggests he's having trouble finding the strike zone with this less fastball-heavy approach, that's not entirely true.
FanGraphs says Scherzer actually entered his Friday start throwing 50.5 percent of his pitches in the strike zone. That ranked seventh in the AL, and is a huge improvement on how many of his pitches found the zone in 2013 (45.9 percent).
So those league-leading statistics we talked about earlier? Those are no fluke.
Scherzer was able to dominate American League hitters with more of a power-oriented approach in 2013. We shouldn't be surprised that he's dominating them even more with the use of a more nuanced approach that he has a good handle on in 2014.
That's a guy who's not likely to stop making fools of AL hitters. And as long as he's doing so, he's not going to make it easy for the competition to go toe-to-toe with him in the AL Cy Young race.
It's almost as if Scherzer really wants to become the first pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000 to win two straight AL Cy Youngs.
Though, here's guessing his upcoming free agency might also be a factor.
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