The close race between Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets and Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals for the National League Cy Young Award last year brought attention to a very interesting debate.
The goddess of victory never seemed to smile for deGrom, who kept his ERA as low as 1.70, the best record in the National League, but only managed to notch up 10 wins and 9 defeats for lack of batters’ support. Scherzer, who managed to keep 2.53 ERA, couldn’t compete with deGrom on the front of ERA, but at 18-7, his win/loss record was certainly a winner. In the end, deGrom was the one who garnered the most votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, becoming the winner of Cy Young Award with 207 points, overwhelming Scherzer at 123. It was enough ground for commentators to argue that the “number of wins,” a traditional yardstick to measure the quality of a good starting pitcher, does not work anymore.
This year, the rivalry between Ryu Hyun-jin, the 32-year-old South Korean Dodgers starter, and Max Scherzer, is also stirring a debate similar to last year. Only this time, the name of the game seems to be ERA. Ryu’s ERA stands at 1.83, and Scherzer at 2.43. For a pitcher’s ERA, fielders’ defense skills are a crucial factor. “Scherzer plays in front of a defense that’s struggled significantly; Ryu plays in front of the league’s very best. Strip that out? Scherzer’s been better,” claimed Sports Illustrated on Wednesday (local time).
The American sports magazine’s theory is based on a term called FIP, which stands for “fielding independent pitching.” Stripped down to the indicators immune to defense such as the number of strikeouts, four balls, home runs, FIP indicates a pitcher’s capacity to prevent runs without the help of defense. In fact, Scherzer’s FIP at 2.10 is ahead of Ryu at 2.88.
Ryu’s forte lies in his precision and unpredictable breaking balls, rather than pressing ahead with four-seam fastballs. When the batter slightly misses Ryu’s pitch as intended, he needs fielders’ help to get an out. In the game with the Colorado Rockies on June 23, Ryu conceded runs from Ian Desmond after his shortstop committed an error and put two runners on first and second bases with no outs. Allowing three runs over six innings, Ryu failed to take home a win. On the other hand, Scherzer, who overwhelms batters with his 157km/h fastballs, is keeping a good record with 170 strikeouts (No. 1 in the Major League Baseball), making up for the Nationals’ rather weak defense.
Ryu Hyun-jin, who had been considered as the most promising Cy Young candidate until May, is getting increasingly wabbly after failing to find a win in the recent four games in a row. His hits per inning pitched (0.90) or strikeout-to-walk ratio (13.43) are on top of the league, but his on base average has shot up from 0.177 in May to 0.269 in June. “If voters had to pick right now, most would almost certainly go with Ryu, but there’s a very valid ‘true-level-of-individual-performance’ case to be made for Scherzer,” commented Sports Illustrated, citing the possibility of “the two pitchers’ ERA getting closer to their FIPs.”