Voting for the annual Baseball Writers' Association of America awards rarely is simple. Sure, every once in a while you get a no-brainer - Bryce Harper for National League MVP in 2015 - but most of these decisions are tough.
And few I've ever voted for were tougher than this year's NL Cy Young Award ballot. As I started compiling a list of candidates in late September, I was able to come up with 10 pitchers who at least deserved consideration. Five of those pitchers wound up on the actual ballot. And I found myself making a valid case for any of three of those to win the award.
My top three choices were the same three who were named Cy Young finalists: Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Max Scherzer. And my final choice, by a whisker, was Scherzer.
Yes, I voted for the guy from the team I cover, the Nationals. But that had absolutely nothing to do with it. I simply felt, after spending a whole lot of time comparing and contrasting the three, that Scherzer was most deserving of the award. Which, in a surprise to me, was the consensus opinion, given the fact Scherzer received 25-of-30 first-place votes to win the Cy Young in convincing fashion.
(A friendly reminder here, as always, that all BBWAA award ballots are submitted before the start of the postseason. Nothing that happens in October ends up factoring into the decisions.)
OK, first the case for the other two guys ...
Hendricks had by far the best ERA in the NL this season (2.13). He had the lowest opponents' OPS (.581). He finished strong (12-2 with a 1.55 ERA over his final 18 starts). And he proved that even in today's game that prioritizes power arms, you can still be really successful pitching to weak contact.
Lester ranked second in the league in ERA (2.44). He was among the league's best in just about every category. He also finished strong (9-1, 1.46 ERA over his final 12 starts). And he was the ace of the league's best team, the guy the Cubs gave the ball to for Game 1 in October.
Either pitcher, in my estimation, was worthy of winning the Cy Young Award. But here's why I believe Scherzer was better ...
He led the league in wins (20), innings (228 1/3), strikeouts (284) and WHIP (0.97). The last pitcher to lead the NL in all four of those categories? Sandy Koufax in 1965.
Scherzer also led the league's pitchers in WAR - 6.2 according to Baseball-Reference.com's formula, though FanGraphs.com had Noah Syndergaard on top - if you're the type who believes in that stat.
Here's what really tilted it, for me, in Scherzer's favor: He had more dominant starts than the others, maximizing his outings and thriving in the most important situations.
We all know the "quality start" stat, which credits a pitcher for going at least six innings and allowing three or fewer earned runs. Let's take it a step beyond that, and look at who was able to more consistently go seven innings and allow two or fewer earned runs.
Scherzer did that 18 times, tops in the majors. Lester did it 15 times. Hendricks did it only seven times. That counts for something.
Scherzer often talks about how he believes a pitcher's starts are defined by the last 15 pitches he throws, when his arm is tired and the opponents are trying to mount a rally to either come from behind or break a deadlock. Which guys are able to finish what they started, to give their team those critical extra three outs and get the ball to the elite setup men and closers? That matters a great deal to Scherzer, and I tend to agree with him.
"When you're pitching in the sixth-seventh inning, how you perform in those innings truly matters in what's going on in the rest of the ballgame, in how you set up the bullpen and whatnot," Scherzer said last night. "You have to work for it. You have to do everything you can to be able to pitch deep into a ballgame. And I really take pride in pitching at my best in those last 15 pitches, which is typically the seventh inning. So does that separate me (from other starters)? That's for somebody else. But I know personally I pride myself in being able to pitch my best after 100 pitches a game."
Here's another statistical way to look at it. Baseball-Reference keeps track of how many of the batters a pitcher faces come in "high-leverage" and "late-and-close" situations. Scherzer faced 106 batters in high-leverage spots, with 62 of those coming in late-and-close situations. Lester faced 105 batters in high-leverage spots, with 56 of those coming in late-and-close situations. Hendricks faced only 63 batters in high-leverage spots, with only 15 of those coming in late-and-close situations.
And it's not like Scherzer struggled in those spots. Opponents hit just .222 with a .271 on-base percentage in high-leverage plate appearances, just .220 with a .246 on-base percentage in late-and-close situations.
The one knock on Scherzer was his 2.96 ERA, which ranked eighth in the league. That's valid. And it was mostly a byproduct of the league-leading 31 home runs he surrendered. That's a legitimate blemish on his season.
But it's the only blemish. And in my opinion, all the other things he did exceptionally well - leading the league in most of the big pitching categories, putting fewer men on base and giving up less contact than anyone else, throwing more meaningful innings than others (and throwing them well) - overshadowed the slightly elevated ERA.
It was a close call. It wasn't an easy decision. But in the end, I felt that Max Scherzer was the best pitcher in the NL this season. Kyle Hendricks was second. Jon Lester was third. Madison Bumgarner was fourth. And the late Jose Fernandez was fifth.
What about Noah Syndergaard, Johnny Cueto, Clayton Kershaw and Tanner Roark? I strongly considered all of them. But there are only five slots on the ballot, and each of them just missed the cut.
Needless to say, this was a really good year for pitching in the National League.