Washington’s less-than-dazzling baseball tradition — at least when it comes to the modern era — got a little more impressive Wednesday night when Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer won his second straight National League Cy Young award.
For perhaps the first time since the team arrived in 2005, this franchise’s fans can begin to think seriously about Cooperstown, and look forward to the prospect — likelihood, even — that a Washington Nationals player is on track for the game’s Hall of Fame.
Scherzer spent his first seven major league seasons in Arizona and Detroit, where he won the American League Cy Young with the Tigers in 2013.
But it is here in Washington, with two Cy Youngs in three seasons, a 20-strikeout game and two no-hitters, where Scherzer is getting the attention and acclaim as perhaps the best pitcher of his era. And with four years left on his $210 million contract, this will likely be the place where Scherzer accomplishes the most — the place that Cooperstown recognizes as worthy of the baseball cap that will be commemorated on Scherzer’s plaque in the Hall of Fame.
There are few joys in baseball like attending a Hall of Fame induction for one of your team’s iconic players. And it would be particularly special for Washington fans, who, unless they piggybacked on the Orioles’ Hall o.f Fame inductions, have never experienced the event — Cooperstown, filled with fellow fans from all over.
There was some thought early in his career that Ryan Zimmerman would be the Nationals’ ticket to the Hall of Fame. But he appears to have lost too much time to injuries to accumulate the career offensive numbers he would need.
Bryce Harper already seems to have a Hall of Fame reservation, but that could be cancelled by his inability to stay healthy — plus his plaque will likely commemorate his next baseball team after he enters free agency following next season.
No, the Nationals franchise’s admission to the Hall of Fame is Max Scherzer.
Premature? They don’t keep three-time Cy Young winners — at least ones who weren’t documented cheaters — out of Cooperstown. No, they make room for them, especially those who have won the award in both leagues — a short list of six.
“When you start talking about winning it three times — I can’t even comprehend it at this point in time because, I mean, it’s such an unbelievable feeling, unbelievable moment, that you won’t really process it until about a year later,” Scherzer said on a conference call. “That’s kind of what I’ve found when I’ve won these things … This moment, I’m on cloud nine.”
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said in a statement: “What more can you say about Max? To have taken home this award three times already in his career, to be among the shortest of lists when it comes to three-time winners, and an even shorter list of those who’ve won the award in both leagues, you realize just how special a pitcher we’re lucky enough to watch every fifth day.”
Here is the list of pitchers who have won the award for best pitcher in their respective leagues at least three times or more — Steve Carlton, Clayton Kershaw, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Jim Palmer.
On that list, only Clemens, who is enshrined in the Mitchell Report for his performance-enhancing drug accomplishments, and Kershaw, still active, are not in the Hall of Fame. And Kershaw will likely take his place some day in Cooperstown along with Scherzer.
The Nationals pitcher’s current career numbers do not measure up to old-school standards for Hall of Fame hurlers.. No starting pitcher in the last 50 years, save for Koufax, who retired early due to arm problems, has been inducted with less than 200 career wins. Don Drysdale had the lowest career wins with 209.
But decisions are tougher to come by for pitchers in the current state of the game, and the days of Johnson, Maddux, Carlton and Seaver, with their 300-win careers are long gone. The high 200-victory career mark may be going as well.
Scherzer, 33, currently ranks 12th among active pitchers in wins, with 141. But only two pitchers are currently above 200 — Bartolo Colon with 243 and C.C. Sabathia with 237. After that, it’s John Lackey and Justin Verlander at 188, followed by Zach Greinke at 172, Felix Hernandez at 160 and several others ahead of Scherzer, including Kershaw with 144.
It’s not likely that any of that group is going to be around long enough to put up the win totals that previously guaranteed a place in Cooperstown.
It’s a different era, different judgements and measurements.
But Scherzer has excelled in one metric likely to trump all: three Cy Young awards — and counting.
Scherzer, who went 16-6 this past season, led the league in WHIP, walks plus hits divided by innings pitched, for the second consecutive season. He struck out 268 batters, and is eighth among active career starters with 2,149 strikeouts, with a career season average of 243.
No one knows what the future will bring with the delicate nature of pitching arms. Scherzer had some minor ailments that came up this season that derailed several starts (let’s remember he was hurt going into the NL Division Series against Chicago with a hamstring injury). But we also may be in the middle of the prime of the best pitcher of his time. That is also possible.
“You can’t get complacent and think you were great because you are great,” Scherzer said. “If you have a great start, you have to put in just as much work as possible to go back out there and pitch as well as you possibly can.”
It is 375 miles from Nationals Park to Cooperstown. Plan accordingly.
• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.
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