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The Unlikely Resurgence Of Baseball’s Aces

This baseball season seems to have the makings of an unpleasant one for pitchers. Hitters are focusing on hitting deep fly balls, and more of them are leaving the yard than ever before, possibly thanks to a batch of baseballs that are bouncier than usual. As a result, scoring has increased to 4.65 runs per game, the highest it’s been since 2008. But despite all of that, star hurlers are quietly experiencing a renaissance in 2017.

In fact, several of them are butting their way into the MVP conversation. Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale has the most wins above replacement of any player — pitcher or otherwise — in the major leagues, with 6.6,1 and Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals leads the National League with 6.1.

That wasn’t the case last season. According to WAR, the top pitcher of 2016 was the New York Mets’ Noah Syndergaard, who clocked in at eighth overall with 6.7 WAR — 0.8 of which came from his bat, not his arm.2 To find the last time baseball’s top pitcher ranked worse in overall WAR, you’d have to go back to 1983, when Steve Carlton and John Denny of the Philadelphia Phillies finished tied for ninth overall. Between then and last year, only one top pitcher has finished as low as eighth by overall WAR, San Diego Padres ace Jake Peavy in 2007.

With Syndergaard injured since May, it might have seemed as though top pitchers were in for an even worse fate this season. But instead, they’ve flourished: In addition to Sale and Scherzer, Cleveland’s Corey Kluber ranks among baseball’s top 20 players this season (seventh), as do Arizona’s Zack Greinke (17th) and Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers (19th). (And that’s even though Kershaw headed to the DL in late July.)

On pace for 9.1 WAR over a full schedule,3 Sale is having one of the most dominating seasons by a pitcher in recent memory. If Sale keeps it up, the only campaign better by WAR in the past 15 years will have been Greinke’s 9.5-WAR season in 2009. And for his part, Scherzer is tracking for one of the best seasons by a runner-up pitcher, ranking as the 28th-best among No. 2 pitchers in a season since 1901 and 10th-best since MLB lowered the mound in 1969.

Of course, all of this means only that the top of the pitching heap has been stellar this season. Because there’s a finite amount of pitching WAR to go around, if the best pitchers are accumulating more of it, lesser pitchers must be doing worse. Indeed, if you look at a ranking of this year’s pitchers by overall WAR, most of those between Nos. 10 and 75 are doing worse (in terms of WAR per 162 team games) than the average for their ranking slot since 1998.4 (For example, Jimmy Nelson of the Brewers ranks 18th in baseball with a 3.9-WAR pace. The typical No. 18 pitcher records 4.3 WAR, so Nelson is running nearly a half-WAR behind average for his ranking slot.) In other words, there are more legitimately great pitchers this year, but fewer good ones.

Even so, the numbers pick up again around the 100th-best-pitcher slot, and many pitchers who rank in the range between Nos. 100 and 200 are outpacing the historical average for their rank. So the class of “solid pitchers” seems to be doing just fine, thank you very much.

Either way, with such great pitching performances leading the pack, you can expect this season’s MVP debates to be complicated by the old (and really dumb) argument over whether hurlers should be allowed to win the award. Scherzer is currently a half-WAR clear of Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt for the NL lead, while Sale is in a slightly tighter race with Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve for the AL lead. And although I’d like to think we’ve come a long way since Pedro Martinez finished second and fifth in MVP voting during two of the greatest pitching seasons ever,5 there is probably still some anti-pitching bias in the minds of MVP voters. (“They have their own award, the Cy Young,” is the common justification.) But unlike last season, there have at least been pitching performances outstanding enough to warrant the debate.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.


  1. All uses of WAR in this story refer to an average of the and FanGraphs versions.

  2. Syndergaard hit for a .673 OPS (on-base plus slugging), good for fourth among pitchers.

  3. The Red Sox have played 118 games.

  4. 1998 is the last time that MLB expanded and thus is the first year the major leagues began allocating the same total WAR per season as in 2017.

  5. And maybe we have: Kershaw and Justin Verlander both won the award this decade.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.