When Memorial Day weekend reached Sunday, the slate of games in the National League teased the possibility of a full day when generational pitchers were dominating the highlight reels. You know them by their last names, that’s how famous they are, but we’ll give you first names, too: Max Scherzer. Clayton Kershaw. Jacob deGrom.
What we ended up with instead were two triumphant upstarts, and one rainout. All things considered, that’s not a bad outcome, because it gives us a chance to shine a light on two of baseball’s underrated aces: Brandon Woodruff of the Milwaukee Brewers and Kevin Gausman of the San Francisco Giants.
Let’s start by stipulating something about Mets ace deGrom, whose scheduled matchup against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday evening was washed away by the unrelenting rain on the East Coast. If he stays healthy, deGrom is the clear front-runner to win the NL Cy Young Award, which would be the third of his career.
It’s not just reputation. For all of deGrom’s exploits in recent seasons, he has never been better. However, deGrom has dealt with nagging injuries of late. With Sunday’s game postponed, he’s slated to start in Arizona on Monday night on the final day of May. Entering that game, deGrom’s May ledger is comprised of just two five-inning outings.
So if this pattern were to continue — and the Mets and deGrom and fans of great pitching certainly hope it does not — that would open up the field in the nascent 2021 NL Cy Young race. And as we hit Memorial Day, the leaders of a strong pack behind deGrom are Woodruff and Gausman.
That dynamic was on full display on Sunday.
Woodruff and Scherzer were matched up in an early-day start at Nationals Park. Scherzer entered the game with a 2.27 ERA, while Woodruff was working on a minuscule 1.41 mark, second only to deGrom, who is at 0.80 but barely qualifies because of the injuries.
While Woodruff’s star has been rising for a couple of years, he still entered Sunday with just 22 career victories and has never earned a single Cy Young vote. Scherzer, on the other hand, has won 179 games, three Cy Youngs, and leads all MLB hurlers in wins (170) and strikeouts (2,639) since the start of the 2010 season, while ranking second in FanGraphs WAR (59.1) during that span.
The matchup was as good as advertised. Scherzer gave up only two hits over six innings, striking out 10, but one of the hits was a two-run homer in the first by Milwaukee’s Avisail Garcia. That was more than enough support for Woodruff and the great bullpen that works behind him and the other members of the Milwaukee rotation.
“Both guys pitched really well,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Woody was just better, ultimately.”
Woodruff shut out the Nationals over seven innings, and gave up just two hits with 10 strikeouts. In doing so, he reduced a nearly irreducible ERA even further, dropping it to 1.27. After giving up three runs over four innings (6.75 ERA) in his Opening Day start against the Twins, Woodruff has reduced his ERA with each of his 10 subsequent outings.
“Any time you get to go up against Max, it’s going to be a challenge,” Woodruff said. “He’s one of the best in the game and the best to ever do it. It’s definitely a challenge.”
In the reliever-heavy pitching environment of 2021, innings pitched is as much of a proxy for bottom-line value as anything else. That is where Woodruff is making his name. He has gone at least seven innings in each of his past four starts and has gone at least six frames in his past 10.
The reason he has been able to do that is pretty simple: His stuff holds up deep into games and even after traversing opposing lineups a couple of times. Among pitchers who have at least 50 batters faced against hitters seeing them more than twice in a game, Woodruff leads everyone by allowing just a .429 OPS in those spots.
Kevin Gausman blanks the Dodgers for six innings with seven strikeouts in the Giants’ win.
By the time Woodruff was done watching his closer, Josh Hader, nail down the shutout against Scherzer and the Nats, Gausman was into his preparations to face Kershaw and the Dodgers, with San Francisco bidding to win a third straight game on the home field of its ancient rival.
Where Scherzer lingers on the ERA leaderboards, so does Kershaw. Kershaw trails Scherzer by one win for the most since 2010. He leads Scherzer in fWAR (62.3, for a lead of 2.2) during that span and is second to Scherzer in strikeouts. They are, along with perhaps Justin Verlander, the best pitchers of their generation.
Gausman? He’s a rags-to-riches guy who has seen his status morph from journeyman to star during his short time with the Giants. A pitcher who was a tick under league average for the first seven years of his career currently has a four-seamer that ranks as baseball’s second-most lethal pitch and a splitter that ranks as the 12th-best pitch.
Those two offerings accounted for 61 of Gausman’s 72 offerings on Sunday, as he stifled the Dodgers over six shutout innings. Alas, he departed at that point with what the Giants later called left hip tightness, which manager Gabe Kapler described as an ongoing issue. San Francisco held on to win 5-4, though, and Gausman lowered his ERA to 1.40.
“Kershaw, the name kind of speaks for itself,” Gausman said. “Kind of knew runs were going to be at a premium today.”
After all that, here’s a mini leaderboard of National League hurlers, and this accounts only for those who currently sport sub-2.00 ERAs:
Once you start working through advanced metrics, other pitchers beyond this quintet emerge who might be part of the Cy Young conversation. That group includes Scherzer and Kershaw, Trevor Bauer (who was last year’s winner), Yu Darvish, Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler and Woodruff’s rotation-mate, Corbin Burnes, who ranks high in several advanced metrics.
But when you’re past Memorial Day and you have three qualifying pitchers in one league sporting ERAs under 1.50, that will demand some attention. You know, the kind of attention we were ready to shower on Scherzer, Kershaw and deGrom on Sunday, as we’ve done so many times before.
Instead, we have a chance to stop, pause and take notice of two less-famous hurlers who nevertheless are producing like stars and might well actually be stars. And there is zero evidence based on two months of results that Brandon Woodruff or Kevin Gausman is going to disappear from this conversation.
The pecking order for NL Cy Young consideration has to begin with deGrom. But if he falters in either health or performance, the pack of contenders ready to take his spot begins with those two underrated but emergent aces.