The 2019 World Series-champion Washington Nationals open the 2020 Major League Baseball season at home against the New York Yankees on July 23. It’s an Opening Day matchup that features two of the best starting pitchers in the game: Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole.
Some argue that the two hurlers are the best starting pitchers in their respective league. Furthermore, they’re on the same career path; Cole is merely younger than Scherzer.
Max Scherzer‘s Career
The Arizona Diamondbacks selected Scherzer with the 11th pick in the 2006 MLB Draft. The multicolor-eyed righty made his MLB debut in 2008 and pitched his first full season the ensuing year, posting a 4.12 ERA across 30 starts.
Scherzer was sent to the Detroit Tigers in a three-team trade with the Yankees after the 2009 season. Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Phil Coke, and Daniel Schlereth went to Detroit; Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson went to Arizona; Curtis Granderson went to New York.
Scherzer was a middle-of-the-rotation starter in the early stages of his Tiger days. He always had a nasty curveball, hit the high 90s with his fastball, and logged strikeouts at a high rate. The potential for stardom was there.
Scherzer put it all together in 2013.
Recording a 2.90 ERA and 0.97 WHIP while totaling 240 strikeouts, Scherzer won the American League Cy Young Award. He was Detroit’s best starter, which spoke volumes with Justin Verlander present.
Scherzer answered the bell in the playoffs, most notably tossing a gem in Game 2 of the Tigers’ AL Championship Series matchup with the Boston Red Sox. Totaling 13 strikeouts while surrendering a mere run and two hits across seven innings against a vibrant Boston offense, Scherzer put the baseball world on notice if he hadn’t already: he was legit.
The next season saw more of the same from Scherzer: pitching deep into games, making hitters look silly, and performing at a high level. Sure, his ERA and WHIP spiked a bit. That said, he posed the same threat he did in 2013.
It was now time for the payday.
After a couple months of uncertainty, Scherzer inked a seven-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals. The irony? Washington’s general manager, Mike Rizzo, was the D-Backs’ director of scouting when they selected Scherzer in 2006.
Scherzer dazzled in his debut season in the nation’s capital. Finishing with a career-best 2.79 ERA while posting an 0.91 WHIP and 276 strikeouts, he put together his best all-around season. Scherzer wowed with his curveball, threw a slider more often, and made a seamless transition to the NL game.
The ensuing seasons were mirror images of 2015 for Scherzer, as he won back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards in 2016 and 2017. He also tossed two no-hitters in 2015 and tied the MLB single-game record for strikeouts (20) against his former team, the Tigers, in 2016.
Cumulatively speaking, Scherzer’s postseason numbers may leave a bit to be desired given they don’t fall in line with his regular season success. At the same time, he was phenomenal for the Nationals on their 2019 World Series run.
Scherzer pitched and surrendered no more than two runs in a pair of elimination starts, limited damage, and gave the Nationals length. In Game 2 of the team’s NLCS matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals, he fanned 11 hitters across seven innings while surrendering zero runs and taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning.
Stephen Strasburg was the Nationals’ best pitcher in the postseason, but they don’t get to the playoffs or the World Series without Scherzer — or any of their big three starters, Patrick Corbin the other, for that matter.
Across his five seasons with the Nationals, Scherzer has made five NL All-Star Game rosters, totaled 1,371 strikeouts, never posted an ERA above three, and posted a WHIP no higher than 1.03.
He became a $210 million bargain.
Gerrit Cole‘s Career
Cole was drafted by the Yankees with the 28th selection in the 2009 MLB Draft. However, he opted to play at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Three years later he would be the first selection in the draft courtesy of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Cole made his MLB debut in 2013 and was as advertised from the get-go: an overpowering, high-velocity pitcher with considerable movement on his off-speed pitches. He also made two starts in the Pirates’ first-round matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals. Cole held his own, keeping runners off base and evading catastrophes.
Unfortunately, he was unable to pitch a full season until 2015 due to injuries. Cole posted a 2.60 ERA, a 1.09 WHIP, and 202 strikeouts across his first full season on an MLB hill (2015). While he was unable to continue the heroics in the NL Wild Card Game (Cole surrendered four runs across five innings against the Chicago Cubs and took the loss) Cole was proving that he was ace material.
Injuries hamstrung the right-hander again in 2016, limiting him to 21 starts. While he made 33 starts the ensuing season he showed some regression, surrendering a worrisome 31 home runs and posting a 4.26 ERA across 33 starts. He looked like a flash in the pan.
Let’s make clear the obvious: Cole played for an organization, the Astros, that systemically cheated. An asterisk and/or concerns are warranted for any players who played for them under manager AJ Hinch. It’s guilty by association.
Regarding Cole, it’s difficult to say a starting pitcher’s success is weightless. Astro hitters, not starting pitchers, are the ones who benefited from the team’s disgraceful, cowardly sign-stealing practices.
Now back to the program.
Cole seemed to find himself in Houston. His curveball was great, he was striking out hitters at a career-high rate, and pitching like the ace the Pirates thought he would become. Cole recorded a 2.88 ERA, a 1.03 WHIP, and 276 strikeouts across 32 starts in 2018.
In his first postseason start since 2015, Cole set down the Cleveland Indians’ well-versed offense in Game 2 of the AL Division Series, surrendering one run and totaling 12 strikeouts across seven innings.
It was feasible to think the 2018 version of Cole was going to be the prime version of the right-hander. It wasn’t.
Cole put together a historic 2019 campaign. Recording a career-best 2.50 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and MLB-best 326 strikeouts, he was arguably the best pitcher in the game. He had hitters in knots and was pitching deep into games as a formidable strikeout pitcher, which is a rarity in the modern-day game.
Cole made two captivating starts in the Astros’ first-round matchup with the Tampa Bay Rays, totaling 25 strikeouts and surrendering one run across 15.2 innings.
When Cole struggled, he still gave the Astros length, saving their bullpen and giving their offense a chance.
Then it was time for the payday.
Cole signed a nine-year, $324 million deal with the team that first drafted him: the Yankees. New York now looks for Cole, their new ace, to help deliver a World Series, as he pitches for a well-rounded, electric lineup.
We await the next chapter of this story.
The Path Leads to Cooperstown
Scherzer is a First Ballot Hall of Famer if he retires tomorrow. He has three Cy Young Awards, been a perennial finalist for said award, dominated in both the AL and NL, and won a World Series.
Cole is on the same path to Cooperstown, New York. While yet to garner a Cy Young Award or win a World Series, he has pitched well in both leagues, been a contender for the award in each of the last two seasons, and is continually improving. Like Scherzer, Cole put together two great seasons with his second team and got paid top dollar to help deliver a championship to his third.