This isn’t going to be news to anyone reading it, but still, here goes.
Max Scherzer is really freaking good at pitching.
I know! A real hot take, right? He’s only one of the most accomplished starting pitchers ever, having won three Cy Young Awards (only four pitchers have ever won more). In 2018, he also became only the 17th pitcher ever to strike out 300 batters in a single season. Given the current state of Major League Baseball, with pitchers throwing fewer innings every season, it’s possible he’ll be the last one to do so for a while.
So, back-to-back National League Cy Young awards, followed by a 300-strikeout season is a halfway decent three-year stretch (I know, I just keep going out on limbs here). How does it stack up all-time though?
There have been some pretty incredible three-year peaks for pitchers throughout baseball history. To find guys to compare to Mad Max, however, I wanted to focus on pitchers who threw during at least somewhat similar eras. You won’t find Walter Johnson or Christy Mathewson here.
The cut-off used is 1956, which was the year in which the Cy Young Award was introduced for the first time. It seems fitting, since the first place I went to look was the list of players who have won the award multiple times, and they make up the bulk of the list. In fact, just two of the players listed failed to do so.
So, where does Scherzer’s 2016-18 fall? WAR is the most straightforward, simplest way to compare players who played decades apart from each other, so that’s what this list will use. Bear in mind, however, other factors may shape how you view each pitcher’s historical peak.
NOTE: bWAR refers to Baseball-Reference’s version of the stat. For the purposes of consistency, this article will not use fWAR, which is FanGraphs’ version.
15. Tim Lincecum 2008-10, bWAR: 18.5
Lincecum is included on the strength of his back-to-back Cy Young seasons, an impressive feat by any measure, though his numbers don’t hold up to the other legends on this list. He did lead the NL in strikeouts three straight years, but despite playing half of his games in the pitching-friendly confines of San Francisco, he never led the league in ERA.
14. Nolan Ryan 1972-74, bWAR: 19.9
It’s kind of hard to believe that Nolan Ryan never won a Cy Young, but as one of the most well-known, dominant pitchers ever, it seemed strange to leave him off the list. This is on opportunity to mention that during this stretch, in an era when strikeouts weren’t nearly as common as they are today, he averaged 360 K’s per season.
13. Steve Carlton 1980-82, bWAR: 21.3
Carlton’s best season came nearly a decade earlier, but his best multi-year peak came in the early ‘80s. His success was built mostly off his durability, however, as he didn’t come close to leading the league in ERA. He did strike out the most batters twice, and came away with two Cy Youngs in a three-year stretch because of it. His 1980 season alone is almost equivalent in WAR to his next two season combined, however.
12. Max Scherzer 2016-18, bWAR: 22.2
Scherzer’s WAR total keeps him lower on this list than Nats fans may have hoped for, but his numbers are mighty impressive nonetheless. Scherzer won back-to-back Cy Youngs and spent most of the third season as one of the clear favorites for another. In an era with Clayton Kershaw dominating headlines as the best pitcher of his generation, Scherzer led the league three straight times in both strikeouts and WHIP, and he did so while winning games for a competitive ballclub. His “high” ERA is the only thing keeping him from jumping up the list.
11. Jim Palmer 1975-77, bWAR: 22.5
Obviously pitcher wins aren’t valued the way they once were, and it’s not the reason Palmer was included, but he did lead the league with 20-plus wins in each of these three seasons. The back-to-back Cy Youngs and incredible durability stand out, but not many other statistics fly off the page in this stretch.
10. Clayton Kershaw 2013-15, bWAR: 23.2
Despite his postseason problems, Kershaw will almost certainly go down as the best, most accomplished pitcher of the last 15 years, if not even longer. His ‘13-’15 is particularly notable, as he won two Cy Youngs (and easily could have had another, as he, Arrieta and Greinke each had historically great seasons in the same year), kept his ERA below 2.00 twice, and joined the elite club of pitchers to strike out 300-plus batters in a season.
Injuries are probably the only reason he hasn’t had several peaks even better than this one.
9. Johan Santana 2004-06, bWAR: 23.5
Santana rode his changeup to a short-lived but dominant peak in the mid-2000s. He led the league in strikeouts three straight seasons, ERA twice, and won two Cy Youngs. His totals weren’t quite as gaudy as some others here, but in an era dominated by sluggers, he stands out as a consistently elite pitcher with one of the greatest single pitches in history.
8. Greg Maddux 1994-96, bWAR: 25.4
Maddux is known as the most successful “crafty” pitcher of all time. He never had the stuff of a peak Clemens or Feller, but consistency beat hitters with intelligence and precision.
It’s a little unfair, as fans often overlook his ridiculous stats. Maddux won four straight Cy Youngs, including two in this three-year peak. Despite not striking out a ton of batters, he had an ERA of 1.56 and 1.63 in ‘94 and ‘95, and his ERA+ of 271 and 260 in those years are two of the top-5 single seasons in MLB history. In any era.
7. Tom Seaver 1971-73, bWAR: 26.0
Seaver’s peak lasted several seasons, but his best was in the early years of the decade. He won just one Cy Young in this stretch, but finished in the top-5 all three years. He also averaged 20 wins, and led the league in ERA, strikeouts, and WHIP twice.
6. Sandy Koufax 1963-65, bWAR: 26.1
Koufax won three Cy Youngs in the span of four seasons, and we’re including the year in which he also won NL MVP (1963). He struck out 300 batters twice in this stretch, and his highest ERA was 2.04. This is an all-timer of a peak, and it’s the reason he’s in the Hall of Fame.
5. Gaylord Perry 1972-74, bWAR: 27.2
Perry won the Cy Young in 1972, and while he didn’t come particularly close to winning the award again in the following two seasons, he still accumulated an additional 16.4 WAR in ‘73 and ‘74 combined. His numbers don’t jump off the page otherwise, though he did win 64 games across the three years. His high WAR is a result of his durability and consistency more than a level of dominance in any one statistic.
4. Roger Clemens 1996-98, bWAR: 27.7
It’s easy to make jokes about steroids when it comes to Clemens, but frankly, the numbers he put up are wild. It would have been easy to pick any number of three year stretched, but this one stands out. He won 20-plus games twice, led the league in ERA twice, led the league in strikeouts three straight times, and in 1997 had a WAR of 11.9. Oh, and he also won back-to-back Cy Youngs.
3. Pedro Martinez 1998-00, bWAR: 28.8
When I sat down to put together this list, I assumed Martinez’s turn of the century peak would be the clear number one. He falls all the way to number three here, but don’t let that take away from his truly ridiculous numbers. His ‘99 season is the stuff of legend, and then he went out and topped himself with 11.7 WAR in 2000.
Right in the middle of the Steroid Era, Martinez finished top-5 in MVP voting twice. And it wasn’t crazy. That says everything you need to know.
2. Randy Johnson 2000-02, bWAR: 28.9
It's fitting that Martinez and Johnson are so high on this list, as they both dominated the same era of baseball, and both were inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in the same class.
Probably the most physically imposing pitcher ever, plenty of hitters have described how truly terrifying it was to face The Big Unit from the batter’s box. That was especially true during this stretch, in which he won three of his four consecutive Cy Young awards. He averaged 21.3 wins and 351 strikeouts per season.
Allow me to repeat for emphasis. 351 strikeouts. On average.
As a reminder, only 17 pitchers have ever hit that mark, and Johnson did four years in a row. In retrospect, it’s no surprise he ended up this high on the list.
1. Bob Gibson 1968-70, bWAR: 30.5
Gibson won two Cy Youngs and an MVP in this three-year stretch, including winning 20+ games in each year, but the real story is his 1968. In that MVP season, Gibson sported an eye-popping 1.12 ERA, which is a modern record. His stunning numbers helped change the game, as Major League Baseball decided to lower the mound after his dominant season. It should be no surprise, then, that he ends up number one with a bullet on this list.
I have a general philosophy: If you’re so incredibly dominant that the sport has to enact immediate rule changes, then you are a deserving number one on any list.
In the end, while Scherzer only ended up 12th on this list based on WAR, a more subjective view could easily push him up a few spots. Palmer and Perry were both volume-driven, and there are very strong arguments to be made for Scherzer’s peak as stronger than Kershaw’s, Santana’s, and even Seaver’s.
Gibson, Johnson, Martinez, Clemens, Koufax and Maddux are pretty unassailable as owners of the greatest peak three-year stretches in the modern era, but when you combine his award hardware, consistent dominance, propensity to do amazing things (like throw no-hitters and strike out 20 batters in a single game), and historic strikeout totals, Scherzer’s 2016-18 have an argument as anywhere from seventh to 12th-best in the last 70 years of Major League Baseball.
It’s been an incredible run, and probably not one that’s been matched by any other D.C. athlete (not named Ovi) in recent memory. It’s one of the most impressive peaks ever, and fans in the nation’s capital are fortunate to get to watch such a master as work every fifth day.