Formidable Opponent: Scherzer v. Harper

Both Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer have been amazing. But who has had the better season? To find out I argue with the smartest person I know, me.

James: This is easy. We have wins above replacement for a reason, so that we can compare players across position and team to see how much they’ve contributed to their team this year. Bryce Harper’s WAR on FanGraphs is 5.1 wins and on Baseball Reference it’s 5.2 wins, that’s good for best and second best in MLB. Scherzer, while great with WARs of 4.0 wins and 4.6 wins respectively can’t compare. This is an open and shut case. The defense rests. Case closed.

James: Not so fast! The question isn’t which player has contributed more to the Nationals; it’s which player has had the better season. For that case we need much more context. For instance, while Harper leads position players in fWAR by a 0.5 wins, Scherzer leads all pitchers by 0.6. On Baseball-Reference the gap is more pronounced, Harper trails Paul Goldschimdt by 0.1 wins, while Scherzer leads all pitchers by 0.7 wins.

James: You want context? Try this on for size. Bryce Harper is only 22 years old. His 5.1 fWAR already ranks as the 41st best WAR in a season among players 22 years old or younger since 1959. Oh and did I mention that the Nats have only played 73 games this year? I doubt he stays at 41st for long.

James: OK, so Max Scherzer isn’t impossibly young, but age is just a number. While Harper’s age shows more potential in his future, it’s all about the right now in the competition. So let’s look at some more numbers, WAR doesn’t show anything. Scherzer has thrown 102.1 innings (1st in NL), to the tune of a 1.76 ERA (2nd) and a 1.96 FIP (1st). He also leads the NL in strikeout-to-walk ratio (an obscene 8.79), hits per 9 IP (only 5.98), WHIP (.801), RE24 (25.04), complete games (2) and shutouts (also 2). You’d be hard pressed to find a pitching stat that Scherzer isn’t in the top 5 of the NL for.

James: Man I can’t believe you started the leading the NL in statistical category game first. Have you seen how much black ink has been on Harper’s Baseball Reference page yet? Forget the NL, he leads all of baseball in slugging percentage (.719), OPS (1.185) and OPS+ (221). He’s also best in the NL in runs scored (53) and top three in the NL in batting average, on-base percentage, total bases, home runs, walks, extra base hits and RE24. Oh and did I mention that the only players who qualified for the batting title and had a higher OPS+ in modern baseball history are Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Roger Hornsby, with Mickey Mantle tying Harper and Lou Gehrig’s best season checking in at 220? Good luck topping that.

James: Pitching doesn’t have one perfect number like OPS+ or wRC+, but we do have ERA- and FIP- that combined can do the job. Over your same time period Scherzer’s ERA- ranks 18th and his FIP- ranks 12th among qualified starters. He’s a half step behind Harper at worst. And that’s not to mention his historical success. Scherzer’s 16 strikeout game set a Nationals team record and in his next game he threw the second no-hitter in team history, barely missing a perfect game by an elbow. His Game Scores for the two games were 100 and 97 respectively, making him the first pitcher to ever throw to games with a Game Score greater than or equal to 97 in a row.

James: You want to talk historical games? Harper had a three home run game, the fourth National to do so and 529th such game in MLB history. And don’t forget his walk off home run against the Atlanta Braves, tying him for second all-time in walk off home runs before turning 23 with three, one behind Frank Robinson. Face it, Harper’s been better.

James: Face what? That Scherzer and Harper are essentially even? How horrifying. But I know something you don’t know-

James: I’m you, I know that you’re not left-handed.

James: But that wasn’t what I was about to say! OK, it was. But the real thing you don’t know is this: the Nationals are 3-1 in games Harper hasn’t played, they’re only 31-28 in games Scherzer hasn’t appeared in.

James: That’s it? That’s your trump card?

James: Well what’s yours?

James: OK, I don’t have one. Both have been amazing, Harper is clearly the NL MVP to date and Scherzer the NL Cy Young to date. Can we agree that the Nationals are incredibly lucky to have both?

James: I’m you. Of course I’ll agree with you!

James: Well then it’s agreed. Thanks for being a –

Together: Formidable opponent.

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