Max Scherzer might have been the best pitcher in Major League Baseball after the Dodgers acquired him at the July 30 trade deadline, but 30 media members collectively determined he wasn’t the best pitcher in the National League for the entire 2021 campaign.
Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes was instead named the NL Cy Young Award winner in a razor-thin margin over Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Zack Wheeler. Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, placed third.
Burnes and Wheeler each received 12 first-place votes, with Scherzer taking the remaining six. Burnes finished below second place on four ballots. He accumulated 151 total points over Wheeler’s 141 to become the third Cy Young Award winner in Brewers history.
Scherzer tallied 113 points. He didn’t make the top three on six ballots. The 37-year-old free agent has finished in the top five in Cy Young Award voting eight times in his career.
Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler finished fourth despite leading the majors in quality starts, posting the second-best earned-run average in the NL and logging the second-most innings across the majors. Teammate Julio Urías, the only 20-game winner in the majors this season, finished tied for seventh with St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright.
Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Robbie Ray claimed the American League award in a rout. He garnered 29 of the 30 first-place votes. New York Yankees right-hander Gerrit Cole was given the other first-place vote. Angels closer Raisel Iglesias received a fifth-place vote.
Different cases could’ve been made for each of the three National League finalists, who were named on all five-man ballots.
Scherzer compiled a 2.76 ERA in 19 starts for the Washington Nationals before finding another gear in Los Angeles. He recorded a 1.98 ERA during the regular season with the Dodgers, tallying 89 strikeouts to eight walks over 68 1/3 innings. The Dodgers went 11-0 in his starts.
Overall, his ERA (2.46) and strikeout rate (34.1%) ranked second in the NL. He was third in both FanGraphs WAR and Baseball Reference WAR. He was tied for 14th in innings pitched (179 1/3). He led the majors in WHIP (0.86).
Wheeler trounced his fellow finalists’ workloads, leading the majors in innings pitched (213 1/3). To complement the dependability, he ranked first in the NL in strikeouts (247), fifth in ERA (2.78), seventh in strikeout rate (29.1%), second in Fielding Independent Pitching (2.59), first in Baseball Reference WAR, and second in FanGraphs WAR.
(Fielding Independent Pitching, better known as FIP, is a metric designed to exclude variables pitchers cannot usually control to better measure effectiveness.)
Burnes, 27, was the best pitcher in the NL when he was on the mound, but he wasn’t on the mound nearly as much as the others. He led the league in ERA (2.43), FIP (1.63), strikeout rate (35.6%), and FanGraphs WAR (7.5). He threw eight innings of a combined no-hitter and tallied 15 strikeouts on 99 pitches in another outing.
But Burnes recorded just 11 wins and 167 innings, ranking 19th in the NL. A starter, outside of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, had never won the Cy Young Award with that few innings pitched. Burnes became the first in a close race.