Back in June I wrote that Max Scherzer is headed for his third Cy Young award, and possibly the Hall of Fame. At the time of my writing Scherzer had a full win advantage over Clayton Kershaw according to Baseball-Reference WAR (3.8 to 2.7). After realizing he could realistically win the Cy for a second straight year (which has become his third overall) I started thinking HOF.
Evaluating the HOF candidacies of starters that entered the league post 2000 is tricky. We almost have to throw out how their cumulative stats compared to other pitching greats. They just don't throw as many innings and therefore don't accrue the same amount of WAR (though this generation certainly has the edge in strikeouts).
Right now here are the pitchers from the current generation I would say should be included in any HOF discussion: Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, Scherzer, and Kershaw. Honorable mention to Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, and...I think that's it. At least as of now. Scherzer's case? Three Cy Young's in five years, two no-hitters, and a 20 strikeout game. Even assuming a generous decline in performance he's on pace to finish with around 200 wins, 3,000 K's, and 60+ WAR. His 2017 Cy Young award didn't just validate his season. It's validating his career.
Scherzer won the NL Cy pretty handily over Kershaw this past week, getting 27/30 first place votes. This dude is Mad Max for a reason. He battled through nagging injuries throughout the season to finish the year with a 2.51 ERA in 31 starts. Scherzer struck out a league leading 268 batters, posted a league leading 0.90 WHIP, and was the toughest pitcher in the NL to get a hit off of with his league leading 5.7 hits allowed per nine. He also had the best strikeout percentage among starters.
As for Kershaw, it's becoming an annual tradition for him to be a Cy Young finalist. The 29-year-old has now finished top 3 in the voting in six of the past seven years. The 2017 Dodgers were special. Up until an August-September swoon is looked like they could challenge the 2001 Seattle Mariners for the wins record. This was a team that went 43-7 during a 50 game stretch at one point, and Kershaw was his usual dominant self throughout the wining.
The problem with his candidacy is he just didn't have the innings after missing all of August with a back injury (limiting his season to 27 starts). Homers were a problem too. Kershaw allowed 1.2 home runs per nine innings this season, exactly double his career rate. The long ball (which chicks dig) was up around the game this year, but it's still puzzling to see the best pitcher of our generation have such a problem with them.
Ultimately, the second coming of Koufax (actually Kershaw is better than Koufax) still led the NL in ERA, ERA+, wins, and strikeout to walk ratio. It was a wildly impressive performance. However, this now makes two straight years Kershaw has dealt with back problems. Obviously he isn't "breaking down" yet, but it's something to keep an eye on considering the workloads he has shouldered since entering the league.
Lastly Stephen Strasburg deserves a shout out. Similar to how the American League vote was really between Sale and Kluber, the NL race was a Kershaw/Scherzer showdown. That's not to diminish what Strasburg did this season. Entering 2017 he was a bit overrated and had never finished higher than 9th in the Cy voting, but he made adjustments. He pitched this entire year out of the stretch and wound up leading the NL in FIP.
Similarly to Kershaw he missed some times this year and only made 28 starts. Unlike Kershaw he didn't have a homer problem, allowing the fewest in the league at 0.7 per nine. His second half was OTHERWORLDLY. In his final 10 starts the former number one pick went 6-1 with a 0.86 ERA, and 76 punch outs in 62 2/3 innings pitched. At one point he threw 35 consecutive scoreless innings. It was reminiscent of the second half Jake Arrieta had in 2015, which won him the Cy over Kershaw. Strasburg didn't win of course, but he finally looks like he's delivering on the promise of his epic, 14 strikeout major league debut.