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Draft Round Battles: Scherzer Vs. Sale

As the late, great Gorilla Monsoon used to say, "six of one, half a dozen of the other."  Okay, I'm pretty sure that saying existed well before Monsoon used to bust it out on old pro wrestling broadcasts, but still, it's a pretty sound way of describing two virtually identical items, be they Hulk Hogan vs. the Ultimate Warrior or two AL Central star pitchers.

If you wait until the fifth round to draft your first starter, you're more than happy with Max Scherzer or Chris Sale as the ace of your fantasy rotation.  Scherzer has a 56.87 ADP on Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position reports, while Sale is projected to go only slightly later (a 57.8 ADP).  Since Sale has only been in the White Sox rotation for two years, let's check out how both men performed in 2012-13 as per the 5x5 stats and some other key metrics...

Sale: 3.06 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 28-22 record, 418 strikeouts, 406 1/3 IP, 4.31 K/BB rate, 3.22 FIP, 3.09 xFIP, 3.09 SIERA, 9.9 fWAR, 12.8 rWAR

Scherzer: 3.29 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 37-10 record, 471 strikeouts, 402 IP, 4.06 K/BB rate, 2.99 FIP, 3.19 xFIP, 2.98 SIERA, 11 fWAR, 10.8 rWAR

You have to call the 2012-13 race for Scherzer given his edges in strikeouts and wins.  The latter can be chalked up to team performance --- Scherzer was definitely helped by a strong Tigers squad, while Sale actually went only 11-14 last season thanks to the putrid White Sox lineup.  Since Detroit is expected to contend for the pennant again and the Sox will be thrilled with even a .500 record, Scherzer's wins edge will almost certainly continue.  Heck, he could even pick up more wins now that Joe Nathan is closing games instead of the revolving door of mediocre stoppers the Tigers have rolled out in recent years.

Looking at just the last two seasons limits Scherzer's case, as he put up decent-to-very good numbers from 2009-11 for the Diamondbacks and Tigers.  The knock on Scherzer in those years was that he was always just a step away from really getting it all together, but he was a perfectly solid #4 type of fantasy starter in those years.  He began racking up more strikeouts in 2012 to take a leap forward, and then got even better last season, culminating in the AL Cy Young Award.

I can raise just two minor red flags in regards to Scherzer's performance last year.  One is a .259 BABIP and the other is a career-low 7.6% home run rate in combination with a career-high 44.6% fly ball rate (only Oakland's A.J. Griffin had a higher fly ball rate among all qualified starters).  Scherzer was making them put it in the sky more often than ever in 2013, yet comparatively few of those balls left the park.  It wouldn't surprise me to see that stat correct itself closer to Scherzer's career norms in 2014, so his ERA could be due for a boost into the 3.15/3.20 range, which still isn't exactly anything to get worried about.

If Scherzer does regress just a bit, however, does that allow Sale room to even the score?  What we saw in 2013 was likely Scherzer at his peak, so now it's only a question if he can sustain it.  Sale, on the other hand, is only entering his age-25 season and still has room to grow.  He can't do anything about his win total but could his ERA, WHIP and strikeouts get even better? 

While it must be noted that Sale's first two seasons came out of the bullpen and Scherzer has over twice as many career innings, Sale's career 9.5 K/9 is actually higher than Scherzer's 9.4 career K/9.  Sale was clearly the better pitcher over his first two full seasons as a starter than Scherzer was in his first two full SP years, so it wouldn't be shocking to see him continue this upward trend.

This is one of those situations where I'm pretty confident that Sale will be the better pitcher than Scherzer in 2014 when we look back at the overall numbers and the advanced stats, yet in terms of pure 5x5 fantasy value, I still have to favor Scherzer.  Sale may have the lower ERA and WHIP, though not by a particularly large amount, while Scherzer should have a solid advantage in strikeouts and a potentially massive advantage in wins.  I hate putting this much stock in wins since they're such an arbitrary stat, but just looking at the difference in talent between the Tigers and White Sox rosters makes me pretty confident in saying that Scherzer will get more chances at earning the W's.

In this battle of six vs. half a dozen, it's too close to call, it's an even fight--but consider the Tigers' lineup to be like the ringside manager who illegally interferes behind the referee's back.  It might be a "miscarriage of justice" to ol' Gorilla Monsoon, but all's fair in love, war and fantasy baseball.  That's all Scherzer needs to claim this one.

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