How Max Scherzer is Solving His Problem

Max Scherzer is an incredible 19-1, and he’s also considered the frontrunner in this year’s race for the American League Cy Young Award. There is no debating the reality of his record — his record is his record, as numbers are numbers. There is, however, debating whether or not he should be in the lead in the award race — the AL has other good starters, too, so Scherzer isn’t in a league of his own. Predictably, then, there is debate regarding the significance of Scherzer’s win/loss record, because not many people have done this before, and that has to count for something, right?

There are few debates in which I can imagine being less interested. That’s not true, there are lots, but I wrote that sentence to make a point. No, you can’t realistically get to 19-1 if you haven’t pitched really well. Scherzer has pitched really well. There is a strong relationship between performance and record, as much as we’d all like to kill the win. Scherzer, though, has also received the most run support in baseball, because his team’s offense has a Miguel Cabrera in it, and there’s a relationship between run support and record, too. If we’re going to adjust for run support, we’re already trying to strip away some context; might as well go all the way and just look at the numbers that really matter. Not included among those numbers are wins and losses.

I like looking at the numbers 19 and 1 as much as the next guy. To be honest, for some reason 19-1 looks better to me than 19-0. But I’m more interested in what’s going on underneath, what’s going on with Scherzer specifically. Scherzer and Rick Porcello have always had a fair number of things in common. This year, they’ve added to the list, and they’ve both been better for it.

In a chat not long ago, I was asked about 2014 maybe being a breakout season for Porcello. I think 2013 is already a breakout season for Porcello, given that his strikeouts are up by 33% and given that his xFIP is missing a few limbs. Porcello simply hasn’t been pitching in front of Jose Iglesias enough, and the numbers that matter like what Porcello has done. And one big change he’s made, going back to spring training, is that he’s introduced a new and regular curveball. Porcello has been attacking batters differently, and so he’s also been performing differently. Performing better!

Max Scherzer, too, has a curveball. It didn’t debut in 2013 — it made a few appearances down the stretch a summer ago. But this year, Scherzer has worked to fold it in. This year, Scherzer has commonly thrown a curve, to go with his heater, slider, and change, and he’s simultaneously improved in the one place where he really needed to improve.

It’s been, for him, mostly a weapon against lefties. Between 2008-2012, curves made up about 1% of the pitches Scherzer threw to left-handed batters. Really, it was about 0.6%, and all of those curves were thrown last year. This season, curves have made up about 12% of the pitches Scherzer has thrown to left-handed batters. They’ve been seeing fewer sliders, and they’ve been seeing fewer fastballs.

Not unrelated, probably: between 2008-2012, 248 pitchers faced at least 750 lefty batters. To those lefties, Scherzer allowed a .345 wOBA, ranking him 187th, tied with guys like Kevin Millwood, Manny Parra, and Jason Frasor. Now, this year, 126 pitchers have faced at least 150 lefty batters. To those lefties, Scherzer has allowed a .268 wOBA, ranking him 14th. Scherzer has always been able to strike lefties out, even when they were posing more of a problem, but it used to be they made more regular quality contact. This year, those problems are but a memory.

Said Scherzer himself a few months back:

“The reason I’m pitching better is because I have a curveball,” Scherzer said. “I have three pitches to throw at a left-handed hitter. That’s the single reason why I’m pitching better.”

He continued:

“That’s the pitch that changes an at-bat,” Scherzer said. “Curveball completely changes the approach. Now he’s disrupted timing. Now he has to respect a third pitch. And you can’t cover all three. You can’t cover all three speeds.”

On May 31, Scherzer topped out by throwing a season-high 15 curves in a start against the Orioles. For the hell of it, let’s look at him pitch to lefty Nate McLouth in the bottom of the third. Beginning with the count 1-and-0:


A fastball for a swinging strike evened the count 1-and-1. Scherzer came back with a curve:


McLouth hit the ball well, but he was out in front of it so he yanked the ball foul. The location could’ve been better, but the real idea was to mess with McLouth’s timing. Scherzer then tried to put McLouth away with another breaking ball:


Everything went perfectly, except McLouth made a little contact to stay alive. After a couple fastballs at 95, Scherzer then introduced his changeup to the plate appearance:


At that point, McLouth had seen three different speeds — 90s, low 80s, and mid-80s. The count was full, but McLouth didn’t know what Scherzer was going to come back with. Scherzer opted for heat:


We can’t, of course, say that McLouth struck out because Scherzer had earlier thrown a couple curveballs. That’s an impossible relationship to prove. We can say that McLouth’s timing didn’t look right, and we can say this is an at-bat Scherzer wouldn’t have had, exactly, before the curve came around. His slider and his changeup have the same speed, so lefties didn’t have to worry about the 70s or the low-80s. Now they do, making Scherzer all the more difficult to figure out.

And Scherzer’s curve does other things besides getting fouled off. It can get whiffs:


It can get called strikes:


It can get grounders:


15 of 25 curves put in play by lefties have stayed on the ground. 20 of 69 swings at the curve by lefties have whiffed. They’ve collectively hit the curve for just five singles and a double, and as you know, we can’t look at the curve in isolation because it’s part of a bigger story. The presence of the curve should, in theory, also help the other pitches, and this year lefties have done considerably worse against Scherzer’s fastball. They also no longer have the slider to feast on, getting instead a breaking ball with different movement and a slower speed. Even if Scherzer’s curve isn’t great, it’s good enough for hitters to have to think about, and that’s the point.

Through his first four starts this year, Scherzer threw lefties just 13 curves, or 5.4%. He allowed 12 runs in 24 innings. Over his last 22 starts, he’s thrown lefties 12.7% curves, and he’s allowed 44 runs in 154.1 innings. That doesn’t really prove anything, but as Scherzer is gaining more and more confidence in his new breaking ball, he’s flourishing, turning into the Cy Young favorite. Righties still have a devil of a time dealing with Scherzer’s fastball, slider, and change. Lefties no longer see an identical assortment.

Rick Porcello added a curveball, and he started striking batters out. Max Scherzer added a curveball, and he started getting lefties out. All we can really do about stuff like this is establish correlation without any causation, because pitching is complicated, but the correlations, at least, are of interest. Max Scherzer has a curveball now, and he likes it, and it seems like that’s bad news for guys trying to hit against Max Scherzer these days.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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10 years ago

The middle of this post reads like a children’s picture (GIF?) book.

“It can get called strikes. It can get grounders. And it can jump over the moon.”