Max Scherzer Chases Perfection and Collects Milestones

Max Scherzer couldn’t quite pull off a trifecta for the ages on Sunday, but he was utterly dominant nonetheless. Facing the Padres in Los Angeles, he entered the history books with a flourish by becoming the 19th pitcher to reach 3,000 strikeouts, and just the third to record three immaculate innings — nine pitches, nine strikes, three strikeouts — in a career. Along the way, the 37-year-old righty retired the first 22 batters he faced, giving chase to a perfect game and his third career no-hitter, but he couldn’t complete that feat, as Eric Hosmer, who earlier in the game had become his 3,000th strikeout victim, broke up his bid with an eighth-inning double into the right field corner.

Not that the hit put a damper on the afternoon given what Scherzer accomplished. Making his eighth start for the Dodgers and needing six strikeouts to reach the milestone, he simply dominated the Padres all afternoon. He got to work quickly, striking out leadoff hitter Trent Grisham and needing just 12 pitches to get through the first, before mowing down Fernando Tatis Jr., Hosmer, and Tommy Pham consecutively on three-pitch strikeouts in the second.

The immaculate inning made Scherzer the third pitcher and the first right-hander to total three such innings in his career, joining lefties Sandy Koufax and Chris Sale. Scherzer previously threw immaculate innings against the Phillies (May 14, 2017) and Rays (June 5, 2018).

After striking out Wil Myers on a cutter to lead off the third, Scherzer had punched out five out of seven hitters, leaving him one strikeout away from the milestone. A funny thing happened, though: the Padres started swinging early in the counts to avoid making history, and Scherzer seized the opportunity to chew through the lineup. Austin Nola grounded out on his next pitch, and pitcher Nabil Crismatt — who had taken over for the injured Blake Snell in the first inning — faced just three pitches before grounding out as well to end the third. In the fourth, Grisham lost an eight-pitch battle by flying out, but Adam Frazier grounded out on the very next pitch, and Manny Machado faced just three pitches before popping out. Tatis faced just two pitches before flying out to lead off the fifth, but Hosmer battled for six pitches before going down by swinging at a changeup:

The strikeout made Scherzer the 19th pitcher overall and the third in the past three seasons to reach the milestone, after CC Sabathia (April 30, 2019) and Justin Verlander (September 28, 2019). Scherzer reached number 3,000 in his 404th career game, and his 2,516th career inning; only Randy Johnson reached the milestone faster by either count (362 games, 2470.2 innings). While Scherzer’s total owes a great deal to his pitching in a high-strikeout era, he nonetheless has the sixth-highest league-adjusted rate (K%+) of any pitcher who reached the milestone:

3,000 Strikeout Club Pitchers Ranked by K+%
Pitcher IP SO K% K%+
Nolan Ryan 5386.0 5714 25.3% 183
Randy Johnson 4135.1 4875 28.6% 176
Pedro Martinez 2827.1 3154 27.7% 168
Walter Johnson 5914.2 3509 12.6% 152*
Roger Clemens 4916.2 4672 23.1% 150
Max Scherzer 2519.1 3003 29.5% 143
Curt Schilling 3261.0 3116 23.5% 139
Steve Carlton 5217.1 4136 19.1% 135
Bert Blyleven 4970.0 3701 18.1% 133
Tom Seaver 4782.2 3640 18.8% 133
Bob Gibson 3884.1 3117 19.4% 130
John Smoltz 3473.0 3084 21.6% 130
Justin Verlander 2988.0 3013 24.7% 127
Fergie Jenkins 4500.2 3192 17.3% 125
Don Sutton 5282.0 3574 16.5% 117
Gaylord Perry 5350.1 3534 16.1% 115
CC Sabathia 3577.1 3093 20.6% 114
Phil Niekro 5404.1 3342 14.7% 105
Greg Maddux 5008.1 3371 16.5% 100
K%+ indexes a pitcher’s strikeout rate to league average but does not adjust for ballpark.
*Johnson’s indexed rate is for K/9+ due to incomplete data.

If we lower the bar to 2,000 strikeouts, Dazzy Vance (225 K%+), Sandy Koufax (173), Lefty Grove (170), Bob Feller (168), Sam McDowell (153) and Sale (148) all surpass Scherzer, as does Rube Waddell via K/9+ (197), but it’s his rate and his staying power that elevate him.

Having claimed the milestone, Scherzer was still going strong, able to reach back for velocities 96 mph and higher at will and avoiding deep counts along the way. The 14 pitches he needed to work through Grisham, Frazier, and Machado in the seventh inning were the most he threw in any frame, and that only pushed his total pitch count to 80. A day after the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes and Josh Hader combined for the season’s ninth nine-inning no-hitter, Scherzer wasn’t just vying to add the 10th but to become the first pitcher to throw a perfect game since Félix Hernández did so on August 5, 2012, and to tally the third no-hitter of his career; he threw two in 2015, on June 20 against the Pirates and the other on October 3 against the Mets.

After retiring Tatis on a fly ball to start the eighth, Scherzer was just five outs from perfection, but Hosmer swung at a 2-1 changeup just below the zone, a bit more centered than the one he’d whiffed on in the fifth, and the Padres’ first baseman roped it into the right field corner at 99.5 mph, a clean double. It was the deepest Scherzer had taken his bid for a third no-hitter — something only Ryan, Koufax, Verlander, Feller, Larry Corcoran, and Cy Young have done — since June 20, 2017 against the Marlins, when he also surrendered a hit with one out in the eighth.

With the Dodgers having expanded their lead from 2-0 to 6-0 in the previous half-inning, the potential run that Hosmer represented was inconsequential, but Scherzer stranded him just the same with a Pham groundout and a Myers swinging strikeout on a slider — Scherzer’s ninth strikeout on the day. After the Dodgers extended their lead with two more runs in the eighth, Scherzer was done despite having thrown just 92 pitches.

With the outing — which helped the Dodgers complete a three-game sweep of the Padres, by the way — Scherzer lowered his season ERA to an NL-leading 2.17 and his FIP to 2.86 (third in the league). Since the July 30 trade from the Nationals, he’s put up an absurd 0.88 ERA, 1.26 FIP, and 72-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 51 innings as a Dodger; over his last five starts, he has a 0.26 ERA, 1.06 FIP, and 49-to-2 K/BB ratio. He already looks like one of the great stretch-drive pickups in recent memory, with a performance reminiscent of the 1.28 ERA and 2.04 FIP Johnson posted for the Astros in 84.1 innings in 1998 after being traded by the Mariners.

Despite that ERA lead and the number two rank in strikeouts (219, six behind Zack Wheeler), I don’t really see a clear path to the NL Cy Young award for Scherzer:

Top NL Cy Young Contenders
Pitcher Team IP ERA xERA FIP fWAR bWAR
Corbin Burnes MIL 152.0 2.25 1.90 1.50 7.1 5.3
Zack Wheeler PHI 195.1 2.86 2.77 2.66 6.5 6.8
Max Scherzer WSN/LAD 162.0 2.17 2.86 2.86 5.2 5.4
Walker Buehler LAD 186.0 2.32 3.09 3.23 4.6 5.8
Kevin Gausman SFG 170.0 2.65 3.36 2.86 4.5 4.9

Scherzer’s significant disadvantages in FIP and innings drop him behind Burnes and Wheeler in terms of FanGraphs’ WAR. While his 35.4% strikeout rate is virtually tied with Burnes for the NL lead, his 1.11 homers per nine pushes him well behind both pitchers (Burnes has served up 0.30 per nine, Wheeler 0.74), and minor groin and triceps injuries that each cost him a turn have kept his innings totals down. Things could certainly change over the final three weeks of the season but right now it’s difficult to see Scherzer collecting his fourth Cy Young award, which would put him in the company of Roger Clemens (seven), Johnson (five), Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux (four apiece).

I do think that Scherzer’s latest run may have elevated him to becoming the favorite to start the NL Wild Card game over Buehler if the Dodgers can’t catch the Giants; despite their major league-best 29-11 record since the trade deadline, they’ve gained just half a game on San Francisco (29-12) and are still 2 1/2 back with 18 to play. To some observers, the decision on starting pitcher might seem obvious — the future Hall of Famer who came over in the blockbuster is the automatic choice, right? — but Buehler has more than proved his mettle in big games, as his career 2.35 ERA in 61.1 postseason innings, and last year’s 1.80 ERA in 25 innings, both attest, and he’s allowed two runs or fewer in 11 of his past 12 turns. Here it’s worth noting that the Dodgers have Buehler ahead of Scherzer in the rotation order, which could boil down to the former starting the Wild Card game with the latter taking the Division Series opener, or the former taking a Game 163 tiebreaker to determine the NL West champion and the latter the Wild Card game… let’s just say that the Dodgers have options.

While Scherzer didn’t get his perfect game on Sunday afternoon, he did add one more record to his collection by furthering his season-opening offensive futility — .000/.000/.000 — to 56 plate appearances. From a JAWS standpoint, his -0.6 WAR as a hitter is offsetting his 6.0 WAR as a pitcher such that this is still only his eighth-best season, but he has a few starts to remedy that, and to push his JAWS (57.7) even closer to the standard for starting pitchers (61.7). Sunday’s milestone, the first major one from a Hall standpoint (he’s still 11 wins away from 200), probably ensures his entry to Cooperstown anyway, but the fun of it right now is that he’s pitching so well that every start becomes appointment viewing. Clear you schedule.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

I was so hoping for the perfect game yesterday from Max, as it would’ve created the untouchable 3 immaculate innings, 3 no-hitters with at least one perfect game, 3 Cy Youngs with at least one in each league, 20K game club. Have to imagine he’d be the only member of that for a very long time