Max Scherzer, Chasing History

For a good while this season, it looked like Clayton Kershaw was going to win the Cy Young Award this season for the fourth time in six seasons. It’s possible he still might: with a sub-2.00 ERA and FIP — and a WAR that still leads major-league pitchers — he has a strong case. But given his relative lack of inning (just 121 currently), he faces a steep uphill climb against those who will have spent far more time on the mound this season.

Jose Fernandez and Noah Syndergaard are likely to be mentioned for the most prestigious year-end pitching award. Kyle Hendricks is making a run at it, too. That said, no pitcher has been on the mound more this season than Max Scherzer. Only Fernandez is within 30 of Max Scherzer’s 238 strikeouts, and after a slow start this season, Scherzer is making a run at joining Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Gaylord Perry┬áin winning the Cy Young both in the American and National League.

The year didn’t start off too well for Scherzer, and the slow start kept his ERA and FIP considerably higher than his what his true talent level might have otherwise suggested. At the end of April his ERA was 4.35; his FIP, 4.56 FIP. At the end of May, both were still above four. A nice run in June got his ERA in line at 3.30, but his FIP was just a decently above-average 3.64 for the season. A very good July and August, however, have dropped his ERA to 2.85 and his FIP at 3.19 — and the steady lowering of those numbers might make it seem that Scherzer has continued to get better as the season has gone on. However, that really hasn’t entirely been the case and can partially be seen by the graph below showing Scherzer’s rolling four-game averages.

Screenshot 2016-08-31 at 3.33.05 PM

After around half-a-dozen starts, Scherzer’s numbers took a downturn for the better and have stayed that way the rest of the season. The same is true of his strikeout numbers.

Screenshot 2016-08-31 at 3.40.27 PM

His walks have decreased a bit, but the major change has come with his strikeouts. If you notice, there’s a massive leap from start seven to start eight above, and that leap was caused by Scherzer’s 20 strikeouts — in an appearance that amounted to one of the greatest performances in history. Looking at the chart, we might come to the conclusion that Scherzer made some significant change that allowed him to return to form and improve his strikeout numbers. The chart below shows Max Scherzer from 2012-2015, the first seven starts of this season, and the rest of the starts since then, beginning with his 20-strikeout game.

Max Scherzer’s Latest Run
2012-2015 29.2% 6.2% 9.2% .293 3.12 2.89
4/4/2016-5/6/2016 25.6% 8.3% 19.1% .284 4.60 4.84
5/11/2016-8/30/2016 34.5% 5.4% 10.1% .225 2.39 2.71

Over his last 21 starts, Max Scherzer is pitching nearly as well as he did towards the beginning of 2013, when he won the Cy Young, as well as last year, when he put together a similar streak. Scherzer’s strikeouts, walks, ERA, and FIP have all returned to form, and we can probably chalk up part of low ERA to a pretty low BABIP, but those strikeout and walk numbers at the beginning of the year aren’t too far from Scherzer’s career numbers, and the BABIP is in line with his career. The ERA and FIP are obviously bloated, and the clear culprit is that 19.1% HR/FB rate.

In Max Scherzer’s first seven starts, he gave up 22 runs, 15 of them coming via nine home runs. Since then, teams have still been dependent on the home run to score against Scherzer, as 25 of the 41 runs he’s allowed have come on 17 homers. Twenty-six home runs seems like a lot for a great pitcher, but when you strike out one-third of hitters and walk just one in 19 batters, you can give up a few dingers and still prevent runs at an elite level. Of course, that still raises the question about what exactly was going on at the beginning of the season.

According to Brooks Baseball, Scherzer’s velocity was the same. His pitch mix was the same. The movement on his pitches, particularly his fastball — which was responsible for the bulk of the home runs early — was nearly identical. Nothing screams at you from his release point. The whiff rate on the fastball and the slider were both the same. That leaves pretty much only his location as the possible variable. Here’s where his fastballs were going at the beginning of the season.

Max Scherzer Heatmap (2)

Here’s where they’ve gone since.

Max Scherzer Heatmap (3)

So what can we glean from that? If you wanted to, you could say that the first picture appears to shade a little bit more right down the middle. Against lefties, it’s not far enough away to make it difficult to pull the ball. Against righties, the ball isn’t inside enough to make sure that it is tough to make hitters get around on it. The second picture still has a decent chunk in the middle of the plate, but it’s a bit higher and moves inside against righties and away against lefties. So maybe Scherzer just caught too much of the middle of the plate and it led to a few too many home runs? Here’s the zone chart of the seven home runs Scherzer gave up on the fastball in his first seven starts this season, from Baseball Savant.

Max Scherzer

Sometimes sample size can be a lazy answer without actually looking into the data. What we have here for Scherzer is a really good four-year run, a poor seven games, and another run of more than 20 starts matching or exceeding the previous run. We want to explain these blips — to find a reason for the performance — to set our mind at ease about future performance or identify potential negative trends. Sometimes, though, the best answer is a small sample size of events where the future performance is more informed by the longer past. Here are Scherzer’s seven-game rolling HR/FB rates since 2012:

Screenshot 2016-08-31 at 4.58.27 PM

This happened last year, and it also happened in 2012, and Scherzer recovered nicely in all instances. Many of the homers Scherzer has given up over the last two seasons have been of the lucky or just-enough variety. Sometimes, a blip is just a blip. Over his last 21 starts, Scherzer has averaged seven innings, 9.1 strikeouts, 1.4 walks, and two runs per start. He’s already pitched 190 innings this year, and it’s possible the Nationals might slow him down as they secure the division.

If Scherzer gets another handful of starts, he’s going to have a pretty massive innings gap over the rest of the contenders for the Cy Young. While his 4.7 WAR is less than one win away from the rest of the contenders, his RA-9 WAR leads the National League, higher than Kyle Hendricks and Clayton Kershaw. When balancing how innings, ERA and the 20-K game — along with FIP and WAR — might come into play for the Cy Young, it’s not too hard to see how Scherzer could come home with the hardware, an accomplishment few might have thought possible just a few months ago.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Assuming a regular start in terms of IP, Madison Bumgarner will pass Scherzer for the NL (as well as MLB) lead in IP on Saturday. In addition to his 207 strikeouts (top three in MLB), Bumgarner seems like a reasonable candidate for the CY as well. It’s looking like it will be a close one in both the NL and AL this year!