Max Scherzer Is Just One Pain in the Neck for the Skidding Mets

Max Scherzer
Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not going well for the Mets these days. Since jumping out to a 14–7 start despite a slew of injuries, particularly to their rotation, they’ve lost 13 of 17 amid a particularly soft stretch of their schedule. Now, just as Justin Verlander is settling into the rotation after recovering from a teres major strain that delayed his debut, Max Scherzer has been scratched from a start for the second time this month, which at least sheds light on his early struggles. Alas, the Mets’ problems hardly end with their co-ace.

On Tuesday, the 38-year-old Scherzer was scratched from his scheduled start against the Reds due to neck spasms; on Wednesday, he couldn’t even play catch:

Scherzer was able to throw out to 90 feet in a flat-ground session on Thursday but won’t be able to start until Saturday at the earliest. That’s left the team’s rotation plans in apparent disarray…

… not that a whole lot of good answers abound within a unit that ranks 12th in the NL with a 5.38 ERA, 14th with a 5.64 FIP, and dead last with -0.4 WAR. I don’t want to pile on here or overstate the obvious, but a $358 million payroll should probably buy more than that.

Scherzer last started on May 3 against the Tigers, in the nightcap of the team’s second doubleheader in as many days, and it didn’t go well. In his first turn since serving his 10-day suspension for applying a foreign substance to a baseball — a saga unto itself — he struggled from the outset, walking leadoff hitter Zach McKinstry on five pitches, then giving up an 0–2 single to Riley Greene. Two fly balls later, McKinstry scored, and then Spencer Torkelson ripped a 102-mph double for the Tigers’ second run. In the second inning, Scherzer served up a solo homer to Eric Haase, and in the fourth he gave up a two-run homer to Matt Vierling and two more singles, one of which came around to score against reliever Zach Muckenhirn after manager Buck Showalter gave Scherzer the hook with two outs. The Mets lost that one, 8–1, and were swept by the Tigers, whose 17–19 record bears a striking resemblance to the Mets’ own 18–20. By won-loss record, the Tigers are actually the second-best team the Mets have lost to during this skid:

Meet the Mets, Beat the Mets
Opponent Dates vs. Mets Overall Win%
Giants April 20–23 2-2 17-20 .459
Nationals Apr 25–27 2-1 16-21 .432
Braves Apr 28–May 1 2-1 25-12 .676
Tigers May 3–4 3-0 17-19 .472
Rockies May 5–7 2-1 16-22 .421
Reds May 9–11 2-1 16-21 .432
Total 13-6 107-115 .482
Total w/o Braves 11-5 82-103 .443

For as bad as it is, the Mets’ .474 winning percentage is actually ahead of their .458 Pythagenpat winning percentage and their .459 BaseRuns winning percentage. This isn’t a mess on the order of the Cardinals (13–25), but it’s not good, either.

Tuesday’s start is the second one from which Scherzer has been scratched within the past month. After his April 10 outing against the Padres, he was scheduled to go again on April 16, but that turn was pushed back three days due to what was termed soreness in his right side and back. Then he lasted just three innings in his April 19 start against the Dodgers before getting ejected for sticky stuff, which drew a 10-game suspension. Thus over the past 31 days, Scherzer has not only pitched just 6.1 innings, but the Mets have also (in)effectively been playing with a 25-man roster for most of that period, since they haven’t put him on the injured list despite letting him go at least eight days between starts twice and couldn’t replace him during his suspension. Not great.

When he’s been available, Scherzer has pitched to a 5.56 ERA and 6.31 FIP in 22.2 innings, and everywhere you look, his numbers are maxed out in the wrong way. His 20.8% strikeout rate is nearly 10 full points down from last season; among pitchers with at least 100 innings last year and 20 this year, only Corbin Burnes has fallen off further (-10.7% versus -9.8%). Likewise, within the same group his 3.69 runs per nine increase in FIP (from 2.62) is second only to José Suarez, his 6.2-point increase in walk rate (from 4.2% to 10.4%) is third, and his spike in home run rate (from 0.81 per nine to 2.38) is fourth. His 16-point drop in strikeout-walk differential is the runaway winner.

Largest Strikeout-Walk Differential Drops, 2022-23
Pitcher Team K% 22 BB% 22 K-BB% 22 K% 23 BB% 23 K-BB% 23 K-BB% Dif
Max Scherzer NYM 30.6% 4.2% 26.4% 20.8% 10.4% 10.4% -16.0%
Corbin Burnes MIL 30.5% 6.4% 24.1% 19.8% 8.6% 11.1% -13.0%
Alek Manoah TOR 22.9% 6.5% 16.4% 16.8% 13.1% 3.7% -12.7%
Aaron Nola PHI 29.1% 3.6% 25.5% 19.9% 5.6% 14.3% -11.2%
Blake Snell SDP 32.0% 9.5% 22.4% 24.8% 13.4% 11.5% -10.9%
José Suarez LAA 22.3% 7.1% 15.2% 17.1% 12.2% 4.9% -10.3%
Jon Gray TEX 25.7% 7.5% 18.2% 17.3% 9.0% 8.3% -9.9%
Tyler Anderson 2Tm 19.5% 4.8% 14.7% 16.3% 10.9% 5.4% -9.3%
Brad Keller KCR 16.5% 9.2% 7.3% 16.3% 18.0% -1.7% -9.0%
Chris Bassitt 2Tm 22.4% 6.6% 15.8% 19.6% 11.9% 7.7% -8.1%

Meanwhile, Scherzer’s Statcast numbers are sky high relative to last year and his career averages since 2015:

Max Scherzer Statcast Profile
Season Events EV Barrel% HardHit% xERA
2021 411 87.9 8.0% 34.3% 2.88
2022 357 87.8 8.4% 33.9% 2.87
2023 66 91.0 13.6% 40.9% 5.23
2015-23 3512 87.3 6.6% 32.0% 2.81

Pitch-wise, Scherzer’s four-seam fastball velocity is down 0.9 mph from last year, which doesn’t seem like much, though it’s continuing a downward trend. Its average spin rate is virtually unchanged, and it’s getting more horizontal break, but less horizontal break relative to average (since he’s being compared to a slightly lower velocity band):

Max Scherzer Four-Seam and Slider Movement
Season Pitch MPH V Drop vs Avg % vs Avg H Break vs Avg % vs Avg Stf+ FA
2021 4-Seam 94.3 14.8 0.4 3 10.6 2.6 32 121
2022 4-Seam 94.0 15.0 0.2 1 11.1 3.2 40 112
2023 4-Seam 93.1 15.9 0.2 1 11.7 2.8 31 105
Season Pitch MPH V Drop vs Avg % vs Avg H Break vs Avg % vs Avg Stf+ SL
2021 Slider 85.9 32.5 -2.6 -7 2.9 -2.6 -47 115
2022 Slider 85.0 34.7 -1.7 -5 3.2 -2.4 -43 111
2023 Slider 84.0 36.4 -1.1 -3 3.3 -3.1 -49 106
V Drop, H Break, and vs AVG all in inches.

On that downward velocity trend (not to be confused with his increasing amount of vertical drop), it’s worth noting that Scherzer’s Statcast percentile rankings for the fastball velocity have fallen notably in this span, from the 57th percentile in 2021 to the 46th last year and 35th this year. It’s no longer above average in raw velocity, but via the Stuff+ model (as shown in the far right column), it’s still an above-average pitch in terms of its characteristics.

The location on those fastballs, it hasn’t been great. Against both righties and lefties, he’s more concentrated in the center of the strike zone:

With the pitch’s velocity down a tick, that’s bad news, and batters are teeing off, batting .342 with a .605 slugging percentage on the 44 batted ball events this year, compared to .212/.370 last year and .193/.359 in 2021; the average exit velocity on the pitch has climbed from 89.6 to 90.9 to a sizzling 95.0 in that span. Whew.

Meanwhile, the results against Scherzer’s slider have gone from a .147 AVG/.279 SLG in 2021 to .183/.232 last year to .267/.667 this year. While the last of those is based only 16 batted ball events, his average exit velocity on those is up about 10 mph (from 80.2 in 2022 to 90 this year), and he’s already allowed two homers from among his 80 sliders thrown, where he didn’t allow a single one from among last year’s 508. What’s probably not helping is that his vertical release point has dropped; he averaged 5.56 feet in 2021 and 5.65 feet in ’22, but he’s down to 5.35 feet this year — a 3.6-inch drop.

All of this may be a reflection of Scherzer’s physical issues, which aside from the neck problem have lately been described as “discomfort below his right scapula, around his shoulder blade,” which doesn’t make sense, as the scapula is the shoulder blade. As Under the Knife’s Will Carroll suggested, what’s been reported regarding Scherzer could mean an issue with his subscapularis, one of the four muscles that make up the rotator cuff. It’s also worth noting that Scherzer’s issue is the same general area in which he dealt with an injury in 2019, when he missed nearly three weeks in July due to what was initially described as a mid-back strain and later clarified to be scapulothoracic bursitis, or inflammation in the bursa under the right shoulder. After coming back, he made just one start before returning to the IL with a mild rhomboid strain that cost him nearly four weeks.

All of which is to say that one has to wonder why the Mets and Scherzer are trying to push through this current set of problems by letting him pitch. At 38 and with an average of just 27 starts over the last three full seasons, he’s hardly invincible. His comments earlier this week, before the neck spasms, did not inspire confidence. Via the New York Post’s Dan Martin and Mike Puma:

“That outing [against the Tigers] sucked, but I didn’t get hurt,” Scherzer said. “The first part of progress of getting through an injury is being able to pitch and not get hurt.”

…“Just don’t break,” Scherzer said of his goal while pitching in his current condition. “I’m trying like hell not to join the IL. I’m fighting through this and doing everything I can. But this is the big leagues and no one cares if you’re hurt. You’ve got to go out there and perform, so I get it.”

You can certainly understand the psychology in play here. Scherzer’s making $43.3 million, and the Mets’ rotation is a MASH unit. José Quintana is out until July after undergoing bone graft surgery following the removal of a benign lesion on his fifth rib. Carlos Carrasco has been out due to inflammation caused by a bone chip in his elbow, though he just made the first of two rehab starts on Tuesday. Verlander just made his second start as a Met after missing the first five weeks of the season. Currently, every starter besides Verlander has a FIP of 4.96 or above and an xERA of 4.68 or above:

Mets Starting Pitchers, 2023
Justin Verlander 2 12.0 2.25 4.23 4.23 0.2
Kodai Senga 7 37.0 4.14 4.68 4.96 0.2
David Peterson 7 34.0 7.68 5.28 5.07 0.0
Joey Lucchesi 4 20.1 4.43 6.20 5.23 0.0
Tylor Megill 7 35.1 4.33 6.16 5.40 -0.1
Max Scherzer 5 22.2 5.56 5.21 6.31 -0.1
José Butto* 2 9.2 2.79 6.51 7.14 -0.2
Carlos Carrasco** 3 13.2 8.56 7.58 7.41 -0.3
Includes only stats as starting pitchers. * = currently at Triple-A Syracuse. ** = currently on injured list.

Peterson was sent to the bullpen with the return of Verlander, but has yet to make an actual relief appearance; he was the one called upon when Scherzer was scratched on Tuesday and presumably would take the ball again this weekend if needed. Assuming Carrasco’s rehab continues to progress, he probably supplants either Lucchesi or Megill, but both could remain in the mix if Scherzer does land on the IL.

If the rotation were the Mets’ only problem, they’d be in better shape, but the offense ranks 12th in the NL at 4.16 runs per game overall and has scored just 3.18 per game over the past 17. They’ve managed two or fewer runs per game in eight of those contests and in 15 of their 38 games overall; seven times they’ve been shut out. They’ve gotten dismal production from their two regular corner outfielders, Mark Canha (.217/.295/.357, 85 wRC+) and Starling Marte (.217/.288/.275, 65 wRC+), as well as third baseman Eduardo Escobar (.159/.206/.365, 55 wRC+), though he has been supplanted by rookie Brett Baty, whose .246/.329/.385 (104 wRC+) has been a bright spot, comparatively speaking.

Likewise for 21-year-old rookie catcher Francisco Álvarez, the team’s top prospect and no. 13 overall on our Top 100. He’s hit .246/.292/.443 (104 wRC+), a huge step up from the two now-injured catchers, Omar Narváez and Tomás Nido. Álvarez has started 18 games behind the plate and has positive framing metrics within the limited sample, though that mostly coincides with his being the regular during this ongoing slide; that may not be the best advertisement for his staff handling, but then he’s not had the luxury of dealing with the A-list. Narváez, who was supposed to be the starter, has been out since April 5 due to a medium-to-high-grade calf strain that sent him to the 60-day IL and is expected to sideline him until mid-June. Nido is dealing with “dry eye syndrome,” and has hit an unfathomable .118/.148/.118 in 55 PA; he should be back when his 10 days are up, which would be May 17.

Elsewhere in the lineup, Brandon Nimmo (145 wRC+) and Pete Alonso (138 wRC+ with 13 homers) have been leading what charge there is to be led, and Daniel Vogelbach (127 wRC+) has performed well as the long half of the DH platoon. Jeff McNeil (116 wRC+) and Francisco Lindor (111 wRC+) have been solid, but both have fallen short of last year’s stellar performances, making the holes in the lineup stand out all the more.

One thing the Mets could do in an attempt to provide more offense would be to call up Mark Vientos, a righty-swinging 23-year-old who’s hitting .339/.429/.685 (174 wRC+) at Syracuse. He has defensive experience at third base and first base, with a bit of left field thrown in (13 games in 2021), though he’s considered a below-average fielder. He could serve as Vogelbach’s platoon partner and perhaps take a bit of playing time from Canha as well; the Mets’ recent shoehorning of the likes of McNeil and Dominic Smith into left in years past doesn’t exactly suggest their standards for the position are all that high. For that matter, given Marte’s woes, it may be worth taking a look at 22-year-old Ronny Mauricio, who placed 90th on the Top 100. A natural shortstop whose path is blocked by Lindor, he’s begun playing second base at Syracuse, that while hitting .340/.373/.590 (137 wRC+); slotting him at second and playing McNeil in right would be an option if the Mets believe he’s ready to make the leap.

The Mets currently trail the Braves by 7.5 games, but Atlanta’s double-whammy of rotation injuries to Max Fried and Kyle Wright, both of whom will have to be built back up after full shutdowns, could provide a chance to get back in the race. They’ll need a whole lot more to go right, however, and some clarity about whether Scherzer is able to perform anywhere close to his high standards would certainly help.

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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11 months ago

The Mets have had some bad luck here, but it’s worth noting that when your projected starting rotation includes a 40 year old, 38 year old, 36 year old, and 34 year old it’s not totally crazy that you have more injuries and ineffectiveness than what happened in the previous year.

And I honestly thought all those moves were good and the reasoning was sound, but it does certainly increase the far-tail chance of a catastrophe where the whole rotation is a mess.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I guess the lesson here is that overpaid old guys getting hurt isn’t actually a “far tail” risk, it’s basically something you have to plan around. And the ideal plan, sadly, turns out not to be overpaying even more old guys.

11 months ago

The thing is, the Mets were very transparent about their strategy: Sign the best free agents who don’t have a QO. But that’s a lot of older guys since a lot of them already had the QO once.

I would not be surprised to see the Mets making a big play for E-Rod or Yamamoto for this reason. But the good news is that those guys aren’t old.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yes, and as you said, it wasn’t even a bad strategy in the sense that any of the individual moves were bad moves — it’s just that it created what you might call (in language that Steve Cohen should understand) an unbalanced pitching portfolio, with a large unhedged exposure to one particular kind of risk.

11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I have always felt like older pitchers are more reliable, survivor bias or w.e. But with Scherzer being hurt, Lynn struggling I have since changed my opinion and I now blame the pitch clock, not my poor draft strategy.

Last edited 11 months ago by carter
11 months ago
Reply to  carter

Anecdotally I would agree with this, but I think there’s a difference between an older pitcher being 32 or 33 and being 39 or 40. At some point you’re just too old

11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

But the bad luck (or whatever else is a cause) has been even more than that.
Peterson, Megil, and Lucchesi have all shown themselves to be 3-5 type guys over a couple hundred innings each. Not a career obviously though! And none of them are at a point where they should be falling off. And the sample sizes are still small this year. But that’s three competent major pitchers in reserve of the starting rotation also not able to be counted on. The plan was decent! But, sometimes the bear eats you.