Max Scherzer Is Mastering the Near Miss

One frequent topic of debate this season is whether Max Scherzer has overtaken Clayton Kershaw as the majors’ best pitcher.

Scherzer, for example, has recorded the majors’ second-largest strikeout- and walk-rate differential (29.1 points), behind only Chris Sale (30.5 K-BB%), while Kershaw ranks a somewhat distant third (24.6) by that measure. Scherzer (3.1) trails only Sale (4.6) in the FIP-based version WAR and leads all pitchers by the sort calculated with runs allowed. Scherzer also leads both Kershaw and Sale in Bill James’ starting pitcher rankings, something akin to world rankings in golf and tennis.

Depending on what metrics or qualities one cares to cite, the identity of Best Pitcher is open to debate. What’s not debatable is that, over the past three years or so, Scherzer has been the pitcher most likely to do something incredible in any given outing.

Consider this Scherzer Fact:

That’s pretty crazy.

In 13.4% of his 82 starts as a National, Scherzer has prevented a hit of any sort through the first five innings of his outing. While, again, it’s possible to argue that either Kershaw or Sale are better overall pitchers and while the prestige of the no-hitter has been perhaps been diminished in the analytical age, what’s suggested by the fact cited above is that Scherzer’s best is better than anyone else’s best. By comparison, Kershaw and Sale have just three such starts over their last 82 appearances, according to Spaeder.

It suggests that, if there’s one starting pitcher whose starts oughtn’t be missed, it’s Scherzer.

Another no-hitter would bump Scherzer from a list of 21 pitchers to have thrown two no-hitters in their careers, to a group of five who have thrown three or more: Nolan Ryan (7), Sandy Koufax (4) and Larry Corcoran, Bob Feller and Cy Young, who each tossed three.

And Scherzer has already had a number of close calls. As dominant as his best has been, he’s also been somewhat unfortunate. Consider the poor fortune that broke up his no-hit bid on Wednesday:

That near-miss occurred nearly two years to the day after Jose Tabata’s elbow armor cost him a perfect game.

In 2015, Scherzer was denied two perfect games — one by Tabata and another by means of a Yunel Escobar fielding error. He had to settle for two no-hitters, instead.

Given the elite circle of pitchers who have three no-hitters, we can understand if Scherzer is particularly frustrated with himself, or surrounding factors, with each near miss.

If Scherzer keeps pitching like he’s pitching now, if he keeps improving — which he is according to his K-BB% and xwOBA figures this season — then he appears to be as good a bet as anyone to record another no-hitter. But even if he doesn’t join that elite circle to have recorded three-plus no-hitters, the data age will help place Scherzer’s dominance into proper context.

If Scherzer never gets a third no-hitter, he can take solace in the fact that the luster of a no-hitter has been diminished in the analytical age, as Craig Edwards noted earlier this month, when an Edinson Volquez no-hitter almost went unnoticed.

Wrote Edwards:

It’s certainly possible that analytics over the past few years has taken some bite out of no-hitters’ prestige. For example, a pitcher can record a no-hitter while still racking up a bunch of walks — which is to say, he can still be somewhat ineffective. We also know that batters have a lot of control over what happens when the ball hits the bat and that there’s a certain element of luck involved on balls in play.

With each near-miss, Scherzer can take solace in the fact we have tools like Baseball Savant’s game feed to allow us to better document the quality of contact allowed. We, of course, have a better understanding on how to evaluate pitching performance. At the end of the day, there are a number of arbitrary factors that go into a no-hitter. There is nothing arbitrary about Scherzer’s dominance.

In the 2015 no-hitter versus the Pirates — again, the perfect game thwarted by Tabata — Scherzer allowed just one batted ball with a hit probability greater than 50%. On Wednesday, he allowed two. Perhaps down the road, no-hitters will have less prestige and some type of Game Score-like rating will be used to place individual game performance into context.

With or without another no-hitter, however, the historical record will indicate that Scherzer was one of the most difficult starting pitchers of his era to square up.

Among starting pitchers who’ve thrown at least 500 pitches this season, only Alex Wood (.236) — Alex Wood! — has recorded an expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) superior to Scherzer’s (.238). Scherzer ranks sixth among all pitchers who meet that criteria, trailing only Wood and a collection of relievers including Chris Devenski, Corey Knebel, Andrew Miller, and Felipe Rivero.

That’s pretty good company.

Scherzer ranked 26th overall and fourth among starters last season in xwOBA. As Scherzer ages, as he adds new toys, he keeps getting better. And the resume is already outstanding.

He is also, of course, one of just three pitchers — along with Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens (who did it twice) — to have a 20-strikeout game. There’s a reasonable chance Scherzer throws another no-hitter or maybe joins Clemens with another 20-strikeout (plus) game.

We can debate whether Kershaw or Sale or Scherzer is the best pitcher in the game. But Scherzer has made a convincing argument — via traditional or new-age measures — that his best is better than anyone else’s best. What we know for sure is each time we miss one of his starts, we are taking a chance on missing something historic.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

You know who else took a no-hitter into the 6th last night- Scherzer’s old buddy, Justin Verlander. He also has 2 no-hitters & has also had a couple broken up in the 9th inning & a bunch more in the 6th-7th innings (many/most prior to the time frame of this article), though probably not as many close calls as Scherzer has had.

As a Tigers fan, those 2 will always be tied together in my mind.

5 years ago
Reply to  PC1970

“Taking a no-hitter into the 6th” is like saying “3 of the numbers on my Powerball ticket match”.

Matt Kapelewski
5 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

You win $7 if that happens, you know.