Max Scherzer Is Still Very Good and Still Very Risky

The thing about Max Scherzer is he’s really good. We knew that. You knew that. This Sunday the Milwaukee Brewers learned about it firsthand when Scherzer threw a complete game one-hit shutout against them. Well, okay, they probably knew it already thanks to scouting reports and whatnot. On the off chance the Brewers don’t use scouting reports or whatnot — and considering their record this is possible — they know it now. Scherzer is really good.

The lone Brewer hit was a broken-bat muscle job over the outstretched glove of second baseman Anthony Rendon. A few innings later Scherzer issued a walk. It was okay. His 16 strikeouts and nine shutout innings overshadowed it. Great as he was, the start was an outlier, of course. Nobody strikes out 16 guys against one walk and one hit every time out. But Max Scherzer is, as we know, quite good, and this start was emblematic of his season.

Against the Brewers, Scherzer threw all four of his pitches for strikes more than 60 percent of the time. He got swings and misses on each of them, including 12 on his fastball, nine on his slider, four on a curveball he threw only 16 times (according to MLB Gameday’s data, at least), and two on his changeup. When a pitcher can throw as hard as Scherzer and throw three other good pitches, well gosh. That’s about the definition of an ace.

Most importantly, that kind of pitch mix allows him to get both right-handers and left-handers out. Against right-handers Scherzer, throws fastballs and sliders with the occasional changeup when he gets ahead in the count. Against left-handers he abandons the slider and becomes a fastball, changeup, curveball pitcher. He also throws a cut fastball (rarely) against lefties but never against righties. Sunday, Scherzer struck out 12 right-handed batters. Those came on six sliders, three curveballs, and three fastballs. He also struck out four left-handed batters on two fastballs and two changeups. It’s a varied enough repertoire of pitches that he effectively becomes two different pitchers against different-sided batters, Pat Venditte style, though with much better pitches than Venditte throws.

As Neil Weinberg noted on this exact website a month earlier, Scherzer is throwing more strikes than ever before and walking fewer batters. This season he’s at a 50.9% “inside the zone” percentage (the league average is 46%). It stands to reason that walking fewer hitters would follow throwing more strikes, but the trick when throwing a lot of pitches in the strike zone is to avoid hard contact. For the most part Scherzer has done that. We have his “hart hit” percentage at 28%, which would be his lowest since 2011 and one of the lowest marks of his career. Last nigh,t he avoided hard hits pretty much all evening as only two balls made it to the outfield. In fact, with 16 strikeouts, he avoided most any kind of balls in play as much as any pitcher can.

Part of all this is Scherzer hasn’t allowed hitters to pull the ball on him as much. Pulled pitches are often hard-hit pitches, so reducing the number batters pull is a good thing. This season Scherzer is allowing 31.1% of hits to be pulled. That would be his lowest since becoming a full time starting pitcher. To further illustrate the point, yesterday, as I said, the Brewers managed just two fly balls. Both were hit to left field off the bats of left-handed hitters so no pulling there. Four balls were hit to the infield corners. Two were pop-outs, one to second base by Gerardo Parra in the fourth inning and one by Carlos Gomez to shortstop in the same frame, so nope and nope as to pulled balls in play. One of the two ground balls was to third base by Ryan Braun, a left-hander (thus not pulled), and finally a ground ball was hit to first base by Parra who is left-handed! Ladies and gentlemen, the one pulled ball Max Scherzer allowed all day! [balloons fall from ceiling]

If you look at the pitch plots, you can see a concerted effort by Scherzer to keep the ball away from left-handed hitters so they can’t pull it. He wasn’t perfect, as you can see one pitch came up and in within the zone but was fouled off, but the overall effect is clear. It’s hard to pull outside pitches.

Scherzer vs LHH

The pattern in the plot against right-handed batters is a bit tougher to see, but a pattern is there. Right-handed hitters got pitches up and in, over the plate, or down and away.

Scherzer vs RHH

Scherzer is also throwing his pitches harder this season by about a mile per hour each. In truth his fastball had been trending downwards in velocity the last two seasons dropping from 94.97 mph to 94.46 to 93.88 last season, before ticking up to 94.28 so far this season, so it’s not at its peak but the negative trend has been reversed. Yesterday Scherzer was averaging 95.5 mph on his fastball, reaching as high as 98.6 mph.

All of this is good news if you’re the Washington Nationals — or even just one, individual Washington National. Long-term deals are risky as it is, so when you’re talking about giving a seven-year contract to a starting pitcher, almost irrespective of the Average Annual Value of the deal, that’s real risk my friends! Then add in the fact that Scherzer is making $30 million annually, and you have a recipe for disaster.

It’s a bit easier to see why the Nationals did this when you consider that Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann are likely gone after this season. The fact that Gio Gonzalez is having a tough year, at least by traditional stats, and Stephen Strasburg has been perplexingly bad and is now hurt makes the signing look almost prescient. And sure Lucas Giolito has been tearing up High-A, but he’s a 20-year old in High-A with an injury history. Promising, for sure, but not the kind of player you plan your big-league roster around.

It’s fair to wonder about the risk and the fact that the Nationals signed another starting pitcher when they seemingly didn’t have room in the rotation for one yet did have a need elsewhere in the lineup. The Nationals decided they wanted an ace long term and they were unable or unwilling to turn to Zimmermann or Strasburg for that particular duty. Scherzer fills that bill. The only questions surrounding such a contract are applicable to any starter, but the fact that they’re applicable to any starter by definition means they’re also applicable to Scherzer. As great as he’s been and looks to be into the indefinite future, the same could be said of Justin Verlander, C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Johan Santana, and Matt Cain. That’s just the nature of pitchers.

It’s worth noting that, in a 4-0 game that was neither a perfect game nor a no-hitter, Scherzer both stayed in for the ninth inning while at 103 pitches and was allowed to remain in to complete the frame 16 pitches later. That might be nothing but it strikes me as a high risk, low reward strategy.

For now, Scherzer’s performance yesterday punctuates how good he has been this season and it makes Nationals GM Mike Rizzo’s decision to spend $200 million on the pitcher like a look good one. But there are still six-and-a-half years left on this deal and one half-season of dominance does not a seven-year contract make. For now Scherzer looks like the beast on the mound the Nationals somewhat surprisingly need him to be. The thing is, nobody knows how long “for now” will last.

We hoped you liked reading Max Scherzer Is Still Very Good and Still Very Risky by Matthew Kory!

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David
Guest
David

Sort of a downer article. Everyone knows long-term deals rarely, if ever, work out and this piece doesn’t really add anything to that perspective. It just states the obvious in that regard. Posting this the day after his amazing performance is a downer.

The pitch plots and such were interesting though

Yirmiyahu
Member

I didn’t think it was a downer, but the title is odd. I thought it was going to say something about how there was something of concern in Scherzer’s numbers/approach/mechanics/etc.

The real story here is how well Scherzer’s pitching, and his last start. The meat of the article was the analysis of Scherzer’s pitch selection and location. Good point about the state of the Nationals’ starting rotation too.

Ignore the title, and read the article as praising Scherzer’s pitching. Treat the last 3 paragraphs as a casual reminder that a few months of good performance doesn’t justify the risk of throwing $200M at a pitcher.