Max Scherzer Scuffled His Way Through the ALCS

Max Scherzer
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

When they acquired him from the Mets on July 30, the Rangers may have envisioned Max Scherzer starting Game 7 of a postseason series, but probably not under the circumstances that led to the decisive game of the ALCS against the Astros, or the early exit that followed. While Texas won in decisive fashion, the 39-year-old righty was quite shaky for the second outing in a row, and far from peak form. In context, that’s hardly a surprise given that his two ALCS starts were his first ones since being sidelined by an arm injury five weeks earlier. As the Rangers await their World Series matchup with the Diamondbacks, his performances are worth a closer look.

Scherzer left his September 12 start against the Blue Jays after 5.1 shutout innings but just 72 pitches due to what was initially termed a triceps spasm but soon revealed to be a low-grade strain of the teres major, a muscle that sits above the latissimus dorsi and attaches the scapula (shoulder blade) to the humerus (upper arm bone). At the time, Rangers general manager Chris Young was publicly pessimistic about the possibility of Scherzer pitching in the postseason if the Rangers made it, given an expected four-to-six week recovery period. “I don’t want to rule it out at this point,” he told reporters. “We’ll see where the next two weeks go and how he’s feeling. That said, it’s probably unlikely.”

Schezer didn’t pitch again in September, but he was able to play catch within a week of his injury, opening up the possibility of a return on the near side of that timeframe. While he progressed far enough to throw nearly 40 pitches in a simulated game on October 6, the Rangers left him off the Division Series roster they submitted the next day; they hardly missed him while upending the 101-win Orioles. By advancing to the ALCS, they bought Scherzer time for another simulated game before he took the ball in Game 3 on October 18 at Globe Life Field, with the team having already jumped out to a 2–0 series lead.

Understandably, Scherzer was raring to go, and he came out firing, throwing a 95-mph fastball on his first pitch to Jose Altuve, albeit slightly off the plate and outside for ball one. Working mostly around the edges of the strike zone, he sped through the inning on just eight pitches but needed nearly all of the warning track for center fielder Leody Taveras to haul in Altuve’s 100.7-mph fly ball 393 feet away from home. He struck out Michael Brantley on three pitches, the last a low-and-away curve that Brantley chased, then got Alex Bregman to fly to Taveras on a 95.7-mph fly to deep right center.

The second inning didn’t go nearly as well, and whatever Willis Reed effect Scherzer’s return might have produced quickly wore off. Over the course of 22 pitches, he hit Yordan Alvarez in the leg; struck out José Abreu looking at a 95.2-mph fastball; walked Kyle Tucker; gave up a 104.8 mph single to Mauricio Dubón on a slider at the bottom of the zone; induced Jeremy Peña to pop up; threw a wild pitch that scored Alvarez; and finally yielded a two-run single to Martín Maldonado, 101.1 mph off the bat. Fortunately for Scherzer, the slow-footed catcher was thrown out trying to advance to second base following a throw home, but for the first time in the series, the Rangers trailed.

The Astros continued to add to their lead, with Altuve leading off the third with a solo homer off a high fastball and Abreu leading off the fourth with a 112.5-mph double off a hanging slider, then coming around to score on a single by Dubón. Even while closing out his evening by striking out Peña (chasing a low curve) and Maldonado (looking at a slider on the inside corner), Scherzer had allowed five runs in four frames. He struck out four and walked only one, and while he did generate a 35% called strike and walk rate (CSW%) via eight whiffs and 14 called strikes, nine of the 12 batted balls he surrendered were hard-hit balls of 95 mph or higher, and all five hits were 101 mph or higher. Houston rockets, indeed.

Down 5–0 when Scherzer departed, the Rangers made a game of it, but lost 8–5. The Astros clawed their way back into the series, and Scherzer got the call again on Monday night. The potent Rangers offense staked him to a 3–0 lead before he even took the mound, but things didn’t go much better than in his first start; in fact, Altuve blasted his first pitch, a 93.7-mph high fastball, off the out-of-town scoreboard in left field for a ringing double. Bregman grounded out, and after Alvarez was intentionally walked, Abreu scorched a low slider down the left field line for an RBI single; all three balls were 99.9 mph off the bat or higher, if not necessarily elevated. Scherzer escaped by getting Brantley to hit into a routine 4-6-3 double play, a grounder that came off the bat at a comparatively pokey 88.3 mph. Though he was obviously on thin ice, by his own admission he kept his composure better than in Game 3, and that DP produced the game’s highest WPA (.116).

After a comparatively smooth second inning capped by another pair of back-to-back strikeouts of Peña (high 95.3-mph fastball) and Maldonado (chasing a slider in the dirt), then an Altuve groundout to start the third, Scherzer served up a middle-middle fastball to Bregman, who mashed it for a homer to left center, cutting the score to 4–2. Seven pitches later, including five straight foul balls, Alvarez reached out and drove a curveball that was well off the plate off the scoreboard for a triple. While third baseman Josh Jung’s play on an Abreu chopper prevented Alvarez from coming home, manager Bruce Bochy tabbed Jordan Montgomery — working on two days of rest — to finish the inning, which he did by getting Brantley to line out. The Rangers then broke things open with a four-run fourth inning; Montgomery added an additional two innings before Bochy turned things over to his late-inning guys, who shut the door for an 11–4 win.

For the outing, Scherzer walked two and struck out two, getting just six whiffs and four called strikes for a 23% CSW%. Six of the 10 batted balls he allowed were hit 95 mph or harder, including all four hits. All told, in his two outings he allowed seven runs via nine hits and two homers in 6.2 innings, that on the heels of an inconsistent season in which he posted his highest ERA since 2011 and the highest FIP of his 16-year career:

Max Scherzer Since 2021
2021 34.1% 5.2% 28.9% 1.15 .247 2.46 2.97
2022 30.6% 4.2% 26.4% 0.81 .276 2.29 2.62
2023 28.0% 7.2% 20.8% 1.65 .265 3.77 4.32
2023 Post 19.4% 9.7% 9.7% 2.70 .368 9.45 7.16

Batters have hit Scherzer exceptionally hard, with his xERA (which I estimated by interpolating his .395 xwOBA via the Statcast leaderboard) more than double his regular-season mark:

Max Scherzer Statcast Profile
Season Events EV Barrel% HardHit% ERA xERA
2021 411 87.9 8.0% 34.3% 2.46 2.88
2022 357 87.8 8.4% 33.9% 2.29 2.87
2023 398 88.5 8.5% 36.9% 3.77 3.28
2023 Post 21 95.8 14.3% 66.7% 9.45 7.07

Via Baseball Savant, Scherzer’s .333 batting average allowed is 60 points ahead of his xBA, and his .704 slugging percentage allowed is 120 points ahead of his xSLG, but even those expected numbers yield an xERA that could be mistaken for a Boeing model.

Pitchwise, Scherzer is mustering slightly greater velocity than during the regular season, knowing he won’t have to pace himself for 90 or 100 pitches. But for the most part, his offerings are getting less spin — and here it’s worth noting that he drew a sticky stuff suspension in April — and less movement:

Max Scherzer Pitch Specifications
Pitch Split % MPH Spin Vert Horiz
4-Seam Reg 46.3% 93.7 2360 15.5 10.8 ARM
4-Seam Post 49.5% 94.2 2322 15.3 9.1 ARM
Slider Reg 16.8% 84.0 2300 37.2 3.4 GLV
Slider Post 15.0% 84.7 2193 37.0 5.1 GLV
Curve Reg 12.4% 75.4 2718 58.1 14.8 GLV
Curve Post 21.5% 75.7 2639 56.0 14.3 GLV
Change Reg 14.1% 83.8 1365 36.1 14.4 ARM
Change Post 5.6% 83.9 1289 37.4 13.3 ARM
Cutter Reg 10.4% 88.4 2399 27.4 1.5 GLV
Cutter Post 8.4% 88.7 2418 27.7 2.5 GLV
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Those spec changes are a mixed bag. By Stuff+, for which we actually have postseason numbers to compare to his regular-season ones (which isn’t the case for PitchingBot), Scherzer’s fastball grades out out as slightly improved thanks to the velo uptick. Likewise for his cutter and change, though both have been used much less often:

Max Scherzer Pitch Modeling by Stuff+
Split Stf+ FA Stf+ FC Stf+ SL Stf+ CU Stf+ CH Stuff+ Location+ Pitching+
Reg 104 99 106 96 94 101 103 103
Post 106 106 99 91 97 101 100 99

The problem is that Scherzer’s breaking pitches and overall location have been worse, and while Stuff+ doesn’t account for contact, you’ve seen the damage. Broken out by pitch type, batters are connecting at averages of 94.6 mph or higher on all of them. Against the fastball, they’ve averaged 94.9 mph on the 14 they’ve connected with, for a .385 AVG and .923 SLG, and against the 12 breaking pitches they’ve made contact with, it’s .333 AVG/.583 SLG. Those two classifications account for 86% of his pitches and 87% of his contact, compared to 76% of the former and 70% of the latter. Basically, I think, he’s shortened his arsenal, becoming more predictable and less precise, and while he’s fooled some hitters some of the time, he’s paid a steep price when he hasn’t.

All of this is reading into a limited sample of data, and it’s worth noting that he faced the Astros four times between the regular season and the postseason, which may have helped them crack his codes. As a Met, he threw eight innings of one-run ball in an 11–1 rout on June 19, but he was thumped for seven runs — three via homers by Alvarez, Brantley, and Abreu, the last a grand slam — in three innings in a 12–3 loss on September 6 with the Rangers. Scherzer did face the Diamondbacks once, on July 4, surrendering four runs in six innings, three by solo homers to Corbin Carroll, Christian Walker, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., the last two of which were back-to-back. Those two outings accounted for two of the four times he served up three or more homers in a start this year.

With Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi likely to start the first two games of the World Series, Scherzer should have six or seven days between starts, giving him more time to rebuild strength and make adjustments. “You’re always tinkering with stuff. You’re always making little adjustments and trying to find different stuff,” he said before his first start of the ALCS. Perhaps he can summon better results and give his season a storybook ending after all.

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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5 months ago

You can’t spell “superhuman” without also spelling “human”