Max Scherzer’s Future in Washington is Bright

Sunday was quite a day for the hardcore sports fan. An iconic NFL playoff game, with the Packers somehow losing the unlosable game to the Seahawks, took place while the baseball hot stove restarted for what promises to be a very active next month. News began to trickle out that Max Scherzer was about to sign with Washington Nationals for lots of years and dollars. Really, when one surveyed the free-agent landscape way back in November, this is one many saw coming; another union of Scott Boras and the Nationals. Just like that, one season segues into the next. Sure, we’ve got a big football game to watch in a couple of weeks, but it’s baseball season again. In the short term, this clearly makes an already fearsome team even more so, but how will this move impact player and club over the long haul?

You may have had the chance to check out my analysis of Scherzer at the beginning of the offseason. The main theme was Scherzer’s historically poor contact management ability over the years. Basically, if you take away the strikeouts and the walks — and just focus on hitters’ performance on balls in play — Scherzer has been among the worst ERA-qualifying starter pitchers in history, in terms of actual production allowed relative to the league. There are many reasons for this. Scherzer has been a fairly extreme fly ball pitcher over the years, somewhat vulnerable to the long ball. Perhaps even more important, and beyond his control, was the subpar defense that has been played behind him for much of his career.

Now we know where Scherzer is going to be pitching for much of the remainder of his major league career. Let’s take a step backward, review the building blocks of his game and then project them into his new environs. As we did back in November, let’s look at Scherzer’s plate-appearance outcome frequency and production by ball-in-play (BIP) type data. One small change compared to the previous analysis: This time, his 2014 BIP type relative frequency and percentile rank data is based upon his performance compared only to American League qualifiers (215 or more BIP), not to the league overall. First, the frequency info:

FREQ – 2014
Scherzer % REL PCT
K 27.9% 145 96
BB 7.0% 97 43
POP 9.8% 119 77
FLY 33.2% 116 84
LD 21.8% 105 70
GB 35.2% 83 16

The surest way to excellence as a major league starting pitcher is to maximize Ks and minimize BBs. This gives one the leeway to allow greater damage on balls in play than a less overpowering hurler might. Interestingly, Scherzer’s 2014 27.9% K rate is his lowest since 2011. Still, his K rate percentile rank of 96, though down a tick from 98 in 2012 and 2013, remains in the elite range. His BB avoidance skill isn’t as exceptional, but his 2014 BB rate percentile rank of 43 is above average, though up a shade from 35 in 2013. His BB rate was basically unchanged, but the league BB rate continued its recent downward trend.

So Scherzer starts from a commanding position thanks to his K/BB excellence. In addition to all of the “free” outs he gets via the strikeout, he has always been a proficient popup generator. Though his popup percentile rank of 77 has declined from 89 since 2012, it has been above league average in all of his MLB seasons. Hitters bat .000 on Ks, and .015 on popups. This further enhances Scherzer’s commanding position; almost half of the hitters he faced in 2014 have been addressed, and he has yet to give up any damage.

His tendency to allow a high number of fly balls is where things get a bit more complicated. His 84 fly ball rate percentile rank is quite high. Though it’s a bit down from 97 in 2013, this marks the fifth time in six years it has been 80 or higher. When a pitcher allows so many fly balls, management of fly ball authority becomes key. In fact, one might argue that in Scherzer’s case, it might be just as important as the maintenance of his trademark high K rate.

Scherzer allowed a high line drive rate in 2014 (21.8%, 70 percentile rank), but this is not a major concern. Liner rates fluctuate quite significantly from year to year, much more so than for other batted ball types. Some hitters and pitchers have shown a propensity to maintain high or low liner rates more consistently, but Scherzer doesn’t appear to be one of them. His liner rate percentile ranks have ranged from as low as 8 to as high as his 2014 level, with no discernible pattern.

Now let’s get a better feel for the BIP authority allowed by Scherzer last season by examining his production by BIP type data:

FLY 0.268 0.645 83 80 77
LD 0.700 0.933 113 90 86
GB 0.263 0.284 117 110 115
ALL BIP 0.336 0.519 108 94 93
ALL PA 0.234 0.288 0.362 86 76 75 3.15 3.21 2.86 2.81

The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation. I’ve added a couple of extra columns this time around. There’s a column for production adjusted to Nationals Park (WAS PRD). Also, there’s a column for “WAS ERA”, i.e. if 50% of his innings were pitched in his new home park.

Scherzer held fly ball production in check last season, yielding a .268 AVG-.645 SLG, for 83 REL PRD. Adjusted for context, he would have allowed 80 REL PRD on fly balls in a neutral ball park. Place half of Scherzer’s fly balls allowed into Nationals Park, and that figure drops to 77. It should be noted Scherzer’s fly ball ADJ PRD figures for 2012 and 2013 were roughly the same, though his 2014 mark was marginally better. Though he allows tons of fly balls, Scherzer has managed to control fly ball authority quite well in recent seasons. The high level of fly ball production he allowed in 2012, for example — .349 AVG, .869 SLG — was more a function of subpar outfield defense and bad luck then it was of poor contact management.

He allowed a great deal of damage on liners in 2014: .700 AVG and .933 SLG, for a 113 REL PRD. This, despite allowing less than average authority on liners, as evidenced by his 90 ADJ PRD. Again, place Scherzer into his new Washington home, and that figure drops to an 86 WAS PRD. Scherzer doesn’t allow many grounders, but the ones he does allow tend to be hit harder than the MLB average, as noted by his 117, 110 and 115 REL PRD, ADJ PRD and WAS PRD figures.

Put all of the BIP types together, and Scherzer allowed a .336 AVG and .519 SLG last season, good for 108 REL PRD, which is consistent with his history as a below-average contact manager. Once adjusted for context, though, his ADJ PRD is a solid 94 and his WAS PRD is fractionally better at 93. Add back the K and BB, and the bottom drops out of those figures — to 86, 76 and 75, respectively. His actual ERA in 2014 was a strong 3.15. His “tru” ERA a much better 2.86, and his WAS ERA even better than that at 2.81.

So what do we have, in the big picture? Max Scherzer had an exceptional career in Detroit, posting a traditional line of 91-50, 3.58. That, obviously, is a superior winning percentage, made possible by the run support provided by the array of All Star offensive talent supporting him. Those same offensive studs, however, negatively impacted his career ERA with their work in the field. I wouldn’t argue Scherzer has been a particularly good contact manager over the years, but he has not been the historically bad one that his actual numbers say he is. His team defense has hurt him quite a bit over the years, and his ability to manage fly ball authority has gradually trended positively.

The following is the final sentence from my November article on Scherzer:

“If he earns his free-agent payday from a club with a spacious outfield and a strong team defense, a healthy Scherzer can be a force into his mid-thirties.”

This is exactly what has happened. Based on my own park factors utilizing granular batted ball data, Nationals Park had an overall fly ball park factor of 86.7 in 2014, and of 88.8 in 2013. In Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth, the team has three very capable outfield defenders — and defense is a clear priority among Washington’s management. Scherzer’s moving from the DH league to the non-DH league, into a division with two clear rebuilders in the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves, and with two other clear pitchers’ parks in Atlanta and Miami. This is the best-case scenario for Max Scherzer.

I am not and never have been a fan of the seven-year, mega-contract for starting pitchers, no matter how good they are. Even the Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez deals scare me because of their length, and those are the two very best pitchers in the game. Given all of that, Scherzer’s peak will be higher, and his decline slope will be less steep because of his new club and ballpark. The Washington Borases are a pretty darned good baseball team.

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Makes you wonder if the stacked Nats meet the stacked Dodgers to go to the WS?? Wouldn’t it be funny to see the Padres streak by everyone??