Max Scherzer’s New Toy

Over the last three years, Max Scherzer has kicked it up a notch, progressing from simply a very good pitcher to one of the best three in the major leagues. He attributes some of that success to an improved curveball, a pitch that has served to complement his already devastating slider. Perhaps it’s because of his curveball’s effectiveness that he’s not afraid to continue tinkering. Perhaps the introduction of a new, third breaking pitch will lead to another leap forward, if that’s even possible.

Scherzer has told us before that the curve was a big deal for him. But it’s not like he just added the pitch in 2012 and stopped working on it. In late 2015, it took a big leap forward, exhibiting two or three additional inches of drop.

But there was no change in grip or mechanics — nothing earth-shattering, at least. The pitch got better, according to the pitcher, simply because he’s “constantly getting better at it” and has benefited from repetition.

What makes throwing the curve difficult for Scherzer is his arm slot; it’s lower than most. He isn’t a sidearmer, per se, but his height-adjusted release point is still in the bottom 7% of the league. “The curveball is a really tough pitch because of where I come from, my mechanics, my lower arm slot,” Scherzer said recently before a game with the Giants. “I’m… a slider guy trying to also make myself be a curveball guy. Coming over the top is a difficult thing to add.”

It looks like what he found to improve the curve was a specific release point for the pitch itself. He found a way to mimic coming over the top, even as he released it on the side. Look at how his release point for the curve jumped up a few inches, right where it improved in drop. That’s consistent with some of my work documenting the relationship between arm slot and movement, even if that relationship usually isn’t as linear as what we find here. In other words, you don’t usually get two inches of added drop by moving your release point up two inches.

In any case, the curve is better now, even if it still needs work. “There are days when I clearly have it and days that I don’t, and right now I’m working on my power slider, and you can only throw four pitches at one time really,” Scherzer said.

It’s not surprising to hear Scherzer mention four pitches. According to Brooks Baseball, that’s what he throws: the fastball, the slider, the curve, and a changeup. But the fourth pitch to which he’s referencing isn’t that changeup. By “power slider,” Scherzer appears to be citing a whole different pitch.

“I’m trying to pitch with three breaking balls right now,” admitted Scherzer. Though the pitch-tracking systems don’t pick up a third breaker — not apart from a few cutters, and even then no system has him throwing cutters this year — the pitcher gives us some cues for finding it. “Little bit different grip,” he said of the power slider versus his regular one. “Little bit different everything with it, so it can flatten out and I can throw it in to lefties and that way it’ll stay hot, keep it higher, in a little bit harder, so it’s not breaking out over the plate.”

With the knowledge that sliders break differently when you throw them to one side of the plate or the other, let’s look at Scherzer’s sliders to lefties this year and see what they look like compared to his sliders to righties.

Max Scherzer’s 2017 Sliders by Batter Handedness
Handedness Horizontal Vertical Velocity
Righty 1.4 0.8 85.6
Lefty 1.2 2.6 87.5
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

Sliders to the glove side usually have an inch less drop and 0.7 mph more velocity, but Scherzer’s power slider takes that a little bit further, nearly doubling the difference in both dimensions. (A higher vertical movement number here means less drop.)

Here’s an example of a more conventional slider to a righty, thrown in a swing-and-miss count to Buster Posey at 84 mph:

And here’s the power slider to Brandon Crawford, at 87 mph, with less drop:

Scherzer’s nasty slider is only getting better — which makes him murder on righties, more than ever. But his work against lefties, which improved with his addition of the curveball, has stagnated recently. Maybe this power slider will be worth the risk.

Risk? The brow above Scherzer’s blue eye rose at the question. I pointed out that Zack Greinke had once said that throwing a cutter and a slider made both pitches worse. “That’s what the other four days are for,” the Nationals’ righty pointed out about his power slider. “You have to put in the work to separate them, spin the ball, feel what you want to do, so they can all be separate. That takes years to perfect.”

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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6 years ago

Great read. Great pitcher. Great insights. This is why I come back to fangraphs every day.

I am the Rockies fan
6 years ago
Reply to  southie

Agreed. Now if only we could get Scherzer, Grienke, and Votto to get together and talk about baseball when they are done playing, and replace the talk show hosts we usually get on tv and sports radio. Fangraphs keeps me sane.

6 years ago

Great idea.

We all know it will be Trevor Bauer, Eric Hosmer and Brian McCann unfortunately.

6 years ago
Reply to  southie

Having actually talked pitching with Bauer, I wouldn’t mind seeing him on those shows. He’s as introspective as anybody. As for the other two, we better hope Hosmer gets his big contract.