Scherzer Trying to Re-Maximize Momentum

When the All-Star break arrived, Max Scherzer appeared to be making a pretty strong case to win a fourth Cy Young award. Nearly two months and two stints on the injured list later, however, he’s trying to recover his dominant form and to restart his campaign for the hardware, one that will be difficult in light of recent voting history. In a performance that was largely lost amid Tuesday night’s late-inning drama in Washington — the Nationals allowed five ninth-inning runs to fall behind 10-4, then scored seven in the bottom of the frame, capped by Kurt Suzuki’s walk-off homer — Scherzer did show some semblance of his usual self. Unfortunately for the 35-year-old righty, the other inning he threw, a four-run fourth during which the Mets teed off on his first pitches, was his undoing.

Making just his fourth start since the All-Star break, Scherzer wasn’t at his sharpest against the Mets, but he did retire nine of the first 10 batters he faced, with a seven-pitch second inning walk by Brandon Nimmo the only blemish. While he did strike out four in that span, the Mets made him work for those shutout innings, as he needed 46 pitches. The Mets changed their approach in the fourth, attacking Scherzer’s first pitch even if it was outside the zone during a three-pitch sequence to start the frame, Pete Alonso and Michael Conforto both singled, and then Wilson Ramos doubled, plating one run. Nimmo went four pitches deep before hitting a sacrifice fly to put the Mets up 2-1, and then Joe Panik pounced on the next pitch, a 91.9-mph cutter high in the zone, for a two-run homer to left field, expanding the lead to 4-1. Scherzer didn’t allow another run amid that 21-pitch slog of an inning, but he did give up one more hit, a double down the line by light-hitting Luis Guillorme.

Scherzer recovered to retire the final six Mets he faced. Outside of the fourth inning, he didn’t surrender a hit, and allowed just one walk. With opposite pitcher Jacob deGrom also wobbly — after allowing two runs through his first seven innings, he served up a two-run homer to Juan Soto in the eighth — the Nationals remained in the game and ultimately produced a comeback of a type that hadn’t been seen in 58 years. It was the first time Scherzer had gone six innings or thrown at least 90 pitches in a start since July 6.

That date marked the end of what might have been the best run of Scherzer’s career. Over a nine-start span that began on May 22, in a total of 64 innings, he allowed just six runs (all earned) while striking out 94 (38.5%) and walking just nine (3.7%) en route to a microscopic 0.84 ERA and 1.45 FIP. Only once in that stretch did he allow more than one run (two against the Diamondbacks on June 14). It was his longest streak of allowing two runs or fewer in his career, and with the lowest ERA and FIP of any streak approaching it:

Scherzer to the Max: Streaks Allowing 2 Runs or Fewer
Rk Strk Start End Games IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA FIP
1 5/22/19 7/6/19 9 64.0 40 6 6 9 94 3 0.84 1.31
2 4/9/18 5/19/18 8 54.2 29 11 11 13 87 4 1.81 1.64
3 8/10/12 9/18/12 8 51.0 36 8 8 11 64 3 1.41 2.00
4 7/22/18 8/23/18 7 47.0 29 8 7 11 62 3 1.34 2.05
5 7/31/10 9/1/10 7 50.1 37 9 7 13 43 1 1.25 2.40
6 5/30/18 6/26/18 6 43.0 24 9 9 9 57 4 1.88 2.35
7 7/27/17 9/2/17 6 33.0 20 7 7 10 40 4 1.91 3.22
8 6/29/16 7/29/16 6 41.1 24 6 5 9 49 2 1.09 2.06
9 8/25/16 9/16/16 5 36.2 23 6 6 6 42 1 1.47 1.70
10 6/22/14 7/19/14 5 33.2 25 7 7 10 39 3 1.87 2.86
11 7/7/11 8/2/11 5 33.2 30 8 8 6 21 2 2.14 3.08
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

The streak is tied for the majors’ second-longest this season, excluding openers:

Longest Streaks of Allowing 2 Runs or Fewer, 2019
Rk Pitcher Tm Start End GS IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA FIP
1 Hyun-Jin Ryu LAD 3/28/19 6/16/19 14 93.0 71 15 13 5 85 7 1.26 2.53
2T Max Scherzer WSN 5/22/19 7/6/19 9 64.0 40 6 6 9 94 3 0.84 1.31
2T Jack Flaherty STL 7/7/19 8/23/19 9 56.1 28 5 5 15 70 3 0.80 2.23
2T Chase Anderson MIL 6/27/19 8/6/19 9 48.0 36 15 14 12 39 5 2.63 3.70
2T Zac Gallen MIA-ARI 7/2/19 8/24/19 9 46.1 37 13 12 26 54 5 2.33 3.98
6T Mike Soroka ATL 4/18/19 5/25/19 8 50.2 30 9 6 15 46 1 1.07 2.55
6T Matt Strahm SDP 4/7/19 5/21/19 8 47.1 40 13 12 5 39 5 2.28 3.26
6T Zach Davies MIL 4/1/19 5/11/19 8 46.2 42 11 8 15 31 3 1.54 3.69
9T Ivan Nova CHW 7/22/19 8/24/19 7 48.0 36 9 5 7 25 3 0.94 3.43
9T Clayton Kershaw LAD 7/5/19 8/14/19 7 45.0 26 8 7 13 59 2 1.40 2.04
9T Jacob deGrom NYM 5/22/19 6/23/19 7 45.0 39 12 12 6 54 5 2.40 2.66
9T Luis Castillo CIN 3/28/19 4/30/19 7 43.1 26 7 7 17 50 2 1.45 2.69
9T Tyler Glasnow TBR 3/30/19 5/3/19 7 43.0 30 7 7 7 46 3 1.47 2.48
9T Caleb Smith MIA 4/13/19 5/21/19 7 42.0 25 9 9 11 56 5 1.93 2.89
9T Jeff Samardzija SFG 7/26/19 8/27/19 7 41.1 22 7 7 13 30 4 1.52 3.97
9T Jon Lester CHC 3/28/19 5/12/19 7 38.2 35 8 5 8 39 3 1.16 2.83
9T Kyle Hendricks CHC 7/2/19 8/5/19 7 38.1 26 10 10 11 37 5 2.35 3.85
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Excludes openers

Impressive, no? In each of the last five starts of that streak, Scherzer struck out at least 10 batters, the season’s second-longest stretch (Justin Verlander has the longest, with seven). As of the All-Star break, he appeared to be well-positioned to claim his third Cy Young in four years, and fourth overall — joining Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton, and Greg Maddux as the only pitchers to win more than three. Though his 2.30 ERA was merely third in the league behind Ryu (1.73) and Castillo (2.29) at the time, his 2.02 FIP, 35.2% strikeout rate, 30.7% strikeout-walk differential, 0.63 homers per nine, 129.1 innings, and 181 strikeouts were all tops. So was his 5.6 WAR, by a country mile; deGrom, Zack Greinke, and Stephen Strasburg were all virtually tied for second with 3.2 WAR.

While Scherzer was named to the NL All-Star team during that streak, on July 7, he said that due to back stiffness, he would head to Cleveland for the festivities but not pitch in the contest itself. Plans to push back his next start turned into an injured list stint for a mid-back strain, and on July 15, he was diagnosed with an inflamed bursa sac and received a cortisone injection. He returned from the IL and made one five-inning, three-run start against the Rockies, then was diagnosed with a mild strain of his rhomboid muscle, for which he received a stem cell injection.

Scherzer went back on the IL, and despite initial hopes for a short stay, he didn’t return until August 22, when he threw four innings and 71 pitches against the Pirates. Six days later, he threw 4.1 innings and 89 pitches against the Orioles. He allowed just one run in each of those abbreviated starts, each via solo homers, and he did miss bats (11 strikeouts in all), but he wasn’t exactly facing Murderer’s Row either time; the Pirates are 17th in the majors with a 95 wRC+, the Orioles 23rd at 88.

Not surprisingly, the ace righty’s velocity is down a bit since his injuries. Via Brooks Baseball, through July 6, his average four-seamer came in at 95.3 mph; since then, it’s 94.8. To be fair, he’s getting more movement on the fastball since his two IL stints (from 7.66 inches to 8.14 vertically, and from -6.79 inches to -7.38 horizontally), and his post-injury swinging strike rate (14.9%) is still more than respectable, if not the untouchable 17.1% he had managed prior. On that note, his 16.8% overall swinging strike rate is the highest in our splits, which go back to 2002; he’s narrowly ahead of Johnson’s 2002 mark (16.3%), as is Gerrit Cole (16.4%).

While Scherzer still leads the NL in FIP (2.28) and WAR (5.9), and ranks third in ERA (2.60) behind the rapidly regressing Ryu (2.35) and Soroka (2.53), he’s now third in total strikeouts (207, making this his eighth-straight season with at least 200) and 28th in the league in innings (148.2). From a Cy Young standpoint, the last ranking matters less than his final total.

In studying the issue last year in relation to Chris Sale’s abridged Cy Young case, I noted that since the award was introduced in 1956, only once in a non-strike season has a starter won with fewer than 200 innings, namely Clayton Kershaw with 198.1 in 2014, a year where he nonetheless led the NL in ERA, FIP, strikeouts, and both the FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference flavors of WAR. In 2017, Scherzer (200.2) and Corey Kluber (203.2) both nosed over the mark and won, with the former beating out Kershaw, who finished with the league’s lowest ERA (2.31) and highest win total (18, against just four losses) but was limited to 175 innings by back woes; meanwhile, Kluber beat out Sale, who threw a league-high 214.1 innings and struck out a league-high 308 hitters but faded significantly down the stretch, managing a 4.09 ERA and 3.64 FIP from August 1 onward. Scherzer’s 2016 win also owed something to Kershaw’s back trouble, as the Dodgers’ lefty posted a sterling 1.69 ERA, albeit in just 149 innings; Scherzer’s 2.96 ERA ranked eighth in the league, his 3.24 ERA fifth, but he won 20 games and racked a league-high 228.1 innings, pushing him to first in bWAR (6.3) and third in fWAR (5.6).

My point isn’t to further relitigate past Cy Young races, it’s to illustrate the uncertainty of the current one. Right now it’s hardly clear-cut who would win:

2019 NL Cy Young Race
Pitcher Team W-L IP K ERA FIP fWAR bWAR AVG
Max Scherzer Nationals 9-5 148.2 207 2.60 2.28 5.9 5.7 5.8
Jacob deGrom Mets 8-8 176.0 220 2.76 2.86 5.6 5.4 5.5
Stephen Strasburg Nationals 16-5 179.0 215 3.47 3.14 5.0 5.2 5.1
Patrick Corbin Nationals 11-6 174.2 201 3.19 3.31 4.4 5.3 4.9
Mike Soroka Braves 11-3 152.2 119 2.53 3.34 3.7 5.3 4.5
Sonny Gray Reds 10-6 151.1 174 2.80 3.47 3.7 4.9 4.3
Hyun-Jin Ryu Dodgers 12-5 157.1 137 2.35 3.17 4.0 4.2 4.1

Ryu’s only lead is in ERA, but he’s been rocked for 18 runs over his last three starts totaling 14.2 innings, and having missed time due to minor groin and neck ailments, he too could fall short of 200 frames. He’s got the edge in wins over Scherzer and deGrom, who won the award last year despite a seemingly pedestrian 10-9 won-loss record. The latter hasn’t been as dominant as last year (1.73 ERA, 1.99 FIP, 9.0 fWAR) but may have the most convincing collection from among the above stats, leading in strikeouts and ranking second in five of the other categories.

Regardless of where he finishes in the Cy Young race, Scherzer has already augmented his career resumé in significant fashion this year. As I noted a couple of weeks ago, by Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, his current mark of 5.7 rates as the sixth-best total of his career, making this one of his peak seasons in my JAWS calculations. While his 60.2 career WAR is well short of the standard for Hall starters (73.2), his 48.6 peak WAR (WAR7) is closing in on that standard (49.9), and he has a chance to narrow the gap through his remaining starts. Whatever he does is effectively double-counted when it comes to his JAWS (currently 54.4); since JAWS is the average of career and peak totals, each extra Win Above Replacement adds a full point instead of just half of one. He’s still shy of the career standard (61.5), and well behind Greinke (59.2), Verlander (59.0), and Kershaw (58.6) in the rankings, but with each passing year of dominance, it seems more likely he’ll wind up in Cooperstown, particularly as he approaches 3,000 strikeouts (he’s at 2,656, putting him two years away). A fourth Cy Young would probably seal the deal.

That race isn’t over; September performances will likely decide it. If Scherzer is back to being in working order, he may have a chance to make a strong enough closing argument to overcome the historical bias against low innings totals, but he’ll have to avoid the pitfalls of Tuesday night.





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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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stever20
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stever20

If Strasburg gets to 20 wins and gets his ERA down to around 3.10, I think it may be his race to lose.

Bjd1207
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Bjd1207

Lol he’s got 9 wins and like 5 starts left…how the heck does he get to 20?

stever20
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stever20

i said Strasburg. The race is wide open.