The Curious Case Of Max Scherzer

The free agent market is beginning to percolate, and though all has been somewhat quiet on his front to date, it stands to reason that Max Scherzer will be one of its chief beneficiaries. It’s a strong starting pitching group at the top, with Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields the lead dogs. Most would agree that none of these guys are Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez, but it wouldn’t be shocking if one of the current free agents approached the tax bracket of The Two Best Pitchers In Baseball. Scherzer presents a particularly intriguing case – he is a true outlier, a dominant strikeout artist who has allowed a fairly extreme amount of damage on the balls he has allowed to be put in play. Is this on Scherzer, or are there other factors in play? The question, at the very least, must be asked before any club invests anywhere a quarter billion dollars in him.

There is no disputing the fact that Scherzer is one of the most overpowering pitchers in the game today. His 2014 strikeout rate of 27.9% was actually his lowest mark in three seasons, down from 29.4% in 2012 and 28.7% in 2013. He ranked 4th among qualifying MLB starters in this measure in 2014, behind Kershaw, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber. Pretty solid company. His K/9 ratio was 1.92 standard deviations above the average of AL ERA qualifiers in 2014. Being two standard deviations above the norm in anything is a true mark of excellence. In 2012, his K/9 was 2.51 STD above the average of AL ERA qualifiers, narrowly missing the all-time Top 100 season list by this measure. His 2014 swing-and-miss rate of 11.5% was 4th in the AL, behind Sale, Kluber and Hernandez, and this too was his low water mark since 2012, when he peaked at 12.2%. He throws hard, doesn’t walk people, and misses bats with multiple pitches. Put simply, Max Scherzer has a lot of the boxes checked.

Then there’s the other side of the coin. Let’s pretend that there is no such thing in baseball as a strikeout, or a walk. Let’s strip all of those away, and measure pitchers by the relative damage they allow on balls in play. Give every event a run value, and compare the average overall run value allowed by a pitcher to the league average run value, represented by 100. A pitcher who allows lower than average run value relative to the league has an Unadjusted Contact Score under 100, one who allows higher than average run value has an Unadjusted Contact Score over 100. I have gone back and calculated Unadjusted Contact Scores for every ERA qualifier going back to 1938.

To put it bluntly, Scherzer has posted a very poor career Unadjusted Contact Score to date – an average of 111.7 over six qualifying seasons, at age 29. Let’s put this in some sort of historical context. First, here are the five worst career Contact Scores through age 29:

Hurst Bruce 119.2 5
Burris Ray 115.9 5
Krukow Mike 113.0 4
Lemaster Denny 112.9 5
Scherzer Max 111.7 6

Bruce Hurst has an excuse – he pitched his home games in Fenway Park, which turns routine fly balls into doubles at an alarming rate, as I showed in a post on Tuesday. The other guys don’t have such excuses – Ray Burris, Mike Krukow and Denny Lemaster were steady but unremarkable pitchers, and of those three only Krukow had much of a career left after age 29. This is clearly not a list upon which Scherzer would prefer to appear. Next, let’s look at the five worst career Unadjusted Contact Scores through six qualifying seasons:

Harang Aaron 114.4 33
Lonborg Jim 112.4 31
Burris Ray 112.2 30
Krukow Mike 111.8 31
Scherzer Max 111.7 29

Jim Lonborg has the same excuse as Hurst – the Fenway Factor. Burris and Krukow are back. The newcomer atop the list, Aaron Harang, just had himself a fairly decent season at age 36, and is also on the free agent market. His career Contact Score has come down to 109.6 through eight qualifying seasons, but that is still a historically poor figure. Again, this is not the company that Max Scherzer wants to be keeping.

When you get down to it, however, it’s probably not fair to compare Scherzer to most of these hurlers, who are clearly a step or more down in class. Though anything can and will happen to starting pitchers, I would submit that it’s relatively safe at this stage to project that Scherzer will have 10 or more ERA-qualifying seasons under his belt when all is said and done. Let’s look at the 10 worst career Contact Scores for pitchers with 10 or more such seasons:

Lolich Mickey 112.3 13
Krukow Mike 111.4 11
Hurst Bruce 108.6 10
Vazquez Javier 107.7 12
Bannister Floyd 107.5 10
Jenkins Fergie 105.1 18
Eckersley Dennis 104.4 11
Gross Kevin 104.4 10
Kaat Jim 104.2 15
Tanana Frank 104.2 18

Now there are some pretty darned good pitchers on this list – you have to be pretty good, by definition, to qualify for 10 ERA titles. We’ve already touched on Krukow and Hurst. Lolich was an extremely durable, but hittable pitcher with perennially strong K and BB rates. He won 47 games at ages 30-31 combined, and was a high-volume, league average guy for a few seasons afterward. Javier Vazquez was seemingly always on the verge of a breakout, but it never really happened. He had a couple of really nice years after age 29, but was very inconsistent. Floyd Bannister was an immensely talented first overall draft pick who pitched for some terrible teams, and only began to manage contact well at the very end of his career, in his early thirties.

Fergie Jenkins and Dennis Eckersley are in the Hall of Fame. Eckersley is there primarily for his work as a reliever. His last good year as a starter was at age 30 in 1985. Jenkins’ K and BB rates were impeccable until age 29, when his bat-missing ability started to slip away from him. He was also quite homer-prone. His last truly superior season was at age 31 in 1974, though he remained a solid mid-rotation guy for some years afterward. Kevin Gross? I was pretty surprised to see that he had 10 ERA-qualifying seasons. Not much else to say about him. Jim Kaat and Frank Tanana both had exceptional Hall of Very Good-type careers. Kaat had some solid years in his thirties – he was on his way to a special season in 1972 at age 33 before breaking his hand sliding in July, and had a couple solid bulk-type years with the White Sox at ages 35-36 in the last known three-man rotation. Tanana was a monster in his early 20’s before being grotesquely overused – case in point, 14 straight complete games in 1977 at age 23 – but was just an innings guy by age 29.

The point here? Were any of these guys’ age 30-36 seasons worth superstar dollars in the free market? Heck, no. Though there are a pair of Hall of Famers, a couple relative near misses and a bunch of other solid pitchers on this list, this is still not the company Max Scherzer wants to be keeping, at least when his performance over the life of his next contract is being projected. Now, we just need to see if there are any extenuating circumstances which might exempt Scherzer from his contact management peer group.

All of the Contact Scores listed to date are “unadjusted” for context. We can’t go back and apply batted-ball data to pitchers from 1938, but we certainly can apply it to Scherzer and his modern peers. To cut through any noise in his numbers and get to his true performance level, Let’s take a look at Scherzer’s outcome frequency and relative production by BIP type data compared to MLB average for 2014, both before and after adjustment for context. First, the frequency info:

FREQ – 2014
Scherzer % REL PCT
K 27.9% 137 87
BB 7.0% 92 46
POP 9.8% 127 77
FLY 33.2% 119 95
LD 21.8% 105 75
GB 35.2% 81 5

For purposes of this exercise, we don’t need to dwell on his K and BB data – his 2014 K rate frequency percentile rank of 87 is very good, though it is trending down from 98 and 96 in 2012 and 2013, respectively. His BB rate percentile rank of 46 is slightly above MLB average, and in line with career norms. Scherzer is an extreme fly ball/popup pitcher – his 2014 popup percentile rank of 77 is very good, but again is trending down from the 89 and 94 marks he posted in 2012-13. A 95 fly ball and 5 ground ball percentile rank? That’s quite extreme, but right in line with career norms. His 2014 liner rate percentile rank of 75 is high, but such rates fluctuate more than those of other BIP types, and he posted a glittering 9 liner percentile rank as recently as 2013.

As long as Scherzer manages fly ball contact authority well, there’s nothing to be overly concerned with here. Though the popups are declining, between those and the strikeouts, he is still generating an awful lot of free outs. We’ll learn about the authority as we examine the production by BIP data:

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.268 0.645 83 80
LD 0.700 0.933 113 90
GB 0.263 0.284 117 110
ALL BIP 0.336 0.519 108 94
ALL PA 0.234 0.288 0.362 86 76 3.15 3.21 2.86

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. In the three right-most columns, his actual ERA, calculated component ERA based on actual production allowed, and “tru” ERA, which is adjusted for context, are all presented. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

The fly ball production data is quite encouraging. He allowed .268 AVG-.645 SLG on fly balls, good for 83 REL PRD compared to the MLB average of .275 AVG-.703 SLG. His actual performance is supported by his relatively solid hard/soft fly ball rates, actually reducing his ADJ PRD to 80, which is in line with his 2012-13 fly ball ADJ PRD figures of 83 and 90. Scherzer was also very unlucky on line drives in 2014 – he actually allowed 113 REL PRD, but contextual adjustment drops that all the way to 90 ADJ PRD. This also makes a great deal of sense, as his liner ADJ PRD marks for 2012 and 2013 were 92 and 95, respectively. He does allow harder than league average grounders – 117 REL PRD is adjusted down to 110 ADJ PRD for context – but allows so few grounders that it makes little difference in the aggregate.

Put it all together, and his 108 REL PRD on all BIP drops all the way to 94 ADJ PRD. His strong K and BB rates reduce his REL PRD and ADJ PRD to 86 and 76, respectively. His “tru” ERA, which is adjusted for context, is 2.86, a bit better than his actual mark of 3.15. In any given year, a difference of 0.29 between actual and “tru” ERA, or of 14 basis points between REL PRD and ADJ PRD on all BIP isn’t a big deal. Looking at three years of data, however, exposes some clear trends.

Scherzer’s Unadjusted Contact Score for 2012-14 is 107.0; his ADJ PRD – or Adjusted Contact Score – over that span is 95.3. Moreover, his Adjusted Contact Scores for those three seasons are almost identical – 97, 95 and 94. Adjusting for batted ball authority/angle, he has actually been a slightly above average contact manager over the past three seasons. For example, in 2012, Scherzer had a fly ball REL PRD of 135 – adjusted down to 83, and a grounder REL PRD of 181 – .322 AVG-.342 SLG on grounders – adjusted down to 100 for context.

He has had a poor defense playing behind him in recent seasons, and this has significantly impacted the production he has allowed on balls in play. He has consistently maintained below MLB average fly ball and line drive authority levels, but the actual production allowed has been above MLB average more often than not, at times significantly so.

I am not a big fan of 6+, $150M+ contracts for almost any starting pitcher. As good as Kershaw and Hernandez are – they are exceptional bat-missers, control artists and contact managers – the Dodgers and Mariners are both looking at a pretty daunting risk/reward curve on their contracts. As an extreme fly ball guy, Scherzer’s future is largely dependent upon his ability to continue to control fly ball authority. Somewhere along his personal aging curve, that horse is going to get out of the barn and spark a downturn. There are no signs of this occurring imminently, however. While his won-lost record has been propped up a bit by the Tigers’ exceptional offense, Scherzer’s ERA has been hurt by their defensive weakness. 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.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sour Bob
9 years ago

Hasn’t Scherzer played in front of some notably awful defenses too? My gut feeling is that he has made many of his starts with three to four should-be DHs in the field.

9 years ago
Reply to  Sour Bob

That was the summation of the article.

“Scherzer’s ERA has been hurt by their defensive weakness. 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.”

Royals Fan
9 years ago
Reply to  Matt

So. To replace Shields…