Max Scherzer is a fan and sportswriter’s dream. He’s intelligent and thoughtful. He’s extremely talented, but also emerging. Obvious, persistent greatness can become boring and repetitive, but someone new on the scene who is finally putting the pieces together is compelling. And that’s all in addition to a heartbreaking personal tragedy that offers a window into the person he is.
Scherzer’s talent and potential are nothing new. He was the 11th pick in the 2006 draft and was one of the key pieces in the famed three way deal among the Tigers, Yankees, and Diamondbacks after the 2009 season. But Scherzer didn’t burst onto the scene like Matt Harvey, Shelby Miller, or Jose Fernandez are doing this season. For Scherzer, the road to stardom was more gradual.
In his first three years as a full time starter from 2009-2011, Scherzer was slightly above average overall, turning in a 4.01 ERA in 561 innings across 94 starts. His advanced numbers told the same story. He produced a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 3.91 during the same span, which is a statistic that tells us how well a pitcher should prevent runs based on their strikeouts, walks, and homeruns allowed.
Scherzer was a solid MLB starter, but for fans who watched him every week, the inconsistency was often frustrating. His delivery had a lot of moving parts and could easily get out of control and result in stretches of poor performance. When he was on, he was nearly unhittable, but when he was off he was dramatically worse. On balance that’s an average pitcher, but Jekyll and Hyde athletes can be maddening to watch.
The potential was there, it just required some hard work to develop consistent mechanics. Since the start of 2012, Scherzer has posted a 3.33 ERA and 3.00 FIP in 346 innings and 55 starts. He’s taken the leap from solid MLB starter to frontline ace. In the last calendar year, according to FanGraphs, no pitcher was been worth more than Scherzer’s 7.2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is a statistic that measures a player’s overall contribution to the team.
There’s certainly a case to be made for others, but Scherzer is among the best pitchers in baseball right now. He’s gotten a lot of mainstream coverage for his gaudy won-loss record (17-1), but the extreme nature of those numbers are due in large part to excellent run support (7.67 runs per 9) from the powerful Tigers offense.
If you strip away the team for which he plays, the raw pitching numbers are impressive and stand by themselves. Scherzer is striking out more than 29% of the batters he’s faced this year, trailing only Yu Darvish among starters, and is walking just under 6% which is an excellent mark for a power pitcher like Scherzer. He’s getting hitters to swing more often and to make less contact and has also added a curveball that’s made him more effective against left-handed hitters, but the leap has really been about consistency.
Which is what makes him so compelling in the face of Biogenensis suspensions and PED allegations against other players. We haven’t seen a suspicious improvement in Scherzer’s physical tools, we’ve seen an improvement in his craft. He’s added a new pitch and reigned in a wild delivery and it’s allowed him to harness his raw potential.
Take a look at his release points, using Pitch F/X data from 2010 until the middle of 2012 and then from that point forward. The tighter cluster shows you that he’s getting to a more consistent arm slot and repeating his delivery much more efficiently:
The cutoff point may seem arbitrary, but it isn’t. During the middle of last season, Scherzer’s brother, whom he was very close with, committed suicide. Personal tragedy doesn’t necessarily make you a better athlete, but Scherzer’s performance since has been hard to ignore. So rarely do the tangible and intangible meet so clearly in sports.
Without knowing him personally, I’m sure he’d trade every pitch for another postgame call with his brother. But he’s been able to work past whatever painful and complicated emotions he’s feeling and he’s turned himself into one of the game’s brightest starts.
Scherzer is having the kind of breakout season that’s impossible not to love. He’s hitting the mark on every traditional statistic and he impresses the more advanced sabermetricians as well. But you can also feel good about the breakout because it’s so clearly tied to a mechanical change and not a physical one. You don’t have to wonder if Scherzer is getting help from banned substances because he’s not throwing harder, he’s just throwing smarter.
Put that together with a man who is extremely bright and self-aware and who has a compelling, non-baseball reason to cheer for him and you’ve got the story of the year.
Early in his career, Scherzer was a pitcher with tremendous stuff who had a difficult time honing it and turning it into tangible success. Over the last two seasons he’s conquered his wild delivery and American League hitters as well.
You can highlight his talent, his statistics (new or old), his work ethic, or his story. On a team full of stars, Scherzer is one of the brightest. His inconsistency is a thing of the past and plenty of people are wondering if he’s taken over Justin Verlander’s place as the Tigers’ ace. That may be premature, but with the mechanical improvements he’s made in the last year, it’s no longer a laughable question.
So often sports are riddled with talented players who don’t live up to their potential or great players who are found to be chemically enhanced. Scherzer is neither. In a society that too often focuses on the sinner rather than the saint, Scherzer is giving everyone a reason to do the latter.