For the past decade, there haven’t been many pitchers in the caliber of Max Scherzer. He’s won 3 Cy Young Awards, a World Series ring, thrown a no-hitter, and a 20-strikeout game. Expectations were high going into the 2020 season and for a multitude of reasons, it seems like Scherzer and the Nationals were underwhelming. Leading to conversations about the star pitcher and how much he has left. I am here to tell you that those questions should be put to bed and that Max Scherzer can still dominate this season and one should expect him to.
Finding His Command
While Scherzer has notoriously gotten hundreds of strikeouts, his command has always been underrated. From 2015-2019, Max Scherzer only had one season with a walk rate above 7%. Then in the shortened season of 2020, Scherzer’s walk rate jumped to 7.8%. That was the highest mark of his career since 2010. The biggest factor in that is the Scherzer was just throwing fewer pitches in the zone in 2020 than he had in the past. His 49.1% zone rating was the lowest rating he had since 2015. Over the past three seasons, Scherzer’s percentage of pitches that are in the heart or shadow of the zone has dropped consistently. We can see that reflected in other metrics which we can take a look at in this chart below.
Add into the fact that Scherzer wasn’t getting as many swings outside of the zone, it seemed like Scherzer was just not missing bats he used to but it’s not that simple. You might be surprised to know that Scherzer registered a 32.6% whiff rate during the year. He also had a 16.4 SwStr% which is only.04 less than his 2017 mark. I think a large part of why his command was weaker and he wasn’t getting swings and misses was Scherzer’s pitches weren’t moving the way they normally do.
Every pitch that Scherzer had moved a little bit less last year. That’s usually a sign of age, that your pitches begin to move less. Scherzer’s velocity and spin were still at his normal levels with curveball and slider creating more raw spin than the year prior. So how did he get less total movement on his pitches? I don’t have access to the information but if I had to guess, Scherzer was probably trying to adjust his spin direction/spin axis. Maybe a slight change in his feel of the ball or his grip might have adjusted how well he can get movement on the pitch. The good news about this is that is very fixable and shouldn’t be too much of a concern on a one-year projection basis.
Another thing that caught my eye is that Scherzer is giving up more home runs than he ever has in his career. He also had a career-high line drive rate, which might be a sign that the quality of contact he was giving up is unsustainable. His groundball rate from 2019 is a clear outlier, but it won’t be an issue if Scherzer can find a way to miss bats again. Scherzer also allowed a career-high barrel% which again might lead me to believe that this season was an outlier.
A Season of Outliers
If one were to completely ignore age, there would be a big reason to believe that Max Scherzer’s 2020 small sample season was mostly an outlier. He posted the highest ERA in his career since 2012, the highest FIP of his career since 2011, the lowest K-BB% of his career since 2015, and the highest SIERA since 2011. All of that happening when he faced less than 300 hitters in the previous season. Unfortunately, we cannot just ignore the age of Max Scherzer. He will be 37 entering this season and thus we have to ask ourselves if this is a growing trend or just an outlier. It could be either one, but I believe it leans towards the latter.
First, I understand that in any professional sport throughout history, father time has never lost. You might be saying to yourself, well time has just come for Max Scherzer like it does everyone else, and you might be right. Scherzer lost a small tick of velocity, one that may be over a full season, which is the same as his previous year. As I said earlier, his raw spin was the same if not better than his spin from a year or two years ago. The stuff just wasn’t moving the same. One potential sign of decline is a decrease in velocity or spin though. Let’s look at the other great pitcher of this generation, Clayton Kershaw, to see an example.
After the 2019 season, there were a lot of questions about Kershaw’s fastball. Its spin was actually increasing but the velocity was dropping dramatically. From 92.8 in 2017 to just above 90 in 2019. In 2020 though, Kershaw not only increased his spin to career highs on all of his pitches, but his fastball velocity raised back up to 91.6. He found an extra gear in his fastball to make it a solid pitch again.
There is a big difference between Kershaw and Scherzer here. One was throwing his fastball at 91 mph while the other was throwing it at 95 mph. It was Scherzer’s decreasing movement, which has affected Kershaw as well, that is more likely the cause. Scherzer is an all-time great pitcher, he will have to learn how to pitch with his stuff not being able to move as well if he can’t solve the potential spin axis issue. He can do that, but if he is unable to will 2020 Scherzer the new Scherzer for a few years? That shouldn’t be an issue for fantasy owners as he was still really good in 2020. Here are his ranks in 2020 among qualifiers.
By all accounts, that’s a good pitcher who should be getting better next year. Scherzer had a high HR/FB% as well so again, I come back to the question, why are people so down on Max Scherzer? The simple answer is that people just assume as the older you get, the worse you will become and that’s generally true. Let’s look at another pitcher, Kyle Hendricks, who is going to be just 31. Most of his ERA projections put him at around 4.10. That would be the highest ERA of his career. Now, Hendricks is much more reliant on contact and keeping the ball on the ground but there is some age bias there. Which is ridiculous! Until an elite pitcher proves to be on the downturn over a significant sample size, then we shouldn’t assume it’s happening. On an unrelated note, I hope Felix Hernandez bounces back.
The biggest question for Scherzer moving forward is can he find a way to improve his command again. Until we see that his raw spin, spin efficiency, and velocity drop dramatically, we should believe that Max Scherzer is still a dominant force and one worth drafting in the early rounds. Even if this is the beginning of the end for Scherzer, what a dominant career it has been.
A Legacy Intact
Hall of Fame discourse has become toxic. The right answer to certain players’ cases and the backlash from fans on Twitter for certain ballots has created a difficult conversation. However, Max Scherzer is no-doubt Hall of Famer. He will coast into the Hall and when he is eventually inducted, people will praise the work ethic, the fire, and emotion he played with. That same fire won’t go away any time soon and if Scherzer has a fixable issue he will find it and fix it. You don’t get to be as good as he was, without being able to do that. That’s how he became one of the greatest pitchers of this generation. Let’s take a look at Scherzer’s ranks among qualified starts from 2017 to 2020.
Just for fun, there are only two pitchers since 2017 that have sub 3.00 ERA, FIP, SIERA, and a K% over 30. Max Scherzer and Chris Sale. He had a good 70 innings in 2020 but not the elite level we are used to seeing, and thus people began to question whether or not he still had it. Admittedly, people have a recency bias and Scherzer will turn 37 this year so it makes sense. I also have some personal bias in this as he is my favorite pitcher currently and one of my favorite pitchers of all time. However, I believe Scherzer has earned the right for us to trust him to work through his issues and prove to us he’s still the elite pitcher he is.
On another note, as I just said Scherzer is my favorite pitcher. I also had the pleasure of meeting Scherzer and got to talk about pitching with him for a bit at Spring Training. We talk about how players are off the field now more than ever and how important it is to have upstanding character. I wrote about a need for accountability in baseball myself. Scherzer was one of the best people I met during my time with the Nationals. He treated everyone, even us the video interns, with respect and talked to us about anything. He’s a great pitcher but a great dude who represents everything great about this sport. I hope he continues to dominate the game and thrill fans with his pitching.
Photo by steve_trapani Flickr | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)