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Max Scherzer Is Throwing His Cutter More Than Ever

Why would Scherzer alter his pitch mix after such a great 2021 season?

Three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer is nearing his return to the New York Mets.

Scherzer has been out of commission since mid-May with an injury to his left oblique. He made his second rehab start on Wednesday evening, throwing 80 pitches and striking out eight Double-A batters.

Prior to hitting the injured list, Scherzer was cruising through the first year of his $130 million deal. The 37-year-old right-hander had made eight starts with a 2.54 ERA and 1.2 FanGraphs WAR. His 5.36 K/BB ranked fifth in the National League, and his .202 opponents batting average ranked fourth. The only NL starters who had thrown more innings were reigning Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes and 2022 Cy Young favorite, Sandy Alcantara.

Scherzer was well on his way to a ninth career All-Star appearance, and he looked as dominant as ever. But although he was pitching just as well as last season, there was one thing he was doing differently: throwing his cut fastball much more than usual.

The following table shows Scherzer’s cutter usage over the years. Different sources categorize pitches slightly differently, so it is more important to pay attention to year-over-year changes rather than any of the exact rates.

Max Scherzer’s Cutter Usage Over the Years

As you can see, Scherzer has thrown his cut fastball quite a lot this season, and this isn’t the first time he has increased his cutter usage.

Scherzer introduced the pitch to his repertoire in 2015, when he came over from the Detroit Tigers to the Washington Nationals. He used it sparingly at first, and it was not until 2018 that he began to deploy the pitch as a major weapon in his arsenal.

Since 2013, Scherzer has been one of the most dominant starters in baseball. In 2016 and 2017, when he won two straight NL Cy Young Awards, he was arguably the very best pitcher in the sport.

It’s fair to wonder why a player at the height of his game would make such a significant adjustment to his approach. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the old saying goes.

So why did Scherzer increase his cutter usage so significantly in 2018?

 

Scherzer’s Secret Struggle

 

As dominant as he looked in his back-to-back Cy Young campaigns, Scherzer was actually starting to show signs of weakness in 2016 and 2017. Specifically, he was struggling more than usual against left-handed batters.

Scherzer’s performance against right-handers was so good during those seasons that it covered up his shortcomings against lefties, but the split stats don’t lie. From 2016 to 2017, he faced 883 left-handed hitters. Those hitters combined for a .726 OPS and .309 wOBA against him. Scherzer had a 4.32 FIP and a 4.45 xFIP versus lefties.

For context, the average NL batter in those years had a .741 OPS and a .318 wOBA. The average NL starting pitcher posted a 4.29 FIP and a 4.24 xFIP.

About 53% of the batters Scherzer faced in that time were left-handed. Therefore, the best pitcher in the National League was actually no better than average against more than half the hitters he faced.

This is no knock on Scherzer — far from it. He was so good against right-handers that he was still a very deserving Cy Young winner in both 2016 and 2017.

Still, while a casual observer probably wouldn’t have even noticed Scherzer was merely average against lefties, you can bet your bottom dollar Scherzer himself noticed.

While he has always been better against right-handed batters (as one would expect for a right-handed pitcher), Scherzer was still very good against left-handers in his first three All-Star seasons (2013 to 2015). In those years, he held lefties to a .663 OPS and a .291 wOBA. His FIP versus left-handers was 3.14, while his xFIP was 3.44.

So, as antithetical as it sounds, Scherzer really did develop a flaw in his game during those Cy Young seasons. He did a fine job covering it up, but Scherzer isn’t the kind of player to sit on his laurels or surrender to the aging curve. If Mad Max identifies a weakness in himself, he’s going to do everything in his power to fix it. And that’s exactly what he did.

In 2018, Scherzer increased his cutter usage and it became one of his primary weapons against left-handers. Not-so-coincidentally, his numbers against left-handed batters improved dramatically that season.

Scherzer faced 452 left-handed hitters in 2018. He held them to a .609 OPS and a .264 wOBA. His 3.03 FIP against lefties was his best since his 2013 Cy Young season, and his 3.58 xFIP, while not quite as impressive, was still much better than the 4.45 number he averaged from 2016 to 2017.

Overall, Scherzer’s 2018 season was the best of his career according to FanGraphs WAR, Baseball Reference WAR, and Baseball Prospectus WARP. (Unfortunately, some guy named Jacob deGrom put up a 1.70 ERA in 32 starts that year and beat Scherzer out for the Cy Young.)

 

The Current Season

 

So far in 2022, Scherzer is using his cutter at an unprecedented rate. Here’s that table again with his cutter usage by year.

Max Scherzer’s Cutter Usage Over the Years

Scherzer was fantastic as ever in 2021, starting the All-Star Game and finishing third in Cy Young balloting. He performed well against left-handers in 2021 too, holding them to a .264 wOBA and .597 OPS.

With that being the case, why might he be using his cutter so often this year? He was just as dominant as ever in 2021, so why would he mess with success?

The simplest explanation would be if Scherzer had faced more left-handed hitters than usual this year, but that’s not the case. He has faced lefties just over 50% of the time, which is slightly lower than his career rate.

However, it might be true that Scherzer has faced more tough left-handers so far this year. This could explain his increased reliance on the cutter and why lefties are actually hitting better against him in 2022 than they were in 2021, despite the increased cutter usage. His OPS, wOBA, FIP, and xFIP against left-handers are all higher this season than they were last year.

In eight starts, Scherzer has already faced the Phillies three times. While Philadelphia does not have an overwhelmingly left-handed lineup, their two best hitters – Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber – are both left-handed power threats. 

Besides the Phillies, the two teams Scherzer has used his cutter against most this season are the Giants and the Nationals. The Giants batting order is chock-full of tough lefties, including Mike Yastrzemski, Brandon Belt, and Joc Pederson. The Nationals don’t have a particularly dangerous lineup, but their two best hitters – Juan Soto and switch-hitting Josh Bell – are both threats from the left side of the plate.

This theory sounds promising, and it does explain why Scherzer’s numbers against lefties aren’t so hot this year. Those seven batters have a 1.240 OPS vs. Scherzer, while all other lefties have combined for a .389 OPS against him. That group of seven accounts for 20% of the hits, 45% of the walks, and 100% of the home runs Scherzer has allowed all year.

However, these three teams and their tough left-handed hitters do not explain Scherzer’s increased cutter usage. According to Statcast, Scherzer threw cutters to these seven batters 22% of the time. Against all other left-handers? Also 22% of the time.

Thus, it seems like Scherzer has simply decided to throw his cutter more often this year. It’s not clear why he decided to adjust his pitch mix, but it does seem to be working for him so far. While left-handers have hit well against him overall (well, certain left-handers anyway), his cutter has not been the problem.

Opposing hitters have just a .167 batting average and a .270 wOBA against his cutter. The cutter has been a very successful putaway pitch for Scherzer, resulting in a strikeout in 30.2% of the two-strike counts he has thrown it in. No NL starting pitcher has a higher PutAway% with the cutter.

It remains to be seen if Scherzer will continue to throw his cutter this often. He has only made eight starts this year, after all.

Based on the early results, however, Scherzer would be smart to keep throwing that cutter. He has had to face plenty of tough left-handed hitters, and his cutter has been one of his greatest weapons.

Featured image by Shawn Palmer (@Palmerdesigns_ on Twitter)

Leo Morgenstern

Leo is a staff writer for the Going Deep section of Pitcher List, where he also writes the weekly Friday newsletter. He writes for Inside the Phillies on Sports Illustrated, and his work has appeared on Baseball Prospectus and SB Nation. His comedy writing has been featured in The Beaverton and in sketch comedy festivals around the world.

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