August 14th, 2014

Scherzer: Better than last year?

The question has come up a couple different times to Max Scherzer, whose Cy Young season last year was downright dominant. After eight shutout innings and a season-high 14 stirkeouts, the question came up again.

After going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA and 240 strikeouts last year, is Scherzer actually better this year?

“Coming off these last two starts and where I’m at, I’m a better pitcher than I was last year,” Scherzer said. “That was my mindset coming into this year: I was going to be a better pitcher than I was last year. Take all the numbers, throw them out. I’m not referencing wins and losses or anything. If you look at how I’m pitching, and what I’m able to execute, I’m executing all my pitches at a higher level right now. That’s something I strive for, and really it’s taken to the second half to kind of get everything in sync to be at that level. But I feel like I’m at a level where I’m better than I was last year. That’s my goal, to keep getting better.”

Statistically, he’s pretty close. His Fielding Independent Pitching is very close — 2.87 this year compared to 2.74 last season.

If you’re looking at the repertoire, though, he has an argument that he has improved. The transition he made away from being a fastball-slider pitcher and towards a four-pitch pitcher has continued this year, and with more progress.

His fastball, which comprised 60 percent of his pitches two years ago, was down to 53.6% entering this season, according to Fangraphs and STATS, down from 56% last year. His slider usage has dropped from 15.2% to 13.8%.

His curveball and changeup usage, in turn, have rise. The curveball, a pitch he didn’t use in games until around this point two years ago, now comprises 11 percent of his pitches.

That mix was on display Thursday, though maybe with a couple fewer curveballs than the season rates. According to data from MLB.com’s Gameday app and brooksbaseball.net, Scherzer threw 60 fastballs among his 115 pitches. Fifty-four were his traditional power four-seamers, drawing nine swings and misses out of 23 total swings. The data, however, suggested six other fastballs were the two-seamer Scherzer has been honing this season and keeping in his pocket for situations.

Scherzer threw more changeups (24) than sliders (22), threw nearly all of each for strikes, and drew a dozen swings and misses between the two. The nine curveballs he threw were effectively, including two whiffs.

“His fastball’s generally always good,” manager Brad Ausmus said after the game. “His changeup was very good. But his curveball, he threw a couple curveballs today harder than normal down and in on left-handed hitters, and he got a strikeout one. Usually his curveball’s more of an offspeed pitch on the outer half of the plate, and he’s been working on it a little bit throwing it harder on the inside part of the plate to lefties.”

Scherzer said he’s not throwing one or the other curveball differently; he’s just throwing them with a different amount of pressure.

For the season, data from STATS suggests those secondary pitches are better now. He’s throwing his slider, curveball and changeup for a higher percentage of strikes, getting a higher percentage of swings and misses from the changeup and curveball, and getting hitters to chase the changeup out of the zone nearly 40 percent of the time.

His fastball and slider are both getting hit harder (a .447 BABIP off the slider, compared to .212 last year). His curveball is getting hit at a slightly higher rate. The changeup is a better pitch all around.

“The fastball maintains a finish through the zone,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “The two-seamer, four-seamer, breaking ball plays extremely well against the right-handers. The changeup for the left-handers. He’s a horse out there. The volume of pitches he can throw and maintain velocity and command is impressive.”

When the Pirates put pitches in play Thursday, they tended to hit them well. Two of the three hits off of him were doubles, the other a line-drive single. All three were off the four-seam fastball.

They didn’t make contact often enough Thursday, though, and as long as he isn’t giving up many walks, it’s hard to make them count. He has now gone five starts without allowing a home run, one shy of his best mark from last year around the same time. If he can keep the ball away from catwalks at Tropicana Field next week, he’ll get it.

But there’s plenty more to like about the way Scherzer is throwing right now — and the way he’s feeling about the team around him.

“I feel great,” he said. “Arm’s healthy, especially now. We’re going to get a couple of off-days, which will kind of give me a chance to freshen up. We’ve got playoff baseball. These games are huge for the rest of the season. We’re in a fight right now, but that doesn’t change what I believe, that if we come to play we’re going to win this.

“I completely respect the other teams in our division — the Royals, Indians. It’s just that I believe in everybody in this clubhouse. I believe we have the talent to get it done. We just need to go out there and do it. We just need to play our game, bring our best every single day, bring our ‘A’ game, and let’s go win the American League Central.”

Thursday’s lineups: Tigers vs. Pirates

TIGERS (career numbers against Francisco Liriano)

  1. Rajai Davis, CF (5-for-17, 2 doubles, walk, K)
  2. Ian Kinsler, 2B (3-for-15, 2 doubles, HR, 3 walks, 4 K’s)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B (9-for-29, 3 doubles, 2 HR, 8 walks, 8 K’s)
  4. Victor Martinez, DH (13-for-27, 6 doubles, HR, 2 walks, 6 K’s)
  5. Torii Hunter, RF (5-for-15, HR, 3 walks, 2 K’s)
  6. J.D. Martinez, LF
  7. Nick Castellanos, 3B
  8. Alex Avila, C (4-for-8, double, triple, 2 K’s)
  9. Eugenio Suarez, SS

P: Max Scherzer

PIRATES (career numbers off Scherzer)

  1. Gregory Polanco, RF
  2. Travis Snider, LF
  3. Josh Harrison, 3B (0-for-5, 3 K’s)
  4. Ike Davis, 1B (2-for-2, double, walk)
  5. Starling Marte, CF
  6. Pedro Alvarez, DH
  7. Jordy Mercer, SS
  8. Chris Stewart, C (0-for-3)
  9. Michael Martinez, 2B (0-for-2, K)

P: Francisco Liriano

Nathan apologizes for gesture

Joe Nathan tried to joke that he didn’t use Head and Shoulders in his beard last night, but it didn’t go over well. Then he got into his apology for the chin flick after his final out.

“I think both sides were frustrated,” he said. “I was frustrated. Fans obviously were frustrated. I think for myself, I apologize for that. I have two kids and I need to be a better example for them thinking how they’re still young enough that they won’t know about this. I do know, and I do need to be better for that. I know both sides are frustrated, but the thing is, we’re on the same page. The fans want to win, want us to win. We obviously want to win. I do apologize for that, but again, we’re on the same page here. We’re trying to accomplish the same thing. Unfortunately, this incident happened.

“Listen, there’s no hard feelings. There’s no frustration towards them. I know when they’re behind this team 100 percent and they want us to get to the same place. They want us to get to the postseason. I know they want us to go out there and be perfect every time. I wish it was that easy, too, but this game isn’t easy sometimes. You’re going to go out and have struggles. The thing is, I don’t feel like I have been struggling lately. I think it’s gone pretty well. Sometimes when you walk a guy and frustration comes out on their end, trust me, I’m just as frustrated. I’m not out there trying to walk guys or trying to do this. I’m trying to win games, period. I don’t care how it gets done. We’re on the same page. I think it’s just one of those things right now where I think fans just have a short leash on how they want me to go out and pitch. I think they have a perception of how it should go, and if it doesn’t go exactly that way they get frustrated. Understandable. Like I said, we both want to win. We both want to get to the same goal, the World Series. That’s what we’re trying to do here. I do understand their frustrations and I apologize for my actions.”

Asked about expectations and struggling to meet them, Nathan said, “I think just expectations, expectations of our team, what you guys have put on us for expectations. I think that all goes hand-in-hand on what the fans expect from this ballclub, and because of that, there will be an expectation to go out and be as good as we can be. Unfortunately, this happened. Both sides frustrated, but I do apologize for my actions. I want to put it behind us as quick as I can and move on to what’s important, and that’s winning games.”

Asked about the fairness of expectations: “Are they unfair? No. We know what we expect. We expect that from us as well. We know we have talent in here, and we go through stretches where we aren’t playing the way we’d like to, and I think this coincided with how we’ve been playing the last few weeks too. Like I said, I’m going to be better for my kids. I’m going to be a better example for them. This is something that’s never happened to me. I feel bad for that and want to be a better person for that and a better leader for my kids and someone they can look up to, so I apologize to them as well.”

The frustrations, he said, got the better of him.

“I know I’m better than that,” he said. “I know I’m better than that as a person.”

Farmer swapped for Mercedes

Give this to the Tigers: Of all the names that have come and gone through Detroit in recent years, especially this season, this might have made for the best headline.

After Buck Farmer’s spot start was finished, he was sent back to the minor leagues. However, instead of a return to Double-A Erie, he gets his fourth different level in the Tigers organization this year. He’ll join Triple-A Toledo Thursday.

The move makes room for the Tigers to bring their bullpen back to full strength. The much-speculated move that was Jim Johnson, who delivered two perfect innings earlier in the evening for Toledo, would be on his way to Detroit. However, Johnson told John Wagner of the Toledo Blade that he could use at least one more outing with the Mud Hens to work on some things.

So instead, the Tigers called up Melvin Mercedes, the large right-hander who began the season as the Mud Hens closer but now serves in middle relief. By all appearances, the 23-year-old sinkerballer is getting his first shot at the big leagues to provide a fresh arm.

Mercedes owns an 0-2 record and a 4.33 ERA, allowing 55 hits over 52 innings, includes six home runs. While his 12 walks mark a low rate, his 27 strikeouts comprise one of the lowest rates of his pro career.

If Mercedes gets into a game, he’ll become the 26th different person to throw a pitch for the Tigers this season, their highest total since 2011. He’d be the ninth Tigers pitcher to make his Major League debut this season.

Verlander to get more input on sore shoulder

Justin Verlander spent Wednesday visiting with team doctor Stephen Lemos to work up a plan to rehab his right shoulder. At the same time, test results were being sent to specialists to make sure experts are in agreement on the diagnosis of inflammation in his shoulder capsule, but no major structural damage.

At this point, Verlander has no plans to visit a specialist for a second opinion, but he’s keeping his options open.

“I’m going to get other opinions. Whether I need to go visit them or not, I don’t know,” he said. “The more minds you put together to look at something, the better. Hopefully they all come back and say, ‘Hey, that’s what we see, too.’ If they say, ‘Hey, maybe you want to come in and get evaluated,’ OK, I might be willing to [make a visit].”

Verlander said again that he had been dealing with soreness in his shoulder since before his one-inning start Monday in Pittsburgh, but declined to say how long. He also said that while his exams showed no major structural damage, that doesn’t mean there was no abnormal wear and tear.

“Structurally, my shoulder looks about as good as you can expect for someone that’s been in the league for 10 years,” he said.

As for whether he believes he can get back to full strength with the time off, Verlander said, “We’ll see. I’m excited to get back out there. Whether it’s 100 percent [strength] or not, I’ll be ready to pitch.”

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