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.”