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Max Scherzer is a Perfect Nightmare of a Pitcher

The Washington Nationals ace recently recorded his 300th strikeout of the season at the age of 34. He shows no sign of slowing down, either.

by Rachael McDaniel
Sep 27 2018, 12:53pm

Photo by Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE

As he made his major league debut on April 29th, 2008, Max Scherzer looked so much the same as he does now. The old Fox Sports scorebug on the grainy video reminds you of just how much baseball and our understanding of it has changed over the past decade. But even if the face is younger, even clad in the old red of the D’backs uniforms instead of the red he wears now, the look is familiar: a focus so intense that it’s almost frightening, eyes trained on their target.

The results were familiar, too. In his first appearance in the big leagues, Scherzer retired 13 straight batters. Seven of those outs were recorded via strikeout. The Astros batters took huge swings over biting changeups, watched helplessly as fastballs dotted the corner; Scherzer, with his violent throwing motion, screamed and fistpumped as the outs continued to pile up. Though they were losing 6-3 by the time Scherzer entered the game, the Diamondbacks defense played as though they were preserving a no-hitter, diving to retrieve ground balls, covering open space in the outfield. By the time Scherzer was removed from the game, the sparse crowd roaring its approval, he had left an indelible impression. It was one of the most unforgettable pitching debuts in memory.

Scherzer was 23 back in 2008. He was young, his prime years as a pitcher close ahead of him. Yet to watch him now, a decade later, well into the years of concern when it comes to pitcher aging patterns, is to experience the same electrifying feeling that those Diamondbacks fans must have felt all those years ago. Max Scherzer is 34 years old. He pitches with an urgent energy that makes every start appointment viewing. With three Cy Youngs already under his belt, he is just now reaching his peak.

The strange thing is, looking back, that the Max Scherzer we know was far from a predetermined outcome. From the vantage point of someone in 2018, Scherzer’s debut seems like a prophecy. In his early years with the Diamondbacks, and then with Detroit, though, it might have seemed more like a dream—a frustrating reminder of all that Scherzer could be, if only he could be reach those heights with more consistency. That first appearance in 2008 was immediately followed by a stinker, in which Scherzer pitched four innings and allowed five runs on eight hits. He performed admirably upon being moved to the Diamondbacks’ rotation full-time that September, but the up-and-down continued to plague him through the next season. In 2009, Scherzer posted a 4.12 ERA over 30 starts. Some of those were brilliant—like his start on July 26 against the Pirates, where he threw seven scoreless innings, striking out eight and walking none. But in his start before that, he’d pitched only four innings, allowing four earned runs; in the start that followed, he put up the same line.

It was perhaps concern about this inconsistency, as well as the injury risk some saw in his unique mechanics, that led the Diamondbacks to trade Scherzer and pitching prospect Daniel Schlereth to the Tigers in exchange for Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson. And Scherzer’s first few months with the Tigers in 2010 were, indeed, the worst stretch of his major league career. Over his first eight starts, he pitched to a 7.29 ERA. Batters were hitting .320 and slugging .523 against him. Most concerningly, his strikeout rate was all the way down to 13.8 percent. Scherzer was sent down to AAA to work on his command.

He returned a changed man. Scherzer studied video of himself, took notes, made mechanical adjustments. He was an early and vocal proponent of the use of advanced statistics and PITCHf/x as study tools to improve his game. His ERA for the rest of the 2010 season was a crisp 2.46. His strikeout rate jumped to a more Scherzerian 25.8 percent. And from there on, he just continued to get better. He gradually cut down on the use of his fastball; he gradually introduced new pitches—first a curveball, then a cutter. Every year, the strikeout rate continues to climb, now standing at 34.6 percent; Scherzer has led the league in WHIP for the past three seasons. Every successive year has seen some kind of marked improvement in his game. And far from losing his fastball in his 30s—research has suggested that a starting pitcher’s peak velocity will come around the age of 26, after which it will go into steady decline—Scherzer’s 2018 average fastball velocity of 93.8 mph is almost exactly where it was a decade ago.

We have seen Scherzer strike out 20 batters in a nine-inning game; we have seen him throw two no-hitters. Scherzer’s latest achievement—in this, his best season yet—came on Tuesday: With his 10th strikeout of the night against the Marlins, he reached the 300-strikeout benchmark, something achieved by only six other pitchers since 1990, and 16 others since 1900. He has done all this while remaining incredibly durable. While Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale—both younger than Scherzer, and the other two active players who’ve struck out 300 in a season—have both missed time to injury, Scherzer has continued his career-long streak of never making fewer than 30 starts in a season. He is a perfect nightmare of a pitcher: an unbreakable, ever-evolving strikeout machine. He said before this season that he hadn’t reached his peak yet. After what he’s done this year, one is inclined to believe him.

And though it’s been said before, it bears repeating as he once again inscribes his name in baseball’s record books: There is no better representative of the joy and appeal of today’s oft-decried incarnation of baseball than Max Scherzer. He is a baseball intellectual, someone who is constantly tinkering and developing and looking to improve, who has used all the tools and data that the modern game can provide to sublime on-field ends. He is constantly adjusting, yet supremely reliable. His high-octane, high-strikeout pitching style is an undeniable thrill to watch, whether on TV or from the stands; he is unmistakable, a baseball viewing experience like no other. And he is, above all, a fierce, emotional competitor—someone who wears the effort and passion on his face. That we won’t be seeing Scherzer in the postseason this year is a loss. That we get to see him continue his march to the Hall of Fame is nothing short of incredible.