By Marc Normandin
The idea of Max Scherzer as a productive pitcher isn't a new one. He burst onto the major-league scene back in 2008 with the Diamondbacks, and had been a top-100 prospect before that season began. He's had well above average seasons scattered throughout his career, and has had little trouble missing bats in that time. He always seemed like he should just be better, though. Yet it didn't happen.
Scherzer's 2013 season, to this point, seems to be changing that. The Tigers' right-hander has begun the year 10-0 -- he's the first Tigers' pitcher to do so since 1909, and the first major-league pitcher to accomplish the feat since Roger Clemens in 1997 -- and it hasn't been entirely due to the lineup supporting him. He has a 3.08 ERA and what would be a career-best ERA+ were it for a full season, and is once again striking out around 11 batters per nine. His current strikeout-to-walk ratio would represent another career-best, as he's punching out nearly five times as many batters as he's handing out free passes to.
With any jump in performance like this, there are questions. The one that sticks out the most is whether or not he's been lucky. Sadly for the Tigers and Scherzer, there has been some luck involved: his batting average on balls in play is just .255, compared to the league average of .295. So, while it's great for him right now that he's allowing a line of just .189/.242/.319, that's not likely to last the year, especially considering the Tigers have one of the worst defenses in the majors. Defensive Efficiency, a Baseball Prospectus statistic that measures the percentage of balls in play converted into outs, has the Tigers at #27 with 69.6 percent. Even if nothing else changes with Scherzer going forward, it's likely that he'll see more hits fall, bringing up his BABIP, his hit rate (currently at just six per nine innings), and his opponent's line.
Even with that, though, there's still some reason to like what he's doing in a BABIP sense. Last year, Scherzer's BABIP was .333, roughly as awful compared to the average pitcher as this year's is better. While he might not stick at .255 all year long, even some regression going against him would likely bring him to a place that's an improvement on last season. His command is likely the reason for that: it's been a problem in the past for Scherzer, but there are indications that's not the case in 2013.
Remember, command and control are not the same thing: Scherzer has always had the ability to throw strikes, and consistently. It's the reason his walk rates have all been under three each of the last three years. Command, however, is the ability to throw quality strikes: Scherzer might have always been in the zone, but that doesn't mean the ball was where it needed to be. He would strike out opponents and avoid walks, but he also gave up homers often -- never more so than in 2011, when he allowed 1.3 per nine, but 2012's 1.1 per nine also sticks out -- and tended to let hitters linger a bit at the plate, lengthening plate appearances and shortening his own outings.
In 2012, Scherzer posted an above-average 113 ERA+, but he lasted just 5-2/3 innings per start and failed to cross the 190 inning threshold, never mind the 200 mark, despite making 32 starts. He threw 102 pitches per outing despite the low per-start inning rate, and that's due to throwing 4.2 pitches per batter faced. You wouldn't think throwing extra pitches would be a problem for someone who doesn't walk many batters, but Scherzer had to earn many of those strikeouts he racked up.
Failure to take advantage of the times he was ahead in the count was the primary problem. Scherzer about an average pitcher with two strikes, and he did well in even counts or when ahead of the batter. Whenever he wasn't ahead, though, things became problematic, and in a hurry. He wouldn't walk batters often, but if he started them out with a ball, he tended to do 139 percent worse than your average pitcher on the next pitch. He was far worse than average after a 3-0 count overall as well, and with the batter ahead in general, was 36 percent worse than your average pitcher. Most pitchers tend to perform worse when behind, but Scherzer was far worse than even that.
Things are different in 2013, though. Scherzer is as dominant after tossing three balls as he is when he's got two strikes on the batter. He's still a little worse than average when the batter is ahead, but he's much better off than he was a year ago, and has made up for it by being significantly better when ahead now: Scherzer is about 60 percent better than your average hurler when ahead, or in an even count. When getting hitters to a full count, whereas in the past the opposition tended to win, he's now about twice as good as your average pitcher. These are all small samples, but they point, situationally, to why things have been different this year.
A lot of it likely has to do with better command -- in addition to fewer homers allowed, Scherzer has managed to increase his per-start workload by a full inning while only adding three pitches per start to last year's rate. Opponents are now seeing just under four pitches per plate appearance, and while that doesn't sound like a whole lot of difference from last season, over last year's workload, that's about a start-and-a-half worth of pitches. It all adds up, and it's due to Scherzer being more economical and accurate with his strikes.
He's not throwing many more strikes overall, but he's seeing more strikes looking, up from 17 percent to 19 percent. He's slightly reduced his four-seam fastball usage from 60 percent to 55 percent, according to Brooks Baseball's PITCHf/x data, and has used his curveball much more this season. In 2012, he threw just 59 of them all year, or 1.7 percent of all of his pitches. This year, he's already at 119, or roughly eight percent of his pitches, and he's seen more swings-and-misses and strikes on it, giving him another useful weapon. He's used it to open at-bats, when ahead, when behind - he might not use it as much as his other pitches, but the fact he's using it more has given him another look, and likely made the rest of his stuff more effective in the process.
Will Scherzer be exactly this good all year long, and going forward? It's unlikely, since, as said, he's had some luck on his side. There is some legitimate growth here, though, with Scherzer taking steps to improve his command issues as well as his pitch selection in seemingly all counts, and it's helped him to be a more efficient and effective starter -- one that is starting to look like the pitcher he's teased becoming for years now.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written forBaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.