Tigers' Scherzer is 13-0, but impressive record doesn't tell whole story
Max Scherzer is 13-0, which means he could challenge Roy Face's 18-1 record in 1959, and it means he could be baseball's first 25-game winner since Bob Welch won 27 in 1990, and it means ... well, not much. Just ask Scherzer.
"Everybody else seems like they want to just (use) the wins stat, when it's probably the most fluky stat of all pitching stats," says Scherzer, the Detroit Tigers star.
If you love old-school stats and hate the "nerds" who "think computers wins games" and "never" "leave" "their" "basements," then what do you make of this? Scherzer is your Exhibit A, but he keeps pointing to Exhibit B. You could argue that he should be the Cy Young frontrunner based on that 13-0 record, but he would argue against you.
"I don't judge my season so far, how I've pitched, on 13-0," Scherzer says. "I judge it on a lot of other things I've been able to do. I've cut down my walks. I'm generating swing-and-misses. I'm pitching deep into games. I'm executing with four pitches. Everything else tells me I'm pitching well, not because I'm 13-0."
Scherzer is fluent in Batting Average With Balls In Play and strikeout percentage and the rest of the language of the sabermetric crowd. He doesn't want to be known as the stats guy, but as he says: "I get it." He knows it is silly to measure distance with your forearm with you have a tape-measure right there.
And if you find yourself caught between an interest in advanced stats and a desire to watch the game without thinking about math, Scherzer is your man. He believes in the stats, but he isn't a prisoner of them.
"I guess I've been labeled a numbers guy now, and everybody thinks you take the numbers to the mound," Scherzer said. "That's complete baloney. When I'm on the mound, all I'm thinking about is ... sequencing and what I need to do to get out of the inning. The stats thing, that's over a season, how you evaluate yourself. When I'm on the mound, it's all about this batter, this pitch."
Scherzer has gone from very good pitcher to Cy Young candidate this season. The proof is in the numbers -- his WHIP is 0.946 and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is an amazing 5-to-1 -- but he has done it for traditional baseball reasons. Last year he got better at throwing his slider, and late in the season he started throwing a curveball. In the bullpen before his fifth start of this season, he tightened his grip on the curve. It was one of those little moments of magic that pitchers have been finding, and trying to find, for more than a century.
"All of a sudden I had a lot more feel for that pitch," Scherzer said. "I was able to throw it for strikes."
The curveball has made him much more effective against lefties, who have a .209/.266/.338 BA/OBP/SLG slash line against him this season.
Scherzer has always been a high-strikeout guy, which has meant high pitch counts and relatively short outings, even when he pitched really well. He vowed this year to pitch deeper into games. Pitching coach Jeff Jones is an advanced stats guy too; he has some that he favors more than others, and like a lot of baseball people these days, he doesn't like sharing that intellectual property. But he did say this, about Scherzer: "Right now, he is so focused on the stats and numbers that really matter. He's really focused on the important things now, what to throw in certain counts, things like that. It's really helped him."
Scherzer studies opposing batters to see how they perform in certain counts; from there, he decides how to sequence his pitches, and his emphasis on first-pitch strikes has given him more favorable counts. It all pours into his brain, but once he is on the mound, it comes down to feel. If his curveball isn't working that day, and his slider is, he throws a slider, even if the hitter struggles against the curve. He has also learned how to control his unconventional pitching motion when it gets out of whack.
"It's just a feel for pitching, a feel for how the ball comes off your fingertips, understanding your mechanics, and feeling, at release point, what everything is doing: your shoulders, your legs, your hips, your head, everything," he says. "As every year keeps going, I have more and more feel of every individual aspect of it."
If Scherzer needs evidence that the screaming match about advanced stats vs. traditional ones is still going strong, he does not need to leave his own clubhouse. Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown and the American League MVP last year, infuriating the advanced stats crowd, which loudly supported Angels outfielder Mike Trout. They were both great choices, actually, but this allows me to bring up another point:
One of the big arguments for Trout was that he was a dynamic defensive player, while Cabrera is not. Well, according to baseball-reference.com, Cabrera's Defensive Wins Above Replacement this year is minus-1.0, which is not good, but it's better than Trout's. Trout has gone from plus 2-.1 to minus 1.3.
Fans will be wary of advanced fielding stats as long as there are inexplicable swings like that. But any intelligent fan can see that we have better ways to measure baseball greatness than the wins, RBIs and other stats we used 30 years ago. Max Scherzer's win-loss record is 13-0. Also, he is having one hell of a year.