Max Scherzer has been phenomenal for Detroit this season, taking over the role of staff ace. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Quick trivia question: How many starters in Major League history have ever won 15 or more games with just one loss or fewer in a season? Well, if you read the title of this post, you can probably guess Max Scherzer is one of those pitchers. As for his company ... it's rather small.
In keeping the Indians to two runs in seven innings Thursday night, Scherzer earned victory No. 17 on the season, to go against just one loss, as Detroit topped Cleveland 10-3 for its 12th straight win. In the history of baseball, only two starters have ever finished a season with at least 15 wins against a single loss: Scherzer and Cleveland pitcher Johnny Allen, who went 15-1 for the Indians in 1937. A third pitcher, Roy Face, went 18-1 in relief for the 1959 Pittsburgh Pirates.
Of course, wins and losses are as arbitrary a record as can be for starters, given how many variables are outside of their control during a game. But Scherzer has left little to chance in his quest to become the winningest single-season pitcher of all time. With a 2.84 ERA and strikeout-per-nine ratio of nearly 10, the Tigers' ace has shut down opposing hitters in a way the league can't figure out.
How has Scherzer done it? He's giving up less hard contact in 2013 than he was in 2012. His batting average on balls in play has fallen from .333 in 2012 to .251 in 2013 — a very low number, to be sure, but it's tied to a drop in line-drive percentage from 22 last year to 18 this year. On top of that, Scherzer has upped his groundball rate and lowered his home-run rate, all despite rate stats and swing percentages that are barely changed from last season.
What's helped Scherzer is a change in selection against left-handed hitters, who beat him up for an .831 OPS in 2012. Last season, Scherzer used a combination of his four-seam fastball and changeup against lefthanders, with the four-seamer getting thrown 63 percent of the time and the changeup 28 percent. This season, Scherzer has continued to use his changeup to put away left-handed hitters, but he's mixed in his curveball —once purely a show-me pitch — to greater effect. Where he threw it only two percent of the time to southpaws in 2012, that's all the way up to 12 percent in 2013. The results are dramatic: Lefties are hitting just .172 with a .207 slugging percentage and a .227 BABIP on curveballs so far this season. That extra pitch has helped his fastball become more effective against left-handers as well, as opposing hitters have gone from a .248/.443 line on his four-seamer to a .193/.370 mark in 2013. All told, left-handers are managing a mere .614 OPS against Scherzer this season, a dramatic drop from last year.
Of course, it helps that Scherzer is getting nearly seven runs per game of support from the Tigers this season, up from almost five runs per game in 2012. Tuesday night was no exception: Detroit slapped six runs on the board in the third inning against the Indians, giving Scherzer a comfortable and early lead. That's been the case all season, as this was the fifth time this season the Tigers scored 10 or more runs in a game Scherzer started.
At this rate, though, Scherzer could be getting far less support and still be racking up wins. Since picking up his first and only loss of the season back on July 13, the heterochromatic right-hander has thrown 28 2/3 innings and given up only four earned runs on 12 hits and four walks, striking out 23. That comes out to a 1.25 ERA. In fact, Scherzer has allowed four runs or more in a start just five times this season. He's kept the opposition to two earned runs or fewer 15 times in his 23 starts.
All of this has helped Detroit become the class of the AL Central, as the Tigers have now opened a seven-game lead on the Indians in the division. That's the second-biggest lead in any division race in baseball, behind Atlanta in the NL East. That stands to reason given Detroit's recent success. Tuesday's win was the Tigers' 12th in a row, behind only the Braves for the longest win streak in baseball.