Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is one of the more aggressive personnel men in baseball, but it still came as a surprise when his team was linked to Max Scherzer over the weekend. Perhaps we should have seen this coming, given Rizzo's reputation and the fact that he drafted Scherzer with the 11th pick in 2006 when he was still in Arizona's front office. Washington moved fast once that news leaked, signing Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million deal that will be paid out over 14 years.
Scherzer's already-high fantasy stock has now climbed even higher as a result of his moving to the nation's capital. Scherzer, who turned 30 in July, has been one of the five best pitchers in baseball over the last two seasons. In that time, he has 492 strikeouts (the most in the majors), a 3.02 ERA (10th), 2.79 FIP (sixth) and 1.07 WHIP (eighth) in 434 2/3 innings. The gap between his strikeout and walk rates was 21.4 percent, better than all but three pitchers — Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish and Chris Sale. Perhaps you've heard of them. Only Kershaw and Darvish had a better strikeout rate than Scherzer's 28.3 percent.
You know all about Scherzer's power fastball, but his average velocity has actually dipped in each of the last two seasons, bottoming out at 92.8 mph last year. He added a curveball in 2013, and while both Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball rate it as the least effective of his four offerings, the diversity in his repertoire has made him a harder pitcher to for hitters to figure. The table below, courtesy of Brooks, comprises results and averages compiled by hitters against each of Scherzer's individual pitches over the last two years.
So why is Scherzer even more attractive in fantasy leagues after this signing? It's all about the competition.
It's well established that pitching in the NL is easier than in the AL. You might be surprised how much easier things could be for Scherzer this year, at least on the face of it. According to Jeff Sullivan over at Fangraphs, Scherzer's average opponent in 2013 had a weighted runs created plus of 96. Last year, that number jumped to an even 100. By contrast, new teammate Jordan Zimmermann's average opponent wRC+ was 89 in 2013 and 91 last season. In other words, Scherzer has put up back-to-back top-five Cy Young seasons (he won the award in 2013) against much better competition than he figures to see as a member of the Nationals.
Had he remained in the AL, Scherzer still would have been, at worst, the sixth or seventh starting pitcher off the board in an average fantasy draft. You're taking Kershaw over him, and guys like Sale, Felix Hernandez, Darvish, Madison Bumgarner and new teammate Strasburg may have ranked ahead of him, as well. Now that he's in the NL, however, he's going to come off the board even earlier. Remember that, at a position fraught with risk, he does not have any injury history. Scherzer is a top-five fantasy pitcher in my estimation.