A persistent problem with keeping the ball in the park is what keeps Nationals ace Max Scherzer from being a true NL Cy Young contender.
Since the start of the 2015 season, exactly half of MLB's eight no-hitters have been thrown by two men: the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer. Both pitchers also have a Cy Young award to their credit—Scherzer the American League trophy from 2013, Arrieta last year’s National League award—and are generally considered among the best pitchers in the majors. But despite the fact that Scherzer became just the third man in major league history to strike out 20 men in a game earlier this year and again flirted with a perfect game against the Cubs on Monday night, only one of those two is in the Cy Young discussion this year, and it’s not Washington's $210 million man.
The contrast between Scherzer and Arrieta is telling, and it's no doubt frustrating for the Nationals and their fans. Both pitchers are obviously capable of sustained dominance, but whereas Arrieta’s second career no-hitter on April 21 came in his 24th consecutive quality start (the third-longest such streak since 1913), Scherzer has failed to string together more than five quality outings in a row as a National, and he hasn’t had more than four in a row since May of 2015.
The thing that ended Scherzer’s bid for a perfect game in the sixth inning of Monday night's 4-1 win over the Cubs is also what has been the biggest cause of his inconsistency: the home run. Against Chicago, Scherzer struck out nine of the first 10 batters he faced and retired the first 16 men in a row. But with one out in the sixth, Cubs shortstop Addison Russell worked a full count, fouled off three pitches, then hit a hanging slider over the leftfield wall for a home run that ended the perfect game, the no-hitter and the shutout all at the same time.
Russell’s home run was the 17th that Scherzer has allowed this season, a total that leads the NL. In his 20-strikeout game against the Tigers on May 11, both runs he allowed came on solo home runs. In the start before that, he was lit up for seven runs in five innings at Wrigley Field as the Cubs took him deep four times.
Scherzer has always been a fly-ball pitcher, but in his final two seasons in Detroit in 2013 and '14 his home run rates were actually below league average. Since signing with the Nationals, however, his fly-ball and home-run rates have headed in the wrong direction:
This effect of that spike in home runs can be seen in his 2015 season. Scherzer opened the year with a 1.51 ERA and nine quality starts in his first 10 appearances for Washington, allowing just three home runs in 71 2/3 innings (0.4 per nine) and never more than one in a single outing. He then gave up three more home runs in his next two starts, neither of them quality, and in his final 23 starts of the season (those two included), he allowed 24 home runs in 157 innings (1.4 per nine), eight times allowing multiple home runs in a game. Over that stretch, he posted a comparatively pedestrian 3.38 ERA and only once strung more than two quality starts together, reeling off four in a row from late June into July.
There’s a clear trend here of Scherzer’s increasing gopheritis. Over his final 17 starts of last season, Scherzer allowed 20 home runs at a rate of 1.6 per nine, and he has matched that rate this season, allowing 17 home runs in just 14 starts. Altogether, he's given up 37 home runs in his last 31 starts.
That tendency to surrender the long ball has undermined Scherzer’s continued dominance in all other facets of his craft. This season, he has struck out 11.1 men per nine innings, the fourth-highest rate in baseball, and he is tied with Miami's Jose Fernandez for the seventh-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the NL at 4.72 (both have exactly 118 strikeouts and 25 walks on the season). Scherzer has also shown a remarkable ability to suppress hits. Since 2013, only Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has allowed fewer than Scherzer’s 7.1 hits per nine innings among pitchers with 600 or more innings pitched, and this year, Scherzer has that figure down to 6.6 per nine, again seventh-best in the NL.
All of that plus Scherzer’s ability to eat innings—he’s currently third in the NL with 95 1/3 frames, though he is one of just two Senior Circuit hurlers to have already made his 14th start—would seem to position him to be a Cy Young contender yet again this season. The home runs, however, have him on the outside looking in with a 3.40 ERA and his 3.81 FIP and even his more favorable 3.17 deserved run average don’t suggest that he has been pitching in an excess of bad luck.
None of that is to say that Scherzer can’t succeed despite the home runs. His outing Monday night (7 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 11 K, 1 HR) and his 20-strikeout game are evidence of that, as was his no-hitter in his final start last season. Meanwhile, he is still averaging 6.8 innings per start with a 123 ERA+ on the season—essential numbers the Nationals would surely take in any given season. The home runs, however, are keeping him from his rightful place among the game’s elite pitchers. In eight of his 14 starts this season, the only runs he has allowed have come on homers. In five of those starts, the only runs he has allowed have come on solo home runs. Meanwhile, in his three homerless starts this season, he has twice completed seven scoreless innings.
As for Arrieta, since the start of the 2014 season, no pitcher with 400 or more innings pitched has allowed fewer than his 0.34 home runs per nine innings. Second on that list is Kershaw at 0.49. In fact, since the start of the 2014 season—a span of 71 starts and 472 2/3 innings—Arrieta has allowed just one more home run than Scherzer has allowed in 2016 alone. For the difference between Scherzer and the game’s more consistently dominant aces, one need look no further than the home run.