Max Scherzer, health permitting, is set to become yet another starting pitcher to sign a nine-figure contract. His riches, though, will represent the latest redefinition of what it means to be an ace. Scherzer won the AL Cy Young Award last season without throwing a complete game. In fact, he has not only never completed a game in his career, he has appeared in the ninth inning just once in 169 starts. Last year Scherzer averaged 6.7 innings a start, a career high.
"Seven-inning pitcher" was, not that long ago, a term of derision. Now, it's how you would describe the very best pitchers in the game. Boston's Jon Lester (above) may join Scherzer in signing a huge free-agent deal; he's averaging 6¬∑¬≥ innings a start in his career and has never averaged seven in any of his eight seasons. Clayton Kershaw signed the richest contract ever for a pitcher, and in his last three seasons he's averaged seven innings a start. Just four pitchers averaged seven innings last year. Eighteen starters got votes in the Cy Young Award balloting last year; combined, they completed 29 games. Ferguson Jenkins completed that many in 1974 all by himself.
Look, this is progress. There's a recognition that pitchers can be broken through excessive use, so you rarely see pitchers exceed 120 pitches in a start. The use of one-inning closers and the expanded bullpens that support them have been factors in the decline of the complete game, with managers frequently pulling an effective starter with a low pitch count in favor of a save specialist. Four times last season Scherzer was pulled from a game after eight innings, having thrown 110 or fewer pitches while allowing two or fewer runs. Empirical studies have shown that pitchers lose much of their effectiveness when facing a lineup for a fourth time, although it's not clear that this idea is driving decisions on a wide scale.
Nevertheless, it's an odd construct; teams are committing more money to pitchers while asking them to do less. Asking Scherzer to throw 130 pitches a start and complete 12 games a year is counterproductive, but this trend toward getting fewer innings from the most expensive pitchers in the game has to end soon. Perhaps a $150 million deal for a pitcher who has almost never seen the ninth inning will be the trigger for a change.