Monday, January 19, 2015

Scherzer-fest Part 1

Well then. If you thought the Clippard trade garnered a lot of attention and opinions, Max Scherzer’s 7 year, $210 million deal is a stop the presses moment. There is a lot going on with this free agent signing, so I’m breaking it up into 2 parts. This first part here, a review/preview of Scherzer the player and some projections for his 2015 in DC. The second part, to follow shortly, will take a look at the details of the contract and some of the possible implications for the rest of the franchise.

Max Scherzer, Nationals

Max Scherzer is of course the 30 year old former Tiger pitcher, one year removed from winning the CY Young as the best pitcher in the AL. He made the big jump from middle of the pack pitcher to signing the second highest dollar value deal in MLB history when he made some changes to his pitch mix around 2012/2013. Breaking into the majors, he threw his fastball upwards of 60% of the time, occasionally mixing in his offspeed and breaking pitches. Over the last few years, his fastball usage has dropped down to 55% and he has started throwing his other pitches more, especially the change up which he now uses around 20% of the time.

His fastball has sat consistently in the low 90s at 93 or 94 MPH, and he hasn’t yet lost much velocity on the pitch, a good sign considering he is under contract for a whopping 7 years. Scherzer has been a real workhorse over his career, averaging over 190 innings pitched per year since 2009, and, most impressively, has never made a trip to the DL during that time. 

Scherzer has always been a big time strikeout pitcher. He has averaged over 10 strikeouts per nine innings the last 3 years and his strikeout percentage put him 4th in the big leagues in 2014. Scherzer’s swinging strike rate averaged 12% over the last 3 years and was good enough for 10th best in 2014. Interestingly, Scherzer appears to have swing and miss stuff even when his pitches are in the strike zone. The contact rate allowed by Scherzer on pitches in the strike zone is right around 81%. In 2014, his score of 81.5% was the 3rd lowest rate behind only Chris Sale and knuckleballer RA Dickey. With those strikeouts come a fair share of walks, though, as Scherzer has allowed about 2.5 walks per nine innings over his career, including a couple seasons over 3 per nine at the start of his career. It’s not often you can find an area for improvement in a pitcher as good as Scherzer, but those walk rates might be his weakest spot.

Given some of the terrible defenders the Tigers have trotted out behind Scherzer, maybe he has learned to pitch away from contact. People may think that Scherzer took a bit of a step back last year, which is true to a small extent, but his peripheral stats were pretty consistent. The biggest change was the BABIP allowed. Impressively, with that previously mentioned porous Tiger defense, Scherzer posted a .259 BABIP in 2013 that was a major contributor to his 2.90 ERA on the way to the Cy Young award. Posting pretty much the same strikeout and walk numbers in 2014, but allowing a .315 BABIP (compared to the league average .295 for reference), resulted in a 3.15 ERA.

BABIP allowed is heavily tied to luck, and Scherzer has posted slightly high BABIP scores over the whole of his career (2013 excepted). Scherzer has slowly been allowing fewer groundballs over his career and giving up more fly balls. Perhaps that is a result of a transforming pitch mix or perhaps that is a result of him pitching to the defense behind him as fly balls turn into outs at a higher rate than groundballs. Maybe he gives up hard contact or maybe that Tiger defense has let him down most of his career or maybe he has just gotten unlucky batted ball luck for the majority of his career. However you paint it, the odds are that his BABIP in 2015would at least sit near the league average. Factor in what should be a solid Nationals defense in a slightly more pitcher friendly ball park at Nationals Park, and his BABIP may get back down near his 2013 number if a few balls bounce his way.

Long story short, Scherzer got the deal he got because he has earned it. He has been consistently one of the best pitchers in the game for some time, and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down in the near future. His fastball still has its zip and he has as clean an injury history as you would see with a pitcher. The projections for 2015 see him improving on his overall stats from 2014 as a couple items regress back to normal levels. Add in the switch from the better hitting AL to the weaker NL, and Scherzer has a shot to put up some really good numbers in a Nationals uniform.

Of course, this deal isn’t done in a vacuum. Check back in shortly for my take on the contract and what it might mean for the long term future of the team.

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