Monday, December 14, 2015

2015 Season Review: Max Scherzer

The Nationals shocked the baseball world last offseason when the signing of Max Scherzer was announced. Added to an already impressive starting rotation, Scherzer was supposed to be the ace among the other Nationals' aces. Unlike some big name free agent signings, Scherzer has actually lived up to the hype that accompanied that massive contract.

By any measurement, Scherzer was dominant in 2015. His ERA was 2.79, 11th best in the majors. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) line of 2.77 is almost identical to his ERA, indicating that Scherzer really was that dominant and not the recipient of good luck or the victim of poor defense. He struck out 276 batters, the second highest number in the majors behind only Clayton Kershaw. At the end of the season, in recognition of his performance, Scherzer ended up fifth in the Cy Young voting.

Coming into 2015, everyone knew that Scherzer was a top line starting pitcher, having earned the AL Cy Young award during his time with the Tigers. Any conversation of the best pitchers in the majors had to include his name. So it was hard to imagine that Scherzer would somehow come over the Nationals and significantly improve in any aspect of his game. How would that even be possible for someone so talented?

Well, Scherzer did improve significantly in one area and that improvement really drove his impressive 2015 season. In previous seasons,it wasn't that Scherzer didn’t show off good control, but he did walk opposing batters at a league average or slightly higher rate year in and year out. It was the one major area of the game where Scherzer didn’t rate near the best in the league. However, in 2015, the narrative got flipped. Instead of that league average walk rate hovering around 7%, Scherzer walked opposing batters less than 4% of the time. That was the lowest walk rate among starters in 2015 except for, you guessed it, Bartolo Colon.

Most impressively, Scherzer cut down on those walks while not sacrificing strikeouts in the process. In fact, his strikeout rate ticked up slightly to 30.7%, the highest rate of his career after striking out 29% of batters in 2014. It’s not a big jump and is probably attributable to facing weak hitting pitchers in the 9th slot in the NL as opposed to the DH Scherzer was used to facing in the AL. But, an upper echelon strike out rate combined with such a miniscule walk rate doesn’t need any qualifiers.

Scherzer’s approach during 2015 was to attack hitters right off the bat. His first pitch strike rate was up to 71% in 2015, so nearly three out of every four batters was in an early 0-1 hole against Scherzer. As a result, batters were forced into tough situations and ended up swinging at pitches outside of the zone more often in 2015 against Scherzer. And Max took advantage, posting a career high swinging strike rate. It helps that Scherzer can get a swing and a miss with nearly all his pitches. His four seam fastball, change up, slider, and cutter all had swinging strike rates above 10% in 2015, with the slider all the way up over 20%.

While 2015 was clearly a great year for Scherzer, he’s going to be a National for a very long time, so what lessons can be learned from 2015 for 2016 and beyond? On the positive side, Scherzer’s velocity hasn’t seen a dip. As Max approaches the age where starting pitchers naturally start losing velocity (see: Jordan Zimmermann), his fastball was actually up a tick to 94 MPH after sitting at 93 the last couple years. On the negative side, Scherzer was aided in 2015 by a lower than normal Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) of .268. Scherzer’s BABIP has bounced around his whole career, posting a .315 BABIP in 2014 after a .259 BABIP in 2013. It’s hard to predict BABIP, but it’s unlikely that Schezer can improve on his rate from 2015. Now, part of that low BABIP is a result of Schezer’s ability to force infield pop ups that are essentially as good as strikeouts for a pitcher. Scherzer usually forces infield pop ups around 10% of the time but in 2015 that rate was up to nearly 13%. It remains to be seen if those extra pop ups are here to stay.

Of course, a couple of those negative items are closer to nit picking than real issues. Long term deals for veteran pitchers have a tendency to turn out poorly by the end of the contract, but that’s not a concern for now. For now, the Nationals have one of the best pitchers in the majors atop the starting rotation. Every five days, Scherzer will trot out to the mound and, more likely than not, turn in a dominant performance. Maybe even another no hitter. On the days in between, Scherzer by all accounts has been a positive in the locker room, running laps around the stadium before games and passing out chocolate syrup showers post game. There was a point during last season where Scherzer was the favorite in the club house to take home the Cy Young award. Of course, the historic seasons put up by Zack Greinke and Jake Arrieta ended up overshadowing Scherzer's exploits. But, Scherzer deserved to be in that conversation and there aren't many signs that would suggest he won't be in that conversation again come 2016.

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