Max Scherzer is kind of a strange pitcher. Last year, you might remember, he threw three of the greatest games in baseball history. On June 14, he threw a one-hitter and struck out 16. In his next start, he took a perfect game into the ninth when he hit Jose Tabata with a pitch. He still finished off the no-hitter. It was probably the greatest back-to-back pitching performance ever, including Johnny Vander Meer’s consecutive no-hitters.
Then, in October, Scherzer threw his second no-hitter of the season; he struck out 17 in that one. It would have been a perfect game except for an error by shortstop Yunel Escobar. Even without perfection, it might have been the greatest nine-inning game ever pitched.
How often has a pitcher had three starts that good in a season? Heck, for that matter, you can ask how often a pitcher has had three starts that good in a CAREER. You know Bill James’ “Game Score” formula? It is a simple measurement — using innings, runs allowed, strikeouts, walks — to determine just how well someone pitched. Scherzer last year became the first pitcher in baseball history to throw three regulation-length games that had game scores 95 or better.
And, for the record, only Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Tom Seaver have had more than three of these games in a career.
In other words: When Scherzer is on, forget it. No one is better. No one was ever better. But when he isn’t on, when his stuff isn’t at its peak, when his concentration wavers even slightly, well, the results are mixed. There was that game at San Francisco last year where he lasted three innings and gave up six runs, including two homers. There were three last year games when he allowed three homers, second-most in the National League. There was the game this April where he got beat up by the Marlins.
Yes, you’re right, this isn’t uncommon. Pitchers have their good days and bad, and this is especially true for power pitchers. But, even so, Scherzer’s case is extreme.
Look: Last week, Scherzer had one of his worst starts in recent memory against the Chicago Cubs. For only the second time in his career — and the first time since he established himself as one of the game’s best pitchers — he gave up FOUR home runs. He walked three. He looked uncomfortable, even a bit overwhelmed, by the Cubs.
Five days later, the guy strikes out 20 batters.
Wow, was Scherzer overpowering Wednesday night. Right from the first inning, you could see it. After Ian Kinsler popped out to lead off the game, Scherzer had had a nine-pitch battle with J.D. Martinez. It was a fascinating dance. Scherzer threw three fastballs, four sliders and a changeup in an effort to upset Martinez’s timing, and Martinez kept fouling things off and holding his bat back on pitches out of the zone. Finally, Scherzer reached back and threw the 96-mph fastball and Martinez couldn’t catch up.
Scherzer then struck out Miguel Cabrera on three pitches, and you could sense that the night belonged to him.
One of the great baseball questions is this: What would be the ultimate pitching performance? Would it be a 27-pitch game where the pitcher so mesmerizes a lineup that they swing and make outs on every pitch thown. Or, more likely, would it be an 81-pitch, 27-strikeout game where no one touches the ball?
Greg Maddux is the closest thing we’ve had to the mesmerizing pitcher. Maddux had 14 complete game shutouts where he threw 100 or fewer pitches. That’s twice as many as anyone else since they started counting pitches. He had that famous 76-pitch complete game against the Chicago Cubs. The 27-pitch game is a near-impossibility that would require some sort of black magic that goes beyond baseball. Maddux had black magic (and, Maddux cynics will point out, he hypnotized home plate umpires).
Meanwhile, the 81-pitch game with 27 strikeouts, while also a near-impossibility, is more within a pitcher’s control. You can at least imagine it. And if anyone was going to do it, you would probably bet on Scherzer. When the volume on his fastball, slider and changeup are turned up to 11, he’s an awesome presence, like the Grand Canyon or something. Hitters flail away helplessly.
But, even though Scherzer’s best is awe-inspiring, he is not the best pitcher in baseball. He’s not Clayton Kershaw. He’s not Jake Arrieta, either. Over the last couple of years, guys like Jose Quintana, Madison Bumgarner, Dallas Kuechel and Zack Greinke have all pitched about as well at Scherzer. Why? Even Wednesday, you could see why. On a night when the Tigers missed often (30 swings and misses) and missed by a lot, they also hit two home runs and almost cracked a third one. When they hit the ball, they hit it hard.
How do you make sense of this? Scherzer currently leads the league in both strikeouts and home runs allowed — no one has done that for a full season since Jim Bunning in 1959. We saw the dichotomy Wednesday night.
In the second inning, Scherzer struck out the side on nine pitches.
Then, to lead off the third, Scherzer threw a bland 93-mph fastball up and in and Jose Iglesias, who has seven homers in his big-league career, turned on it and hit it out.
And right after that, he struck out four consecutive Tigers — Jordan Zimmerman, Kinsler, Martinez and Cabrera all went down swinging.
In the seventh, he gave up three line drives in a row — the last one a Justin Upton shot that bounced off the wall. He then struck out the next five.
And then, to start off the ninth, he threw a hanging slider — middle-middle as pitching coaches say — that Martinez crushed for a long home run. He promptly struck out Cabrera to get his 19th K and, after allowing another hit, struck out Upton for No. 20 on one of the nastiest sliders imaginable.
He’s legendary. He’s ordinary. Legendary. Ordinary.
The pitcher probably most famous for such extreme swings was Nolan Ryan, but you could understand it with Ryan: He was extremely wild, so on days he couldn’t get the ball over the plate, he could get beat. Scherzer is certainly not wild. He had an astonishing 276-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year. His good days and bad days, good moments and bad, come from something a bit harder to explain.
So how do you explain it? Well, I guess you could just say this: We’d all like to be our best every day, every time. But it just doesn’t work that way. Focus lapses and snaps in. Some days everything feels right, and other days nothing feels right. In the end, the thing to do is check in on Max Scherzer. If you see that he is on, settle in. You’re in for one heck of a show.