How to react to Max Scherzer’s improvements

Max Scherzer’s season in 2015 was arguably the best in his career. While fantasy owners may have had some frustrations with the Nationals’ inability to get him more than 14 wins (his lowest since 2010), he did everything he possibly could to earn more value than that. He set career highs in strikeout and walk rates, ERA, and even FIP-based fWAR, if you’re into that type of thing.

How does a player who seems to already be at peak dominance find another level? Scherzer, at only 30 years young, grew into his fastball and added a mile and a half per hour to it. This is, of course, sarcasm. It is unprecedented territory for a pitcher to add so much velocity at his age, where we are expecting to see the heat decline, not jump by so much. He had been on a three-year downward pace, and then all of a sudden last year, he’s averaging 94.1 MPH.

A hotter fastball can mean a lot of things. First, we wonder if it compromises his control, but instead we found the opposite; not only less walks, but his zone% was 56.5% compared to a career rate of 52.9%. This is especially large when we consider how many thousands of pitches he throws every season, and that he has never deviated from the average more than a point or two. Look at how different his 2015 approach (with just the fastball) was than 2014, which resembles his career trends closely:

How to react to Max Scherzers improvements Chart1

How to react to Max Scherzers improvements Chart2The difference is quite striking. Scherzer’s career usage of the fastball can be best described as pounding the zone, any part of the zone. With the Nationals we have seen a switch to throwing almost exclusively in the upper third, and the thing with pitching here is you either get whiffs or allow power hits, with not as much in-between as other parts of the zone. We already talked about the increased strikeouts, but the power numbers are backed up as well; the highest homer rate for Scherzer in the past three years (1.06 HR/9, 10.5% HR/FB).

By staying up in the zone so much, his fastball went from dominant to elite. While he had good career whiff rates on it (9,2%), last year saw a jump to 12.9%, which gets whiffs more reminiscent of a good curveball. With a pitch so good, he threw it 59.5%, the most since 2011. When you talk to managers and coaches about how to have a good game-plan on the mound, it always starts with some variation of “establish the fastball early, and work off of it later”. And for Scherzer, establishing the fastball sent him to new heights.

Not only did his fastball have a career best, but so did both other pitches that he throws more than 10%, his changeup and slider. A career 14.1% whiff on the change rose to 15.8% last year, and his slider went from 19.4% to 24.4%. Hitters weren’t touching anything he threw, showing off just how great he was.

But let’s look a little closer. How does it make sense that Scherzer can stay in the zone for a largely increased rate, and somehow get more whiffs (intuitively, contact in the strike zone is more common than out, so by throwing there more we should expect less Ks)? He set career highs in opposing swing percentages, in every category, and then career lows in opponent contact percentages:

  O-Swing Z-Swing Swing O-Contact Z-Contact Contact F-Strike
Career Avg 30.5% 67.7% 48.4% 69.2% 81.6% 75.4% 63.3%
2015 36.5% 73.5% 55.2% 58.1% 78.9% 72.1% 71.3%

While you might be tempted to write this off, or at least part of it, to him changing leagues and facing pitchers more often, these discipline stats differ by less than half of a percentage point from AL to NL (and vice versa) at most, which is enough to factor into absolutely nothing.

So what we see is that somehow, with added velocity on the fastball and by staying in the top of the zone more often, Scherzer is forcing more swings. The contact decrease is still large, but at least partially covered by his pitch location. But swing rates don’t tend to increase so much as you move up in the zone, which makes this more of a conundrum.

Year to year discipline stats like swing rates and contact rates are some of the most consistent numbers, rarely deviating from last year’s without a dramatic change, like a new pitch or release point (Scherzer has neither). The better whiff rates that he got appear to have staying power, especially if he keeps his approach that he adopted in 2015. But without a more legitimate and tangible action to explain why hitters are swinging more at everything, which has clearly played a large part in his added success, regression in this area should be expected.

None of this is to say Scherzer is going to be bad, as he’s still an elite pitcher by any measure. But his current valuations along draft sites has him as the second best starting pitcher, which is way too high considering the large unknown on him. David Price, Madison Bumgarner and Zack Greinke all give comparable numbers and are available for cheaper, with more proper value at their slots. Try to avoid grabbing Scherzer so high, and instead pick up some comparable guys later for cheaper.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.