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May 9, 2011

On the Beat

Scherzer's WARP Drive

by John Perrotto

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The question caught Max Scherzer completely off guard. The Tigers right-hander was in the Comerica Park clubhouse last Wednesday night, talking to reporters about his dominant performance against the Yankees. He explained how he was able to shut down the highest-scoring team in the major leagues by being aggressive and continually getting ahead in the count.

Then there was this query: "Do you think you can be a six-win pitcher this season?"

Scherzer paused for a moment, smiled and said: "I'm not sure if I should answer that. I don't know if a lot of people will know what I mean if I say I want to be a six-win pitcher."

Scherzer is already a five-win pitcher this year by conventional standards, as he takes a perfect 5-0 record into his start tonight against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. However, that doesn't mean Scherzer only wants to win one more game this season.

He desires to be a six-win pitcher by count of the more advanced baseball metrics, such as WARP. Scherzer has 0.5 WARP and 4.9 VORP through his first 45 2/3 innings. Last year, he came close to his goal of being a four-win pitcher, finishing with a 3.8 WARP and a 36.6 VORP.

While those acronyms, along with SIERA, BABIP, and others, may be nothing more than alphabet soup to most major-league pitchers, Scherzer is familiar with all of them. He follows those numbers closely and believes they give a better indication of his performance and those of other pitchers than such traditional measures as wins and ERA.

"It's a good way to look at the game from the aspect of what you have control over as a pitcher and what you don't have control over," Scherzer said. "For me, it just isolates the fact that your strikeouts are going to come. I can't say I'm going to strike out more hitters, but you can control those walks. It puts a huge circle around that number of how you control your walks. The one thing I can't emphasize enough is how important is to cut down the walks. If you don't walk people, you put your team in a better position to win, and the advanced metrics point that out."

Scherzer's SIERA of 3.72 shows he is pitching slightly worse than his 3.50 ERA would indicate. Not surprisingly, bases on balls are indeed the culprit, as he has issued 20 walks, an average of 3.94 per nine innings. He also has given up seven home runs, which works out to 1.1 per nine innings, though four of them came in his first start of the season on April 2 against the Yankees, when he was tagged for six runs in five innings at Yankee Stadium.

Scherzer had a totally different line when he faced the Yankees last week. The 26-year-old pitched eight shutout innings, allowing four hits and two walks while striking out nine.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland praised Scherzer for his aggressiveness against such a powerful lineup: "The one thing you can't do against the Yankees is get behind in the count. If you do, they'll just sit on pitches and hit a lot of them hard. Max went after them. He understood he couldn't nibble around the edges of the plate, and he did a heckuva job."

Scherzer threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 29 batters he faced and went to a 2-0 count just three times.

"The best pitch is in baseball is strike one, and if you study the statistics, the league averages, year in and year out, that's been proven," Scherzer said. "I know I'm not going to always throw a first-pitch strike to every batter, but if I can throw a strike within the first two pitches of an at-bat then I know the percentages are very much in my favor."

The non-traditional measure that Scherzer references the most is BABIP. Understanding that pitchers have little control over balls in play has helped give him more peace of mind on the mound.

"Say, for example, someone gets a broken-bat bloop single," Scherzer said. "Something like that used to really frustrate me. Now I let it go. I realize there wasn't anything else I could do and that, as a pitcher, you can't worry about things you have no control over."

One thing Scherzer does have control over is what pitch to throw. Somewhat surprisingly, he doesn't pay a lot of heed to the large amount of PITCH f/x data and batter/pitcher matchup statistics that have become available in recent years. Instead, he attacks hitters the old-fashioned way, by following the scouting reports developed by the Tigers scouting department and pitching coach Rick Knapp.

"You have to take things contextually, because each hitter is different and might match up differently against my pitches than against other pitcher's pitches," Scherzer said. "I really believe you have to pitch hitter to hitter, depending on the situation. It's all about the scouting reports and the execution of those scouting reports. Once you start getting a good portion of the season in, then some of those numbers come into play. Right now, they have no meaning because of the sample size, and while they may eventually tell you something about the hitter later in the season, ultimately the scouting reports are the best source of information, in my opinion."

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Rumors and Rumblings: While all the attention is on the cash-strapped Mets likely dealing shortstop Jose Reyes at the trading deadline, also look for them to make right-hander Mike Pelfrey available. …Trevor Plouffe is expected to remain the Twins' starting shortstop when second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka returns from the disabled list next week, with Alexi Casilla, already moved from short to second, sliding into a utility role. … Closer Heath Bell has professed his desire to stay with the Padres, but it is now looking like he will almost certainly be traded at the deadline. … First baseman Mitch Moreland will get most of the playing time in right field for the Rangers with Nelson Cruz on the disabled list, while Chris Davis, Michael Young, and Mike Napoli will share the starts at first. … Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal (thumb) is likely to start a rehab assignment this week. … Top shortstop prospect Julio Iglesias won't play much for the Red Sox after being called up Sunday. Iglesias is taking the roster spot of injured infielder Marco Scutaro only because Triple-A Pawtucket shortstop Yamaico Navarro is on the disabled list.

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Scouts' views:

Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday: "He's hitting everything right now, and it's hard to believe he had an appendectomy just a month ago. The only way you can tell is that he is a little tentative in the field and on the bases yet. As far as hitting, though, he's in as good of a groove as I've ever seen him."

Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer: "I know every young hitter has some struggles at the major-league level, but I don't think there will much of a learning curve for this kid. He has no real holes in his swing, and he has good plate discipline."

Blue Jays first baseman Adam Lind: "It seems like he's on every pitch right now and is just crushing mistakes, especially breaking balls. He's also developing into a pretty decent first baseman, which is a plus for that club considering how bad he was in the outfield the last couple of years."

Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia: "He's overanxious at the plate, and pitchers are exploiting that by feeding him a bunch of slow stuff. He is getting caught in between because of it. He's late on the fastball and early on the off-speed pitches. He'll snap out of it, though. He's one guy you never worry about losing confidence."

Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez: "He's really struggling with off-speed stuff this season, and I don't know exactly why. It can't be a thing where his reflexes are slowing, because he still crushes fastballs. But breaking balls and changeups have been giving him trouble."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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