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July 3, 2008
Max the Stathead
One of the biggest stories to hit the blog this offseason involved Brian Bannister's interview at MLB Trade Rumors, in which he demonstrated his statistical prowess and professed his love of numbers. The Royals righty uses statistics to help with his mound approach, and in exploiting said numbers, has been able to keep hitters off-balance with an 89 mph fastball. This admission garnered him the Baseball Tonight nickname, "the cerebral one," and it also sent statheads-myself included-into an absolute frenzy. It suddenly became cool to "live in our mother's basement," or whatever the favorite clichéd put-down towards analysts is these days, because here was an actual player conducting some of the same studies.
In working with Arizona Republic writer Nick Piecoro for the last month or so, I've learned that Bannister is not the only stathead on the diamond. At least one other exists: young Diamondbacks flamethrower Max Scherzer. In conducting some personal studies for Scherzer, I got to know him quite well, and he graciously allowed me to "expose" his interest in statistics through an ongoing interview over the past week. It should come as no surprise after reading the discussion below that before even answering my questions Max had questions for me regarding the Pitch F/X data and what it can tell us, as well as how it could be manipulated to help certain aspects of his game.
Eric Seidman (ES): For starters, can you tell me how you came to be interested in analyzing baseball statistics?
Max Scherzer (MS): Well, it really started out with my pitching coach at Mizzou, who brought it to our attention by examining the percentage of first strikes and A3P percentage.
ES: What exactly is A3P?
MS: A3P is 'attack in three pitches,' and it measures how many times, after three pitches, the batter is retired, or does he have two strikes on him. It was really cut and dried-the better pitchers on the team had higher percentages in both first strikes thrown and A3P, regardless of "stuff." As a freshman I had good stuff but not as good percentages [as others], and therefore I didn't pitch too much. By the end of the year and start of summer ball I had added five mph to my fastball to bring it around 98. With the knowledge of first-pitch strikes and A3P, I really took off in my sophomore year, and never looked back.
ES: So, A3P really brought you into the numbers game, but what, if anything else, elevated your desire to learn and analyze?
MS: The next wave of numbers came with Alex, my brother, and the success he had with his fantasy baseball team. He loved the challenge of making GM-type decisions. He tried it one year and really liked it, so he began studying the numbers behind the game to help predict which players were going to be successful.
ES: How did he go about that?
MS: Last year he came across the whole BABIP theory and explained it to me, but I was initially very skeptical because I just could not imagine all pitchers were essentially the same. As my season went on, I kept an eye on it, and he was right-pitchers really do not have control over the balls put in play, [that's on] the defense and luck. I'm very numbers-oriented myself, so I kept digging into this wealth of information. Sure enough, the K/BB and HR/9 were really the driving numbers behind the success of pitching. It really made sense to me, but the pitcher inside couldn't comprehend that, of everything involved, just three outcomes can determine one's success.
ES: So part of you embraces the BABIP and three outcomes of controllable skill, but the other part struggles to comprehend it. How do you deal with that?
MS: Well, I've been challenging Alex over and over on different scenarios to see how they affect the three outcomes, and it never seems to fail. By digging deeper and deeper into the numbers, it really has allowed me to take away the fear of failure.
ES: How so?
MS: I'm going to have success, and I will have failure. So when failure comes, it really has allowed me to brush it off and say it was meant to happen, and the next 10 batters will never do that. Basically, it has allowed me to be even more aggressive and work ahead better.
ES: Now, when Doug Davis came back you were moved to the bullpen. What was the biggest difference?
MS: Maintaining rhythm. As a starter you get so many pitches throughout a game to get the necessary work you need, to go along with bullpen sessions. As a reliever there is so much less work. I found my mechanics were able to get out of whack much easier, and so I had to start doing 'dry work' off the mound almost every day to get the repetitions in to ensure my rhythm would be consistent.
ES: Mechanics getting out of whack sounds like something that could be measured in release point data. Are you conscious of your release point, or do you work in bullpen sessions to maintain that type of muscle memory?
MS: The release point is critical, and if there is anything out there showing discrepancies or inconsistencies it would definitely be very applicable to my bullpen sessions. Of course, I try to keep the same release point between my different pitches. A slider is just a fastball with a different grip, and a changeup is only effective if it looks like a fastball, so yeah, I'm very aware of my release point.
ES: How exactly would you work on the release point in the bullpen sessions?
MS: Well, you're right, I couldn't work on my release point, exactly, because it's just a natural thing. I work on a ton of things that control my release point, though. I have two major flaws that I have to constantly work at. My balance and keeping weight back throughout the delivery is one, and the other is my upper body getting too horizontal; basically, my front shoulder will fly open sometimes. So there are little adjustments that I make to keep these two flaws from happening. That's why 'dry work' for me is productive-I can get reps and work on my balance without throwing a ball.
ES: With part of you being numbers-conscious and the other part scout-friendly, what is your pitcher/batter approach like? Are you executing a carefully concocted plan or going with the flow, so to speak?
MS: The pitch selection is really just a feel. You have a pretty good idea how you want to pitch each hitter, but nothing is ever set in stone. The scouting reports tell you what pitch the hitter struggles with in different situations, so it's just all about balancing pitching towards your strengths and the hitter's weakness.
ES: What about the Pitch F/X data set intrigues you the most?
MS: Basically, when I throw a really good slider it would be terrific to know everything I can about that pitch, so I can compare it to bad sliders. There are so many minute things that happen to cause a good and bad slider or good and bad changeup, so any type of data that can quantify what makes or breaks the pitch would be very useful.
ES: Are you aware when you throw a "good" or "bad" slider before it even reaches the plate? As in, as soon as it leaves your hand are you aware? And also, what goes into a good slider?
MS: Yeah, there are times I can tell it's a bad slider as soon as it leaves my hand, because I know my mechanics. I can feel my mechanics break down after certain pitches. If it's a good day, I can make the adjustment. If it's a bad day… well… it's a bad day. To judge a good slider I would say it's all on the shape of the pitch. For me, I'm going to want it to end up on the glove side of the plate and around the knees. I want it to have depth on it, and not have it be a side-to-side slider. In order for me to throw a good slider, my hand at release point has to be behind the ball. This is where velocity comes into play for me, because if my hand is behind the ball the pitch will be faster. If my hand and fingers are more on the side of the ball, the pitch will be slower. So in that regard, knowing velocity discrepancies amongst my sliders can help me look for mechanical flaws. I'd love to keep mental tabs on those I consider good or bad, and then quantify the results.
After being delegated to the bullpen, Max was sent down to Triple-A so that he could get more consistent work as a starter. Since that point, Max has been placed on the disabled list suffering from shoulder fatigue. Rest and a strengthening program will get him back to full speed, and for someone with a 2.90 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 9.6 K/9, and an opponents' batting average allowed of just .222 in his first 10 big league games, the time off should provide ample opportunity to study the numbers that document that effectiveness.
Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.