My favorite time waster, by a significant margin, is the Play Index at Baseball-Reference. I love playing with what-if scenarios in the system and trying to find the last guy to reach a specific benchmark or the longest streak of futility or success. When first playing with the Play Index tool, I resembled a little leaguer facing a curveball for the first time, but with each new need for the engine, finding reports to quench my trivial thirst is rather easy.
One such recent report was to go back and find out how starters with dominant strikeout rates and strikeout-to-walk rates have done in their career. Coming into 2012, Max Scherzer had seen his K/9 decline each of the previous four seasons, but his K/BB jumped up to 3.11 last season—a personal best for him in a full season of work. Despite his strikeout rate, however, he surrendered more hits than innings pitched last season. W his .314 BABIP last season was a career high, it was only slightly higher than the .308 in 2009, and Scherzer’s 4.43 ERA was more a result of a 1.3 home run rate which was a career high by nearly 30 percent. If one were looking for someone who could help in strikeouts and wins, Scherzer seemed like a logical fit as a high-strikeout pitcher for a Tigers team that everyone thought would run away with the AL Central. After all, the more strikeouts Scherzer piled up, the less the inferior Tiger defense would be in play.
To date, Scherzer has won eight games, but he has a 4.84 ERA and a 3.80 FIP. And this is despite the fact that his current strikeout rate of 11.0 is well above his career rate of 9.0 and his K/BB of 3.6 is a strong step up from the 3.1 ratio posted last season. It is unknown if (and perhaps unlikely that) Scherzer can maintain these rates across a full season, but if he does, he will join some rather elite company. Only four pitchers have been able to post K/9s and K/BBs better or equal to what Scherzer has done in 2012. Randy Johnson did it seven times in his career, Pedro Martinez did it three times, and Curt Schilling and Dwight Gooden each did it once. The highest ERA among any of those 12 seasons was Johnson’s 3.28 mark in 1998, and most of that came from the 4.33 ERA he had in 160 innings of work in the Kingdome. After Johnson was traded to Houston and he began enjoying the National League and the Astrodome, Johnson posted a 1.28 ERA in 11 starts with the Astros.
If we take away Johnson’s mixed season in 1998, the next-highest single-season ERA of the group belongs to Curt Schilling, who posted a 2.97 ERA with the Phillies in 1997. The biggest difference between Scherzer and the four horsemen already on the list is the home run rate; only Johnson (in 1999) had a home run rate of at least 1.0, as he gave up 30 home runs in 271 2/3 innings of work. Scherzer has already allowed 16 home runs this season, and he just surpassed the 100-inning mark in his ugly loss to Baltimore this past weekend. Most of that damage came in May, when he allowed eight round-trippers; the good news is that he has allowed just five in his last seven starts. His ERA after his first start in June was a very unhealthy 5.88, but he has since lowered that 1.04 runs over his last six starts.
The list of Scherzer’s problems this year continue with his inability to pitch deep into games and his inconsistency. Through 18 starts in 2012, he has only completed seven innings in four outings, and consistency has been tough for him to come by. Scherzer has allowed two or fewer earned runs in just six of his 18 starts this season, and those have come in starts against Oakland, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Chicago (A), Kansas City, and Colorado. Conversely, he has only given up four or more earned runs in five of his 18 starts, leaving seven starts with exactly three earned runs. He has walked more than three batters just twice all season (he lost both games) and has held the opposition without a home run in just five starts (he went 2-1 in those games).
Simply put, owning Scherzer is an exercise in patience. He is getting more strikeouts than you accounted for and is still on pace to potentially equal his career high in wins despite a career high ERA and WHIP this season. His skill set gives him the potential to be a unique pitcher if he continues on his current pace, but if he wants to make the jump into the next tier of pitchers, he must find a way to cut down on his homers. He is at least trying to manage the long-ball in 2012; his pitcher card shows he has added a sinker to his arsenal after going exclusively with a fastball/slider/changeup approach in previous seasons.
Max Scherzer is indeed having one of the most unique seasons in pitching history, but his own approach is what is holding him back from achieving even more success at this point in his career.