When Detroit acquired Max Scherzer during last year‘s Winter Meetings, the Tigers got not only a power arm with a high ceiling, but also a pitcher with an appreciation for scouting reports and analytics alike. A 26-year-old right-hander who was taken by the Diamondbacks in the first round of the 2006 draft out of the University of Missouri, the sabermetrically-savvy Scherzer is 9-9 with a 3.73 ERA this season in 24 starts.
David Laurila: How do you identify yourself as a pitcher?
Max Scherzer: I’m a strikeout pitcher; I’m a power pitcher. That goes along with having a fastball, but it’s more than that. There is more to pitching than having a fastball and I’ve learned that fast over the past, really, two years I’ve been in the league. It’s how you establish your off-speed pitches, when you throw your off-speed pitches out of the zone to try to induce a swing and miss, how you pitch certain types of hitters—whether it’s inside or outside—so it’s a combination of everything. It’s being able to understand what you do—what your strengths are—and being able to read situations when you should pitch to a hitter’s weaknesses.
DL: Is pitching simple, or is it complicated?
MS: It’s extremely complicated. I think that the best [way] to put it is that hitting is the hardest thing to do in baseball, and pitching is the most complicated. There are so many little things that can just throw off your whole mechanics and make you just a little bit off, instead of executing your pitches at the maximum. Maybe it’s a little something that you do with your foot—where your balance and weight are on your foot—can alter so many different things throughout your mechanics. I was playing with that early in the season, where my weight was on my foot.
A bigger fix for me was where my arm slot was. I realized that I couldn’t fix my arm slot, so I had to fix my arm action. My arm action was long and [causing] my arm slot to be lower, and so once I shortened up my arm action I was able to get back on top of the ball and be able to generate the same type of velocity that I was last year, and be able to get on top of my slider and my changeup.
DL: Do you think about your mechanics when you‘re on the mound?
MS: Not during a game. During the game you’re out there to compete and there’s no room to worry about mechanics or anything like that. It’s just trying to be able to make fine-tuned adjustments on what you want to do out there. If you miss on a certain side of the plate, your object is to get back to the right part of the plate. That is the type of adjustment you make on the mound.
DL: Do most pitchers think alike?
MS: No, we all think differently, because we all have different strengths and different mechanics, and our bodies are made differently. What I do is different than what any other pitcher in the league does, and that goes for every single pitcher in the league. There are little bits and pieces that you can look at from other pitchers—kind of what they do and what their strengths are—but at the end of the day, we’re all different.
DL: Some people have compared your approach to Brian Bannister’s, although you and he are clearly different in many respects.
MS: I think that we analyze baseball the same way. I think we’re both…at least I can speak on my part that I’m a very mathematical guy. I can really handle numbers, so for me, the advanced metrics that are coming out throughout the game—the ones I’ve been able to come across the past couple of years—have helped me to understand and simplify the game to an easier point. So if a duck fart gets over the second baseman, I don’t worry about it anymore. I just try to go out and pitch and execute the things I want to try to accomplish over the long term. I think that is one of the best things that advanced metrics do, is they give good objectives for the long term.
Those are the long-term goals, but when you’re out there on the mound, it’s all about the short-term goals. That’s where the scouting reports, and all the little things that come into play about pitching, that everybody sees, are very [objective].
DL: When you came to Detroit, did you bring with you a reputation of being an analytical pitcher?
MS: I don’t know. You’d have to ask the other guys. For me, I just go out there and try to pitch.
DL: What is it like communicating with Jim Leyland as opposed to A.J. Hinch? They are obviously two different people.
MS: They’re very different, and that’s good. That’s how baseball is. Leyland is very old-school and I love playing for him. I also loved playing for A.J. But that’s baseball and that’s any manager. All 30 managers are different and I‘m really enjoying my time here in Detroit.
DL: How much separation is there between old-school thinking and analytical thinking?
MS: There’s separation, but you can only take the metrics so far. I’ll be the first one to tell you that they can only go so far, but the biggest thing for me is that they help you establish long-term goals, like what I want to accomplish over a season. That, in its own right, helps me to focus on my day-to-day activities.
DL: You had a 14-strikeout game earlier this season. Did analytics play any role in that performance?
MS: They played zero role. I’m out there executing pitches. That day I was able to execute really well with my changeup; I really didn’t throw too many sliders that day. I was able to pitch off of fastball-changeup, then be able to throw my changeup out of the zone and my fastball up and out of the zone. That’s why I was able to generate strikeouts.
That’s where the metrics have zero to play with anything that is going on during the game. That’s the reason why I’m still very immersed in scouting reports and things like reading hitters and executing pitches.
Analytics and scouting reports are two different aspects of the game. One you need when you’re actually pitching and the other you need to analyze yourself over the long term. Each is important, but they work in their own ways. I can appreciate the analytical side, because I like to deal with numbers.
DL: You’re pitching tomorrow. What will you focus on when you look at the scouting reports?
MS: I’ll want to know hitters’ tendencies, how my pitches match up with their hitters, which pitches I might want to throw in certain situations. That goes into the game itself. Throughout the game, you’re going to know which pitches you have better feel for that day. Some days I might have a great feel for my changeup and a terrible feel for my slider, and that has happened to me. Other days, I’ll have a great feel for my slider and I don’t have a good feel for my changeup. That’s where you have to be able to read and make adjustments with what is going on throughout the whole game.
A lot of it comes down to execution. I really believe that is how you give up a lot of your home runs, when you don’t execute. If you do execute the pitch, you’re usually able to get the results that you want. That’s the way I look at it on the mound. All I’m trying to do is go out and execute. It’s the only thing I’m thinking about out there.
DL: How different of a pitcher are you today than you were in Arizona?
MS: The difference I’ve made over here—but it’s not really since Arizona—is that in the past six weeks, I’ve really started to incorporate my slider more. I feel like I’m getting better movement on it and I think that’s allowing me to become a three-pitch pitcher who can pitch six innings and be able to show you different looks every single time I face a hitter. I think that’s a very important step in my career, as far as becoming a complete pitcher.
I decided that I needed to incorporate my slider earlier in games; I can’t be waiting until the fourth or fifth inning before I throw my first slider. I’ve started incorporating it earlier in games so that I can get a feel for it, so when the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh innings come around, I’ve thrown enough of them to develop a feel and I can make a pitch with it—I can execute with it—in an important situation. That’s part of the reason I’ve started to see the slider become a better pitch for me, and like I said, it’s helped me to become a more complete pitcher.