Does Max Scherzer throw an 80 slider?
Scherzer’s slider is in some ways an unremarkable pitch—Brooks Baseball’s automated at-a-glance page literally says it has “few remarkable qualities”—and yet he has run whiff rates above 40 percent with it every season for the last decade, which is quite remarkable. It has been a go-to out pitch during a first-ballot Hall of Fame career, consistently one of the most unhittable offerings in the league.
So that’s all an obvious yes, right? But here’s the counterargument: according to Pitch Info classifications, he hasn’t thrown a single slider to a left-handed hitter in 2022. From 2018-2022, he’s thrown 12 right-on-left sliders total.
Can a pitch really be an 80-grade pitch if you won’t throw it to more than half the hitters you face?
When Scherzer came into the league way back in the late-2000s, he was as fastball-heavy a starting pitcher as you’ll see; he threw the heater over 70 percent of the time as an Arizona Diamondback in 2008 and 2009. (It’s hard to fathom now, but Scherzer’s then-lagging secondary offerings pointed at a likely closer projection as a prospect.) Once he moved to Detroit in 2010, he started to trust his slider as an out-pitch against right-handed hitters while leaning more on his changeup against lefties.
His emergence as a star in 2012 coincided with the introduction of a curveball that he used mostly to replace backdoor sliders against left-handed hitters. With that addition, his slider receded into the night against most lefties; he’d still sometimes use it against specific hitters, but he’d also go full games without throwing an opposite-side slider. Meanwhile, it became absolute death to same-side hitters, as he spammed down-and-away sliders forever which hitters just couldn’t stop swinging at and would’ve needed a cricket bat to make contact with.
Yet Scherzer never stopped searching for a harder glove-side pitch to throw to lefties, even after he stopped throwing them the righty-flavored slide piece. In April 2015 he debuted a cutter, which he almost exclusively threw to lefties. Over the course of the next few years it morphed into a “power slider” and then back to a cutter by 2018. Since then, it’s been his exclusive hard gloveside offering to lefties.
It’s worth noting at this point that Scherzer’s cutter and slider are somewhat similar pitches in terms of speed and shape, perhaps first cousins within the pitch classification nomenclature. His cutter comes in about 4-5 ticks harder, usually around 89-91 MPH instead of 85-86. The cutter has around 100 RPMs more spin, which makes sense given the slightly higher velocity, and dives down moderately less with similar horizontal break. But Scherzer doesn’t use the similar but distinct looks to tunnel the pitches off each other; instead, the slider is always aimed at the low/outside corner against righties, and the cutter is mostly used to saw off lefties at their hands in the zone.
(charts using 2021 data from baseballsavant.com)
In fact, since refining his current pitch repertoire, Scherzer has been two different yet eerily consistent pitchers, depending entirely on whether he has the platoon advantage or not. Against righties, he’s bordering on modern closer-style pitch usage, spamming his fastball and slider upwards of 85 percent of the time, with only a handful of changeups and other offerings to keep hitters honest:
His fastball usage remains similar against southpaws, but the slider completely vanishes, replaced with his other three pitches in steady doses:
I set out to try and find other current pitchers who have a dominant offering which they spam to one side and never throw to the other—and didn’t come up with a whole lot. The closest I came to Scherzer’s pitch usage was Lance McCullers Jr., who added a slider last year as a second breaking ball to complement his nasty knuckle-curve. He continued throwing the curve to lefties almost half the time in 2021 as he’d done for most of his career, but he only rarely used it against righties (at least until the postseason), instead spamming the slider over 43 percent of the time. As with Scherzer, the pitches are something like cousins and most noticeably diverging in vertical break. And while McCullers hasn’t quite become Max Scherzer, he did have his best major-league season and found increased success specifically by platooning the two breakers.
Other than that, it’s hard to find a comparable starting pitcher. Nathan Eovaldi threw nearly a Scherzerian percentage of sliders to righties last year, but he only throws it a quarter of the time to them and it’s not quite a dominant pitch; he’s been throwing it more to lefties in 2022, anyway. Walker Buehler has started throwing most of his curves to lefties and most of his sliders to righties over the past few years, but the net difference is more like 2012-era Scherzer than the 2022 vintage, and it hasn’t been stable year-over-year yet. Ryan Yarbrough has very, very strong usage differences, but he’s basically a four-pitch guy who only throws two each to different sides—over 80 percent of his pitches to same-side lefties are sliders and fourseams, and over 75 percent against righties are cutters and changes—and he’s a contact-suppresser who doesn’t whiff many batters with anything anyway. Julio Urías has a good changeup and he throws around 95 percent of them to righties, but I’m not sure anyone has ever put a 70 grade on it, let alone an 80, and it doesn’t whiff anywhere near as many batters as Scherzer’s slider. John Means does about the same…there’s a bunch of opposite side changeup artists, actually—Tyler Anderson, Sean Manaea, and Wade Miley to name a few more—but the guys with the really elite changes like Lucas Giolito and Luis Castillo use the pitch against same-side hitters too.
The most individually comparable pitch to Scherzer’s slider in usage and effect I was able to find wasn’t from a starter at all; it’s Aroldis Chapman’s splitter (and it isn’t that close a comparison). Chapman threw the splitter back in his days as a starter in Cuba, and revived it late in 2020 as the octane on his fastball and slider waned and left him more vulnerable to right-handed hitters. He threw 92.4 percent of his splitters to righties in 2021, and has upped that to 100 percent so far in 2022. Chapman doesn’t throw the split quite as much as Scherzer throws his slider, but it’s become his preferred out offspeed against righties over the slider because he’s run absolutely bonkers rates with it. Since Chapman started throwing the splitter, hitters have whiffed 46 times against it while putting only 9 balls in play. But Chapman’s a closer, he throws the pitch to neutralize the platoon split, not maximize it, and his fastball and slider are still used amply against both sides.
After all that, should we slap an 80 on Scherzer’s slider?
Well, using Pitch Info’s pitch classifications and FanGraphs pitch run values, Scherzer’s slider has been the most valuable breaking ball in the entirety of the pitch tracking era, slightly edging out Clayton Kershaw’s slider, Corey Kluber’s breaking ball with no name, and Cole Hamels’ changeup, all obvious no doubt 80-grade offerings of their own. It only trails three fastballs for most valuable pitches overall—and one of those is Scherzer’s own heater. And his slider only became that good a pitch mid-career when he figured out that it nuked righties but lefties were able to pick up the break on it and mash it. So in the end, Scherzer started throwing an 80 slider precisely because he stopped throwing it to lefties.
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