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Why Max Scherzer's 2013 Cy Young Award Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

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Why Max Scherzer's 2013 Cy Young Award Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg
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In one of the least surprising results, Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer was the overwhelming choice for the 2013 American League Cy Young Award. 

Scherzer received 28 of 30 first-place votes with 203 points overall, 110 more than runner-up Yu Darvish. It was a landslide victory, as has been predicted for months.

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There were plenty of reasons to love what Scherzer did this season, and  plenty of reasons why he doesn't seem likely to slow down anytime soon. That sounds insane, I know. How do you improve on a 2.90 ERA, 240 strikeouts, 152 hits allowed, 0.970 WHIP and 6.4 Fangraphs WAR in 214.1 innings? 

Unless you are Clayton Kershaw, not a lot of pitchers are going to do better than that. But if you follow the trajectory of Scherzer's career, his growth as a pitcher has been fascinating to watch, and the evolution hasn't stopped. 

Evolution is the key word to use for the 29-year-old Scherzer. Unlike a lot of big-name pitchers in baseball, such as Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Adam Wainwright and Jose Fernandez, Scherzer didn't dominate right away. He first had to learn the art of pitching, then he had to develop the weapons to become a Cy Young winner. 

Yes, he is a former first-round selection, but here are Scherzer's season-by-season ERA totals throughout his career. 

Max Scherzer Full-Season ERA Totals
Season ERA
2009 4.12
2010 3.50
2011 4.43
2012 3.74
2013 2.90

Baseball Reference

There is an exponential improvement  from 2011-12 and 2012-13 that you don't often see with a power pitcher in his mid- to upper 20s.

Usually, a pitcher like Scherzer doesn't want to or isn't capable of relying on slower stuff to get hitters out. Yet, to become the kind of pitcher worthy of Cy Young consideration, let alone winning it, there is a process that has to occur. 

Scherzer can still turn to that dominant fastball when he needs to, but it was the addition of a curveball and increased use of off-speed stuff that took him from a good pitcher to elite. 

Max Scherzer Pitch Usage
Season FB% CB% SL% CH%
2008 72.45 - 16.91 10.64
2009 71.15 - 12.82 16.03
2010 64.94 - 15.09 19.98
2011 61.37 - 18.11 20.51
2012 59.76 1.67 17.76 19.80
2013 56.67 7.37 14.82 21.15

Brooks Baseball

You can see the growth in Scherzer's performance and trace it to the point where he started mixing in more changeups and, this year, a curveball to keep hitters off balance. It also helped improve his swing-and-miss percentage. 

Max Scherzer Swing-and-Miss % By Pitch
Season FB CB SL CH
2008 11.75 - 21.19 14.74
2009 10.10 - 12.37 13.68
2010 7.07 - 18.77 15.07
2011 7.83 - 17.84 13.73
2012 11.31 8.47 21.66 15.14
2013 10.76 7.55 24.15 15.29

Brooks Baseball

A pitcher needs to have at least one swing-and-miss pitch to survive in the big leagues. Scherzer, just by percentages, has three of them. That is what makes a pitcher go from surviving to destroying the opposition. 

It's hard not to love what the Tigers righty has been able to do over the years. He was traded to the Tigers from Arizona in December 2009 in a three-team deal that, among others, sent Curtis Granderson to New York and Edwin Jackson to the Diamondbacks

Via MLB Advanced Media

Nothing much was made of Max Scherzer at the time because he had just 226.1 major league innings under his belt and looked more like a long-term reliever because of a violent delivery and lack of a quality third pitch. 

Revisiting the trade in 2011, R.J. Anderson of Fangraphs posited that "combustibility concerns" and cost led to Arizona's trade of him despite having just one-and-a-half years of service time. 

Anderson also noted the difference in Scherzer's mechanics that helped him go from a potential reliever to the pitcher we saw in 2013. 

Scherzer has since changed his mechanics and produced at a ridiculously high level from that point on. Whether he would have received the same adjustments within the Arizona system is up to anyone’s guess. My inclination is to think he would not have made similar adjustments, otherwise that tinkering would have occurred at some point during his developmental process. 

The violence in his delivery revolved around a violent head jerk as he released the ball, which limited his control and likely put more stress on his shoulder than necessary. 

Via CoachGurney

As you can see from the video above, Scherzer is now much more conventional with his mechanics. There is still some violence in the arm action, but nothing overly concerning. 

These mechanical adjustments have allowed Scherzer to go from thrower to pitcher. He's around the strike zone more than ever and has actually lowered his walk rate every season of his career except 2012. 

Max Scherzer Total BB and BB/9 IP Per Season
Season IP Total BB BB/9 IP
2008 56.0 21 3.4
2009 170.1 63 3.3
2010 195.2 70 3.2
2011 195.0 56 2.6
2012 187.2 60 2.9
2013 214.1 56 2.4

Baseball Reference

This is my favorite Scherzer stat because it was the final piece of the puzzle to come along. Being able to throw strikes sounds like the simplest thing in the world for a starting pitcher, but we know it's a lot more complicated than that. 

Having a pitcher like Scherzer develop the kind of command and control necessary to become a true ace speaks volumes about his work behind the scenes to get better and shows the dedication of Detroit's coaching staff for identifying his flaws. 

Like all people, baseball players fall into patterns they are comfortable with and do it for so long that it becomes difficult, even impossible, to change. 

Scherzer was doing it one way for a long time, dating back to college at Missouri and the early days in Arizona, but he took the coaching in Detroit and has grown into a Cy Young winner. 

It is hard not to love what Max Scherzer has become, especially in the last two years. Yet given the growth we have seen, you can't expect him to slow down now. 

 

If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter.

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