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Max Scherzer Has Finally Passed Up Justin Verlander as True Tigers Ace

All hail.
All hail.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 13, 2017

It was easy to argue the point in 2013, and you can't deny it in 2014. 

That point: Max Scherzer, not that Justin Verlander guy, is the Detroit Tigers' true ace.

If you're sitting there thinking it, no, I'm not sure we'd be having this discussion if Tigers manager Brad Ausmus had rewarded Scherzer's Cy Young-winning season in 2013 by tabbing him as Detroit's Opening Day starter. That would have made his status as Detroit's top ace all but official. 

Instead, Ausmus sided with Verlander's track record—i.e. his 2011 MVP and Cy Young and his six straight Opening Day starts—started him on Opening Day and, well, here we are.

There's no point saying that Ausmus made the wrong decision. Picking an Opening Day starter isn't like picking a Game 1 starter, after all.

But one month into 2014, it's clear he didn't pick his best starting pitcher.

Scherzer made his sixth start of 2014 on Wednesday against the Chicago White Sox, and it was pretty much par for the course. In leading Detroit to a 5-1 victory, he allowed only four hits and three walks across six scoreless innings.

Scherzer also struck out seven, marking the sixth time in as many starts his strikeout total has climbed that high. According to Baseball-Reference.com, it's the first time in a while that a Tigers starter has done that:

Notably not accomplishing this feat: Verlander. Because he's a bum. A low-down, dirty, no-good BUM.

No, not really. I kid.

...Sort of.

I always have and still do love me some Verlander. It's just that the numbers say that the comparison between him and Scherzer has gone from being slightly one-sided last year to very one-sided this year.

Behold the illustration of that point (via FanGraphs):

Verlander vs. Scherzer: 2013-2014
YearPlayerGSIPK/9BB/9ERAFIPxFIPSIERA
2013Verlander34218.18.953.093.463.283.673.61
2013Scherzer32214.110.082.352.902.743.162.91
2014Verlander640.06.983.382.483.024.374.34
2014Scherzer639.011.772.542.082.682.372.43
FanGraphs

There's one column in which Verlander has the advantage, and that's in innings pitched. He worked more innings than Scherzer last year and has him beat by one this year. 

But that's it. In strikeout rate, walk rate, ERA, FIP, xFIP and SIERA, Scherzer's the man.

Those first two are self-explanatory. You know what ERA is. Those other three, however, might be alien to you. What are they?

In a word: important.

You can read a lot more about FIP, xFIP and SIERA and how they work in my Sabermetrics for Dummies guide, but the short version is they're metrics that estimate what a pitcher's ERA should be based on his actual performance.

FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) do that by focusing on strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs. The difference between them is that xFIP replaces a pitcher's actual home run total with an estimate for how many home runs he should have allowed, thus correcting for any bad luck.

SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA) looks at the same things FIP and xFIP look at, but without ignoring balls in play. That extra layer of complexity makes it the best of the three (at least in my opinion).

By essentially looking only at things pitchers can control, these three stats provide a clearer picture of a pitcher's talent than his ERA. 

And in this case, what they tell us is that Scherzer's superiority to his Tigers comrade is no mirage. Not last year. Not this year either.

Each metric will give a slightly different explanation for why, but the overarching reason is spelled out in those K/9 and BB/9 columns: Scherzer has walked fewer and struck out more. Of all the ways to be a successful pitcher, that's the best.

Regarding the walks, it's actually not so much that Scherzer has gotten better at pounding the strike zone. He has posted a better Zone% (percentage of pitches in strike zone) than Verlander since the start of 2013, but he had a superior Zone% between 2010 and 2012 too.

The real change is...complicated. We must illustrate it the only way we can: with more numbers!

Looky here:

Verlander vs. Scherzer: Swings and Contact
SpanNameO-Swing%O-Contact%Z-Swing%Z-Contact%
2010-2012Verlander33.669.366.383.4
2013-2014Verlander32.869.267.883.0
2010-2012Scherzer31.065.565.083.4
2013-2014Scherzer30.560.467.180.3
FanGraphs

Note: Since I'm writing this on Wednesday evening, the figures for Scherzer haven't been updated to include his start against Chicago.

Important explanation: The "O" stats refer to happenings outside the zone. The "Z" stats refer to happenings inside the zone. 

So for Verlander, what you see is a slight downturn in swings outside the zone (O-Swing%). That helps explain the walks, as hitters aren't helping him pick up strikes by going outside the zone.

Instead, hitters have been more aggressive inside the zone (Z-Swing%), and they haven't gotten much worse at making contact against Verlander outside the zone (O-Contact%) or inside the zone (Z-Contact%).

In short: He's not fooling hitters like he used to.

October 10, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (37, left) and starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35, right) stand in the dugout during the ninth inning in game five of the American League divisional series playoff basebal
USA TODAY Sports

Now look at Scherzer. He's experienced a lesser downturn in swings outside the zone, but has picked up more whiffs on pitches outside the zone. And while hitters have become more aggressive against him in the zone, they've also swung through more of his pitches in the zone.

In short: He's gotten better at fooling hitters.

An important factor is that Scherzer has gotten better at getting strike one in the least year or so. His first-pitch strike percentage between 2010 and 2012 was 61.2. Since the start of 2013, it's 64.7.

That's better than Verlander's first-pitch strike percentage (64.0) and is important because of how getting strike one puts the hitter on the defensive. And once a hitter is on the defensive, he becomes more prone to getting beat by good stuff.

And right now, Scherzer's stuff is just plain better than Verlander's.

The first thing you might wonder is if the decline of Verlander's fastball might have something to do with this. As this data from Brooks Baseball shows, it does:

Verlander vs. Scherzer: Fastballs
SpanPlayerVelocityHorizontal Movement (In.)
2010-2012Verlander95.77.0
2010-2012Scherzer94.37.1
2013-2014Verlander94.45.9
2013-2014Scherzer94.27.8
Brooks Baseball

Between 2010 and 2012, Verlander's fastball was basically Scherzer's fastball with an extra mile per hour on it. But since the start of last season, the velocity gap has disappeared and there's now a movement gap in Scherzer's favor.

It's no wonder that hitters have a .209 average against Scherzer's fastball since the start of 2013, compared to a .279 average against Verlander's.

Because visuals are fun, let's pay homage to Scherzer's heater by seeing it at its best in this outing against the New York Mets last August:

Regarding secondary offerings, both Verlander and Scherzer throw a changeup, slider and curveball. And while Verlander's secondary offerings are still good, Scherzer's are better.

More data!

Verlander vs. Scherzer: Secondary Pitches (2013-2014)
Pitch TypeVerlander Whiff%Scherzer Whiff%Verlander BAAScherzer BAA
Changeup15.516.1.256.216
Slider17.225.2.214.147
Curve11.97.2.173.180
Brooks Baseball

Scherzer has gotten slightly more whiffs on his changeup and a lot more whiffs on his slider. He has also given up fewer hits on both.

Verlander's curveball is the better of the two, but to a surprisingly small degree given that it's his best pitch and Scherzer just started throwing his own curve late in 2012. It's been good to him, much to his satisfaction.

"That's the pitch that changes an at-bat," Scherzer told MLB.com's Jason Beck last year. "Curveball completely changes the approach. Now he's disrupted timing. Now he has to respect a third pitch. And you can't cover all three. You can't cover all three speeds."

Before we end this bad boy, I want to make one thing clear: Verlander is not to be confused with a bad pitcher.

On the contrary, he's still a really good pitcher. Good enough to still be counted among the top-five pitchers in the American League since the start of last year if you feel like taking FanGraphs WAR's word for it.

The only reason we've been able to make him look inferior is because we've gone and compared him to arguably the best pitcher in the American League. Verlander is hardly the only pitcher in the league who would come off looking like a mortal when stacked up against Scherzer and all he can do.

Scherzer's not Detroit's true ace because Verlander's that bad. He's just that good.

 

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

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