Making his 179th career start, Detroit Tigers ace Max Scherzer threw his first-ever complete-game shutout. By achieving the feat against the division-rival White Sox, the most dominant pitcher on Detroit's staff showed why he profiles as the team MVP moving forward.
With a feared rotation trio of Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Scherzer, opposing offenses could be shut down. With a deep, versatile lineup—led by reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera and switch-hitting extraordinaire Victor Martinez—runs would come in bunches. By inking Joe Nathan, they touted a proven closer who could shut the door and hold leads. Finally, a flawed group of AL Central contenders didn't look deep enough to truly challenge the star power at Comerica Park.
Heading into play on June 12, those supposed truths couldn't have been more wrong.
Thanks to career-worst struggles from Verlander (4.61 ERA), the seemingly annual disabled-list stint from Sanchez, average offensive output (ninth in the AL in runs scored) surrounding Cabrera and Martinez, Nathan's awful season (7.04 ERA) and a suddenly competitive AL Central, Scherzer opposed White Sox starter Chris Sale with the edict of simply trying to keep his team atop the division.
After a spectacular outing—9 IP, 0 R, 8 SO, 113 pitches—Scherzer restored some order to the division pecking order. For at least a night, the Detroit Tigers once again looked like the best team in the AL Central and a legitimate World Series contender.
That distinction—buoyed by three consecutive ALCS trips, including a World Series berth in 2012—is easy to see when such a valuable pitcher is on the mound. As the years have passed, Scherzer's value to Detroit's success has increased.
Now, as the 29-year-old traverses through a contract year and prepares for a trip into free agency, Detroit needs its strikeout king more than ever. Through 14 starts this season, the Tigers are 10-4 when Scherzer toes the rubber. When he didn't pitch, manager Brad Ausmus' team has gone just 24-24.
Basing value simply on wins and losses can be a fool's errand, but Scherzer's importance grows by the day for this particular Tigers team. If Verlander (7.41 ERA over last six starts) can't regain some semblance of the form that made him the 2011 AL MVP and perennial Cy Young contender, much more will be needed from Scherzer.
While it's unfair to expect a win every single time he takes the mound, a close approximation of that could be necessary if Detroit expects to win the AL Central without a season-long fight.
Even after Scherzer's latest victory, only four games separate the division favorites (34-28) from last-place Minnesota (31-33). Between those squads lie far-from-perfect, yet hungry teams like Kansas City (33-32), Chicago (33-34) and Cleveland (33-34).
Despite the All-Star Game rapidly approaching, the 2014 season is still young. Time is on Detroit's side, but day-by-day results have made the Tigers look like a team in need of rescue. While Cabrera's bat (155 OPS+) is as potent as ever, the team needs an MVP performance on the hill to back him and deliver consistent victories every fifth day.
While it's unfair to compare Scherzer to one of the greatest pitchers in history, it's instructive to look at Randy Johnson's 1995 season in this context. On the path to leading the Mariners to an improbable comeback in the AL West, Johnson's starts became almost automatic wins in Seattle. In his 30 outings, Seattle went 27-3, per Baseball-Reference.
|Past and Present: 1995 Johnson vs. 2014 Scherzer (First 14 GS)|
|Pitcher||Team Record in GS||IP||Hits||SO/BB||ERA|
Asking that of Scherzer is excessive, but for a pitcher with eerily similar career numbers, strikeout ability and potential start-by-start dominance, it may be almost a necessity for Ausmus and the entire Tigers clubhouse.
Despite the names on the back of the jerseys and track records of excellence, the 2014 Tigers simply don't look like anything close to a 95-win juggernaut.
Prior to Scherzer carrying his teammates to a win in Chicago, the Tigers owned just a plus-two run differential (272-270) on the season. Using that as a baseline, it's fair to say that a 33-28 record profiles as overachieving for a flawed team.
Before the start of Thursday's game, White Sox manager Robin Ventura was asked about facing Scherzer and if he was the same pitcher who won last year's Cy Young Award. Despite Scherzer having a 3.38 ERA entering the night, Ventura didn't waver, per Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
“He has the stuff,’’ Ventura said. “I don’t know about the magic part of it. I think any time you’re a team going into it thinking he doesn't have it you’ll find out real quick that he does have the stuff to still win [the Cy Young] and win games and be very good.’’
Hours later, that quote could be described as clairvoyant. When Scherzer takes the mound for his next start, he'll carry a 3.05/3.03/3.35 (ERA/FIP/xFIP) line into action, along with a sterling SO/9 mark of 10.11 across 94.1 innings.
Over the next few months, things could absolutely turn around for the other 24 players surrounding Scherzer in Detroit's clubhouse.
Verlander could regain his velocity and command. Sanchez could stay healthy long enough to enter the Cy Young conversation. Hitters like Ian Kinsler and Austin Jackson could step up and offer protection for Cabrera and Martinez in the lineup. Nathan could find the form that's helped him save over 300 games in the big leagues.
If that all occurs, Scherzer's contract pursuit will be lost in the shuffle of another division championship in Detroit. If it doesn't, however, the Tigers' pitching MVP will have to carry the load to guarantee another trip to October.