The Pitching Secrets Behind Max Scherzer's Historic StartJuly 10, 2013
When Max Scherzer took the mound in Cleveland against the Indians on Monday night, he was looking to pick up another win to become the first pitcher to start a season 14-0 since Roger Clemens in 1986.
When the game ended, the Detroit Tigers right-hander was still stuck on 13-0.
Scherzer held the Indians to only two earned runs in seven innings, but the Tigers offense failed to adhere to its normal pattern by scoring a bajillion runs for him. The Tigers won, 4-2, but Scherzer settled for a no-decision, and so 13-0 will have to do—at least until his next start on Saturday.
Now, it's my duty as a baseball geek to clarify that Scherzer's unbeaten record is only cool from a historical perspective. A pitcher's record is, after all, a faulty measure of a pitcher's quality. There are better stats to turn to.
But Scherzer is no ordinary case study. The other stats—whether we're talking ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, innings or even WAR—all agree with what Scherzer's record has to say about him: He's pitched really, really well this season. Not as brilliantly as his record suggests, but really well.
That has a lot to do with the fact that he's pitched differently this year.
Scherzer has always had a nasty repertoire of pitches, but it wasn't a deep repertoire. He threw a four-seam fastball, a slider, a changeup and...well, a four-seam fastball, a slider and a changeup.
Notice the past tense in that paragraph. Thanks to the arrival of Uncle Charlie, Scherzer's repertoire has a different look in 2013
According to Brooks Baseball, Scherzer is throwing curveballs about eight percent of the time this year, which is quite a high rate seeing as how he had only thrown 59 curveballs in his entire career heading into this season.
Scherzer threw all of those last year. He experimented with a curveball by mixing it in with his slider and other offspeed pitches, and he did so in secret up until Jason Beck of MLB.com finally wrote about it in September.
Opponents hit .267 off of Scherzer's curveball in 2012, but with no extra-base hits. This year, they're hitting .115 against it with only one extra-base hit, which certainly helps explain the increased usage.
If you're curious to see what Scherzer's curveball looks like, you can catch a glimpse of it here at about the 0:45 mark:
If you're thinking it, you're not wrong: Scherzer's hook really is nothing special as far as curveballs go.
But that's OK, because that's not really the point of it. It's more of a "different look" kind of pitch, and it's able to be that because it breaks differently than his slider. You can tell by watching the above video again and comparing the curveball Scherzer got J.P. Arencibia on at 0:45 to the slider he got Rajai Davis on at 0:25. The curveball was loopy; the slider was tight.
That's usually the case with a curveball and a slider in the same repertoire, but it's a dynamic that Scherzer only started to explore last year and is finally taking advantage of this year.
And now for the upshot: For the first time in his career, Scherzer has four above-average offerings to turn to.
So say the pitch type linear weights that can be found at FanGraphs:
These numbers represent the amount of runs above average Scherzer is saving with each pitch on a "per 100 pitch" basis. The fact that all four of his pitches rate as above-average is significant because, as you can see, he had never had more than two above-average offerings before this season.
Of course, having a deep and electric repertoire is only half the battle (if that). A pitcher also has to have a clue how to use it, which is a matter of piling up strikes and generally being efficient.
Scherzer is also doing that in 2013.
With a walks percentage of 6.1, Scherzer is currently working with the lowest walk rate of his career. So you won't be surprised to hear that he's throwing strikes a career-high 66 percent of the time, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Also, Scherzer is only throwing 4.01 pitches per plate appearance this season. That's not a low figure, but it's a perfectly acceptable figure for a guy who's striking out over 30 percent of the hitters he's facing.
Scherzer has further helped himself by going to 3-0 on only two percent of the batters he has faced, and he's not relying as much on hitters expanding the zone in order to get strikeouts. After never recording more than 44 strikeouts-caught-looking in a season, Scherzer is already up to 32 of those in 2013.
With all these numbers, you'd think that Scherzer was doing a better job of pounding the strike zone than ever before. He's actually not if you consider only the raw data, as both Baseball Info Solutions and PITCHf/x have his Zone percentage below where it was in 2012 (per FanGraphs).
But behind the raw data is a sort of hidden truth: Scherzer may not be throwing all his pitches in the strike zone more often, but he is throwing his fastball in the strike zone more often.
PITCHf/x has the Zone percentage for Scherzer's fastball at a career-best 60.1. For some perspective, that's not that far off from where Bartolo Colon is with his own four-seam Zone%. That's high praise for Scherzer, as Colon is basically the model for throwing fastballs for strikes.
But wait, it gets better.
While the PITCHf/x Zone percentage can tell us that Scherzer is making better use of the strike zone with his fastball, it can't tell us precisely where these fastballs are going.
Fortunately, Brooks Baseball can, and what one learns from consulting Scherzer's zone profile is that he's wearing out the bottom of the strike zone more this season than ever before.
This table shows the rate at which Scherzer has hit the bottom of the zone with fastballs throughout his career:
|Span||Bottom Left||Bottom Middle||Bottom Right|
*Note: This is from the catcher's perspective.
Between 2008 and 2011, Scherzer had a very hard time locating his fastball at the bottom of the zone, where fastballs are harder to hit than elsewhere. He made progress last year, but only to a degree where he could hit the middle part of the plate. When he did, hitters hit .289 on pitches in that section.
This season, what you see is that Scherzer has gotten significantly better at working the corners. It's been worth his while too, as hitters have a .130 average on fastballs on the lower left corner and a .231 average on fastballs on the lower right corner.
I don't blame the hitters for these numbers. Given the nastiness of his fastball, the fact that Scherzer is now able to hit the corners with it is downright unfair.
Obviously, Scherzer throws hard. Brooks Baseball has his average fastball velocity at a little over 94 miles per hour this year, but he can ramp it up to 97 and 98 when he wants to. But that's only half of what makes his fastball scary. The other half is the movement he gets on it.
Per the PITCHf/x leaderboards at BaseballProspectus.com, no right-handed starter gets as much horizontal movement on his fastball as Scherzer does. You can blink and miss it as it's happening, but I'll recycle a GIF that I made of a fastball that appears at around the 0:55 mark of an MLB.com highlight reel for a start against the Indians that Scherzer made back in May:
That pitched looked like it was going to be right down the middle, but then it reversed course and hit the outside corner for strike three.
Oh, and for the record, it was clocked at 96 miles per hour on the TV feed. For a fastball, that's about as unhittable as it gets.
Scherzer isn't quite unhittable, mind you, but he's certainly closer to unhittable than he's ever been. His .200 opponents' batting average is a career best by a mile.
And that makes sense. Scherzer's repertoire is deeper, his efficiency has improved in large part due to his improved fastball command, and he still has the same electric stuff he's always had, so it's no wonder he's baffling hitters like never before.
Combine the improvements he's made with the bushels of run support he has received, and his historic 13-0 record adds up.
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