Max Scherzer Now Blowing Clayton Kershaw Away in MLB's Best Pitcher Debate

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 26, 2018

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer throws to the San Francisco Giants during the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

This isn't about burying Clayton Kershaw. He's still very much alive and possibly the greatest pitcher Major League Baseball has ever seen. So, burying him would be inappropriate.

This is more about anointing Max Scherzer, who won't stop doing all he can to claim the mantle of the best pitcher in baseball right now.

It was easy enough to argue on Scherzer's behalf at the outset of 2018. He joined the Washington Nationals in 2015 and proceeded to produce a 2.76 ERA and 683 more strikeouts than walks over 657.2 innings between then and 2017. The last two seasons netted him the second and third Cy Young Awards of his career.

According to Baseball Reference, Scherzer ranked here in wins above replacement between 2015 and 2017:

  1. Max Scherzer20.3
  2. Corey Kluber18.3
  3. Clayton Kershaw18.2

Given that Scherzer is now 33, the only worry was that Father Time would come around and knock him from his hard-won throne. Ol' Man Time is a jerk like that.

Spoiler alert: no.

Following his six-inning performance against the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday, Scherzer is now up to 39 innings over six starts in 2018. He boasts a 1.62 ERA, and it comes with 57 strikeouts, nine walks and two home runs allowed.

As of Wednesday night, the Baseball Reference WAR leaderboard hadn't been updated yet. But the FanGraphs WAR leaderboard is always updating, and it looked like this:

  1. Max Scherzer1.6
  2. Dylan Bundy1.4, Rick Porcello1.4

Different leaderboard but same general concept, and same spot for Scherzer.

To give credit where it's due, Kluber is close by with 0.9 fWAR on the strength of a 1.96 ERA over 36.2 innings. He's once again doing phenomenal things for the Cleveland Indians, and it's adding to a genuinely strong case that he is the best pitcher in baseball.

As for Kershaw, he's less close by with 0.7 fWAR. His status was damaged in a four-run start against Scherzer and the Nationals on April 20 and dinged further in a three-run, six-walk outing against the Miami Marlins (yeesh) on Wednesday. His ERA is a great-not-amazing 2.84 over 38 innings.

Kershaw's performance obviously isn't worth panicking over, hence this piece's "let's not bury Clayton Kershaw" stance. But that doesn't mean he's above a little skepticism.

Or even a lot of skepticism, for that matter.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Following injury-shortened seasons in 2014 and 2016, health was one reason to worry about Kershaw going into 2017. That worry was only heightened when he landed back on the disabled list in July, and it got some company in the form of a shockingly elevated rate of home runs allowed.

This season has brought still more worries. Kershaw's average fastball has slipped from 92.7 mph to 91.1 mph. He's compensating by throwing his slider more often, but it hasn't been any help to either his contact percentage or his strikeout rate.

In short, Kershaw is no longer the unstoppable workhorse who averaged 226 innings per year between 2011 and 2015. Without his typical overpowering stuff, he's also not the same guy who whiffed 10.9 batters per nine innings between 2014 and 2017.

All this is worth getting into in part because it's always worth being thorough. But, really, it's more because it's useful context for what Scherzer is up to.

His fastball is in shipshape despite his age. FanGraphs put his average at 93.7 mph going into his Wednesday assignment, and Statcast clocked his average at 94.8 mph within it.

These are typical Scherzerian figures, and everything he throws still looks darn good:

However, Scherzer isn't using any of this as an excuse to leave good enough alone with his pitch mix. As this chart from Brooks Baseball shows, it's undergoing an evolution:

Courtesy of

Way back when, Scherzer was a three-pitch guy with a fastball, slider and changeup. Then he started mixing in a curveball in 2012, and it was a key part of his arsenal by 2014.

Now he's graduating to five pitches.

The increased use of his cutter is hard to miss, as it is now the go-to non-fastball offering. That indicates Scherzer believes it's more than just a show-me pitch.

From looking at this closeup from the Pitching Ninja himself, Rob Friedman, it's hard to blame Scherzer if he has indeed come to that conclusion:

That's a cutter that did what good cutters are supposed to do when employed against left-handed batters: start on the inside edge and then explode in on the hands. There's no defense against that. 

Since Scherzer's performance against lefty batters has typically lagged behind his stats against righties, it makes sense that he would want a pitch like that. And it's working like a charm. He's used his cutter almost exclusively against lefties, and it's helping to destroy his platoon split:

  • vs. RHB.495 OPS
  • vs. LHB: .477 OPS

Meanwhile, Scherzer's quest to solve this problem isn't having unintended consequences elsewhere. He's still an elite strikeout artist (13.2 K/9) and an excellent control pitcher (2.1 BB/9). And by continuing to lower his home run rate (0.5 HR/9), he's succeeding where Kershaw and many other pitchers are failing.

On balance, Scherzer is at a point now where it's impossible to praise him too much. It makes it that much easier to call him the best pitcher in baseball. 

And also, that much harder to believe we're going to stop calling him that any time soon.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball and Baseball Savant.


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