Sunday, August 9, 2015

Max: The Intoxicating Workhorse

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

In January, the Washington Nationals, already stocked with superb starting pitching, signed former Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer, the crown jewel of free agents, to a seven-year $210M contract that is paid out over a mortgage-like 14 years. 

My initial reaction: I hope the Nats locked in a low interest rate and avoided private mortgage insurance…and what a ludicrous waste of financial resources. With a starting rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, was the addition of Scherzer necessary, especially considering teams typically use only four starting pitchers during the playoffs? Dollars aside, was the impact on team chemistry considered? With several key players – shortstop Ian Desmond, center fielder Denard Span and the aforementioned Zimmermann and Fister – facing free agency in 2016, signing Scherzer signaled many Nats would be playing elsewhere next year. And wouldn’t Scherzer’s presence at the top of the rotation cause the would-be/wanna-be/just-hasn’t-been pitching alpha dog Strasburg to pout?

That’s what I thinking in January.  Today, I’m an idiot. 

What does a $210M pitcher look like? I don’t know, but it must resemble Max Scherzer – he’s crushing it. The ace hurler became “one of the guys” immediately (scratch that chemistry concern off the list) and has been everything – fun, fiery, reliable and consistent – that the mentally and physically fragile Strasburg isn’t (he’s back on the disabled list…shocker). 

Through last weekend, Scherzer has posted a 1.82 ERA (second to Zack Greinke), recorded 139 strikeouts (fifth in MLB), walked 14 (second to Phil Hughes among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched) and has thrown three complete games, two shutouts and a no-hitter.  “Going geek”, Scherzer’s advanced statistics layer on the superlatives: a WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 0.78, a strikeout/walk rate of 9.93 and batting average against of .181 - all tops in MLB. And then there’s Scherzer’s sick 1.25 Component ERA, a Sabremetrics formula that predicts a player’s ERA by analyzing surrendered walks and hits (thereby removing luck as a factor). Houston’s Dallas Keuchel is a distant second at 1.82.

But – and there’s always a but with D.C. sports – Scherzer’s usage is concerning.  In his 16 Washington starts, he’s pitched at least six innings and has gone seven or more 13 times. He has 118 innings on his golden right arm so far and is pacing to approach 240, 20 more than his career high. 

Remember, Scherzer is 30 and signed to a seven-year contract with a 14-year payment plan.  If you were going to make peace with burning him up, wouldn’t you do that in October? Why mid-season? And we all know pitchers are like sports cars: fabulous when running but often under repair.

Scherzer’s workload is odd too considering the kid gloves with which Washington has handled Strasburg. Who can forget the Nats putting Strasburg on ice just before the 2012 playoffs because he had reached a team-imposed innings limit in his first year back from Tommy John surgery?

But current manager Matt Williams wasn’t around in 2012 and he’s infatuated with Scherzer. Can you blame him? The man gets paid to win games and Scherzer’s as dependable as humidity during a Maryland summer. What do you do as a manager tasked with producing results – wins, earnings, market share growth, etc? You rely on your best employees, those you can trust. They get “new opportunities”, code-speak for more work and responsibility. Burnout? Ahh…nonsense. I had a “Scherzer” in high school - a buddy who happened to be a straight-A student. He was my ace; I called the poor dude nearly every night for homework guidance. He never seemed to mind – like Scherzer - but it probably drove his parents nuts.

While Williams has managed other players carefully, he has identified his go-to man, his horse, and he’s riding him. Thus far, the Nats have reaped the rewards of Scherzer’s workload, but in late September, after 240-ish innings and roughly 33 regular season starts, will he have anything left for an October stretch run? And isn’t $210M justified only by October dominance and a World Series championship? Has Scherzer’s brilliance compromised his manager’s prudence? Is it possible that Scherzer, like my homework lifeline, is too good?  

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