Tigers vs. Athletics, 2013 ALDS: Max Scherzer deserves Game 1 start against Oakland

Hannah Foslien

Jim Leyland has plenty of good options, but here's why Max Scherzer is the best pick.

Max Scherzer was fired up. A few weeks earlier he had started the All-Star game at Citi Field. The baseball world had been eager to see the 13-1 right-hander and Max held up his end of the deal as he mowed down the National League's best 1-2-3 in his single inning of work. His last pitch hit the outside black at over 99 miles per hour and an overmatched Joey Votto simply walked away with his head down. Leyland's bullpen completed the 3-hit shutout to lock up home-field advantage for the World Series.

BYB's complete playoff coverage: 2013 ALDS: Tigers vs. A's

Now it was August 24th and Max was back in Queens. For the first time ever, the All-Star game starters would face-off again during the regular season. Scherzer was putting together a season for the ages and he could take another big step forward by outdueling The Dark Knight of Gotham. It would not be easy as Harvey entered with a 1.83 ERA in his home park. But Max took matters into his own hands. In the Tiger second, he lined a Harvey fastball for an RBI double to key a 2-run inning. It was the only RBI Harvey would allow to a pitcher all year and the 2 runs were all the Tigers would manage against the Dark Knight. It was up to Max to shut down the New York offense.

Through four innings, the amped-up Scherzer had thrown 65 pitches with seven hitting at least 98 on the gun. He'd already struck out eight Mets and neither of their two baserunners had advanced beyond first. But things would get harder.

Juan Lagares started the fifth with the longest plate appearance that Max had endured all year. The result was a 12-pitch walk. The next batter, John Buck, extracted 8 more pitches from Max's right arm while flying out to right. Mercifully, the next batter Omar Quintanilla flied out on the first pitch, but a tired Scherzer proceeded to walk the pitcher Harvey on a 3-2 fastball. Now at 27 pitches for the inning, Jeff Jones strolled out to the mound to give his pitcher a breather. Max responded by striking out Eric Young to get his team back to the dugout. The Tigers still led 2-0 but Scherzer was now at 97 pitches.

The 6th was another lesson in courage. Daniel Murphy grounded a single to start the frame. Now sensing the end was near, Max threw 6 straight fastballs to Marlon Byrd with the last getting a swing and miss at 98 for a strikeout. But Scherzer fell behind the next batter, Ike Davis, and his 2-1 fastball was pounded for a double to move Murphy to third and leave the tying run at second. After Jones came out again, this time to discuss strategy, Flores was walked on 4 pitches to load the bases with one out. The pitch count was up to 111 and the bullpen was ready. But it was Max's game. Lagares took two fastballs for strikes and then held up on a slider in the dirt. Max reached back for 98 again, this time a little above the top of the zone, and Lagares swung and missed for the second out. Buck followed by popping up a first-pitch slider and Max triumphantly returned to the dugout. Leyland's bullpen retired the next 9 Mets to complete the shutout. Scherzer improved to 19-1.

But the win had come at a high cost. Max had thrown 118 pitches with 14 of those exceeding 98 miles per hour. Only once all year had Scherzer thrown that many pitches and been asked to come back on normal rest. He had bounced back on the previous occasion after a relatively stress-free 118-pitch outing against Cleveland to beat the light-hitting Minnesota Twins in late May. But on August 29th he was asked to come back on normal rest against a juggernaut known as the Oakland Athletics.

The Tigers had lost the first 2 games of this Oakland series as neither Sanchez nor Verlander could make it to the 6th inning. In the third game, Fister was raked for 13 hits, the most by a Tiger pitcher since 2006, as Oakland knocked him out after 5 and won 14-4. Detroit now faced the possibility of suffering their first 4-game sweep at home since 2004.

Max was tasked with stopping the A's, but he was tired. After hitting 98+ with his fastball 14 times against the Mets, none of Max's first 100 pitches against Oakland reached this velocity. Like his predecessors, Scherzer lasted just 5 innings against Oakland and allowed 6 extra-base hits with 4, including 2-run home runs by Lowrie and Moss, coming against his compromised fastball. It would end up being Scherzer's worst game with the fastball all year according to linear weights. On his 101st and final pitch, Max released his frustration by blowing away Seth Smith with a fastball that finally clocked above 98 after PITCHf/x calibration. Despite the rough outing, Scherzer had given his team a chance to win and, thanks to Torii's walkoff, they did. But the look in Max's eyes as he left the field said it all. He wanted another shot at these Athletics with his best stuff. Then there would be hell to pay.

Using primarily a devastating fastball and slider, Scherzer allowed the lowest wOBA to right-handed batters among qualified AL pitchers in 2012 at .258 and led the circuit once again at .222 in 2013. This is less important against the Athletics than other teams. Oakland batters enjoyed the platoon advantage in a higher fraction of their plate appearances than any major league team except Cleveland in 2013. Against right-handed pitchers, in particular, the A's sent up 67.0 percent left-handed batters. In two games against Scherzer this year, an even higher 83.3 percent of Oakland's 48 batters hit from the left side.

Max's fastball comes from a three-quarter arm slot which plays much better against right-handed batters and his slider has the usual issues when used against opposite-handed batters. In 2012 left-handed batters hit Scherzer at .292/.366/.465 which translated to the 15th worst wOBA among 56 qualified AL pitchers. In 2013 the line against lefties lowered to .222/.278/.367 with a corresponding wOBA that ranked 8th best among 59 qualified AL pitchers. This bodes well for his upcoming efforts against Oakland.

But where did this epic transformation come from? Much of Scherzer's improvement against lefties in 2013 can be attributed to his use of the curveball. In 2012, Max threw 64.3 percent fastballs to left-handed batters to go with 28.0 percent changeups, 5.4 percent sliders, and only 2.3 percent curveballs. Lefties slugged .636 against the Scherzer slider in 2012. There was the aforementioned problem of throwing this breaking ball to opposite-handed batters, but another issue was a less than one mile per hour differential between Max's slider and changeup. If we neglect the small fraction of curveballs, lefties only had to cover two different velocities against Max in 2012.

This season Max has thrown 57.6 percent fastballs to left-handed batters along with 30.0 percent changeups and 11.7 percent curveballs with the slider essentially eliminated as an option. With nearly a seven mph differential between Scherzer's change and curve, lefties in 2013 had to cover three different velocities. This increased diversity has played a significant role in improving Max's performance. Scherzer's .283 wOBA allowed to left-handed batters this year is the best among Detroit starters and is one piece of evidence that supports giving him the ball in Game 1 against Oakland.

Another area worth examining is batted ball distribution. The majority of Scherzer's pitches in 2013 were 4-seam fastballs which led to 44.6 percent of opponent batted balls being classified as fly balls or popups. This fraction ranked second highest among 81 qualified major league pitchers and establishes Max, when he's not striking guys out, as a fly ball pitcher. The Athletics hit 41.7 percent of their batted balls in the air which was easily the highest fraction over the 30 major league teams.

So what happens when a fly ball pitcher goes up against fly ball hitters? The FB pitcher tends to miss over bats and FB hitters tend to miss under pitches. The errors accumulate and physics predicts an advantage for the pitcher. Tom Tango and his collaborators tested this prediction empirically in The Book, which all baseball fans should own, and concluded that fly ball pitchers do indeed own fly ball hitters. This result also applies to the 2013 Athletics. Oakland ranked 3rd overall in the AL in OPS but only 8th against fly ball pitchers. That's another reason to start Max in Game 1.

While we're on the subject we can ask about confrontations between ground ball pitchers and fly ball hitters. In this case, the GB pitcher is trying to miss under bats while the FB hitters are trying to get under balls. In this case, the errors cancel each other and physics predicts an advantage for the batter. The Book also showed that this physical prediction holds up in practice and that the offense wants FB hitters against GB pitchers. Once again, the FB-hitting Oakland batters confirmed the theory by ranking 3rd in the AL in OPS against ground ball pitchers. This included a 13-for-25 performance in their only opportunity against Doug Fister who ranked third in the AL in ground ball rate. It's reasonable to conclude that a Fister/Oakland matchup, if necessary, does not look good for the Tigers.

But another matchup does look very good and that's a well-rested Scherzer against Oakland's lineup. May the games begin.

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