Max Scherzer took a major step forward in 2012, putting up the best overall season of his career. He needs to avoid a step back in 2013.
There is just one week until the Tigers' pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training. Fresh off of signing a one-year contract extension yesterday, Max Scherzer will be looking to prove that 2012 is just the norm for him going forward.
What happened last season?
Scherzer put together the best overall season of his career in 2012, racking up a career high 231 strikeouts en route to a 16-7 record, the best in the rotation (based on win percentage). His "coming out party" might have been the May 20th start against the Pittsburgh Pirates in which he racked up 15 strikeouts in seven innings, but the real turnaround came after the tragic death of his brother in June. Max put together a gutsy performance on June 23rd in Pittsburgh, then finished off the season by going 10-2 with a 2.61 ERA in his last 17 starts.
Scherzer's playoff performance was more of the same: he only tallied 17 1/3 innings in his three starts, a slight decline from the near-6.0 innings per start he averaged throughout the course of the year (not including his tune-up start in a meaningless game on the last day of the season). He racked up 26 strikeouts to just four walks in the postseason, including 10 against the New York Yankees in the decisive Game 4 of the ALCS.
What needs to happen in 2013?
If the Tigers are going to be serious World Series contenders in 2013, Scherzer needs to maintain the success he found in 2012. I hate the term "X-Factor," but Scherzer is exactly that of this pitching staff. This team was very dangerous when he was on the mound last year, going 21-11 in games that he started (12-4 after July 1st) during the regular season.
Specifically, Scherzer needs to keep missing bats. Hitters whiffed on 12.2% of all pitches that Scherzer threw last year, tied for the second-best percentage in all of baseball. This was a sharp increase from the two previous seasons in which this figure was under 10%. There was talk of Scherzer changing from a two-seam to a four-seam fastball in the middle of the season, but PitchFX shows that Scherzer improved all of his pitches (important stuff bolded).
|2011||Velocity||Horizontal Movement||Vertical Movement||Whiff %|
|Fastball||93.92 mph||-7.06 inches||7.38 inches||7.83%|
|Slider||83.58 mph||1.88 inches||0.35 inches||17.84%|
|Changeup||83.26 mph||-8.85 inches||-0.41 inches||16.31%|
|2012||Velocity||Horizontal Movement||Vertical Movement||Whiff %|
|Fastball||94.86 mph||-7.66 inches||7.78 inches||11.27%|
|Slider||86.65 mph||1.36 inches||1.48 inches||21.69%|
|Changeup||86.00 mph||-9.54 inches||0.51 inches||15.19%|
All stats via Brooks Baseball
Based on what I see in the data, it seems like the extra mile per hour on the fastball (along with a slight increase in movement) kept hitters off balance. As for the slider, whoa. That big of a difference in vertical movement from the slider is huge, especially when taking into account that his release points from 2011 to 2012 hardly changed. Being able to keep hitters from putting the barrel of the bat on his slider was probably the biggest reason that hitters went from hitting .268 off of the slider in 2011 to just .200 last season.
2012 stats and 2013 Bill James projections (a.k.a. more tables, sorry)
All stats via Fangraphs
The part where I say "Go home Bill James, you're drunk" because I'm a blatant homer
Call me crazy, but I think Max figured it out last season. I'm not predicting a 20-win season or a sub-3.00 ERA by any means, but I don't think we're going to see the kind of regression that Mr. James' formulas spit out for us above. Scherzer put up some massive strikeout numbers in the minor leagues with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and continued to strike out more than a batter per inning in the majors until he was traded prior to the 2010 season. I don't see him dipping below 200 strikeouts this year.
Also, I think that Scherzer tops the 200-inning plateau for the first time this year. He was on pace to do so last year before getting injured in mid-September, which limited him to just 11 combined innings in his last three starts. He has showed flashes of efficiency before, particularly in 2010 when he averaged nearly 7 innings per start during the second half of the season.
Like Scherzer, Justin Verlander also put together a breakout performance in his fourth full big league season. Verlander then followed that up with a nearly identical performance in 2010. We may not see the same level of performance from Scherzer that we saw from Verlander in his fifth season, but I don't see any reason why we can't expect the same type of consistency.