Max Scherzer's success explained by batted ball types

Leon Halip

Why is Max Scherzer having such a great season? GWilson looks closer at the numbers to explain.

A few weeks ago, my day job brought me to our Nation's capital for a few days. As luck would have it, my last night in town coincided with the first game of a Detroit series in Baltimore. Unable to make it to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, I anticipated getting to watch my first Tiger game in several days on the Baltimore television feed. But it was not to be. My hotel's cable package included MASN but not MASN2 and, on this day, the Orioles were on MASN2 while MASN got the Nationals. Undeterred, I turned to the clock radio next to the bed and quickly found the Orioles broadcast. While there's much to like about high-definition moving pictures, I was soon reminded of the charm of hearing the ambient sounds of a ballpark that carry through on a radio transmission. 46,249 spectators, the largest Baltimore crowd since their home opener, were on hand for their first look at the 2012 American League champions. I neatly copied the starting lineups onto a ruled page to fashion a scorecard. As the sounds of the park filled the room, the game's sights unfolded in my mind.

The Baltimore broadcasters spent much of their review of this night's opponent focusing on the incredible start of Miguel Cabrera. On cue, the maestro followed a Dirks first-inning single by driving a 388-foot home run to left on an inside 1-2 fastball from Baltimore starter Miguel Gonzalez. Detroit starter Max Scherzer followed by cruising through a 10-pitch first. After retiring McLouth on a first-pitch fly ball, he struck out Machado and Markakis while using off-speed offerings for five of his final six pitches of the inning.

Scherzer's second would not be so easy. Adam Jones singled to put Max in the stretch for the first time. Then Davis singled to leave runners at the corners with no outs. Facing his first crisis of the game, Max threw a fastball to Wieters for a called strike. Then he threw another fastball that Wieters drove to deep left for a sacrifice fly to cut the Detroit lead in half. Hardy walked on five pitches. Now facing Dickerson with two on, Max threw his first two fastballs of the game that were clocked at 96 or better. The second resulted in a called third strike. Then weak-hitting 9-batter Ryan Flaherty bounced out and the Tigers escaped the home second with a 2-1 lead.

In the third, Max retired the first two and then walked Markakis while using 8 off-speed pitches among his 17 offerings from the windup to the three batters. Forced back to the stretch, he turned again to his fastball. Scherzer missed away with a first-pitch 95 mph heater to Jones. His second pitch was another four-seamer, at 93, up and over the plate. This one flew over Don Kelly, then over the centerfield wall, then over a walkway beyond the wall where two policemen with beverages retreated to avoid getting hit by the flying object. The baseball eventually landed 429 feet from home plate and Baltimore led 3-2.

But things turned around. The home run put Max back into the windup and he would not throw another pitch from the stretch on this night. The next 16 Orioles were set down in order with six retired via the strikeout. As I marveled at the beauty of this pattern of outs on my scoresheet, I recalled that ten days earlier Max had retired 22 Cleveland batters in a row. Maybe, I thought, there's something interesting enough in all of this to share with my beloved readers.

As far as the game on this night, the Tigers scratched out three more runs against Gonzalez but, as typical, managed only 1 hit and no runs in three innings against the Baltimore bullpen. Nevertheless, Max left after eight with a 5-3 lead. At this point, the ill-advised Valverde experiment resumed and the first two long-distance launches of the experiment resulted. A spectacular series of similar launches would occur in the days that followed and the experiment's funding agency, under significant pressure from the Society Against Cruelty to Baseballs, would reluctantly abandon the venture. The experiment's collateral damage in Baltimore, however, was not insignificant. Max received a no-decision for his strong effort. The Tigers lost 7-5.

The previously mentioned long streaks of retired batters for Scherzer this year are more than happenstance. Specifically, the contrast between Max's pitching performance with the bases empty and with at least one man on has handily exceeded the chromaticity contrast between his left and right eyes. With the bases empty in 2013, Max has allowed a .169/.212/.315 batting line over 274 PAs. How good is this? After the rules were changed in 1968, a .169 bases-empty BAA has been bested exactly three times by an American League pitcher who made at least 20 starts in a season. Interestingly, all three pitchers who accomplished this feat were named Nolan Ryan. Over the same period, the only AL pitcher to allow a lower bases-empty OBP over 20 or more starts was Pedro Martinez with a slightly-better .211 allowed in 2000.

Max has been significantly worse with at least one man on with a .250/.311/.346 line allowed over 120 PAs. This is still somewhat better than the AL average of .260/.329/.407 for this split. In particular, his .289 wOBA allowed with men on ranks 15th in the American League and just slightly worse than A.J. Griffin's .288. This isn't bad, but it certainly puts him in a different stratum than the one inhabited by the likes of Nolan Ryan and Pedro Martinez.

How can we explain the disparity in Scherzer's performance? A good place to start is with the fielding-independent pitching components of K-rate, BB-rate, and HR-rate where a denominator of plate appearances will be used in each case. Max has struck out 31.4 percent of batters faced with the bases empty against 30.0 percent with men on. Not much of a difference there. His walk rate is much better with the bases empty at 4.7 percent versus 9.2 percent with men on. But his home run rate trends the other way with a 2.6 percent rate allowed with the bases empty and a 1.7 percent rate allowed with men on. When we combine these components we arrive at a FIP of 2.77 with the bases empty and 2.93 otherwise. This 0.16 FIP differential certainly does not bridge the gap between A.J. Griffin and Pedro Martinez at his best.

This means that if we want to understand how Max is getting it done we have to dig deeper and look at batted ball results. To start, we'll partition batted balls into the three categories of fly balls + line drives (FBLD), ground balls, and infield popups. For the FBLD category, Max has actually been hit harder with the bases empty (97 PAs) with a .371 average and .722 slugging percentage allowed against .355 and .645 with men on (35 PAs).

If you've made it to here, you realize that there must be something very special going on with grounders and pop-ups for Mr. Scherzer in 2013. And you would be right. With the bases empty this year, opponent batters are 6-for-60 (.100) against Max on ground balls. In fact, before Mike Carp reached on the swinging bunt yesterday that Max threw into right field, the previous 32 bases-empty ground balls against the Missouri Missile had resulted in outs. Perhaps you're thinking, "What's the big deal, GWilson, with svelte infielders like Prince, Miggy, and Jhonny ranging left and right like the Wizard out there ground balls are as good as outs." I was thinking the same thing until I checked the numbers. Oddly enough, the Detroit Tigers in 2013 have easily allowed the highest batting average on ground balls over all 30 ML teams at .266. Part of Max's success here is surely unadulterated luck. But in short order we'll see that there may be more to it. With men on, opponent batters are 15-for-35 (.429) on ground balls against Scherzer. Epic difference.

Max has also had better success getting infield pop-ups with the bases empty. He has induced a pop-up in 5.5 percent of his bases empty PAs versus 1.7 percent with men on. Since infield pop-ups with major leaguers on the field are essentially the same as strikeouts, there has been recent support among sabermetricians to include infield pop-ups as fielding-independent events. In any case, it is fair to conclude that Max has both induced weaker contact and benefited from some good fortune with the bases empty.

Luck, by definition, is hard to explain. But let's see if we can come up with an explanation for the weaker contact piece of the equation. To get started, I pulled the pitch data from Max's starts on May 21 and 31 in which he retired long strings of Indian and Oriole batters. In those starts, he allowed just .045/.067/.045 to the 45 batters he faced with the bases empty but a .429/.455/.857 line to the 11 batters he faced with one or more runners on. If there's something going on, we should be able to detect it by looking at these outings.

With the bases empty in these games, 51.8 percent of Scherzer's 195 pitches were fastballs with an average FB velocity of 94.1. With one or more runners on, 66.7 percent of his 42 pitches were fastballs with an average fastball velocity of 94.4. This is consistent with my observations that Scherzer tends to throw more fastballs when he's in trouble and he also tends to reach back for more velocity in these situations. In recent memory is the bases-loaded matchup against Chris Davis in the fifth on June 17. In what is currently tied for his highest-leverage matchup of the year, Max struck out Davis with the help of four 97+ mph fastballs. Before this at bat, he had not reached 97 even once in this game. More general studies have shown that pitchers at large tend to throw harder with men on and this appears to be true of Max. Throwing harder, but with less command, may explain why his strikeout rate is similar with or without men on base and also may explain why his walk rate is lower with the bases empty.

What about the quality of contact issue? Many of the weak ground balls that Max gets occur when the batter is geared up for a fastball and ends up taking a compromised swing at an off-speed pitch. Since he's throwing more off-speed pitches with the bases empty this explains part of the differential in his success on ground balls. A quick review of Max's highlights on mlb.com visually supports this assessment.

At any rate, technology marches forward. When I listened to Ernie's voice on the radio, my mind was forced to create images of events unseen. But less information did not translate to less enjoyment. In much the same way, many years later we're forced to create conjectures about things like quality of contact with less than complete information. There will be a day, perhaps soon with HITf/x on the horizon, that I'll be able to fill in these stories with batted ball results quantified in terms of trajectories and velocities. But until then, enjoy a talented young pitcher as he makes his case to be included among the game's best.

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