Max Scherzer was nearly unhittable in 2013. He went 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA in 214 1/3 innings. He struck out 10 batters per nine innings. He tallied 4.3 strikeouts for every walk he allowed. Opposing batters were limited to a .583 OPS, the lowest figure in the American League. Because of this, Scherzer claimed a well-deserved American League Cy Young award.
As special as 2013 was, many Tigers fans were skeptical of Scherzer's ability to replicate those numbers in 2014. His walk rate and BABIP both dipped considerably from 2012 to 2013, signaling that he was due to regress somewhat. Only 7.6 percent of fly balls he allowed left the park for home runs, a career low rate. He only allowed line drives at a 19 percent clip. Surely, some regression was in order, right?
Scherzer has not only matched his scalding 2013 numbers so far this season, he has even improved in some areas. Through nine starts, Scherzer is 6-1 and leads the American League with a 1.83 ERA. His 2.78 FIP is nearly identical to last season's 2.74. He has a higher strikeout rate and a lower batting average allowed. He also has a lower xFIP and SIERA than in 2013.
Scherzer's walk rate has increased significantly compared to 2013, though a lot of that has to due with his last two starts. He issued four base on balls apiece to the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox, inflating his walk rate from 2.3 batters per nine innings to 3.05.
One of the more impressive components about Scherzer's hot start is that he has held the opposition scoreless in four of his first nine starts. Last season, he did not record his first scoreless outing until July 27th, and only logged four scoreless outings in the entire regular season.
How has Scherzer done it? For one, he continues to improve his numbers against left-handed hitters. Lefties hit .222/.278/.367 off him last season, a career low. This year, they are hitting just .192/.276/.317 with three home runs. Part of this improvement is due to a .230 BABIP, but a 43.5 percent ground ball rate (up from 37.3 percent last season) suggests that this isn't just smoke and mirrors.
Another possible explanation for Scherzer's improvement lies within his strikeout rate. He is fanning 31.5 percent of all hitters he faces this season, up from 28.7 percent last year. He is generating a career high 12.5 percent swinging strike rate, a slight improvement from last season's 12.0 percent. Part of this is because Scherzer is throwing fewer strikes. Opposing hitters are swinging at 29.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, but are only making contact 50 percent of the time on those pitches. Last year, they were able to get to 60.7 percent of Scherzer's pitches outside the zone.
Before the season began, many fans were skeptical about Scherzer's ability to repeat his 2013 numbers despite plenty of evidence to the contrary throughout the majority of the 2012 season. Instead of regressing, Scherzer has matched his performance, and even found ways to improve on a Cy Young season. He is quickly pricing himself out of the $140+ million contract that the Tigers offered him during the offseason, but another year like 2013 could be worth more than money to Tigers fans if he helps bring home a championship.