Do you remember the time when "Blue eyed Max" and "Brown eyed Max" was a thing? Tiger fans saw glimpses of a pitcher who had the potential to be very successful, but every now and then there existed a not-so-enjoyable counterpart. Suddenly, in the middle of the 2012 summer, the "Jekyll and Hyde" story turned into a story of dominance which continued through the entirety of the 2013 season. Max Scherzer now is the proud owner of a Cy Young Award and he turned down a hefty contract extension, betting that he would be able to seal an even larger deal at the end of the season.
The question becomes whether Max’s bet was a reasonable decision. It can be anyone’s guess if he will continue his dramatic success in 2014, or if he was best taking the Tigers’ generous offer. The decision comes down to one question: is Max Scherzer’s performance sustainable?
It’s no secret that Max’s change took place midway through the 2012 season. For the first two and a half seasons in a Tigers uniform (start of 2010 to June of 2012) Max had an ERA of 4.11 with 8.84 K/9 and 2.93 BB/9. From the second half of 2012 until now, Max has maintained an ERA of 2.69 with a 10.50 K/9 and 2.43 BB/9. Perhaps one of the greatest changes in his stats is in HR/9, where he had a 1.18 HR/9 before the 2012 halfway and lowered it to a 0.77 HR/9 ever since. Simply put, Max began to strike out more, walk less, and he kept the ball in the yard.
It is interesting to observe, however, that his batted ball results have not fluctuated much over his 4+ years in Detroit. Rather, they have stayed quite consistent, even with the success rate changing. Max has always been around a 20% line drive rate, and in the low 40’s for his fly ball rate. The only change worth considering has been a lowering of the ground ball percentage, from around 40% in 2010 and 2011 to around 36% since then. Overall, these numbers have remained very smooth and consistent. This seems to suggest that hitters have made similar contact, at least in terms of trajectory, throughout his time with the Tigers.
Even though the hits are travelling the same direction, the difference lies in the BABIP. More of those balls are being turned into outs now than they were before his great improvement. His BABIP’s in 2010, 2011, and the first half of 2012 were 0.297, 0.314, and 0.349 respectively. In contrast, his BABIP’s were 0.315 and 0.259 in the second half of 2012 and 2013 respectively (so far in 2014 it is 0.276). A deep dive in BABIP usually screams that the performance is boosted by luck, especially when the batted ball statistics look constant. With this, it seems that Max has chosen quite the risky bet with his contract.
However, BABIP does have the ability to change naturally, particularly as a pitcher matures and changes. It is possible that Max has developed as a pitcher and as a result he is producing weaker contact. An analysis of pitch selection and contact rates is necessary to see if this is the case with Max.
This is where things get interesting. Max has thrown his fastball less and less since joining the Tigers in 2010. While in that first year he threw it 65% of the time, he lowered it to 60.8% in 2012 and 56% in the CY Young 2013. His changeup percentage has floated around 20% and has not changed consistency. The difference comes with the breaking pitches. Max threw his slider at 15.2% of the time in 2010, which rose to 19.5% in 2012. Last year, Max added a curveball which lowered his slider percentage back to near where it was in 2010. However, in 2013 max threw 23% breaking pitches (slider plus curveball), which is a trend that is continuing so far in 2014.
According to pitch values, his fastball and slider both peaked tremendously in 2013. Contact percentages remained about the same for the fastball and curveball at approximately 80% and 60% respectively. However, when the contact was made it was met with far different results in comparison to the career average. Hitters had a batting average of 0.197 against the fastball in 2013 as opposed to a .248 career average. For the slider, hitters produced a .128 BA against the pitch as opposed to the 0.200 career average. This was a result of more fly balls against the fastball and slider. However, his overall flyball percentage did not budge because he has increased throwing breaking pitches with low flyball rates.
So it seems that while Scherzer gets the same batted ball results, he achieves these results with a more desirable pitch. For example, while in 2013 his FB% was 44.6% and close to his career average, more fly balls are coming from the fastball and less are coming from the breaking pitches. Similarly, while his overall groundball rate was 36.3% in 2013 and close to career average, these ground balls were less the result of his fastball and more the result of his breaking pitches.
Thus, it can be seen that with his increase in breaking pitches, Max is finding success in his BABIP by inducing favorable contact with each individual pitch. His development has provided a change in his pitch usage, and as a result it appears that his approach has formed to the benefit of each pitch. While his lower BABIP may not be completely sustainable, his change in technique very well could be the cause for a good portion of this change. Time will tell if Max Scherzer can continue to keep hitters off balance, and keep the ball in the yard. With time, it will be seen if Max’s big bet will pay off.