DETROIT — Max Scherzer turned down a $144 million offer from the Detroit Tigers before the season started, opting for free agency at the conclusion of the year. There was no way of knowing whether he was making the best decision of his career, or one that would come back to haunt him when it was all said and done. With Scherzer's regular season in the books, it was a worthwhile risk in Scherzer's mind.
In 2013 Scherzer finished with an MLB-best 21–3 record, a 2.90 ERA, and an AL-best WHIP of just .970 in 214 1/3 innings pitched. The 2014 season was slightly more subdued, but Scherzer still pitched with dominance for the majority of the season.
He finished this season with an 18–5 record — a three-way tie for first in the AL, alongside Indians' Corey Kluber and Angels' Jered Weaver — a 3.19 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.175 in a career-high 220 1/3 innings pitched. More importantly, Scherzer improved the way he pitched while still commanding the strike zone as he made the adjustments, not an easy thing to do.
"I think I grew as a pitcher overall during this regular season, executing pitches that I wasn't able to execute last year," Scherzer said. "I wasn't quite as consistent as I was last year but I feel like I can pitch as consistent, and that's the main important thing going into the playoffs. For me, when I look back at 2014 I can look at it as a great success."
Specifically, Scherzer was working on fine-tuning his curveball, a project he started back in 2012. After working out the basics that season and improving in 2013, earlier in 2014 Scherzer said he felt like he had pushed past the meat of the pitch and into the 'minutia.' At the time, Scherzer said when October came around, he expected the pitch to be different, even from where it was in mid-July.
The curveball is just one aspect of what has made Scherzer's season a success. Of equal importance was the fact that his stamina remained, despite dealing with inconsistency off and on throughout the season.
Scherzer's last outing on September 25 was a perfect example of his ability to push past an inability to get ahead in the count and persevere through inefficiency. Despite falling behind early in the game, Scherzer still struck out nine batters in six innings, even though he needed 116 pitches to do so.
"This is what I thought I could do," Scherzer said. "This is the belief I had in myself. I knew I was going to get better as a pitcher. I knew in spring training I was growing with all my pitches, especially with the curveball. I knew that pitch was coming along and I was able to execute it in better, higher frequency."
"I wasn't as consistent this year as I was last year. I felt like last year I was constantly putting up quality start after quality start. This year I had more ups and downs but for the season whole, I pitched extremely well. And I anticipated doing that, pitching extremely well. I set the bar high for myself, so for me to be able to reach it is a gratifying feeling."
The fact that Scherzer logged a career-high innings is something he's proud of and feels it's also a 'reflection' of his ability to contribute to the Tigers. Pitching over 220 innings isn't something many pitchers have accomplished this season, only four have more. More importantly, it means a great deal to his teammates, who have depended heavily on Scherzer in their pursuit of the Tigers' first World Series title in 30 years.
It should be no surprise that teammate David Price leads the AL in innings-pitched. Only Price, Mariners' Felix Hernandez, Indians' Corey Kluber, and Royals' James Shields have more innings recorded, and all except Shields have one more start remaining.
No other starting pitcher with an outing to complete in the AL would be able to match Scherzer, including the next closest contender, A's starter Sonny Gray, who would need 10 1/3 innings to tie Scherzer.
"I think he's matured as a pitcher," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "He's matured emotionally on the mound. I think he's a lot more confident in himself but he's also got better command of his pitches, generally speaking. He knows his mechanics very well and can make adjustments on the fly."
Scherzer's start on Wednesday gave the Tigers a solid chance for a win even on a night where he didn't have his best stuff. That's what he's been looking for and it gives opposing teams something to think about when they face him in the future. But there is still plenty of work to do. The postseason is around the corner and the regular season was vital to setting up his success next month.
"Where I'm at now and executing pitches, it matters, and now I need to fine-tune more, because every pitch in the playoffs is crucial," Scherzer said. "It's so huge, and so obviously we're in some capacity, so whatever game I do get into, I just know you have to be at your best. You have to bring your A-game. There is no other way to script it, because the moment you give these guys an inch, they hit it a mile. It only counts even more in the playoffs."