Had we kept working past #50 on our countdown last offseason, Max Scherzer probably would not have been the next player on the list. He was the reigning AL Cy Young award winner at the time, but only had one truly elite season under his belt at that point. Now, his legacy with the Tigers is at a crossroads. Will he return in 2015 and move further up the ranks? Or will he depart via free agency, ending his five year run with the club?
Either way, his body of work is already impressive enough to make him the #51 player on our countdown.
*Played for the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2008 to 2009.
Maxwell M. Scherzer was born on July 27, 1984 in Springfield, Missouri. At 30 years old, he is the youngest player on our list. He attended Parkway Central High School in Chesterfield, Missouri, and was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 43rd round of the 2003 draft. Scherzer did not sign, instead choosing to play baseball at the University of Missouri.
Scherzer quickly became one of the best pitchers in Tigers history, breaking the school's single-season strikeout record in 2005. He went 16-7 with a 2.03 ERA in two seasons and was named the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year and an All-American in 2005. The Arizona Diamondbacks drafted him with the 11th overall pick of the 2006 draft, the highest draft selection in Missouri's history.
Scherzer moved quickly through the Diamondbacks' farm system. He did not pitch for them during the 2006 season due to shoulder tendinitis -- an injury that also cost him most of his junior year at Missouri -- but worked his way up to Double-A Mobile in 2007. Scherzer went 7-4 with a 2.86 ERA in 20 starts across three levels that year, striking out 131 batters in 106 2/3 innings. He continued to blow away hitters at Triple-A in 2008, striking out 79 batters in just 53 innings.
This dominance did not go unnoticed. The Diamondbacks called Scherzer up to the majors in late April 2008. His first career appearance came out of the bullpen. He pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings in relief against the Houston Astros on April 29th, striking out seven. The outing earned Scherzer a trio of starts, where he allowed eight runs (five earned) in 15 innings. Scherzer transitioned to the bullpen for a short while, but finished the season on a high note with a 3.68 ERA and 34 percent strikeout rate in four September starts.
Scherzer's role was much more concrete in 2009. He made 30 starts after missing the start of the season with shoulder inflammation, but struggled at times. He allowed a 4.12 ERA and 1.34 WHIP in 170 1/3 innings, but struck out over a batter per inning. He wasn't very efficient, though. Scherzer only had six starts of seven innings or more, and wasn't able to go eight innings a single time.
This didn't deter Dave Dombrowski, though. The Tigers moved quickly to acquire Scherzer in the 2009 offseason, trading Edwin Jackson to the Diamondbacks for Scherzer and left-handed reliever Daniel Schlereth as part of a three-team deal. The D-Backs received Jackson and the mercurial Ian Kennedy, but Scherzer's future production would dwarf what those two were able to accomplish in the desert.
Scherzer got off to a rough start with the Tigers in 2010, allowing a 7.29 ERA in his first eight starts. He was struggling to find his command, compiling a 26:16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 42 innings. The Tigers made a bold decision and sent Scherzer down to the minor leagues to figure things out. He didn't stay long, allowing just one run in two starts.
There must have been something in the water down in Toledo, because Scherzer was a completely different pitcher when he returned to Detroit in late May. Scherzer finished off the season with a 2.46 ERA in 23 starts. Opposing batters hit .220/.293/.328 off him during that stretch, and he struck out 158 batters in 153 2/3 innings.
Scherzer's dominant stretch had many fans optimistic going into the 2011 season. With him and Justin Verlander atop the rotation, the Tigers had a good chance to win their first division title since 1987. We all know what Verlander was able to accomplish, but Scherzer's production was somewhat lacking. He got off to a decent start, allowing a 2.98 ERA in his first ten starts.
However, things got shaky after that. Scherzer allowed an ERA close to 8.00 over his next six starts and the Tigers fell behind the upstart Cleveland Indians. Scherzer rebounded somewhat, but still allowed a 4.39 ERA over the last three months of the season. He struggled in the 2011 postseason as well, allowing nine runs in 8 1/3 innings in the ALCS against the Texas Rangers.
Despite his struggles in 2011, the 2012 season would be the toughest of Scherzer's career for reasons beyond baseball. In June, Scherzer learned that his brother Alex committed suicide. The tragedy obviously shook Max, but he still took the mound three days later against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Holding a 5.12 ERA going into that game, Scherzer held the Pirates to three runs over six innings, striking out seven.
The start itself wasn't spectacular, but Scherzer was a changed pitcher after that game. He allowed a 2.61 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in his final 103 1/3 innings that season, striking out 124 batters to just 30 walks. Scherzer sported a 10-2 record in his final 17 starts, and the Tigers went 13-4 in those games en route to their second consecutive AL Central title. Scherzer also rebounded in the playoffs, allowing a 2.08 ERA in three postseason outings.
Even after his success in 2012, I don't think many people expected what was to come in 2013. Scherzer struggled out of the gate again, allowing a 4.02 ERA in April. However, he still ended the month with a 3-0 record. That spotless record would continue for nearly fourth months, as Scherzer won each of his first 13 decisions. By the time Scherzer suffered his first loss on July 13th, he had a 3.19 ERA and 152 strikeouts in 129 2/3 innings. Scherzer was named the starting pitcher for the AL All-Star team, and he set down the National League lineup with a 1-2-3 inning in a 3-0 AL victory.
Scherzer's winning ways continued after the All-Star break, as he won his next six decisions. By the end of August, Scherzer was an incredible 19-1 with a 2.90 ERA in 183 1/3 innings. He would go 2-2 in September, but the 21-3 record and spectacular body of work was impressive enough to earn Scherzer the AL Cy Young award. Before the votes were tallied, Scherzer had another strong postseason. He struck out 11 batters in an ALDS start against the Oakland A's, then worked two innings in relief in a pivotal Game 4. He was also brilliant in his first ALCS start, striking out 13 Boston Red Sox hitters in Game 2.
Despite nearly two full seasons' worth of evidence, some were skeptical of Scherzer's ability to repeat his stellar numbers again in 2014. While he didn't win 21 games again, Scherzer was every bit as good of a pitcher. He totaled a career-high 220 1/3 innings, led the league with 18 wins, and allowed a 3.15 ERA and 2.85 FIP. While he wasn't able to defend his Cy Young crown -- he finished fifth in the voting -- he accomplished another career milestone: his first career complete game. Scherzer shut out the Chicago White Sox on June 12th, allowing three hits and three walks in a 4-0 Tigers victory.
Even if Scherzer leaves via free agency, he is already one of the most decorated pitchers in Tigers history. He is one of four Tigers pitchers to win the Cy Young award, and his .701 win percentage is the best in franchise history. He has 1081 strikeouts in a Tigers uniform, ranking seventh among all Tigers pitchers. He also owns the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio in team history among pitchers with at least 500 career innings pitched.