It's like last off season, only this offseason: the Nationals reach out and prune a former Detroit Tiger hurler for the team's starting rotation. Last year, it was Doug Fister. This year, it's Max Scherzer.
Scherzer, 30, has a pretty good pedigree -- he was the 11th overall pick in 2006 out of the University of Missouri Columbia, and ascended fairly quickly through the Arizona Diamondbacks' minor league system, hitting the majors for 56 innings in 2008. In the recent past, he's won the Cy Young Award (2013) and earned All-Star honors (2014).
Let's get right to it: Scherzer's game in the hitter-balanced American League Central is getting strikeouts. Over the past three seasons, he's earned a well-above average number of whiffs:
I looked at qualified starting pitchers over the last two years to see how Scherzer stacked up with his whiff rate, which is reasonably well-correlated to future wOBA against (.37 to be exact, according to Steve Staude's excellent correlation tool). Here are his peers:
It's pretty simple, really, but a good whiff rate puts him in position to get outs without contact. Of course, the more you can get outs without contact, the less dependent you are on batted balls.
And he's also done pretty well to limit his free passes, checking in just above average in that department over the last three seasons. When you figure he's seen a lower percentage of his fly balls go for home runs in 2013 and 2014 than earlier in his career, you get a pitcher whose been worth +6.4 fWAR and +5.6 fWAR over that same time. Strike guys out, limit walks, don't get up too many home runs: That's how you make nine figures.
While Scherzer has been great about generating whiffs, the Nats are only concerned about how he does in the future. Nothing is certain, naturally, but there are some pretty interesting things going on swing-and-miss wise.
Doubtless the move to the National League will help. Scherzer now gets to face the opposing pitcher a couple of times a game, and the Braves have lost a couple big offensive pieces. Still, I was curious about how many thirty-year-old and up starters posted a whiff rate north of 11%, going since 2002.
The answer: of 400 qualified players, only 35 have done so. Sure, this group includes luminaries such as Chris Capuano and Matt Clement, but expecting to see Scherzer post more than a couple of high-whiff seasons is somewhat risky. Keep in mind that this is his strength; he's a fly ball guy with a decent walk rate and favorable HR/FB% rates the past two seasons (and poor ones before that), so whiffs are crucial.
Let's see just where his whiffs are coming from the past three seasons, courtesy of Baseball Savant.
For background, he got 12.2% whiffs in 2012, 12.0% in 2013, and 11.5% in 2014. All in all, pretty close. Is there anything to take note of?
Here's 2012. The view is from the catcher, with hitter handedness indicated on top.
Against right handed hitters in 2012, Scherzer teased the middle of the plate and really emphasized quality pitches low in the strike zone. It's similar for lefties in that he's working the edges of the zone, but here he's working up and away to get swings and misses. Everything is hanging close to the target, and if you're a hitter, none of these would be in obvious no-swing locations.
2013 was slightly different, where Scherzer went a little more outside in earning his swings and misses:
So two seasons ago, Scherzer worked a little more horizontal to right-handed hitters, earning swings and misses well away and outside the zone. He focused a little more over the plate against left-handers, and had some additional emphasis on the low and away strike. Again, pretty good results -- and with a great fastball and good secondary offerings, you figure Max is able to put it pretty much where he wants it.
Finally, here's 2014. It's a little different, and I'm not sure what exactly to make of it.
Righties: whereas 2012 and 2013 showed an emphasis in well-placed pitches getting whiffs in the zone, Scherzer saw more empty cuts further outside the zone than ever before. Are hitters just not learning? Is the slider still too hard to lay off? Something else? Most likely, it's a combination of all of them; over the course of several seasons, there's going to be some variation. With lefties, Scherzer is still getting swings and misses up and away, but added a few inside, too, which is nice. It's nice.
Here's what I'm wondering: Is Scherzer approaching a point where hitters are going to stop expanding the zone when whiffing? We've seen three seasons where that area has enlarged for righties (he faced about ~40% RHH in '14). We've also seen a slight decrease in whiff rate despite that, and much more generally, age doesn't predict favorably for the St. Louis-born righty.
Then there's Jordan Zimmermann, who many believe may be on the way out with Scherzer's arrival. His game is a bit different, particularly as of late:
Zimmermann is also two years younger (but you already knew that). His strikeouts ticked up last year (although he did not reach Scherzer's numbers), and, like Scherzer, he did well to limit walks and home runs. Zimmermann's a little bit more ground-ball focused, so he's less susceptible to concerns over HR/FB variation in my view. I don't know. Maybe trying to flip him for prospects is the best short and long term compromise, but it's weird to think about the Wisconsin native not toeing the rubber every fifth day if Rizzo decides to move on.
Also, perhaps I'm looking too closely at Scherzer's strengths and looking for cracks that don't exist. He's succeeded in the tougher league, shown he can be counted on for a lot of innings, has great stuff, and is a "competitor." Still, you can say all of those things, save the first, about Zimmermann. And it's hard to look at Scherzer's whiff heat maps over the years and think he's continuing to get the same number of swings and misses inside the strike zone -- in fact, he was down nearly half a percentage point last year (5.16% whiffs in zone on all pitches) over 2013 (5.60%). But this is all relative.
I guess in the worst case scenario, batters start to exhibit a little more discipline and Scherzer's skills start to take a nose dive over the next several years. This would turn a serious asset into a potential liability rather quickly; sure, he could still get a lot of weak contact, but walks would rise, and now he's counting more on batted ball outs (perhaps here is where Trea Turner's defensive reputation would come in handy).
More realistically, I think there's a good chance Scherzer is a pretty serious force for D.C. over the next two or three years. He still has elite offerings -- see below -- and close scrutiny will always reveal some warts, or at least the potential for some.
Courtesy of Fangraphs
Is it possible that Zimmermann outpaces him over that time? Sure. It might even be likely. At the same time, if the Nats were going to spend this sort of money on a pitcher, doing so on Scherzer gives them flexibility with the other pitchers on the roster such that a trade of one of those could yield important parts of the future. To be fair, the Nats will surrender a draft pick this summer. That's not nothing. Still, you'd think Zimmermann (or whoever) would fetch more than a late-first round talent.
What a ways Washington has come. Signing Jayson Werth was a statement that the team was serious about spending money. Shedding the "interim" label from Mike Rizzo was a statement that the team was serious about developing a winning organization. The 2012 season realized that promise, and success since then has endeared long-time members of the team in a way that, frankly, could never be said about guys like John Lannan or Roger Bernadina. Now, we've crossed into a new realm, where success creates issues, to some extent: Which homegrown guys will we retain? Can the team keep the clubhouse chemistry?
And so on. For now, though, there's good reason to appreciate the talent the Nationals acquired, and there's as much reason to dream on October flags in early January as ever.
Thanks to Fangraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Reference for data.