At the end of his first season in D.C. and his second no-hitter in 2015, Max Scherzer talked to reporters about what he thought he could improve upon as he went into season No. 2 of his 7-year/$210M deal with the Washington Nationals.
"I do think I was a better pitcher in 2015 than I was in '14,” Scherzer said after his 6.4 fWAR campaign came to an end.
He finished the season (14-12) with a 2.77 ERA, a 2.79 FIP, 34 walks (1.34 BB/9), 276 Ks (10.86 K/9) and 27 HRs allowed (1.06 HR/9) in 228 2⁄3 innings pitched, with 10 of the 27 home runs allowed coming in 132 first-half innings pitched (0.68 HR/9) and 17 in 96 2⁄3 IP after the All-Star Break (1.58 HR/9).
“I feel like I'm able to do more things with the baseball and sequence guys different and I just feel like all my pitches are better,” Scherzer said, “but I still have room for improvement.
“I gave up a bunch of home runs there in the second-half and that's something I've got to improve upon in 2016. So I definitely have some things to work on myself and that's what's exciting about baseball. You're always getting better. You're always finding new ways to do stuff and that's what's exciting for next year."
By the time Scherzer spoke to reporters at WinterFest in mid-December, the right-hander said he had a few ideas about how to keep the ball in the yard.
"I've really thought long and hard about why -- really in that second -- different reasons why I was able to give up so many home runs and I don't want to sit here and tell you those answers, because it's all in theory, I've got to go out there and actually do it to see if i'm right or wrong. But it's something I took seriously and really thought about, different things I can do differently and how I can pitch differently, against the same hitters and things I need to work on. Those are things, even in October I was thinking about those things."
Whatever plan he had, it didn’t necessarily work. Scherzer gave up 21 HRs in 127 2⁄3 IP in the first half of the 2016 campaign (1.48 HR/9) and 10 in 100 2⁄3 in the second half of his second season in D.C. (0.89 HR/9). He finished the year at 5.6 fWAR, going (20-7) in 34 starts, with a 2.96 ERA, a 3.24 FIP, 56 walks (2.21 BB/9) and 284 Ks (11.19 K/9) in 228 1⁄3 IP, and did manage to cut down on the home runs as the season went along.
"That's been his nemesis most of the year,” Dusty Baker told reporters in mid-May.
"The home run ball, the gopher ball has been sort of haunting him.”
Fortunately for Scherzer, Baker explained, he had been able to limit the damage by avoiding putting runners on in front of the home run hitters.
"I don't know what his history is in the past, but like I said, most of his home runs are solos, so if you're going to give them up, that's how you want to give them up, solo home runs.”
Scherzer gave up 18 solo homers of the NL-leading 31 total he allowed on the year, but his home runs issues continued in the postseason, when four of the five earned runs LA scored during the NLDS came on home runs, including the solo shot by Joc Pederson, which came on the last pitch Scherzer threw on the season.
In 2015, 19 of 27 regular season home runs he allowed came on his fastball, with four on his slider, one on his changeup and three on his curve.
In 2016, 16 of 31 came on his fastball, with eight on his slider, five on his changeup and two on his curve.
Pederson’s solo home run in Game 5 of the NLDS, came on a 96 mph four-seam fastball outside that the Dodgers’ outfielder powered out the other way, breaking up a 1-1 tie in what ended up a 4-3 win for Los Angeles.
“The pitch I got beat on, I hit my spot,” Scherzer said. “He put a better swing on it... I mean, I executed my pitch, he just made a great swing on it.”
In an otherwise impressive second season in Washington, D.C., the home run ball was one again Scherzer’s Achilles’ heel.