Upon arriving for the start of his second Spring Training with the Washington Nationals, Max Scherzer talked about his personal takeaway from his first campaign in the nation's capital.
He set a franchise records for strikeouts in a single season (2005-present) and for consecutive strikeouts -- with nine straight in his final start of the year (Expos/Nationals record) -- and became the fifth pitcher in major league history to throw two no-hitters in one season, but it was his ability to throw first-pitch strikes and challenge hitters that Scherzer pointed to as the highlights for him.
"I was really proud of -- it was a career-high in first-pitch strikes, and a career-low in walks," he explained.
Scherzer's 71.3% first-strike percentage was MLB's highest among qualified pitchers, and his 1.34 BB/9 were the second-lowest league-wide.
"I really attacked the zone at a really high rate last year and that's what I was really, really happy," he said, "that I had that consistency to be able to throw a strike whenever I needed to.
"That's something that you look at early here in Spring Training to see if I can't get back on that program."
After he finished his next-to-last start in Grapefruit League action last week, striking out nine batters in a 95-pitch effort in which he gave up three hits, three walks and two earned runs, the 31-year-old righty said that it was still efficiency he was working towards as he prepared for his Opening Day start.
"Just pounding the zone," Scherzer said. "Just constantly working ahead in the count."
"That was something that I did so well last year, where I get into grooves and I can get into cruise control mode and just constantly be 0-1, 1-2. When you can do that you're going to be successful. If you're falling behind 1-0 and 2-1, you're in trouble. And there were just too many counts today where I was falling behind and that's something that obviously I'm aware of but it's something I need to address within these next five days so that I'm good to go for the next one and obviously the opener."
His three walks, predictably, bothered Scherzer, who was typically critical in his own self-evaluation.
"I wasn't as efficient," he said. "When you're walking three guys, I mean that's just inexcusable. And I think I fell behind quite a few guys as well."
A reporter wondered how, when he was preparing for Opening Day, he was able to balance being aware of what needed to be fixed before the regular season began without putting too much pressure on himself?
"You're talking about the mentality of what it takes to pitch at this level," Scherzer said. "What you're kind of getting at is pitching underneath pressure. Well, I relish pitching underneath pressure. Put as much pressure on me as possible. I have no qualms handling that, because I expect that out of myself. I expect to pitch well and pitch efficiently.
"And so when I say I want to address efficiency and make sure I do it, it's because I know I'm capable of it and I know I'm capable of attacking the zone.
"I'm going to give up hits, I'm going to give up home runs, I'm going to give up runs, that's going to happen, but the stuff I can control, that's what I want to be able to be good at and so when you try to address something like you say here at the end of Spring it's good for you to try to push yourself mentally to push yourself to handle that type of pressure, so I welcome that."
He also welcomed the opportunity to take the mound on Day 1 of the 2016 campaign, though, as he explained, it was just another start in the grand scheme.
"For me, it's just going out there and doing what I have to do," Scherzer said."And that's just pitching deep into a ballgame and trying to help the team win.
"We all get 33 starts, so the fact that you're starting Opening Day or you're the fifth starter, you're just as important. So, that's where, it's nice to get that nod, but at the end of the day it really doesn't mean much."
Scherzer gets one more tune-up today, when he takes on the New York Mets in the Grapefruit League finale, then it's home for a two-game set with the Minnesota Twins before he starts the season opener in Atlanta on Monday.