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Don't worry, Nats fans: Nationals' ace Max Scherzer is fine

An uncharacteristically mediocre start for Nats' ace Max Scherzer shouldn't worry fans of the Washington Nationals.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

It's no doubt been weird to see Max Scherzer, the Nationals' number one starter, struggle to start this season: a 4.50 FIP (against a 3.32 career average), 13.9% K-BB% (19.3% career), and 1.45 HR/9 (versus .99 career) are more characteristic of a hurler ticketed for Syracuse than Half Street.

Scherzer isn't blind to these issues. As Todd Dybas of the Washington Times reported earlier this week, Scherzer said that "[y]ou go through funks, and right now this is a funk . . . . At the end of the day, this is an easy thing to correct. Minor tweak, you get through it. For me, I envision myself attacking the zone at a much higher rate next start."

Two Issues: Home Runs and Walks

Dybas noted that Scherzer's home run problem from last season has carried over into the current campaign.

Last year, Scherzer was 56th of 78 qualified pitchers in HR/9 rate (Jordan Zimmermann was 57th). This year --while early-- Scherzer is again at the back end of the HR/9 stat sheet, placing 80th out of 102 qualified players.

To me, Scherzer's HR/FB% is the obvious explanation for his higher-than-normal home run performance. Currently, 16.1% of all of Scherzer's fly balls are leaving the yard--about 6% higher than his career average.

Of course, HR/FB% varies a lot each year, meaning it has little predictive value. Put differently? This is just baseball luck; at his current rate, Scherzer's HR/FB% would have ranked in the top (well, bottom) 5 in the majors last year.

Another thing to consider: home runs are way up through the early part of the season.

Last season, there were 592 taters in March and April; this year (and with games today to go), there have been 712 round-trippers. For the rate stat fans, it's .91 to 1.06 home runs per nine innings. Home runs are back, baby!

As far as Scherzer is concerned, though, the sky is falling this ain't.

To that end, for all his outstanding attributes, Scherzer's simply never been elite at preventing the long ball:


Scherzer HR/9

MLB Average HR/9













Scherzer's above-average 2013 and 2014 were driven by an impressively low HR/FB%, which, again, underscores the effect and volatility of this stat. He's fantastic at many aspects of pitching, but home runs come and home runs go.

Overall, this seems more like early season noise than reason for long term concern.

Scherzer's fastball velo is fine, horizontal movement is fine, and vertical movement about half an inch above his usual mark. Hopefully, May will bring reduced longballs.

Walks and Control: What Gives?

This is a little more unusual to me than the home run issue. Scherzer's control in April has been subpar, as his 9.2% BB rate is poor. On this subject, Dybas quotes Scherzer diagnosing the issue:

"My fastball is in a bit of a funk right now," Scherzer said. "Kind of know what I need to do. I’m not getting extension through that pitch. That’s the reason why I’m missing on command, why I’m throwing balls in certain situations where I’m typically throwing strikes. That’s where it’s just a minor adjustment of getting extension through the pitch."

I think Scherzer's right on both counts. On the fastball issue, Scherzer's heater is going for a ball 5% more often this year than last (about 30% to 25%).

Fastball strikes are the bread and butter of successful pitchers, since they reduce the need to throw offspeed and breaking pitches for strikes--which are (generally speaking) more difficult to control.

On the mechanical front, it's not a simple as looking at the numbers. It never is.

Here, the first thing I looked at when seeing Scherzer's walk rate was his release point. Via Texas Leaguers, we can see his 2015 and 2016 trends in this respect:

scherzer release

His release point this season is really no different this year than last overall, and by-the-game numbers bear this out. There's some variation by inning and game, to be sure. But it's not the smoking gun one might expect.

Next thought: maybe he's got something unusual with his hand location, or position on the rubber before he delivers the pitch. Yet, as the below comparison of images from last year and this year show, there's not much here either:

scherzer mound

Other than maybe leaning back just slightly more in the right image (2016), it's pretty much the same old Max.  Not much here I don't think.

As a third item to review, on the "finishing the pitch/extension" aspect of Scherzer's own analysis, here's a comparison between his "pre-adjustment" start against the Braves, and his "post-adjustment" start against the Phillies from Tuesday.

First, the Braves. Facing Freddie Freeman in the first inning, Scherzer runs the count 3-0. Time to just pump a heater in to get the strike call.

scherzer pre adjust

Except it wasn't a strike. Scherzer is definitely not finishing this pitch off and extending like he often does, he stands pretty straight up through his follow-through, allowing the ball to sail. And rather than extend out, he sort of just chucks it up there. As a result, this pitch was never a strike threat, and in watching it now, I'm pretty surprised at how obvious (and ugly) this looks.

So, here is his post-adjustment fastball:

scherzer post adjust

Same circumstance, camera angle, etc. Again Scherzer gets behind a batter early in the game, and should be able to hum some cheddar in for a strike. But he can't, letting the ball again run high. Unlike against the Bravos, though, we see Max following through and extend ever so more, indicating that he made good on the conscious adjustment mentioned in the Washington Times article.

For curiosity's sake, I checked out how he looked in 2015 when he followed through on a fastball. Below is from his last home start against the Reds.

A little bit surprisingly, he looks to be a little more straight-up here than during his post-adjustment start against the Phillies earlier this week. So maybe the key is somewhere in the middle? It's difficult to say, exactly, and it's also hard to tell where Scherzer is landing on each of these pitches.

Hopefully, Scherzer hasn't over-corrected in his adjustments.  But by eliminating the common mechanical suspects, it appears the issue, whatever it is, is a fairly nuanced one.

Of course, nobody knows Max better than Max. He's the sort of insightful competitor who can get to the bottom of this matter. Yes, this is the very sort of general, non-specific conclusion that I dread writing.

But there's nothing under the hood that shouts out differently. Indeed, I think he put it best in Dybas' article:

"Everything’s not broke," Scherzer said. "This isn’t a time where you just beat everything around, throw your glove around. The pitches are there. It’s just a little fine-tuning. That’s the difference between dominance and being average at this level. It can be that fine of a difference."

Let's see how May goes.