Max Scherzer led all National League pitchers in strikeouts (300), K/9, (12.24), hits allowed per nine innings pitched (6.12), WHIP (0.91), SO/BB (5.88), opponents’ AVG (.188), and wins (tied, 18) in 2018. He also finished ranked second in opponents’ OBP (.247), ranked third in ERA (2.53) and opponents’ OPS (.580), and fifth in opponents’ SLG (.332).
Scherzer didn’t, however, win a third straight NL Cy Young award, though he acknowledged this winter that the 2018 winner, New York Mets’ righty Jacob deGrom, had earned it.
“[deGrom] had an unbelievable year and I congratulate him,” Scherzer told reporters at the Washington Nationals’ Winterfest celebration in December.
“It wasn’t that he was just going out there throwing five or six innings, no, he was pitching deep into ballgames, seven eight innings, and he was really throwing the ball well, and we saw that in September, firsthand. And his season as a whole, he did it from start to finish.
“So it was an incredible season by him and he rightfully won it.”
Scherzer’s season was pretty incredible as well, even if he didn’t win the fourth Cy Young award of his career. He did finish with the second lowest ERA of his career (just above the 2.51 ERA he posted in 2017), and he posted the lowest FIP (2.65) of his career, the highest strikeout total, highest K/9, second-lowest BB/9 (0.94) and ground ball % (34.3%), and the highest fWAR of his career (7.2), all at 34 years old.
So as he hits his mid-30s (he’ll turn 35 in July), is the right-hander changing anything up in his offseason regimen?
“No major changes,” Scherzer said.
“Kind of status quo. I’m right on schedule with everything. Still playing catch, arm feels good.”
“I just take it year by year,” he explained further.
“I just listen to my body. Where’s it at. What’s it need? Because you know what it takes to be ready Opening Day, ready for the first day of Spring Training, where you need to be at January 1st, and really December 1st. All those dates you have mapped out in your head and you just listen to your body of where you need to be to make those targets in your head and for me, I’m right on schedule, I don’t feel like I need to change anything and just continue to roll out the same program.”
Scherzer did say there were some things he would like to fine-tune for 2019 though, and his pitching coach offered some thoughts on potential areas of improvement in the fifth year of his 7-year/$210M deal with the Nationals.
“There was a little tweak that I made to the curveball that I feel like helped sharpen it up a little bit,” Scherzer said, referring to the pitch he added to his arsenal in the sixth of his 11 major league seasons, against which opposing hitters had a .283 AVG overall in 2018.
“And I actually started throwing a back door cutter last year to the lefties, and I thought — because that’s a really difficult pitch for me to execute, and I was able to finally start executing that a little bit. So I think that’s something that I can continue to grow as I get more feel of it, and for me, learning that pitch, not only to execute it glove-side, but maybe if I can start executing it glove-side, something that I started last year, and who knows, maybe it stays the same, maybe I get better at it. It’s one of those things, — those are the little things that you think about of what can you do in-between now and Spring Training.”
Nationals’ Pitching Coach Derek Lilliquist, who’s coming back for his second season in the role in D.C., said he’d like to see Scherzer limit the home runs further as well, after the ace surrendered 23 in 220 2⁄3 innings (0.94 HR/9) in their first season working together.
“He can keep the ball in the ballpark a little better,” Lilliquist said. “He got hurt by a lot of bad breaking balls in kill counts last year, so that’s going to be an area that we’re really going to put a thumb on in Spring Training, is that you need to execute — I mean, he strikes the world out, obviously — but it could have been even better than that had he executed kill breaking pitches in that count.”
Scherzer gave up 12 of the 23 homers he surrendered in two-strike counts (two of them in 0-2 counts, three in 1-2 counts, and seven in 2-2 counts last season), eight of them on fastballs (down from 16 in 2017), six on sliders, five on cutters, three on curveballs, and one homer on his changeup.
“That’s the one — predominantly — that’s what he got hurt on, was a hanging slider that he didn’t get to the right spot,” Lilliquist said. “Hitters are so good at judging the 17 inches of the plate, but they’re not real good at judging on the plate and underneath the strike zone, and that’s where he needs to go with it. That’s not corner-off, because corner-off they judge, they recognize spin and corner-off is a ball, but if it’s center-cut in the strike zone and goes underneath the strike zone, that’s where they have problems.”
“He can throw whatever he wants any time,” Lilliquist added, “so it’s just execution for him.”
Scherzer will be working with new catchers this season, after the Nats signed Kurt Suzuki and acquired Yan Gomes from the Cleveland Indians, but he said he sees an opportunity in working with different backstops, who can offer a different perspective as they get to know one another.
“I think especially with two new guys here, we have a great opportunity to continue to get better,” Scherzer explained.
“Continue to learn the game in a different way, from their vantage point.”
There will also be two new starters in the rotation, both of whom said they were excited to join a starting corps that includes Scherzer.
“I think to be part of a rotation and a team that [we’re] going to have, and I think to be part of a rotation like that and pitch with [Stephen] Strasburg and with Scherzer really excited me,” lefty Patrick Corbin said after he signed a 6-year/$140M deal with the Nationals earlier this winter.
Anibal Sanchez, who overlapped with Scherzer when they were both in Detroit, said he has watched from afar as the righty continued to improve after leaving the Tigers.
“What he’s done right now with the Nationals is unbelievable,” Sanchez said after he signed a 2-year/$19M deal with Washington.
“Seeing Scherzer from the other side, it’s unbelievable what he’s doing with the Nationals, pitching great.”
“I’ve known Scherzer for a while,” the veteran starter said. “He’s a competitive pitcher, and he wanted to always do it better, and better, and better, to be the top of the pitchers every single year.”
“I want to take something from him in the years that I’m with Washington. I’m just going to take a couple tips from him.”