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Is Max Scherzer due for a slowdown?

Max Scherzer is in his mid-30s now, he dealt with a couple injury issues last season. Will the Nationals’ ace start to slow down at this point in his career?

Washington Nationals Spring Training 2020 -Washington Nationals vs Houston Astros Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Washington NationalsMax Scherzer has been an absolute “dude” over the last several years. By some metrics, in his age 34 season, Scherzer had one of the best years of his career. But of course, Scherzer will eventually suffer from the inexorable marching of time. But will it be anytime soon?

For the 2020 season, teams will take the field – we think – for 60 games; in other words, a 5k instead of a marathon. For that reason, once the season has concluded, it’ll be hard to accurately assess a player’s ability.

That means my conclusions won’t necessarily be (dis)proven until the end of the 2021 season.

Let’s first look at some important numbers from 2019. A year ago, Scherzer was worth 6.5 wins, according to FanGraphs – that number ties 2015 for second highest of his career. He commanded a 2.45 FIP, which was the lowest of his career. His K% rose by half a percentage point to 35.1 percent; his BB% decreased a percentage point to 4.8 percent. Those numbers helped to make his K%-BB% the highest it’s ever been at 30.3 percent. Finally, Scherzer’s FIP- was a very low 54.

Now, if you take those numbers and intertwine them with other variables, like his PITCHf/x pitch velocities, the curious case of the aging Scherzer becomes more interesting.

In 2019, all of his pitch velocities actually rose from previous years, totaling his highest marks in each pitch type of his career.

When I first decided to approach this topic, I was certain I was going to find something that indicated Scherzer was due to regress, if for no other reason than metrics falling due to age. But the only significant negative difference I could find is that his BABIP fell closer to average than it has in the past, going from .265 to .321. This could be for any number of reasons, including worse luck than he’d had in previous years, so this isn’t necessarily cause for concern on its own. He’s still getting batters to swing at pitches out of the zone over 35 percent of the time and getting hitters to swing over 50 percent of the time.

Finally, let’s take a look at FanGraphs’ ZiPS projections. The website has now scaled down the 2020 season to be reflective of what will actually take place on the field. I’ll post the image here:

Let’s look at a couple of those numbers. The first thing that sticks out is that these projections expect regression. That’s not uncommon under these models.

After all, they’re taking the aggregate player performance throughout a career instead of focusing on the last two or three years, as I have.

Every metric is getting marginally worse year by year under this model. Let me start by saying this: If Scherzer has a 3.34 ERA in his age 37 season, fans and ownership will be happy.

Due to age, we should expect Scherzer to take some kind of step back, but it might not be all that sharp of a decline, like we traditionally see from aging players.

ZiPS has Scherzer’s FIP growing to 3.45, while his fWAR dwindles to 3.9 – certainly still respectable numbers.

With Scherzer’s mad dog mentality on the mound and his pure pursuit of results, while I would expect some of these numbers to start to taper off, I wouldn’t expect anything drastic. By the time it’s all said and done, he might not be an ace on a good team any longer, but he would still be a two or a three in virtually any rotation.

As for my final assessment: While I agree with the ZiPS projections to an extent, even I – a perennial beacon of results negativity – don’t expect Scherzer to eclipse anywhere near a 3.50 ERA or FIP. K% will go down and BB% will likely go up, but he’s still throwing hard and spotting pitches well. That means the results will likely keep coming. In the coming years, Scherzer will still be the type of pitcher that compels people to buy tickets to his starts.