Max Scherzer is champing at the bit to get back on a mound to see if the work he put in this winter, and the fixes he implemented in reaction to a frustrating 2020 campaign, get him to where he wants to be heading into the ‘21 season, which happens to be the final year of the 7-year/$210M deal he signed with Washington’s Nationals in 2015.
Unfortunately, as Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez told reporters following their first day of pitchers and catchers’ workouts in West Palm Beach, an ankle sprain suffered as he worked out in advance of Spring Training has the club taking things slow with the 36-year-old right-hander.
“I was just running and doing intervals and sprained my ankle. It is what it is. I’ve had these before,” Scherzer told reporters on a Zoom call from the FITTEAM Ballpark on Friday.
“I had the doctors all look at it, they think the ankle is fine. Especially long-term. Just been dealing with some inflammation in the joint. Kind of lost some mobilization within the ankle, and that’s kind of been the problem, that’s what has prevented me from getting off the mound, but fortunately through all this I’ve been able to keep my strength up, and my arm is ready to go, so as soon as I can get that mobility back in the ankle I’ll be off the mound here pretty soon. So I don’t see this as a long-term injury.”
In 12 starts and 67 1⁄3 IP in the 60-game season last year, Scherzer put up a 3.74 ERA, a 3.46 FIP, 23 walks (3.07 BB/9), 92 Ks (12.30 K/9), and a .260/.319/.424 line against.
“I’m going to have to go through the offseason and really try to evaluate — and look at these at bats — of how guys are approaching me, how they’re attacking me, what’s working, what’s not in certain situations, so that next year, when I come back, I can pitch more efficiently from the get-go and not have to try to wait till my 12th start before I finally feel good,” Scherzer explained in late September 2020.
Before he gets to see the results of the work he’s done this winter, however, Scherzer has to get his left ankle right so that he doesn’t cause any further damage, or throw things off with his mechanics while favoring it.
“We all know Max,” his manager said when asked about holding the starter back a bit at the start of Spring Training. “Max is going to be ready. I don’t worry too much about Max.
“I know he’s getting a little bit older. We talked to him a little bit about his routine, and maybe taking things a little bit lighter, but Max is Max. He competes.
“He competes with himself. He wants to be the best, but at this point in time, like I said, we talked to him about, ‘Hey, let’s just get that ankle right.
“‘I don’t want any other issues because you’re favoring the ankle, so let’s get it right before you get on the mound.’
“Like I said yesterday, he feels really good. His body feels good. His arm feels great. So let’s just focus on getting that ankle ready before we get him back on the mound, and we’ll go from there.”
Scherzer, a veteran of thirteen big league seasons, has dealt with injuries before, and knows how to adjust and get ready while taking a cautious approach.
“I’ve had to do different Spring Trainings like this before,” he said, “... where you’re coming in with something.
“I had the broken knuckle before, so I know what it’s like to be under different set of kind of circumstances for Spring Training when it’s not normal.
“The biggest thing is just knowing where your body is at and where your arm is at, that’s the most important thing.
“Knowing what your arm feels like and being able to get off the mound, get your work in, and most importantly recover, that your arm feels good the next day.
“When you hit those checkmarks, that’s when you know you can continue to increase your workload, and so that’s the same thing I’m going be doing this year, hopefully here sooner than later.”
As for some of the changes, or tweaks, that he made this winter in reaction to what he saw during and after the 2020 season?
“I saw some things I did well in 2020,” Scherzer said, “... but I also saw some things I didn’t do as well in 2020 that I thought kind of compromised me in some different ways, that I think if I kind of correct, correct mechanically, that it should help every pitch play up a little bit better, so I’m looking forward to getting out on the mound to see if I’m right, and get to face some hitters to see if it’s right as well. I’m champing at the bit to do that.”
Asked if his struggles last season were related to the circumstances, with the break in mid-March, the quick ramp-up in July, and the odd nature of the campaign overall, he said he’s thinking now that it was an issue with his mechanics more than anything else.
“I think there was a little mechanical thing I can fix that can help everything play up just a little bit more.”
Scherzer also said that he wouldn’t allow his contract status, and heading into what could, potentially, be his final season in Washington distract him from what he wants to do on the mound.
He did acknowledge though, that the six years in Washington so far have gone by quickly.
“It’s crazy. It’s year seven of the contract,” Scherzer said.
“You think you sign a seven-year deal, that’s forever, but it’s going by pretty quick, and here we are, and just honestly, I don’t know, I’m pretty good about tuning this crap out.
“For me it’s just show up at the park and win. Come in, do your job, and all of the contract stuff takes care of itself.”
His manager, who has been along for the ride in three of Scherzer’s six seasons in D.C., said the starter has been a consumate pro.
“I can’t say enough about him and his professionalism,” Martinez said. “The way he carries himself, his competitiveness, this guy is everything you want from a pitcher for a manager.
“We’ve had some tussles out on the mound as you guys all know. He never wants to come out of the game, he always wants to stay in.
“I just want him to have the best year of his career and then whatever happens after that happens. Would I love to have him back here for many, many years? Absolutely.
“Right now we’ll take it in stride. The biggest thing right now is to get him healthy, and get him back on the mound, because right now he’s a little ornery. Because he wants to be out there with his teammates, and we’re not allowing him to do that.
“We’re kind of trying to take it easy, but he wants to be out there on the mound pitching and competing.
“Because he’s always competing with himself, and he wants to get back out there playing.”
Then Scherzer can finally see if he was right about what he saw hitters doing last year. His overall takeaway from what he saw in 2020?
“That some of the pitches I thought were pretty good and there were some pitchers that weren’t as good,” he said.
“And how guys were attacking me, that I think if I get into a little bit better slot, that it’s going to allow me to kind of have all my pitches play exactly the way I want them.
“When I know exactly how every pitch kind of plays off each other, then it allows the sequences to work a lot better.
“If I’m not in the right slot, if I’m not delivering the ball in the right way, then I can get exposed. And so for me, that’s kind of how I see it.”