Over the past ten days, Max Scherzer has been a superhuman expression of baseball quintessence. The precision, durability, and sheer magnificence of his last two games seem a product of baseball engineering. Scherzer’s last two starts are unprecedented only if we provide a lot of stock in sequencing, but they remain comparable only to the incomparable. All the while, Scherzer has been manifestly human. Watching him pitch, the viewer feels along with Scherzer. It’s been an aesthetic experience.
Scherzer followed up his 16 strikeout one hitter on June 14 with a no-hitter on June 20. The former’s game score was 100 and the latter’s 97. Game scores of 90 or higher aren’t rare, though they do represent excellent games. For instance, on June 15 of this year Anibal Sanchez had a game score of 90. It was a two-hit shutout wherein he walked zero batters and struck out seven—excellent, but hardly transcendent.
Single seasons where a pitcher throws multiple 90 plus nine inning game scores are rarer (all game scores are limited to nine inning games here). According to Baseball Reference’s Play Index, since 1961 (the expansion and integration era), there have been 108 such pitcher seasons. Twenty-three of those seasons saw more than two 90 plus game score games.
But Scherzer’s games were well above 90. If we up the threshold from 90 to 95, we get only 14 pitcher seasons. And in this case, no pitcher since 1961 has thrown more than two 95 or greater games in a single season. While Nolan Ryan had five 90 plus games in 1989, none of them reached 95. Interestingly, a player reached this feat just last year—Scherzer’s teammate Jordan Zimmermann.
We can winnow the field even further. How many pitchers have thrown game scores of 97 or greater more than once in a season? Scherzer is the third. The other two are Ryan in 1990 and Pedro Martinez in 2000.
Max Scherzer was ferocious. His intensity during his no-hitter was most evident in the top of the seventh, and it was the time for it. Scherzer went through the order perfectly the first two times; he retired pitcher Francisco Liriano to end the sixth. In the seventh, however, he was tasked with facing Josh Harrison, Starling Marte, and Andrew McCutchen, whose hitting abilities range from very good to stellar. Scherzer wore the concentrated zeal with which he approached these batters on his sweat-drenched sleeve.
This wasn’t a strikeout. He was just receiving the ball back, readying for the third pitch and an 0-2 count. It didn’t matter. Every pitch inched Scherzer toward perfection. He knew it, and he showed it. Nationals color commentator F.P. Santangelo captured Scherzer’s fervor. "He’s stalking . . . he’s stalking his prey." Facing McCutchen, Scherzer snared the Pirates most dangerous hitter by way of strikeout and slunk back to the dugout, unfinished.
The strikeout of McCutchen was one of ten on the day for Scherzer. In Scherzer’s past two games, he’s thrown 18 innings, has given up zero runs, has allowed a solitary hit, and has walked one and hit one batter. He has faced 57 batters, who have had a collective line of .018/.053/.018, for an OPS of .071.
I mentioned above that Scherzer joins Nolan Ryan and Pedro Martinez as the only two pitchers since 1961 to throw two 97 plus games in a season. On April 26, 1990, Ryan threw a one-hitter against the Chicago White Sox; he struck out 16 batters and walked two in an effort that resulted in a 99 game score. Then, on June 11 against the Oakland Athletics, Ryan threw another 99 (as an aside, he also had a 101 game score in a ten inning game; he was 43). In the second game, Ryan threw a no hitter. He again walked two and struck out 14.
About ten years later, on May 12, 2000, Pedro Martinez shutout the Baltimore Orioles. He struck out 15, walked zero, and gave up two hits. His game score was 98. Martinez matched that 98 on August 29 of that same year, when he one-hit the Tampa Bay Devil Rays without walking a batter and striking out 13.
Scherzer’s games are different because they were consecutive. It’s a distinguishing factor, but it’s not a separating one. That doesn’t diminish the fact that these two games happening in the same season place him in elite company.
Multiple 97+ 9 Inning Games in a Season since 1961
|Max Scherzer, 2015||0||1||26||1||1|
|Pedro Martinez, 2000||0||3||28||0||1|
|Nolan Ryan, 1990||0||1||30||4||0|
A source of beauty for no hitters is frequently an outstanding play on defense. Mike Baxter suffered an injury to preserve Johan Santana’s no-hitter after running into the left field wall; Gregor Blanco made an outstanding diving catch to keep Matt Cain’s 2012 perfect game alive. In this one, it was Danny Espinosa.
Espinosa’s play will be memorable because it kept the perfect game intact. But what makes it stand out is that it’s very much of the time. This is the preservation of a no-hitter in the age of the shift. Pedro Alvarez, a pull-happy lefty, hit a hard grounder to the right side and towards the Nationals’ shift. The ball got by diving shortsop Ian Desmond. Second baseman Espinosa, however, corralled the ball in short right field and was able to snag Alvarez just in time.
After the play, Scherzer once again drew the viewer into his emotional orbit. He was ecstatic. I’m pretty confident that Scherzer wouldn’t have expressed so much emotion if he had given up a hit in the first inning and he was working towards a shutout. No—this was an expression to everyone watching: "I have a perfect game. I know I have a perfect game. I’m not going to pretend that this game is no different from all the others, because it is." It was the on the field equivalent of someone heading to Twitter to call it a perfect game in writing, to the mild distress of warier observers. He told everyone watching that he’s either going to do it or not on the strength of his and his teammate’s abilities. And when he or they come through, he’s not going to play coy.
Espinosa’s play saved the perfect game, but it was lost after the 26th out of the game. Scherzer beaned Jose Tabata, batter 27, to lose the perfect game. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it was the 13th time the 27th batter disrupted perfection. Deadspin’s Timothy Burke also furnished an interested bit of information. When a perfect game reaches the 27th batter, the hitters have a .382 on base percentage. The lesson I take from that is that by the time a pitcher reaches the 27th batter fatigue struggles with fortune to determine whether or not the game will end in perfection. On June 20, Scherzer went too far inside on a slider and hit Tabata. Fatigue had to have played a small factor. It was unfortunate.
I update this page every time a perfect game reaches the 27th batter. It's now out of space. Rolling slashes + BABIP pic.twitter.com/57cJGzDv6Y— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) June 21, 2015
The beaning caused some handwringing because Tabata didn’t make an effort to get out of the way. Indeed, he might have made a slight effort to take the pitch on his elbow. For an excellent explanation of the outcome, read Henry Druschel’s excellent analysis. The takeaway is that Tabata taking the beanball on a pitch where a beaning is a reasonably expected outcome is no different than Tabata swinging at and fouling off five of the eight pitches during the plate appearance. The hit by pitch and his swings were manifestations of the same thing: effort.
Scherzer then got Harrison to pop out to end the game and complete the no-hitter.
This game stands as a magnificent accomplishment, and its magnificence is accentuated when coupled with his previous outing. They are two singularly rare games made rarer as a twosome, their sequence notwithstanding. The game was also a thing of beauty. Computer and television screens were thin boundaries between observing something amazing and feeling the splendor with Max Scherzer and everyone in attendance.
Scherzer’s historical achievements that will inhabit places like Baseball Reference until the end of the Internet are inextricable from the aesthetic experience that will live inside our minds.
I’m not counting on an encore. If Scherzer throws another game with a game score of 95 or greater in 2015, he’ll be the first since 1961 to have three such games in a season. But if ever there was a time and a person to reserve the loftiest of thoughts, it’s right now and for Max Scherzer.