In the wake of his third lifetime Cy Young award, Max Scherzer said in an interview with MLB.com his goal for 2018 is to improve on his amazing season. Pretty bold. In his own words, though….
“You've got to get better every single year, it doesn't matter," Scherzer said. "It's a new year. You have to find a way to improve yourself. You have to look back on everything that you've done and critique yourself and find the holes in your game that you can continue to get better."
This is, of course, the goal for any play, and pitchers have to constantly evolve because hitters are constantly searching for ways to beat them. Any small flinch can crush a career. But Scherzer has risen to a level where it’s hard to argue against his being the best in the game at his position. What could he even get better at?
En route to the Cy Young, Scherzer set career bests in pretty much every metric that matters to a pitcher. About the only things he wasn’t personally superlative in were innings pitched — his 200.1 was his lightest workload since 2012 — and ground ball rate. But Scherzer has never been a strong ground ball pitcher, in large part because until this year he’s leaned very heavily on his four-seam fastball. His ground ball rate on his fastball is 29.8 percent, and 27.1 this past season. Among the 195 pitchers who threw at least 500 of them, Sherzer’s four-seamer had the sixth-highest spin rate. That keeps the ball from sinking quite so much, causing a sense of rise from the batter’s point of view.
This year, though...
For the first time ever, Scherzer threw a fastball less than half the time. His slider, always a truly savage pitch, took on new prominence, and he mixed in his tertiary offerings more heavily as well. This is what it takes to succeed as a power pitcher as you enter your mid-30s, and it seems to work for Scherzer.
But this could also be a place he could improve further. The one major problem with fly balls is that they have a chance to turn into home runs. While Scherzer doesn't really allow hard contact — his 85.7 mph average exit velocity is 47th-lowest out of 159 pitchers with at least 250 batted ball events, and his 26.5 percent Hard-Hit Rate is the lowest in baseball — his batted-ball profile still allows for a smidge of a home run chance. This could be where he improves.
Over the last two years, Scherzer has started folding a cutter into his offerings. In 2016, he threw it 133 times; in 2017, 157 times. It's not that similar to his fastball — it averaged only 88.9 mph on average this year — but it is harder than his second-best pitch, the slider. As the above chart notes, he threw that slider more than ever this year. He also worked a 44.7 percent grounder rate, right around league average.
On the cutter, though, his ground ball clip leaps to 56.5 percent, something resembling an elite rate. Part of this is that, at least horizontally, the cutter and slider are becoming very similar:
Having two pitches that look similar and move at distinctly different speeds (but not so different as his fastball and slider) allows Scherzer to have, in effect, a horizontally breaking changeup. Adding to the deception, though, is the downward movement that his slider has and his cutter lacks:
Taking that, and combining it with Baseball Prospectus's Pitch Tunnel numbers, paints an interesting portrait. There is a problem with sample size, but Scherzer did throw a cutter followed by a slider 10 times in 2017. There is a .0039 second difference in flight time between the two (compared to .0370 between the four-seam and slider), a .1340 inch difference in release point, and a 1.211 inch difference (1.38 between four-seam and slider) in their location at the plate, on average. Again, this is 20 total pitches. But it's something to think about. They tunnel well together and could certainly move off the sweet spot and induce even weaker contact. This time, though, down.
If he really did want to improve on his grounder rate, he could perhaps try throwing more changeups. This could be the true breakthrough, as Scherzer had a 67.7 percent ground ball rate on changes last year, and he threw 457 of them. He's already a great strikeout artist, and the change — with its slight armside fade and drop and ability to work low in the zone — could be the perfect pairing for his other two offerings.
In a perfect world, throwing the changeup, the four-seamer and the slider each about 30 percent of the time is what a late-career Scherzer would look like. He would still get a ton of K's — the 20.5 percent swinging strike rate on that pitch is second only to his slider — and he would get way more grounders. The only trade-off might be an elevated BABIP if he got his ground ball rate over 45 percent. But any negative effect would probably be offset by his dropped home run rate. The real downside would be that he probably wouldn’t take a no-hitter into the sixth inning every third start. A small price to pay, I suppose.
This is touching up the Mona Lisa we're talking about here. Wanting Scherzer to get more ground balls sounds suspiciously like Chris Sale's failed foray into "pitching to contact" in 2016, which saw his worst season by FIP and second-worst by ERA as well as his lowest strikeout total. Taking K's away from Scherzer is robbery. It's everything he does.
But as his career goes on, you'd think the velocity would drop some and he'd need a new tool. Hence, the ground ball idea. It's either that, or walking fewer batters. That means throwing more strikes, though, and a late-career pitcher tends to really lean on deception as his stuff loses some steam. Expanding Scherzer’s pitch mix could be a simple solution to continued dominance. I expect the fastball will be featured a bit less in 2018, and that trend will continue. Good thing he’s got a good infield.
Merritt Rohlfing writes about all things baseball at Beyond the Box Score, and about everything Cleveland Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. He’s got a podcast because he’s human, Mostly Baseball, though it’s on hiatus. Follow him on Twitter @merrittrohlfing