At the very pinnacle of any sport, it’s difficult to really discern who is the best player. Basketball makes it relatively easy, but sussing out the single best hitter, or the best pitcher, in all of baseball can pull in so many statistics and frames of reference and arguments of the heart that it gets muddled. I could tell you who the best five or ten pitchers are, but the best? Infinitely harder.
In rooting around, though, I think I’ve discovered one superlative to be confident in. I think Max Scherzer is the most unhittable starting pitcher in the league.
There are a few qualifiers there. I’m ignoring relievers because the starter and reliever are simply different beasts. And “most unhittable” doesn’t really mean best. I’m biased toward Corey Kluber, and much like MIke Trout is given the moniker of Best Postition Player, Clayton Kershaw is probably still the best pitcher in baseball because of the heights he’s flown for so long now. Scherzer might win the Cy Young, just as Jose Altuve might win an MVP. But everyone knows who is better. This isn’t about who is “best,” just about how simply unhittable Max Scherzer is. This is what I mean:
Scherzer Plate Discipline Ranks
|Swing Rate%||51.3||Highest (tied)|
Scherzer doesn’t get the most swinging strikes, that’s Corey Kluber. He doesn’t have the lowest contact rate, that’s Kluber again, along with Robbie Ray. But his high ranks in those categories, combined with the fact he pounds the zone considerably more than guys like Kluber (47.7 percent), gets more swinging strikes than Kershaw (14.2 percent), and has his pitches swung at more than any other starter, tells me that the pitches he throws are simply the most hard to hit. He’s not out-thinking hitters; he’s just beating them over the head with filthy pitches.
It’s not as though Scherzer has any real superlative in his individual pitches either. His fastball velocity ranks 34th leaguewide, and none of his off-speed or breaking pitches are anywhere near the top in terms of movement. He doesn’t have the Kluber breaking ball or the Kershaw curve or anything like that. But despite that, his slider in particular is pure murder. He throws it 29.1 percent of the time, coaxing a swing 56.1 percent of the time, and batters only put it in play 12.2 percent of the time. It's very much a put-away pitch, just without the dazzling movement that makes viewers' eyes pop. It’s just that his slider meshes so well with the fastball. Here’s how they pair from side to side:
They track so identically until about 15 or 18 feet from the plate, and by taht time a hitter is committed and swinging. And now, even more dangerously, on the vertical:
At the same time the slider breaks off from the fastball horizontally, it starts falling off a table. The slider does have unusual depth, edging on curveball/slurve territory. But it’s called a slider in most places, including by Scherzer himself. Classifications have to matter somewhere, I suppose.
Whereas Corey Kluber gets by with blending a wide varety of pitches to an expert degree, and Kershaw blows them away with his own mental games by messing with timing and pinpoint location, Scherzer somehow uses the arsenal of a reliever to crush hopes for seven, eight and nine innings. Yes, he also has a killer change, but he’s going fastball or slider about 70 percent of the time. The change-up is used just 14 percent of the time. He’s like a more committed Chris Sale. Compare that to Kluber, who throws four different pitches at least 15 percent of the time and nothing over 30. The path to a probable Cy Young has no definite route. Just mow down professional hitters.
Scherzer has simplified that to a razor-sharp point, and every start of his is a demonstration of brutality over nuance. Were he six inches taller, we’d simply be talking about a right-handed Randy Johnson. Instead it’s some slightly odd looking guy who looks like he spends his days strolling the park, eating chocolate ice cream cones and playing with golden retrievers. And destroying lumber and dreams once every five days. With Scherzer, you know what’s coming. It just doesn’t matter.
Merritt Rohlfing writes about all things baseball at Beyond the Box Score, and most things Cleveland Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. Listen to his podcast, Mostly Baseball. Follow him on Twitter @merrittrohlfing. You’ll be better off for it.