Watching Nationals ace Max Scherzer on the mound Is roughly equal parts incredible and uncomfortable—incredible because he happens to be one of the three or four best pitchers on the planet and makes unspeakably talented hitters look like fools, and uncomfortable because of the unsettling heterochromia in the eyes (which I’m convinced is part of his dominance, being able to mesmerize hitters like a wizard of the Hyborian Age).
Where his fellow 2017 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber is calm bordering on corpse-like, Scherzer is a simmering volcano of fury on the mound. Yet, it works. Now 34 years-old, he’s as good as ever. In fact, he’s doing things that only one man has ever achieved.
I didn’t think Scherzer would last this long. That unconventional delivery just seems purpose-built do destroy arms. There’s too much elbow flying about, but it evidently works. For him, for Chris Sale, and in the recent past to took Randy Johnson all the way to 305 wins and the Hall of Fame. In fact, that is just the man whose path Scherzer is evidently emulating. Here’s what I mean. According to Baseball Reference’s Play Index, only two men have thrown more than 600 innings in their 30’s with a sub-3.00 ERA and a K%-BB% above 20 percent.
You’d be right to think that this sounds like one of those garbage stats that cherrypick the hell out of things to create some kind of narrative. It’s an awful lot of qlualifiers, who knows who got left out as I shaped it. I tried to find other people; I really did. When I began my search to see comps to Scherzer’s 30-something dominance, I started with 700 innings, just below where Scherzer is now (729 as of this writing) who owned a 2.80 ERA and a K%-BB% greater than 25 percent.
It includes Scherzer and Johnson and nobody else. I kept on expanding bit by bit, to see if there’s someone else. A half a season of innings later and another fifth of a run on the ERA, dropping the K%-BB% to a more normal number (19 qualified starters this year meet or exceed that mark, so it’s elite but not overly so), still nothing. This has to mean something.
To be fair, Johnson does have another 1,300 innings on Scherzer as a 30-something along with another 1,000 once he hit his 40’s. Which also includes a second place finish in Cy Young voting while in Arizona. Johnson got started kind of late in his career, debuting at 24 and owning a perfectly average 101 ERA+ from then through his age-28 season, a span of 818 innings.
From then on, that mark never slipped below 135 until an injury-shortened 2003 season, then promptly bounced back to 193 in 2004. Truly, unequivocally, Johnson was a freak of nature, the likes of which we see only in LeBron James or Johnathan Ogden. Scherzer might not be quite what Johnson was, but he’s as close as you could hope for without flouting the laws of nature too much.
One of the most amazing things about Scherzer is just how little he’s changed. Usually as pitchers age they start blending in new pitches, changing how they attack hitters and refining their repertoire. His aforementioned contemporary Kluber is a perfect example of that:
Kluber has backed off on the fastball usage over theyears, leaning more and more on his slurve. It’s one of the most dominantly great pitches in baseball, so that makes sense. Compare that then to Scherzer, from his debut in Arizona, through Detroit and on to Washington:
A curveball showed up a few years back, and he’s dropped his fastball usage from the mid-60’s with the Tigers to right around half the time now, but he’s not starkly different in style than he was when he won his first Cy Young. Like Johnson a decade ago, he just keeps overpowering hitters. This is not what pitchers do in their 30’s. They usually have to find more guile and craft in their attack as the raw physical gifts that got them to the top start to fade.
Scherzer has done that to a degree, but he still leans on his fastball heavily, much more than a guy on the back half of his career might be expected to. Especially these days, as hitters are better than ever at hitting fastballs and, 55.6 percent of the time league-wide, it’s the least the four-seam has ever been thrown since Pitch F/X debuted in 2006. When your mid-90’s heat with big time run sticks around as you approach 35 though, there’s no reason to not throw it whenever you want. It’s not like they can hit it.
It’s impossible to say whether Scherzer will have quite the mid-30’s run that Johnson did in the early 2000’s, when he won four straight Cy Youngs with a 183 ERA+ and 2.48 FIP over that time. Johnson was a singular talent. But, isn’t Scherzer? At 33 he owns career bests so far this year in ERA (2.13) strikeout rate (38.3 percent!) and his 6.5 percent walk rate is his third lowest career mark.
He’s doing the unlikely in earning the $210 million contract the Nationals gave him, a rarity for a pitcher (or any player) getting paid in their 30’s. On a team with the most-hyped pitching prospect ever and in a league with the second coming of Sandy Koufax, Scherzer is simply the best pitcher the National League has to offer. Unconventional, kind of odd, and truly dominant, he’s forged a path few foresaw that could end up in the annals of history.
Merritt Rohlfing marvels about baseball for Beyond the Box Score and grouses about the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. He co-hosts Let’s Talk Tribe, the podcast over there. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch. That’s three L’s.