Two of the greatest pitchers anyone alive has ever seen are Greg Maddux and Pedro Martínez. While they both won every team and individual honor that baseball can bestow, I can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for them. As transcendent as they were in the 90s, they picked the worst possible times to peak.
Maddux’s best seasons were 1994 and 1995, for which he had an ERA of 1.60. Those are also two of his three highest bWAR seasons despite being strike-shortened! He was robbed— we were robbed— of 18 more starts of Maddux at his best.
Martínez’s peak was a few years later from 1997-2003. His ERA was 2.20 over that seven-year stretch. That would’ve been a great ERA in the Deadball Era, but this was the time of steroid-induced hulking monsters. Adjusted stats, such as his 213 ERA+, show how dominant he was relative to his peers, but it’s not the same. We just don’t talk about his 1.74 ERA in 2000 the same way we cherish Bob Gibson’s 1.12 in 1968, even though Pedro’s ERA+ was 291 compared to Gibson’s 258.
The Pedro/Maddux of this current generation is Nationals ace Max Scherzer, who will join them as a first-ballot Hall of Famer someday. Yet I worry that the magnitude of his brilliance may be dulled slightly in much the same way. As the BtBS social media gremlins pointed out, he is in the midst of an all-time great season.
Since 2000, the lowest FIP- in a season are...— Beyond the Box Score (@BtBScore) June 30, 2019
2001 Randy Johnson: 47
2000 Pedro Martinez: 48
*2019 Max Scherzer: 49
2018 Jacob deGrom: 49
2014 Clayton Kershaw: 49
* doesn’t include Scherzer’s start today https://t.co/nZfTxr1pMo
With baseballs flying out of ballparks at a ludicrous pace in 2019, Scherzer picked the wrong year to have his best season ever. By slim margins, he is posting career bests in ERA, FIP, K/9, and HR/9.
Wait. HR/9? In 2019?
Across baseball, home runs are exploding. Roughly half the teams in MLB are on pace to set franchise records. Hardly any pitchers have decreased their home run rate. In that sense, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Scherzer can do something others cannot. Still, decreasing his home run rate by just a little is washed out by how dramatically everyone else’s has increased.
How is he doing it?
Generally, the first stat to consider when comparing home run rates is the home run-fly ball ratio. If his ratio was way down from usual levels, that would indicate the pitcher has been fortunate to keep balls in the park, and that he will likely regress.
For Scherzer, his ratio is 8.3 percent this season. Compared to his career average of 10.1 percent, that’s not a huge difference. Maybe there’s a little luck involved, but it appears this is more a factor of skill.
There does appear to be one significant difference in his batted ball profile that could explain how he’s avoiding the longball— his ground ball rate:
Scherzer Groundball Rate
It appears that Mad Max is trying, successfully, to induce more groundballs. Given what’s been happening to fly balls this season, he certainly picked the right year to do so!
As you might expect given his increased grounders and lower average launch angle, he’s been keeping the ball down a lot more than he did in 2018. Courtesy of FanGraphs, here’s his heat map from 2018:
And here’s 2019:
Some of those lower regions have turned from blue to pink, which either means Scherzer is keeping the ball down more often or this strike zone is pregnant. In particular, he’s really been burying his slider:
By keeping the slider down in the zone, the pitch has been absolutely devastating to right-handed hitters (he rarely throws it to lefties). Opponents have just a .190 wOBA against it this season— the best of all his pitches.
There is a slight downside to inducing more groundballs. Generally, grounders are more likely to become base hits than fly balls. Indeed, his 7.4 hits per nine innings and .324 BABIP against are his worst since 2014. That’s acceptable because a lot of these hits are singles, and any pitcher will spare a few more singles to prevent some doubles and home runs. As a result, his .126 ISO against is the lowest since his rookie year when he wasn’t a full-time starter.
Lost in all of this is how much harder it is to pitch well in 2019 than it was in prior years. All of these comparisons that show 2019 is Scherzer’s best season don’t even adjust for the insane run scoring environment. Having slightly better numbers with a much higher difficulty level means this season could be one for the ages, just like Bob Gibson’s 1968, Greg Maddux’s 1994, and Pedro Martínez’s 2000.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983