Maddening Max

I remember seeing the news across the crawl on TV, “Detroit Tigers option RHP Max Scherzer to AAA Toledo…” and kind of doing a double take.  “Wow, that’s a shock!”  He had posted a 2.12 ERA in his first three starts, twice against Kansas City and once against Seattle, but his skills (10 K, 5 BB) weren’t particularly special.  He was better against Texas in his fourth start (7 IP, 3 ER, 7 K, 2 BB) before things came completely unhinged.  In his next four starts, he failed to go more than five innings posting a 13.50 ERA, 2.33 WHIP, 9 K and 9 BB in 18 innings.

It was mid-May of 2010 and the Tigers had little choice but to send the talented, but flailing hurler down to the minors for a spell.  Two weeks later he returned to the majors and went on to enjoy the best run of his professional career pitching like one of baseball’s best pitchers from May 30th through the end of the season with a 2.46 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 158 K and 54 BB in 154 innings giving up 0 or 1 run in 15 of his 23 starts.  Could a similar move be in the offing for the 2012 version of Scherzer?

He was a complete mess on Sunday in Yankee Stadium walking a career-high seven, allowing seven hits as well and ending up very lucky to come away allowing just three runs in his 4.7 innings of work.  His ERA for the season is now at 7.77 and his league-leading 10.0 K/9 is completely cancelled out by the 4.8 BB/9 and 13.7 (!!!) H/9 rates.  His WHIP is an astronomical 2.06.  So what’s wrong?

Would you accept “everything” as an answer?

OK, maybe not everything, but “plenty” is definitely a viable answer.  Max himself said that fastball command was a huge issue on Sunday suggesting the ball felt like a “cue ball” as he struggled to find the zone with any amount of consistency.  The numbers bore out his assessment as he hit the strike zone a meager 52% of the time with his 74 fastballs.  He has always been what you might call effectively wild, but it was excessive on Sunday.  The outing in Yankee Stadium was more like things coming to a head for Scherzer as he hasn’t really been crisp at all this year, even when he struck out 11 in Chicago a few weeks back.

He has a 62% strike rate with the fastball on the year, down from 64% last year.  He was at 65% during that 2010 run.  While the lack of fastball strikes are contributing to his control issues, it is really the lack of reliable secondary stuff that is fueling his struggles so far this year.  He has a devastating wipeout slider when he is right as well as a strong changeup that often carries ~10 MPH split from his fastball which he buries down and away to neutralize lefties.

Just as with the fastball, he isn’t throwing nearly enough strikes with the secondary stuff as his slider is crossing the dish just 59% of the time, down from 63% in 2011.  Meanwhile, when it does go for a strike it is often being obliterated as hitters have a 1.224 OPS in plate appearances that end on a slider.  That is nearly twice the .617 OPS from last year.  Furthermore, the change is doing nothing to stifle southpaws.  He has a 59% strike rate on the changeup against lefties and they are battering it to the tune of a 1.065 OPS, numbers that were at 66% and .721 a season ago, respectively.

Scherzer has always had something of a violent delivery making consistency a constant challenge, especially with his release point.  On Sunday, the only thing that was consistent was Scherzer dropping his arm and throwing across his body as he continually flew open and finished all but falling off the mound.  The silver lining to these early issues is that they can be ironed out as the 2010 season showed.  You can refine and work on a pitcher’s mechanics.  You cannot, however, teach an arm to be as electric as Scherzer’s.  It’s subtle (and to me more evident in watching the starts), but you can see the difference in Scherzer’s release point yesterday when compared to his other starts this year.

(click to enlarge)

Another tick on the plus side would be that his velocity isn’t diminished during this tough time.  In fact, it’s up.  He has averaged 93.1 MPH with his fastball the last two years, but he is up to 93.7 MPH so far this year.  Often when a pitcher is struggling, analysts eye fastball velocity as an indicator to potential injury.  Scherzer is at his best mark since his 2008 debut (94.2 MPH) when he worked a lot out of the bullpen.  He has lost some of the velocity split on his changeup, though, which is currently averaging 85.6 MPH, up 3 MPH from last year.  His slider velocity is also up to a career high 86.6 MPH after sitting 82.7 MPH last year.

He appears to be overthrowing both secondary pitches helping explaining the velocity gains as well as his inability to consistently draw strikes with either pitch.  In short, Scherzer is a mess right now and that is obvious.  Even when he gets ahead of batters, they are still pounding him for a .751 OPS (.514 last year, .525 career).  What isn’t so obvious right now is what to do if you’re the Tigers.  Do you see if another stint in AAA does the trick a la 2010?  Or do you let him ride it out with the big league club?

If you choose the former, you probably have to wait until Doug Fister is ready to come back from the disabled list as you’re already working shorthanded.  Drew Smyly has been incredible in the early going and he is the only thing holding up the non-Verlander end of the starting pitching bargain as Rick Porcello has hardly been any better than Schezer (6.45 ERA, 1.48 WHIP) while Adam Wilk was forced into duty after the Fister injury and subsequently batted around for an 8.18 ERA in just 11 innings across three starts.  Duane Below will take his spot this week drawing a pair of starts and hoping to bring his bullpen success (12 scoreless IP) into the rotation.

How about handling Scherzer from a fantasy perspective?  Any AL-only league manager has to keep him, he is simply too talented and anyone you replace him with is likely a flavor of the month with nowhere near the upside.  Cutting him after just 24 innings would be hasty and likely end up backfiring.  I would say the same goes for deep mixed leaguers (14+ teams) and it is rare that a mixed league doesn’t allow a bench so I would just reserve before I would ever decide to cut him.  What about 10-12 mixed leaguers?  That is where a decision gets a bit more dicey.

There are no doubt a throng of options with better stats than Scherzer (not a tough bar to clear) and while I would personally practice some patience with him, I could understand making a move for a new pitcher in those types of leagues.  Looking at some of the names available in a 12-team mixer that I am playing, I see some nice options beyond the flashes in the pan like Joe Saunders and Bruce Chen, who I don’t trust at all.  Names like Jeff Niemann, Chris Capuano and the aforementioned Smyly among others.

I would assume a 10-teamer would have even better names in addition to those.  So while I would still recommend reserving Scherzer ahead of anything that involves cutting him, there is a case for releasing him for a better performing arm if that is your only choice or if you utilize Matthew Berry‘s Wandy Line Method for streaming starters.

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