High heat: Scherzer delivering major strikeout numbers
Righty vying for highest K/9 rate since Randy Johnson in 2002
DETROIT -- What if the nastiest pitcher in the American League wears the Old English D?
Well, yeah, Justin Verlander is obvious. Four good pitches he can throw at any time, a 100 mph fastball in the late innings and a mean streak on the mound will do that. Even if he doesn't repeat his AL Cy Young Award, his standing is safe.
But what if, statistically at least, the league's best strikeout pitcher has a different name on the back of his jersey? What if this isn't just another nice summer for Max Scherzer?
It's what many thought was happening when Scherzer was mowing down hitters in the summer of 2010. The way his numbers look now, it's time to wonder again.
"Max is one of those guys, to me, that doesn't know how high his ceiling can be if he doesn't get in the way of himself," Tigers manager Jim Leyland declared earlier this month. "I don't mean that disrespectfully. The point I'm trying to make is, when he realizes how good he can be, there's no ceiling for him. He has a chance to be something special."
Leyland said that in Texas two starts ago, after Scherzer went from nearly making a third-inning exit to recording eight strikeouts over six quality innings for a win.
Others have been hinting at it this season.
"I've seen this guy pitch quite a bit, and he's got a big arm," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said after watching Scherzer strike out 15 Buccos over seven innings in May. "When he gets his breaking ball in play, he's tough. Matching someone like [Mickey] Lolich ... that's good stuff."
Not since Lolich 40 years ago had a Tiger racked up that many strikeouts in a game. Not even Verlander reached that territory back when he tried to strike out everybody early in his career.
Verlander doesn't try for strikeouts, but he still led the Majors with 250 last year. He's leading again with 180, with Scherzer two strikeouts behind. At their current strikeout paces, though, Scherzer will pass Verlander shortly.
At his current pace, Scherzer could leave everyone in the dust.
No pitcher has averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings over a full season, with enough innings to qualify for an ERA title, since Kerry Wood in 2003. Two pitchers are on that pace this year. One is Stephen Strasburg, whose nasty pitching needs no introduction. The other is Scherzer.
Scherzer, with a 11.39 K/9 rate, heads into his start against the Blue Jays on Tuesday at Comerica Park on a higher pace than Strasburg (11.17). Nobody else with enough innings is even averaging a strikeout an inning, though Verlander (8.92) is close.
Considering the Blue Jays entered Monday with more strikeouts (152) than hits (134) in August, Scherzer has a good chance to bump up that rate. Next up on Sunday come the Angels, who rank third in the AL this month in strikeouts.
Scherzer fanned nine Angels over seven innings last month, but that's commonplace. He has nine or more strikeouts in nine starts this year, most among Major League pitchers, and four of his last six outings.
It's getting to the point where even Scherzer has to remember he's not trying to fan everybody.
"Sometimes I have to try to remind myself that I don't try to strike out hitters," Scherzer said Sunday. "Obviously, they're a great result, but you don't want to turn into [a situation] where you're trying to strike somebody out on 0-0 [counts]. That's the mentality that I always try to have. I'm not trying to strike them out, but there are certain situations, when it's an 0-2 count or a 1-2 count, when I want to have a pitch where I want to strike you out."
That, teammates say, is the difference between this summer and 2010. He has more strikeout pitches.
"His stuff has always been the same, as far as an electric fastball, great changeup and a good slider," catcher Alex Avila said. "I would say probably the biggest difference is he's throwing a breaking ball to lefties. Before, he was a two-pitch pitcher to left-handers. Now he's using his whole arsenal against righties and lefties."
When Scherzer fanned 14 A's over 5 2/3 innings on Memorial Day weekend two years ago, he rolled to an 11-7 record, 2.46 ERA, .220 batting average and 158 strikeouts over 153 2/3 innings in his final 23 starts. He overcame a bad opening stretch by becoming consistent with his mechanics.
The fireballer had moments last year, but not stretches. Scherzer's opening month this year was much the same, from 20 strikeouts in 13 innings against the White Sox to a 119-pitch, 4 2/3-inning debacle at Yankee Stadium.
Since that 15-strikeout effort against the Pirates, Scherzer is 10-3 with a 3.64 ERA. More impressive are his 130 strikeouts in a 99-inning span, during which he has allowed just 92 hits.
"From the outside, you can see the inconsistencies, and I'm pitching more consistently," Scherzer said. "But for me personally, where my stuff's at, it's as good as it's ever been. Even early in the year to now, what I'm able to do with all my pitches -- locate them -- I feel very confident going into every single start."
Scherzer feels like a three-pitch pitcher.
Two years ago, Scherzer considered his slider his third pitch, and it showed, comprising just 15 percent of his total pitches, according to STATS, and merely five percent to left-handed hitters. Scherzer didn't believe he could throw a good one every time he needed to.
Scherzer began using the slider more last year, but mostly to right-handed batters. When he reported to Spring Training, he changed his grip to get better movement on it.
So far, Scherzer has thrown nearly the same rate of sliders (18.1 percent) as last year, but more often to lefties, and in all counts. More important, they're better sliders. Hitters are missing on more than 42 percent of their swings to it, compared with 38 percent last year.
When the Red Sox saw it at the end of July, manager Bobby Valentine said at the time, "Guys thought it was kind of devastating."
Opponents hit .253 off Scherzer's slider last year. They're batting .215 now.
"Really, this whole year, it's been there," Scherzer said. "My slider's been very, very good to me."
Scherzer says he feels confidence in all of his pitches. Others feel that as Scherzer's confidence goes, so goes his pitching.
"He complicates it too much once in a while," Leyland said. "That's just an opinion. Once again, I know he'll disagree. That's OK. That's the way I feel. I'm paying him a compliment, because he doesn't really realize yet how he good he is."
The statistics are starting to show it. If Scherzer keeps it up, so will more people.
"When you guys start writing about Max, then he'll get more attention," Avila said. "We know what Max is capable of. We've seen it. He's been doing it for a while now."