Washington Nationals: Can Max Scherzer overtake Jacob deGrom as the best pitcher in the MLB?
By Max Rayman
Max Scherzer suffered from injuries in 2019 and struggled once he returned. Can he put that behind him and take back the title of best pitcher in the league?
The title of the best pitcher in the majors has bounced around over the last few years. For most of the 2010s, Clayton Kershaw had that title on lock, and looked like was never going to relinquish it. Then the sad side of baseball hit. Kershaw became plagued by injuries. As Kershaw fought through the various injuries, Max Scherzer rose to the challenge and took the title of best pitcher in the league for himself. From 2015-2018, Scherzer was on another level. In that time span, he won two Cy Youngs (2016, 2017), placed second in 2018, threw two no-hitters, had a 300 strikeout season, and tied the record for most strikeouts in a game (20). But no one stays on top forever, and in 2018 a new challenger emerged. Jacob deGrom. deGrom won the Cy Young over Scherzer in 2018 after posting a ridiculous 1.70 ERA and followed it up by winning again in 2019. Scherzer finished third in the voting in 2019 thanks to missing most of the second half with shoulder and back injuries. This was the first time in his career that he was placed on the IL. deGrom then passed him as the game’s best starter. Now that he is going into his age 36 season, and recovering from injury, can Scherzer pass deGrom for best pitcher in the league once again?
Can Scherzer rise back to the top?
From 2017-2019, deGrom and Scherzer were almost identical in stats. Over the last three years, Scherzer is 45-20, with an ERA of 2.64, 811 strikeouts, and held opposing hitters to a .195 average. In that same span, deGrom is 36-27, with an ERA of 2.53, 763 strikeouts, and held opposing hitters to a .213 average. Keep in mind, in the last three season deGrom threw 622.1 innings compared to Scherzer, who threw 593.2 innings.
The current knock against Scherzer is that he will be entering his age 36 season and is coming off of multiple injuries. It is proven that players are more injury-prone the older they get. After missing most of the second half last season, Scherzer’s injury reoccurred during the World Series. The righty was scratched from his game five start due to neck cramps. Thanks to a cortisone shot, Scherzer was able to start game seven. On the wrong side of 30, Scherzer will need to prove the injury was a fluke. However, his peripherals show that age is slowly catching up to the future Hall of Famer. Last year, opponents batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, and OPS were all up from compared to 2018. To make matters worse, Scherzer posted a career-high in hard rate contact against him (35.7%). At the same time, he struggled when he came back from injury. After returning, he made eight starts and his stats suffered. Before the All-Star Break, Scherzer went 9-5, with a 2.30 ERA, and 181 strikeouts while holding opposing batters to a .215 average. Scherzer’s injury occurred over the All-Star break and he only made eight second-half starts because of it. Once returning from injury, Scherzer went 2-2, with a 4.81 ERA, and 62 strikeouts, while holding opposing batters to a .241 average.
In the last few years, Scherzer has reinvented how he pitches to opposing hitters. Early on his career, he relied heavily on his fastball, and less on his breaking stuff. Over the last few years, Scherzer has switched it up and has tended to rely less on his fastball and more on his breaking stuff, especially his slider. Due to this, Scherzer has been throwing his fastball harder. In 2019 he set a career-high in average fastball velocity (94.9). Scherzer can now avoid losing velocity for the time being due to age, and can still blow pitches, past people.
Another reason to believe Scherzer can continue his dominance is that since 2016, his FIP has gone down every year. He posted a 3.24 in 2016, a 2.90 in 2017, a 2.65 in 2018, and a 2.45 in 2019. To put it in perspective, deGrom’s FIP has fluctuated during that same span. deGrom posted a 3.32 in 2016, a 3.50 in 2017, a 1.99 in 2018, and a 2.67 in 2019. In fact, last season, Scherzer posted a career-high in K/9 (12.69). Scherzer might benefit from having a lighter load in 2019 and has spent the off-season rebuilding his strength.
Scherzer’s biggest priority will be to prove he can stay healthy. That will be key to showing if his numbers were affected due to injury, or if Father Time was finally catching up? Even if he stays healthy, it will be tough for Scherzer to take his title back. After all, deGrom is younger and has less mileage on his arm. However, Scherzer’s recent FIP and K/9 show he can still terrorize opposing hitters. Health is the biggest issue, but if he can put it on the backburner, expect Scherzer to return to top form.