There was a time, not all that long ago, when Max Scherzer was about as predictable as the weather.
If you were Tigers manager Jim Leyland, you trotted Max out every fifth day and closed your eyes.
There’s nothing that will turn a manager’s hair gray faster than not knowing what he’s going to get from his starting pitchers on a consistent basis. And that’s just from start to start; Leyland didn’t know what he was going to get from Scherzer inning to inning—sometimes, from batter to batter.
Scherzer’s right arm was full of what baseball people like to say is “good stuff,” only he didn’t know how to harness it. His arm was as volatile as nitroglycerin.
The Tigers acquired Scherzer from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the three-team trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees after the 2009 season. The Tigers needed Scherzer as another starter to replace the departed Edwin Jackson.
Scherzer was 25 at the time, and the book on him at Arizona was that he had that good stuff but he was rawer than an oyster bar.
Max could strike guys out, but he could also walk them into a merry-go-round on the base paths. He could have a short and sweet 1-2-3 inning or a 40-pitch frame with more foot traffic than Grand Central Station.
The Tigers soon discovered that the scouting report on Scherzer was dead solid perfect—he was the human roller coaster.
It was Cy Young one day, and Sigh Young five days later.
Scherzer’s arm was alive, alright, but it was like what a scout once said about a young Sandy Koufax.
“Koufax would be a great pitcher,” the scout said, “if the plate was high and outside.”
Scherzer was installed in the Tigers rotation in 2010 and not having seen him pitch before, I thought the young man was trying to throw his arm to home plate, along with the baseball.
Scherzer, at the time, had what is known as a “violent” delivery. His windup was designed to gain power from his legs, which he then used to whip-snap the baseball from his right hand like it had cut him off in traffic.
It was anyone’s guess as to where the baseball was going at that point.
It wasn’t that Scherzer was ridiculously wild. In his only full season with the Diamondbacks, he averaged about 3.5 walks per nine innings.
He just threw a lot of pitches. Like, a ton of them. He was about as efficient as the government.
The Tigers presumably knew what they were getting in Scherzer, which was a big arm who could be a fixture in their rotation, as long as he could be refined. They hoped that he could, one day, be a nice complement to their ace, Justin Verlander.
The growing pains weren’t easy.
Scherzer won 12 games for the Tigers in 2010, against 11 losses. His ERA was a very manageable 3.50 in 31 starts.
But he was one of those guys whose season-ending numbers belied what you saw on a daily basis—and that was a laborious pitcher who averaged just six innings per start and who would frequently have to muddle through innings that were so long, they needed an intermission.
Scherzer kept striking guys out along the way—nearly one per inning in 2010. The strikeouts were nice but they also added to his pitch counts. He didn’t toss a complete game all season.
In 2011, Scherzer started 33 games, and didn’t quite average six innings per start. His ERA ballooned to 4.43—nearly a full run per game higher than the previous year. But he won 15 games and lost only nine as the Tigers offense was a higher octane brew than in 2010.
In the ALCS against the Rangers, Scherzer had a meltdown in the decisive Game 6 in Texas. The Tigers needed a win to force Game 7.
The start in Game 6 illustrated all there was to be annoyed with when it came to Max Scherzer.
He lasted just 2-1/3 innings, surrendering five hits and six runs. He walked four, displaying the Maddening Max that had bedeviled the Tigers all season long. If the measuring stick of a starting pitcher is that he gives his team a chance to win, Scherzer failed miserably when the Tigers needed him the most.
The violent throwing motion and the laborious innings were enough, in tandem, to think that Scherzer may never truly be a top flight pitcher. His elevated ERA in 2011 added to the feeling.
Meanwhile, Verlander was capturing the AL Cy Young and the league MVP awards with his brilliant 2011 season. He needed his Robin to his Batman.
Right-hander Doug Fister, acquired via trade from Seattle in July 2011, showed some flashes of being Verlander’s second banana. But Scherzer, by far, had the most alluring arm. He had the nitroglycerin.
Scherzer arrived in Lakeland in 2012 with two Tigers seasons under his belt. In both, he showed flashes of brilliance and flashes in the pan. Consistency had eluded him.
It got worse before it got better.
After eight starts last year, Scherzer was 2-3 with a 6.26 ERA. In the eight starts, he managed to pitch just 41-2/3 innings. He was averaging almost four walks per nine innings. He issued seven walks in an April start in New York.
Then it all came together.
After those first eight starts, Scherzer pitched 146 innings with an ERA of about 3.00, with a 14-4 record. His stuff was still mesmerizing, but more harnessed. He was more Mad Max now. He was Verlander light—and that’s not meant to be a knock. But Scherzer still hasn’t thrown a complete game in the majors.
Scherzer is 8-0 this season with an ERA of 3.24 and he’s pitching as good as his record looks. He has 100 strikeouts against just 20 walks in 83 innings. He is perhaps the Tigers’ true ace right now, as Verlander continues to work through some issues that have knocked him back a notch.
Scherzer’s wind-up is still powerful, but the arm motion isn’t quite as violent. There’s more fluidity now. The strikeouts keep piling up, but the walks are down. His manager pretty much knows what to expect from Mad Max every fifth day.
If Scherzer was on any team that didn’t have Verlander on it, Max would be that team’s ace, by far.
He might be that, anyway, with the Tigers.
Isn’t that mad?