Max Scherzer has been nearly unhittable this season for Detroit. (Photo credit)
As baseball fans, we love the movie Major League for more than it’s comedic value. It has a strong sense of authenticity, especially on it’s representation of the growth of the young gunslinger, Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn. We have seen a great deal of young pitchers who can break in a catcher’s mitt with a couple of tosses, but have no idea how to control their immense power, leaving coaches extremely puzzled on how to transform these projects into aces.
Sometimes these hard-throwers figure it out and become elite pitchers, but other times, they either get thrown into the bullpen or are never heard of again. Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander was once a guy that oozed with potential, but at times had trouble controlling his pitches. His worst statistical seasons were 2007, 2008, and 2010. In these seasons, he racked up 67, 87, and 71 walks, respectively, his highest totals of walks in his career, pointing to an obvious correlation between poor control and poor performances.
The logic behind that correlation is obvious, but fixing the problem is not always as flawless as Verlander made it appear. Bad control usually stems from a pitcher having poor balance and that means that pitching coaches need to dissect these pitcher’s mechanics and make them more beneficial. Being able to make these adjustments smoothly is what determines many pitcher’s careers. Verlander obviously was able to make these adjustments in his last two seasons, which were the best of his career; he totaled 57 and 60 walks, respectively, the two lowest totals of his career.
Another Tigers pitcher who may be in the process of making these adjustments is Max Scherzer. He has not lost a game in 12 starts and has already surpassed the 100-strikeout plateau (116) for the season. We are only in June, people. Strikeouts have never been a statistic that Scherzer has had trouble accumulating. But the problem with strikeout pitchers is that they usually have to throw more pitches to get the batters out. A groundball pitcher can get a batter out with one pitch, but a pitcher who relies more on strikeouts needs a minimum of three pitches to record his outs.
Scherzer’s average pitches per game and average innings pitched per game verify this fact. Not including his rookie season because the sample size is too small, here are Scherzer’s total pitches per game and total innings’ per game throughout his career.
Average Innings Per Start
Average Pitches Per Start
In most of those seasons, Scherzer is amassing over 100 pitches on average without pitching six innings. That is a recipe for a short career full of disappointment. This season, Scherzer is averaging 6.9 innings per start with an average of 105 pitches. So, he is pitching around the same number of pitches, but is doing so over a longer period of time, which suggests he has increased control over his pitches.
Efficiency is the key to a pitcher’s dominance and it appears that Scherzer has finally figured that out. Watching Scherzer pitch this season is like watching Peter Parker realize the extent of his powers in the first Spiderman movie.
Scherzer’s Spiderman powers this season consist of more dependable mechanics and the addition of a curveball. He has always relied on his hard slider as his strikeout pitch, but opposing managers have caught on to this and stacked their lineups with lefties. This makes his slider less effective because a right-hander like Scherzer throwing a slider to a lefty means that the pitch most likely will be in his wheelhouse. But now that he has a curveball, he can throw that with two strikes to lefties and it makes his slider a lot more effective for all batters he faces.
But Scherzer has turned his curveball into two different pitches, which makes a hard thrower like him almost unhittable. He has the control to throw his curveball over for a called strike or with an extreme bite so it falls completely off of the table and lands in the dirt. This means that he can throw a curveball in any pitch count he wants.
Although it is pretty obvious that Scherzer is in the midst of making “the leap,” it’s still a bit premature to say that he is the team’s ace over Justin Verlander. Verlander does have the highest ERA he has had in four seasons, but we should be giving one of the most talented pitchers this game has ever seen some slack. It is far too early to say the best pitcher in baseball just two months ago is not even the king of his rotation anymore.
We must wait at least until the end of this season before making any such proclamation. But that does not mean we should stop enjoying a superhero realize his powers. Scherzer is well on his way to becoming one of the best pitchers in the league and from Wild Thing, to Verlander, to Scherzer, the lesson learned is you can throw as hard as you want, but dominance on the mound always stems from one thing: control.
By: Matt Levine