Looking for the Next Max Scherzer

For a long time, Max Scherzer had been heralded as a future superstar. It was his bonus demands more than anything else that drove him down to the Diamondbacks’ 11th overall pick in the 2006 draft. Though he made quick work of the minor leagues, there were some speed bumps along the way, and he was part of a three-team deal that landed him in Detroit prior to the 2010 season. His peripherals screamed “superstar” early in his major league career – high K rate, couple with a high popup rate. In 2012, the K rate jumped to another level, and in 2013, everything fell into place, resulting in his long-awaited breakout and a Cy Young Award. He did everything but pitch his first career complete game. (Seriously.) Let’s take a look at a couple of pitchers with some very interesting peripherals who have a chance to “pull a Scherzer” in 2014.

By no means are the two pitchers discussed below an exhaustive list of potential 2014 pitching breakthroughs. Just last week I discussed Justin Masterson, a leading 2014 “Scherzer” candidate. Edinson Volquez won’t pull a Scherzer, though he could pull a (Francisco) Liriano. One of the pitchers we will cover today has displayed a singular ability to manage a certain type of batted ball contact, akin to Scherzer’s proclivity for popups. The other, as Scherzer did earlier in his career, significantly underperformed his peripherals in 2013.

Andrew Cashner, 27, and Jeff Samardzija, 29, were both originally drafted by the Cubs, and more specifically by scouting legend Tim Wilken. To get a better feel for their respective 2013 seasons, let’s take a closer look at their K and BB rates and batted-ball frequencies by type.

Cashner % REL PCT
K 18.7% 94 42
BB 6.9% 89 35
POP 5.5% 71 19
FLY 25.0% 88 24
LD 19.6% 92 19
GB 49.9% 117 86
Samardzija % REL PCT
K 24.6% 124 89
BB 9.0% 117 75
POP 8.5% 109 71
FLY 23.9% 85 15
LD 22.4% 105 70
GB 45.2% 106 69

Based on his scouting reports as an amateur, a minor leaguer and young major leaguer, one never would have expected Cashner to post below league average K and BB rates at this stage in his career. Personally, no pitcher has registered more 100+ MPH pitchers on my radar gun than Cashner, whom I have seen reach 102. Most pitchers with big arms who are transitioning from the bullpen to the rotation have higher than average K and BB rates. He possesses a strong ground ball tendency, and his line drive rate was quite low in 2013. The latter should be expected to somewhat regress to the mean in 2014.

Samardzija’s batted-ball profile is Scherzer-esque in a couple of ways. First, like many young, stuff-oriented pitchers – but unlike Cashner – his K and BB rates are well above average. This is actually a positive thing – as long as a stuff-oriented pitcher has a repeatable delivery and a foundation for strikethrowing, improved command should eventually come. Even Randy Johnson learned to throw quality strikes, and his early-career command was much worse than Samardzija’s. Secondly, he induces lots of popups, which coupled with the K’s, means lots of free outs. Unlike Scherzer, who leans heavily toward fly balls, Samardzija had a strong ground ball tendency in 2013. His line drive rate has been fairly high in both of his years as a regular starter, something that bears watching going forward.

Next, let’s take a look at the production allowed by both pitchers in 2013 by batted-ball type:

FLY 0.236 0.598 66 64
LD 0.680 0.930 111 98
GB 0.193 0.197 63 104
ALL BIP 0.284 0.427 74 82
ALL PA 0.228 0.280 0.343 76 83 3.09 2.96 3.20
FLY 0.297 0.862 124 109
LD 0.713 1.008 126 97
GB 0.249 0.261 108 95
ALL BIP 0.339 0.547 114 94
ALL PA 0.251 0.316 0.404 101 86 4.34 3.91 3.33

For both pitchers, the actual AVG and SLG allowed on the three major batted ball types is listed. In the “REL PRD” column, these actual results are translated to a run value relative to the MLB average, scaled to 100. That figure is then adjusted for ballpark, team defense, luck, etc., in the “ADJ PRD” column. The K’s and BB’s are added back in the last row, and the last three columns list both pitchers’ actual ERA, their calculated component ERA based on actual AVG-SLG allowed, and their “tru” ERA, which takes into account, ballpark, team defense, luck, etc..

The most notable aspect of Cashner’s batted-ball production profile is his ability to manage fly ball contact. Very, very quietly, Petco Park became somewhat of a launching pad in 2013, when the fences were brought in by a significant margin. Despite this, Cashner’s fly ball production allowed was limited to a Clayton Kershaw-esque level. He got a bit lucky on the ground ball side, as his hard/soft ground ball rates allowed don’t support his actual relative production level of 63. His overall BIP adjusted production level of 82 was topped only by Justin Masterson, Kershaw and Matt Harvey among regular MLB starters last season. Since his K and BB rates are unremarkable, his overall adjusted production level nudges upward to 83, with a “tru” ERA of 3.20.

If Cashner can maintain his 2013 contact management ability while missing more bats, the Scherzer-esque breakthrough could happen. This is not unfathomable, considering that he is one of the few human beings on the planet to ever throw a baseball 102 MPH.

Samardzija, on the other hand, was as unlucky a starting pitcher as you could find in 2013. Overall, he allowed an actual .339-.547 line on all BIP combined, well worse than MLB average, for a 114 relative production figure. Once ballpark, team defense, luck, etc., are taken into account, however, that figure drops all the way to 94, better than league average. His hard/soft fly ball levels still support a below league average 109 relative production level, but that’s not a huge deal, as he doesn’t allow that many fly balls. The line drives and ground balls he allowed were hit with less than league average authority, though the actual production he allowed on them was well above average. Samardzija was also a victim of sequencing last season – his actual ERA of 4.34 is well higher than his calculated component ERA if 3.91, which is higher by an even larger margin than his “tru” ERA of 3.33, which takes context into account. Without changing a single thing, Samardzija is a full run better than his actual 2013 ERA suggested.

To take the next step and “pull a Scherzer”, Samardzija must do two things, both of which quite possible for a pitcher of his age and athleticism level. First, the walk level needs to come down. Secondly, the line drive rate – which has been higher than league average in both of his seasons as a regular starter – must drop quite a bit. Team defense is likely going to be a priority of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer moving forward, which should help him down the road, assuming he is not used as a trade chip.

Both Cashner (6’6″, 220) and Samardzija (6’5″, 225) are large, physical presences with big-time arms. Both averaged exactly 94.6 MPH on their fastball last year, and both can and have thrown it much harder when needed. They have similar repertoires, featuring a fastball/slider combination. Cashner fills out his three-pitch mix with a changeup, Samardzija, also throws a cutter and splitter. Cashner spots his fastball much better, but misses fewer bats with it. Samardzija’s slider is the most advanced secondary offering. Both have fairly significant, normal platoon splits.

Every year, a pitcher or pitchers makes a large step forward toward the very top of their class. Andrew Cashner can throw 100 MPH, spots his fastball, limits fly ball contact authority about as well as any starting pitcher in baseball and has a strong ground ball tendency. Jeff Samardzija has a very attractive high K/high popup combination, and supplements it with a solid amount of weak ground ball contact. It is not a stretch to say that, with little more than normal development, these two pitchers rank among the leading candidates to step up and “pull a Scherzer” in 2014.

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