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Max Scherzer Establishes With the Fastball in Game One

Max Scherzer has a great changeup. His slider is sharp. He added a curve this year to keep lefties guessing. But early in games, he likes the fastball best. Friday night’s two-run, seven-inning start in the first game of the ALDS was just an extension of that affinity.

Over the past two years, Max Scherzer has thrown a fastball on 59% of his pitches. That’s a little more than league average — once you add in all three versions of the fastball (four-seam, two-seam and sinker) this year, qualified starters have thrown the fastball 55.7% of the time. But if you throw a fastball 93-94 miles per hour, like Scherzer does, you might enjoy throwing the pitch.

Early in games, Scherzer goes to the pitch more often. He’s thrown his fastball 67% of the time in his first two innings since the beginning of 2012. Is it coincidence that those two years have been his two best years? That the last two years have seen his best control?

Looks like it could be just the way the world works. The fastball (sinkers, two-seamers and four-seamers) gets the most strikes per ball, so obviously this helps keeps walks down in the early going. Across baseball, pitchers threw the fastball 59% of the time in the first two innings this year, making Scherzer just a little ahead of league average in that respect. At least, he mirrors the league’s tendency to throw more fastballs early.

In Game One against Oakland, on the other hand, Max Scherzer threw the fastball 78% of the time in the first two innings. In possibly related news, he struck out eleven against two walks in seven innings. He also got as many whiffs off the fastball as he did on his changeup. Was this a one-game strategy related to his control?

Sort of. Scherzer said after the game that he had a game plan going into the game that he had developed with his catcher, but that “when you get into the game, sometimes it changes.” Today? “Today, we noticed that my fastball seemed pretty good and my changeup seemed pretty good,” the Tigers’ ace said, admitting that they featured those two pitches early and “had some success… because of that.”

So maybe Scherzer just went with the fastball today because it was working for him. But the strategy did set him up for later success. He thought he “was able to get into a groove and pitch deep into the game with those two pitches,” for one. And then there’s Scherzer’s belief that the last 15 pitches of the game “indicate how your outing goes.” In order to get the last three hitters of the game out, Scherzer said he went to the changeup and curve (for nine out of 13 pitches) to those three left-handed hitters in order to get through seven and keep his his team in the lead.

Maybe those changeups and curves were set up by all of those 97 mph fastballs in the first two innings. Or maybe he was just throwing those heaters because the hitters couldn’t touch them.