To whatever extent that Max Scherzer cares about these things, the good news is that Tigers fans are already preoccupied with worry over Justin Verlander, who was dismantled again on Monday. So Scherzer’s struggles can stay a little more hidden. But the bad news is that, with the Tigers stuck in such a slump, people will be inclined to worry more in general, and so there’s anxiety beyond just Verlander anxiety. There’s anxiety wherever anxiety’s possible, because the Tigers keep losing and the Royals keep winning. The Royals, right now — right now — right now — actually own sole possession of first place in the AL Central. The math keeps saying it won’t keep up, but math has never tucked someone in and read a nice bedtime story. Math doesn’t go to the store to get medicine and a Gatorade when you’re sick.
Tuesday night, the Royals were playing for first place, and they’d have to go through either Scherzer or the Tigers bullpen. They opted for the hard way and made it look like the easy way, sticking Scherzer with a full ten runs. When the second inning began, the teams were deadlocked at zero. About 30 minutes and 30 seconds later, Scherzer looked to the skies and left the mound, with the Royals suddenly up by a touchdown. Though the Tigers immediately countered with a safety, the margin would never get closer than that. A possible pitchers’ duel turned into a one-sided ambush, and in the process, the Royals forced Scherzer to set some new marks.
Here’s the thing about that second inning: Scherzer started it, and Scherzer completed it. Not only did it take more than half an hour — Scherzer racked up 51 pitches in the individual frame. His previous longest inning lasted 44 pitches. In third place, 41 pitches, with everything else below 40. And this wasn’t only a high for Scherzer — that’s the most pitches any pitcher has thrown in an inning this season. On April 12, James Shields did get up to 50, but 50 isn’t quite 51. The last time someone threw more than 51 pitches in an inning was June 29 of 2013, when Wade Davis reached 53. Wade Davis no longer starts.
Jake Peavy reached 53 once in 2008. Paul Maholm reached 54 once in 2010. As far as I can tell, the record, at least since this started being recorded, is 61, established by Bartolo Colon on April 9, 1997. So while Scherzer didn’t exactly make baseball history, he did make recent baseball history, which is only a slightly worse spinoff of history. The most important general point being, Max Scherzer is supposed to be great, and the Royals worked him like the starting version of Wade Davis.
One wonders how high Scherzer might’ve been able to go. He pitched into the fifth, and he didn’t record his outs in the second until the final three batters. The beginning sequence:
With any inning so disastrous, there are going to be certain elements of bad luck, but it’s not like Scherzer didn’t deserve the biggest blows. The first homer, in a 1-and-0 count:
Fastball, middle-middle. The second homer, in a full count:
Changeup, middle-middle. The two-run single that made it 6-0, in a 1-and-2 count:
Fastball, middle-middle. Scherzer made bad pitches at bad times. Bad pitches aren’t always hit hard, but they’re definitely hit hard more often than good pitches, and this is why DIPS theory doesn’t really apply so much to individual innings and individual games. Scherzer, within the inning, demonstrated almost no command, missing either out of the zone or within it. The Royals punished some of his mistakes, and that’s how a seven-run inning happens that both is a fluke and isn’t.
The top of the second began with a 91mph fastball that Billy Butler took. It ended with a 95mph fastball that Alex Gordon took, for strike three, with the count 1-and-2. That closing fastball would be the fastest pitch Scherzer threw in the game, and what’s suggested is that he put as much as he could into the heater to just try and finally end it. Scherzer saw his first good opportunity to bring the inning to a close, and that was one pitch he made count. Given that it was away off the plate, it easily could’ve been called a ball, and then one wonders what Scherzer had left in the tank.
You might assume that, Tuesday, Scherzer simply didn’t have it. Everybody is entitled to an off-night, and maybe Scherzer just didn’t have the right feel for his pitches. But, in the top of the first, Scherzer set the Royals down 1-2-3, on ten pitches, with a strikeout. In the top of the third, he set the Royals down 1-2-3, on nine pitches, with a strikeout. Scherzer had it, then he didn’t have it to an extreme degree, like a four-standard-deviations-away-from-the-mean degree, then he had it again. Conventional wisdom states that there are nights when pitchers don’t have their stuff. What research has indicated is that bad innings aren’t actually particularly predictive. Feel can come and go, between innings and between pitches, and it’s not like Scherzer was doomed from the get-go. He just wound up getting his ass kicked in the span of 30 minutes.
As an isolated instance, Tuesday’s game was a curiosity. But it followed Monday’s game in which Verlander came apart, and if you squint, you can see that Scherzer has struck out just 22% of batters since May 10. Previously, he’d been around 29% for a while. Over the span he’s been charged with 33 runs in 51 innings, and while it’s not like his situation looks as worrisome as Verlander’s, the Tigers have already been dealing with Verlander. They don’t need another ace to have to try to figure some things out, and even if Scherzer isn’t in trouble, he hasn’t pitched at 100%. The Tigers projected as favorites because they held, over their rivals, certain advantages. As those advantages erode, so do the odds. It was one thing to lose with Verlander, because Verlander has been struggling. Now Max Scherzer doesn’t even seem immune.
Over a 30-minute second inning, the Royals handed Max Scherzer his ass and put themselves in position to coast into first place. As of right now, we still project the Tigers to win the division two-thirds of the time, with the Royals and Indians combining for the rest. Most people around here are familiar with the value of the projections, but I suspect many of them hold different odds in their heads. It could be, that’s being too easily biased by recent events. It could be, it’s not that.
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