It’s been a strange season for Detroit Tigers stater Max Scherzer and its only the third week of May. Well, maybe strange is too strong of a word. Perhaps interesting is a better choice. And it certainly has been interesting.
Scherzer’s first start of the season, on April 8 against the Boston Red Sox, ended after only 2 2/3 innings. The righty gave up seven runs on eight hits and two walks and was pulled before the end of the third inning. Of his 80 pitches, there were 51 strikes — 16 called strikes and four swing-throughs. The other 31 strikes were either hits or foul balls. Velocity didn’t appear to be an issue. His fastball averaged 93.5 mph, his two-seamer averaged 94.6, his slider averaged 86.6 and his change-up averaged 85.1 — all faster speeds than he recorded on average in 2011. But he threw too many pitches over the heart of the plate, resulting in hits and runs.
Fast forward to Sunday’s game between the Tigers and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Comerica Park. Scherzer was on the mound for the Tigers for his ninth start of the season — sporting a 2-3 record and a 4.37 FIP. At the same time, Scherzer had a 10.1 K/9 rate, the highest of his career. It was a sign of things to come.
Scherzer threw nine pitches in the first inning, all strikes. Jose Tabata led off the game with a fly ball to right field. Then Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen struck out, both swinging. Pedro Alvarez saw the first ball thrown by Scherzer, in the second inning, but struck out on four pitches, swinging. Garrett Jones hit a double, but Scherzer stranded him with a foul pop fly and a strikeout of Rod Barajas, swinging.
There were two more swinging strikeouts in the third inning, three more in the fourth and three more in the fifth. Through five innings, the only blemish for Scherzer was a solo home run from Rod Barajas. Jhonny Peralta tied the score for the Tigers with a solo shot of his own in the bottom of the fifth, but Scherzer gave back the lead again, giving up a solo homer to Neil Walker in the sixth. Oh, and two more swinging strikeouts — for a total of 14 strikeouts in six innings. That tied his career best.
But the pitch count was rising, hitting 102 at the end of the sixth inning. Still, Scherzer was back on the mound for the 7th, recording his 15th strikeout of the day off Josh Harrison and then getting Rod Barajas and Nate McLouth to fly out. The strikeout of Harrison was swinging, of course.
After the Tigers rallied to take a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh, Scherzer’s day was done: 115 pitches and 80 strikes. Forty-two strikes were by contact, 21 by swing-throughs and 17 as called by the home-plate umpire. Like his first start of the year in early April, Scherzer had excellent velocity on all four of his pitches. He averaged 94.6 mph on his four-seam fastball, 94.2 on his two-seamer, 86.3 on his slider and 86.7 on his change-up. But unlike his first start, Scherzer did a much better job locating his pitches up in the zone, down in the zone and on the corners.
Scherzer is the first pitcher in the majors this season to record 15 strikeouts in a game. Cliff Lee struck out 16 in a game last season. Jered Weaver struck out 15, also last season. According to STATS LLC, the last pitcher to record 15 strikeouts in a game, all by swinging, was Mike Scott of the Houston Astros, which came against the Cincinnati Reds on June 8, 1990.
Scherzer’s current 11.65 K/9 leads all major league pitchers this season. His next best season was 2009 — when he posted a 9.19 K/9 rate — which was good for 10th best in the league. If he keeps this up, perhaps he can hit 17 in game, which Brandon Morrow accomplished in 2010; or Scherzer could reach 18, which Ben Sheets did in 2004.
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