Right-hander Max Scherzer looked poised to team with Dan Haren for years to come, giving the Diamondbacks an elite one-two punch at the top of the rotation. However, after January’s three-team headliner between the Yankees, Tigers and D-Backs, Scherzer now heads to Detroit to miss scads of bats alongside Justin Verlander.
Taken out of Missouri with the 11th overall pick in the 2006 amateur draft, Scherzer didn’t sign on the dotted line right away. The 6-5 power pitcher had a good, not great junior season for the Tigers, missing a run of starts with biceps and shoulder tendinitis. Baseball America said that Scherzer “only flashed” his mid-to-upper 90’s fastball velocity, generally sitting at 91-92 MPH. Scouts also had concerns about his herky-jerky delivery, as well as his promising-but-inconsistent hard slider and changeup.
With Scherzer still seeking top-line cash, negotiations between Arizona and agent Scott Boras moved at a glacial pace. This was before baseball instituted a mid-August signing deadline in 2007-prior to ’07, teams retained the rights to a player up to one week prior to the next year’s draft. Scherzer kept sharp by pitching for the independent Fort Worth Cats. Eventually, Arizona ponied up $4.3 million in guaranteed money, with $1.5 million in incentives.
Max finally took a pro mound in 2007. He started his career in the High-A California League, scorching hitters for a 30/2 K/BB ratio and a 0.53 ERA in 17 IP and quickly earning a promotion to the Double-A Southern League. In 14 AA starts covering 73.2 frames, Scherzer struck out 9.3 batters per nine innings. His control left something to be desired (4.9 BB/9), but he posted a 3.46 FIP.
Following the ’07 season, Baseball America named Scherzer the fourth-best prospect in a loaded Arizona system (Carlos Gonzalez, Jarrod Parker and Brett Anderson ranked ahead of him). BA gushed over his fastball, which hit the “mid-90’s with sinking action at its best.” Scherzer’s upper-80’s slider also impressed, though it was inconsistent.
However, they also noted that “some scouts who saw Scherzer as a starter at midseason wondered what the fuss was about.” His heater sat in the low-90’s, and “his overall stuff, command, feel and delivery all drew questions.” A dominant showing in relief in the Arizona Fall League (18 K in 12.2 IP) seemed to reinforce the concept that Scherzer could end up as a closer instead of a starter.
Scherzer began the 2008 season starting at Triple-A Tucson of the Pacific Coast League, but he was summoned to the majors in late April. He oscillated between the rotation and the ‘pen before being sent back to AAA in mid-June. Unfortunately, he came down with a case of shoulder inflammation, missing a month of the season. After a few relief appearances with the Sidewinders, Scherzer transitioned back to the minor league rotation in late July. Recalled to Arizona in late August, Max had a pair of relief stints and then spent September in the major league rotation. Whew-got all that?
In AAA, Scherzer simply outclassed the competition. He whiffed 13.4 batters per nine with 3.7 BB/9. Max’s FIP was a microscopic 2.07 in 53 innings. When batters weren’t swinging and missing wildly, they were chopping the ball into the ground (51.7 GB%).
With the Diamondbacks, Scherzer made seven starts and nine relief appearances in 56 IP. Overall, he displayed an impressive combo of power (10.61 K/9) and control (3.38 BB/9). Scherzer’s xFIP was just 3.19.
His stuff was as wicked as advertised. Scherzer sat at 94 MPH with his fastball, tossing the pitch about 73 percent of the time. That gas was supplemented by a mid-80’s slider (thrown 17 percent) and changeup (10 percent). Scherzer’s fastball had a +0.63 run value per 100 pitches, and his slider bucked knees for a +3.79 mark. The changeup lagged behind, though the sample size was small (-3.29). Scherzer pounded the strike zone, placing 54.7 percent of his pitches over the plate (51.1% MLB average in ’08), and his 72.9% contact rate was well below the 80.8% big league average.
In 2009, Scherzer began the year on the DL with shoulder fatigue and tightness. Max became a full-time starter after his activation in mid-April, taking the mound 30 times and throwing 170.1 innings. The 25 year-old was extremely hard to hit, punching out 9.19 batters per nine innings. His 76.9% contact rate was 14-lowest among starters, and his 10.4 swinging strike rate placed 16th among starters (7.8% average for SP).
Scherzer’s control was solid as well. He issued a modest 3.33 BB/9, while getting ahead of batters with a 61.3 first-pitch strike percentage (58% MLB average). With a 3.88 xFIP, Scherzer placed in the top 20 among NL starters.
Max’s fastball didn’t lose much zip while making all of his appearances as a starter, sitting at 93.6 MPH. He still called on the pitch heavily: Scherzer’s 71% fastball usage was seventh-highest among starters. That heater was slightly below average on a per-pitch basis (-0.11 runs/100). Scherzer’s 85 MPH slider (thrown 12 percent) posted a +0.58 runs/100 value, while his changeup checked in at -0.61.
The high-octane righty subdued same-handed batters, holding right-handed hitters to a 92 sOPS+ (he performed eight percent better than the league average vs. RHB). Lefties fared better, with a 103 sOPS+.
In moving from Chase Field to Comerica Park, Scherzer goes from a hitter’s paradise to a park that still favors offense, though not to the same extent. According to the 2010 Bill James Handbook, Chase inflated run-scoring by 15 percent compared to a neutral ball park from 2007-2009. Over that same time period, Comerica boosted runs by five percent.
Overall, Scherzer’s first year as a permanent starter was extremely promising. Many have wondered why the Diamondbacks shipped him out of town, preferring two years of team control over Edwin Jackson and six years of Ian Kennedy over five years of Scherzer and six years of Daniel Schlereth.
The most likely reason is that Arizona doubts Scherzer’s long-term health and viability as a starting pitcher. To recap his extensive injury history since 2006: shoulder and biceps tendinitis in ’06, shoulder inflammation in 2008, shoulder fatigue and tightness in 2009. His health certainly bears watching, especially considering that Scherzer’s innings total increased from 109 in 2008 to 175 in 2009 (major league innings plus one rehab start).
There’s little doubt that Scherzer has the talent to become one of the top 20-30 starters in the majors. Few pitchers combine his ability to miss bats with quality control. The question is: can he hold up physically?
Injury information taken from the Fantasy Pitch F/X DL Tool
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