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Max Scherzer: More Than Meets The Eye

Strikeouts. Max Scherzer has never wanted for strikeouts. 2011 was his worst season as a professional in that regard, and he still struck out about 21 percent of the hitters who faced him. He doesn’t get enough groundballs and he doesn’t throw a lot of complete games, but at the end of the day, Scherzer sends a staggeringly high number of opposing hitters shuffling back to their dugout in shame.

Scherzer’s downsides – an ERA over 4.00 and a WHIP north of 1.30 for his career – were never enough to prevent owners from deriving value from Scherzer, but they absolutely pushed him down draft boards and suppressed his trade value. After his move to Detroit, Scherzer added double-digit wins to his profile, which helped his value in theory, but since most owners know how fickle wins can be, it didn’t do much for his long-term value or perception.

2012 was different. His ERA came down under 4.00, his WHIP dropped under 1.30, and he did it all despite allowing a career-high BABIP of .333. Excluding his wretched start to the season – he had a WHIP over 2.00 in five April starts – Scherzer’s season looks even better with a K% of 31 percent, an ERA of 3.14, and 1.16 WHIP in his 27 subsequent starts.

Perhaps most interesting about Scherzer’s success this season was how wide his platoon split was. Pitchers who put up numbers as good as Scherzer’s were typically don’t show profound difficulty with half the hitters they face, but that’s exactly what happened. Scherzer dominated righties, striking out 35 percent of them and holding them to a .588 OPS with a .201 average. Lefties, on the other hand, mangled him: He struck out “just” 25 percent of them and allowed a downright respectable .831 OPS. Put another way, every lefty he faced turned into Jason Kubel and every righty became Robert Andino, the gulf was that wide. Fortunately, most of the trouble that he got himself into he got out of with a strikeout or two.

There is still a few problems that Scherzer could stand to clean up, he allowed far too many home runs this year for example, but we’re more or less at the point of simply hoping that he can sustain this run of success rather than worrying too much about the minutiae that isn’t quite perfect.

Much of the hesitation I have regarding Scherzer’s 2013 comes from the fact that Scherzer had almost exactly this type of season in 2010 before falling off in 2011. His line drive rate has climbed steadily since 2009 and is now over 22 percent, he allowed a career high 41 percent flyball rate, and even though his HR/FB rate was a little lower than last season, Scherzer still saw plenty of balls leaving the yard. I expect his BABIP to drop from .333, but if he continues to yield line drives at an alarming rate, there’s just no guarantee of that.

A strikeout rate in excess of 30 percent will cover a myriad of woes, and so, once again, Scherzer’s value comes down to his ability to set down hitters with nary a ball in play. Beyond the obvious fantasy utility of strikeouts, Scherzer’s rate stats are largely dependent on his ability to skip away from danger, meaning that even if his strikeout rate drops down to 23 percent, his ERA could see a rather unsightly upturn, which is an unpleasant double whammy even if his raw strikeout numbers are still above average.

The good news is that Scherzer saw a huge upturn in his swinging strike rate, which is more stable than an unforeseen jump in his called strike rate. His slider was particularly effective against righties this year and if he can continue that trend, he has a fighting chance of continuing to work out of the trouble his line drives put him in.