Even with all that we know about ERA and how questionable it can be in evaluating the value of a pitcher, a 4.98 mark is still pretty ugly, especially in the lowered offensive environment we’re seeing this year. In fact, it’s so ugly that it ranks among the bottom 10% or so of all qualified major league pitchers, mostly above struggling youngsters like Jake Arrieta, Luke Hochevar, Hector Noesi, & Mike Minor, along with whatever it is that’s ruining Tim Lincecum‘s career. It’s not a great group to be in, but for Detroit starter Max Scherzer, that 4.98 stands out as a phenomenal reason to target him as the trade deadline nears.
If you look at that list of poor ERA starters, two things immediately stand out about Scherzer. First, his FIP is a much more reasonable 3.76, one of the highest ERA-FIP differentials in the game; second, his K/9 rate is an outstanding 11.36. Other than Stephen Strasburg‘s 11.81, no other starting pitcher in baseball has a higher mark, and I’m guessing you could win a lot of bar bets by knowing that the highest K rate in the American League belongs to Scherzer, not Felix Hernandez or Yu Darvish or Justin Verlander.
Of course, you don’t get to such a high ERA by accident, and in Scherzer’s case, there’s some pretty obvious reasons behind that. You can point to his 1.39/9 homer rate, high even for a pitcher who doesn’t have the built-in advantage of Comerica Park, and his .359 BABIP, far above his career mark of .318. The BABIP gap may be a little tough to fully overcome, given the atrocious defense the Tigers roll out behind him on a nightly basis, but everything else is trending in the right direction.
Part of the trouble with the perception of Scherzer is that his first start of the year was a nightmare, having allowed seven earned runs in just 2 2/3 innings against Boston on April 8. Take out that one start, and his ERA is all the way down to just 4.40 since. That disastrous game meant that it took him until May to get his ERA even below seven, and while that may be unfair to judge him on based on what we know about small sample sizes, it’s still what was next to his name on the television graphics every five days, and that absolutely has not helped him in the eyes of fans. (As one of just many examples of this, one I notice because I’m a Dodger fan, it seems that few Los Angeles supporters have noticed that Bobby Abreu is hitting just .192/.292/.295 since May 31, since his great start for the club meant his line looked excellent on television every night. First impressions are always taken more seriously than they should be.)
As you can see, Scherzer’s been a different pitcher since the midway point of the first half:
First 8 starts: 6.26 ERA, .867 OPS against, .410 BABIP
Second 8 starts: 3.88 ERA, .705 OPS against, .318 BABIP
Even the home run problem is starting to turn, because after allowing 13 in his first 12 starts, he’s given up just one in his last four – and even that one came off the bat of Andrew McCutchen, one of the best young hitters in the game. Scherzer’s luck and performance are beginning to stablize, yet the excellent strikeout rate has remained.
As a cherry on top – for our purposes, anyway – Scherzer missed his last start earlier this week with left hamstring tightness. It’s not expected to be serious, and he is on track to make his next start against Kansas City this weekend, but it does mean he’s showing up on fantasy rosters with a big red “DTD” or “+” next to his name, which always gives an owner that nice feeling of impending doom. So what you’ve got here is a guy who is missing bats better than any starter in his league, is seeing his unreasonable BABIP start to regress, and seems to be undervalued – he’s not even owned in 100% of ESPN or Yahoo! leagues – because of a high ERA and a minor injury.
All that being the case… yes, please, I will buy a Max Scherzer.