- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2015

The easy part, what’s so clear to Max Scherzer and anyone who breezes through his statline, is identifying the main issue. His 27 home runs allowed scream bloody murder. The rest of his numbers show a season of dominance.

The hard part is the identifying holes in the process that led to those balls flying out.

Scherzer signed seven-year, $210 million contract to join the Nationals in the offseason. During his time in Washington, his full name will always include the whopping financial figure the Nationals are paying him, mixed into any introduction like a childhood nickname. When he struggles, the figure will be cited in between groans.

He has one start remaining. It comes Saturday against the National League East champion New York Mets. Scherzer will spend his final appearance of the year surrounded by fans delighting in the Nationals’ failure.

When he’s done, his pitching line will be filled with powerful numbers. He’ll hit career highs in strikeouts and likely innings pitched; he needs one more inning to set that mark. His WAR will be the second-highest of his career, a few ticks behind his Cy Young-winning season in 2013. Most of his other numbers also align with that year. His ERA and WHIP are a near match.

But, he’ll move into his first offseason with the Nationals with the home runs gnawing at him. Of the 71 earned runs Scherzer allowed before his final start, 37 came from home runs. His career high in home runs allowed is 29. That total was reached in 2011 during his worst major-league season. He’s two away from that felonious number.

“I need to find a way to cut down the home runs,” Scherzer said. “I’ve given up way too many home runs this year. That’s been the symptom of why I feel like I’ve struggled — why, in the second half, I haven’t pitched as well as I know I am capable of. My stuff’s there. Feel like the pitches are there. That’s going to take a while for me to digest everything after the season, to come up with a clear-cut answer and really think about it. This isn’t just a little, ‘Oh, you make a mistake.’ It’s not that. There’s other things at play I’m going to have to critique myself over and that’s going to happen after the season.”

Scherzer has allowed home runs to the dangerous, like Miami Marlins strongman Giancarlo Stanton. But, the meek, like Ben Revere, a speed man who has two home runs this season in 580 at-bats, have also popped long balls off him. The home runs have come early in the count, nine on the first or second pitch, and late in the count: Nine have occurred after five pitches or more. Most were mid-thigh or higher, meaning if the pitch was up, it had a much better chance of going out. Of the 27, 19 have been solo home runs. A majority, 20, have been on fastballs.

“My fastball is my fastball,” Scherzer said. “It’s my best pitch. I’m not going to sit here and not throw fastballs because I’ve given up home runs on fastballs. That’s where you have to use your mind at the next level: OK, what’s the real symptom here? Is it execution? Is it the sequence? Is it location? It’s all those things combined that, to me, I feel like that’s the reason why I feel like I’ve given up so many home runs. It’s just not something you can’t answer over night.

“That’s why these last two starts [since postseason elimination] are important because the tidbits, the direction I do think where I need to correct myself, I’ve got to figure out if that’s real life or not. And, so, for me, I just can’t give you a simple answer or a complex answer because I don’t have a complete feel yet.”

According to Fangraphs.com, he’s never thrown his fastball harder. At an average of 94.2 mph, Scherzer is throwing it as hard as 2012, and his rookie season of 2008, when his toolbox was filled with a hammer and little else. He’s used his fastball more frequently this season than he has since 2012, throwing it 59.3 percent of the time. It has resulted in 74.1 percent of the home runs he has given up.

Scherzer is sure the home run problem is not as simple as throwing his fastball too often.

“I can throw more off speed, give up more home runs on off-speed [pitches], and we’re in the same boat,” Scherzer said.

An anomaly for Scherzer this year has been his second-half struggles. His previous career numbers showed the second half was historically better than his first, particularly in regard to home runs. It’s a point of pride. Scherzer wants his best punch still loaded in the late rounds, whether that means the 120th pitch in a game or his 30th start. But, the post-all-star break home run binge by opponents has pulled his ERA for those months into average-pitcher territory. It was 2.11 in the first half, before bloating to 4.11 in the second. That rise is in line with the increase in home runs allowed, from 10 to 17.

On Monday, during the Nationals’ final home game, Scherzer looked en route to his second no-hitter of the season. He finally gave up a single in the eighth inning. Afterward, he explained the tussle his analytic brain has with his fighting spirit.

“Last start, how I finished, I competed as hard as I could, but didn’t use my mind as well as I probably should have,” Scherzer said. “Used my intensity instead of my mind. Whereas [Monday], I just felt like I was a lot more composed and using my mind before my intensity and just thinking with [catcher Wilson Ramos], what he was trying to call, and what I thought was going to be the best pitch.”

He does not see workload as an issue, and the numbers back him. Although he will be setting a personal high for innings pitched, Scherzer’s pitch count is drastically lower this season because of the high frequency of strikes he has thrown. He has a career-high 71.4 first-pitch strike percentage. His previous high was 64.5 percent. He’s throwing just 14.8 pitches per inning, well down from the 16.5 he threw last season. Flipping to a league without a designated hitter is a factor there.

“I’m very strong right now,” Scherzer said.

That leaves him ready to look all facets of causation for the rise in home runs: pitch sequence, count, location, inning, situation on the basepaths, if it’s a repeat opponent. He’s prepared to check the barometric pressure if it will provide clarity.

“Everything is at play, not just A equals B,” Scherzer said. “This is a much more in-depth reason, and I’ve got to come up with it.”

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