The Washington Nationals are 1-7 this season in games started by pitcher Max Scherzer, the fiery ace who over the last few years has been the closest thing in baseball to a guaranteed “W.”
This year? Scherzer is 1-4 with a 3.78 ERA in eight starts. His fourth loss came May 1. Last year, the three-time Cy Young Award winner didn’t reach four losses until June 26.
So, clearly, the wear and tear of more than a decade in the majors is catching up to the 34-year-old, right?
Wins and losses aside, that’s not what the new-age baseball analytics say.
Yes, Scherzer’s WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) of 1.166 looks worse than last year’s 0.911 and his career mark of 1.099.
But in one major new-fangled stat, his numbers have improved this season. Scherzer ranks at the top of the league in Fielding Independent Pitching with a mark of 1.96.
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The basic tenet of FIP is that pitchers have little control of the outcome of balls put in play against them. FIP is similar to ERA, but calculates a number based on the “three true outcomes” of home runs, walks and strikeouts; the lower the number, the better.
Scherzer’s FIP last year was 2.65 and his career mark stands at 3.16.
His FIP number this year says Scherzer’s record and ERA might have more to do with the Nationals’ subpar run support and fielding than with how he is pitching.
He struck out 10 in six innings on a season-high 112 pitches in a no-decision Monday at Milwaukee. He gave up just two runs (one earned) in six innings and left the game with the lead, but the Nationals still went on to lose 5-3.
“You have to turn (Scherzer’s) starts into wins if you want to right this ship,” former Nationals coach Bo Porter, now an analyst with Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), said on the air after Monday’s game.
Last season, Scherzer was 18-7 with 2.53 in 33 starts, with 300 strikeouts and 51 walks allowed. Opposing batters hit .188 against him.
This year, in addition to FIP, he leads the National League in strikeouts (72), innings (52 1/3) and starts (eight).
There’s no doubt wins and losses can be misleading: The New York Mets’ Jacob deGrom won the Cy Young Award last season despite a 10-9 record after deGrom led the NL in ERA (1.70) and was atop several wins-above-replacement and run-prevention categories.
Still, at least one veteran scout who covered Scherzer’s first two starts this year said “Mad Max” could be starting to show his age.
“I thought he was using his secondary (off-speed) pitches more than in the past, which made me wonder a bit about whether he had 100 percent confidence in his fastball,” according to the pro scout. “He is getting older, obviously, and has pitched a lot of innings deep into seasons.
“And there have been times when I thought he looked a little worn out late in the year. Maybe he (is) at a stage in his career where he would benefit from some monitoring of his innings and workload.”
The injury-riddled Nationals are 14-20 through Monday, the second-worst mark in the National League. They have lost 12 of the last 17 contests and have yet to win more than two games in a row this year.
Washington’s team ERA is 4.89, the worst in the league. The Nationals fired pitching coach Derek Lilliquist on Thursday and replaced him with Paul Menhart, who had been the pitching coordinator in the minors for five seasons. Menhart has worked with most minor leaguers and deals with MLB veterans in spring training.
“I am going to stay out his way until he needs me,” Menhart said of Scherzer.
Scherzer signed a free agent deal of seven years for $210 million with the Nationals prior to the 2015 season, after he had pitched with the Detroit Tigers for five seasons. He threw two no-hitters for the Nationals in 2015 — his first season with the club.
The right-hander is 160-86 with 3.23 ERA in his career with 2,521 strikeouts, which ranks 34th on the all-time list.
The St. Louis native has made at least 30 starts every season since 2009.