Max Scherzer’s Unique Path To Superstardom

By Tony Fioriglio / @TheTonyFiorigli

Max Scherzer has had a weird career.

In 2013, Scherzer, then a Detroit Tiger in his fifth full season in the bigs and sixth overall, finally broke through and burst onto the scene in a big way, starting the season by winning his first 13 decisions, the fourth-most impressive start to a season in Major League history. That was impressive enough for him to get the nod to start the All-Star Game, and Scherzer cruised to the AL Cy Young Award, receiving 28 out of 30 first place votes, leading the league in wins with a 21-3 record. He also posted a sterling 2.90 ERA, while striking out 240 batters.

That offseason, one year away from free agency, the Tigers offered Scherzer an extension worth a tidy $144 million, which may have seemed like a lot of money for a mostly average pitcher coming off a career-year fluke. Only, Scherzer believed that it wasn’t a fluke and that he could do better by waiting a year. So he dropped $750,000 on an insurance policy for his arm and bet on himself.

And that was a gamble that paid off to the tune of an additional $67 million, $210 million in total, courtesy of the Washington Nationals. That’s a lot of scratch.

But teams overpaying for players in their prime really isn’t anything new. In fact, that’s pretty much how free agency works: You get paid for what you did, not what you’re going to do.

What is a bit unusual, though, is that the Nationals have gotten their money’s worth out of Scherzer nearly 30 percent of the way through his contract.

In his two seasons since signing with Washington, Scherzer has led the league in wins, strikeouts, innings pitched, shutouts and starts (twice). He also is the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner.

However, the numbers don’t tell the whole story with Scherzer. Not even close (and he knows something about close).

On June 16, 2015, Scherzer threw a complete-game one-hitter with 16 strikeouts and one walk, where the one hit was a broken-bat, bloop single in the seventh inning by Carlos Gomez. Every Brewer that picked up a bat—except for Gerardo Parra—contributed at least one strikeout to Scherzer’s cause.
That performance was good for a game score of 100, one of only 12 games in history to reach that level. Scherzer wasn’t done, though.

His very next outing, Scherzer nearly threw a perfect game, holding the Pittsburgh Pirates off the base paths until the 27th batter when a slider didn’t quite slide and clipped Jose Tabata. Instead, Scherzer had to settle for just a no-hitter. To cap off this stretch of brilliance, Scherzer carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Phillies before finally surrendering a hit, 17 innings after Gomez’s blooper.
For most pitchers, any one of those games would likely be a career highlight—not for Scherzer in 2015.

On the last Saturday of the season, Scherzer capped off his campaign by throwing a second no-hitter, this time against the playoff-bound Mets. And it was even more dominant than his near no-hitter in Milwaukee. Scherzer struck out 17, walked none and the only base-runner he allowed was due to an error by Yunel Escobar. That game had a game score of 104, the second highest in baseball history, behind only Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game in 1998, which had a score of 105.

Scherzer finished 2015 with 276 strikeouts, a 2.79 ERA, and his second consecutive fifth place finish in Cy Young voting (He finished fifth in the AL in 2014 after successfully betting on himself).

In 2016, Scherzer was even better by most measures, winning more games and striking out more batters than the previous season and, in one instance, than in the previous 100-plus years of baseball history, when he tied the Major League record by striking out 20 Detroit Tigers, presumably because they low-balled him by only offering $144 million way back in 2013.

In the spans of four seasons, Scherzer packed a career’s worth of accomplishments. Somehow, that 20 strikeout performance epitomizes Scherzer’s journey. Yes, he tied a Major League record, but he wasn’t necessarily dominant. He faced a lot of batters, giving up six hits and two runs, by all accounts an above average start by his standards, save for those 20 k’s.

But then again, if merely average dominance could be expected out of anyone, it would probably be Scherzer, because nothing about his career makes sense. It doesn’t really make sense for a league average starter to show up one day and immediately be one of five or so best pitchers in baseball, nor does it make sense for that starter to maintain that dominance for an extended stretch of time into his 30’s. It also doesn’t really make sense for a pitcher, the most fragile of baseball creatures, to turn down generational money as Scherzer did in Detroit, and it REALLY doesn’t make sense for that pitcher to come out ahead and for both teams to somehow be happy about that.

Due to all of his accomplishments, Max Scherzer is destined to be the answer to trivia questions for years to come. It’s not every day that a pitcher throw multiple no-hitters, wins multiple Cy Youngs, strikes out 20 in a game and shows a positive ROI on a big money, post-20s contract.

If Scherzer does nothing else, he’ll always have that Hall of Fame career squished into a matter of four or five seasons.

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