Like his eyes, Max Scherzer seemingly had two different seasons in 2015 – one powerful, striking and attention-grabbing, like his blue eye, and one mediocre, flying under the radar, like his brown eye. Even though Scherzer posted a 2.79 ERA, starting 33 games and pitching a career high 228.2 innings, the stats that will forever be associated with his historic campaign last season which included two no-hitters, there was still a hugely problematic span for the big righty.
From April to June, Max Scherzer headlined the NL Cy Young Award Conversation, holding steady to a 1.75 ERA, striking out 130 and holding opposing batters to a meager .179 clip, all on top of a no-hitter that was one out away from a perfect game. But when the calendar turned from June to July, something clicked in Scherzer’s head – or rather, unclicked. His starts went from must-see events and guaranteed wins to a decent start and a good game, to a serious problem. From July 7th to September 7th, the “ace” posted an ERA of 5.11 in an average of 5 innings per start, numbers, that for two months, certainly doesn’t look like it should belong to someone who commands a $210 million contract. All of this was forgotten in late September and early October, when Scherzer posted a string of incredible starts, capped off by yet another no-hitter, against another playoff team, the New York Mets.
Nats fans ended the season with the notion of Scherzer as an incredible pitcher who enjoyed a historic season. While two no-hitters are an accomplishment that is unprecedented, the biggest factor in the Nationals rotation worked against them for two months, and that’s not acceptable.
But what, if anything, was behind this sharp decline that took the most dominant pitcher in the league to a mediocre starter who could barely last five innings?
Max Scherzer’s 2015 season will probably be remembered by three starts – his two no-hitters versus the Pirates and the Mets, respectively, and his dominant one-hit performance in Milwaukee where he struck out 16 batters, which came one start before his near perfect game against the Pirates. However, it should really be remembered by the incredible stretch that started in early May and lasted until July. In Scherzer’s two exceptionally dominating starts, he threw a total of 225 pitches over eighteen innings, in the span of six days. In his next two starts, he threw 205 pitches in 16.1 innings, which came in the span of another six days. And before those two stretches, Scherzer had thrown 100 or more pitches every game since May 16th. In today’s society that protects the pitcher so much, a run like that is unheard of.
Comparing the timeframe in which Scherzer performed off the charts versus that same timeframe for Zack Greinke shows only one big difference. Greinke, in the same span of Scherzer, stayed under 100 pitches four times to Scherzer’s zero. Greinke’s performances were on the same level as Scherzer’s the majority of the time – they just didn’t last as long.
Part of the reason Scherzer continued to pitch so far into the game even when the Nats had put up a considerable amount of runs was a lack of faith in the bullpen, as Matt Williams often refused to bring in another pitcher on a good day for Max Scherzer.
When Scherzer’s incredible run ended, another run began. In that run, his starts were the exact opposite of before, as he posted a 5.11 ERA over nine starts from July to September.
By the end of his stretch of complete dominance, it could be understood that Scherzer was exhausted – mentally and physically, which could lead to a fall in the quality of his mechanics and his pitches, which would obviously be a good explanation for his second, much less dominant stretch.
Scherzer himself, when he was in the midst of his struggle, suggested that his mechanics had failed him, noting himself that his arm slot had slipped, that he was struggling to keep the ball down in the zone, and that he had lost movement in his pitches.
It was never clear if and when Scherzer actually turned things around until the final home game of the season in which he pitched into the eighth inning with a no-hitter, and then followed up the performance in his next start with a no-hitter.
The results changed, but it was unclear what change had surrounded them.
Next season, the Nats enter a critical window, one of their last good shots to win a championship, and they enter with a lot of questions – but also a lot of hope. If Scherzer isn’t a steady pitcher throughout the entirety of the season, it may be the difference between a ring and watching the playoffs on tv, because when one player slides, another player follows suit, especially with a player the caliber of Max Scherzer. That was seen last year in the collapse that let the Mets take home the division crown.
Scherzer’s slide last summer very well could’ve been among the bigger reasons why the Nationals didn’t come close to making the playoffs. In the 2016 season, Max Scherzer, Dusty Baker, Mike Maddux and everyone involved in keeping players at their peak must keep an eye on all that went wrong in last season’s midsummer slide, from mechanics to pitch counts, from Scherzer’s mentality to the locations of his pitches. Those people also must keep a constant eye on anything that could possibly go wrong, and not be lured into a false sense of security that they were lured into after Scherzer’s first set of incredible performances in the 2015 season, or the Nats may see the same movie all over again. If Scherzer can get it right this time around, the impact may have the same magnitude, but this time, it may win a championship.