Max Scherzer should be the first player to enter the Hall of Fame with a Curly W on his cap on his plaque in Cooperstown. Let that sink in for a moment. When he signed with the Nationals on this day in 2015, he joined a loaded rotation that featured the likes of Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. He was the ace, coming off back-to-back years with an ERA under 3.20 and had won the AL Cy Young in 2013. He was supposed to be good. He was not supposed to be the best pitcher in baseball over the next four years.
Consider the history of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 11th overall pick in the first round of the 2006 MLB Draft. He tore through the minor leagues over the course of the next year and a half and arrived in 2008 to the tune of an ERA just over three in a cup of coffee in the big leagues. While he proved his durability the following year, the strikeouts dipped and the walks rose, and a last place Diamondbacks team sent Scherzer to the Detroit Tigers. It was a trade the Diamondbacks would soon regret.
In his five years in Detroit, Scherzer pitched fewer than 190 innings just once and was one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball. While his first two years in Detroit were good, he turned a corner in 2012 as he saw his strikeouts shoot through the roof. He struck out more than 200 batters for the first time in his career that year, and his 3.27 FIP (a metric that attempts to strip “luck” out of the ERA equation and relies heavily on strikeouts, walks, and home runs) showed that a higher level of performance was on the way. The following year, Scherzer won 21 games and struck out 240 batters en route to winning the Cy Young for the first time in his career, and pitched masterfully for the Tigers in the postseason. He averaged 4.32 fWAR over the span of those 5 years, peaking at 6.1 fWAR during his Cy Young campaign.
Still, when the Nationals signed Scherzer to a 7 year, $210 million contract four years ago, the deal was met with much skepticism from fans and analysts alike. Outside of the past two years, there was little surface-level, ace-type success. But the underlying metrics, the ability to limit walks and produce strikeouts at an elite level, indicated to Mike Rizzo and the front office that his performance over the last two years was no fluke.
Source: Scherzer deal with #Nationals is seven years, $210M with half deferred. He will receive $15M per year for 14 years.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 19, 2015
They were obviously expecting great things from their shiny new 210 million dollar pitcher. What they got was a player about to go on a historical tear and take the league by storm. It’s not a stretch to say that Scherzer has been the best pitcher on the planet over the last four years. His durability, performance, and incredible stats all stack up with the best of the best over the last few years and show an unrivaled consistency.
Advanced metrics and traditional stats alike tell the same story of absolute domination by the Nationals’ ace. While he doesn’t hold the ERA crown over the last four years, his 2.71 ERA is surpassed only by Jacob deGrom (2.66) and future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw, (2.22) yet Scherzer has pitched 121 more innings than deGrom and 160 more than Kershaw.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Mad Max is his ability to stay healthy and stay on the field. No one over the last four years has pitched as many innings (878.1) as Scherzer, no one has started as many games, (131) nor has anyone faced as many batters as Scherzer during that span. His durability has allowed him to start more than 30 games a year since he came to Washington.
It’s also Scherzer’s ability to produce strikeouts at an elite level that sets him apart from the rest. Since he came to Washington, his 11.56 K/9 is second only to Chris Sale among starting pitchers, and his 1128 strikeouts are the most in baseball. His strikeout percentage is also the best by a starter and sits at 32.7% and his K-BB% is second only to Sale. No matter which way you slice it, he strikes out batters at a level rivaled only by Sale. His ability to blow by players, whether its with his mid-90’s fastball or deadly slider-change up combination, at an almost unrivaled level makes him an extremely effective pitcher.
Getting into some of the advanced, all inclusive value stats like Wins Above Replacement, we can see that Scherzer has produced more value than any other pitcher in the game. While not perfect as a measurement, Scherzer tops just about any pitching WAR leaderboard since he came to D.C. If you sort the pitching leaderboard at fangraphs.com over the last four seasons, Max Scherzer stands alone at the top with 25.5 fWAR. Outside of Red Sox ace Chris Sale (25.3 fWAR) the next closest pitcher (Corey Kluber) is two wins away. He tops pitchers like Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Jacob deGrom. Using Baseball Reference’s version of WAR, Scherzer appears in one of the top four spots on the bWAR leaderboards each year from 2015–2018. He’s the only pitcher to even appear in the top five each year during over that span.
The remarkable thing is that Scherzer has just about paid off his contract according to Fangraphs’ $/fWAR model. The value of a win on the free agent market has been hovering around $8M per win over the last couple years. That means Scherzer’s 25.5 fWAR over the last four years has been worth about $204M, nearly the full value of his contract which still has three years remaining. Not only has he met the value of his contract, he’s exceeded it and is set to give the Nationals a good amount of surplus value over the next few years.
In an age where front offices are obsessed with extracting the most value out of their young stars while they are still being paid close to league minimum, baseball has seen more and more of it’s production concentrated in players who are still under team control as opposed to veterans. In an age where teams are hesitant to pay free agents top dollar, to not go past 4 or 5 years, to not pay for aging veterans in their 30s, Scherzer stands out as an anomaly.
It can be hard not to take his performance for granted when he pitches as well as he has year in and year out. His remarkable ability to produce at the highest level with almost no time lost to injury has made him the most valuable pitcher in baseball since he came to Washington. It’s why with his two no-hitters, a 20K game, and three Cy Young Awards under his belt, he’ll end up as the first Nat in Cooperstown.