Why have the Nats struggled to win Max Scherzer games?

Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

This 2019 season has made Max Scherzer into an enigma because statistically there is no way that the Nationals should be at 2 wins and 10 losses in Scherzer’s twelve starts. Scherzer has only had one bad start this season, and in his second worst start he had an 11-run lead when he exited with a 12-4 lead and earned his first win of the season. In the other ten starts by Scherzer, he has given up 3-runs or less, and in seven of those ten starts he has given up 2-runs or less. Those are some phenomenal stats and Cy Young worthy.

So what has gone wrong in the Scherzer starts? Answer: Everything.  From defense to the lack of offense and meltdowns in the bullpen, it has all plagued Scherzer. Today you saw the defense give up two unearned runs in the bullpen part of the game turning a 2-1 win into a 3-2 loss. Today, Scherzer knocked in one of the two runs! The lack of offense for Scherzer is averaging 3.2 runs of support per start but that is skewed since he got 12-runs in one game and 5-runs in another game, and those are his only two wins of the season. Otherwise, Scherzer has averaged 2.1 runs per game in support. The other issue is that once the bullpen has taken over they have allowed 40-runs to cross the plate in Scherzer’s 12-games. That is 3.33 runs per game given up in the bullpen, and an 11.71 ERA. That is how you end up with 10 losses in Scherzer’s 12-games as the bullpen gives up more runs than you receive in run support.

“It’s frustrating. You reflect on the things you could have done to help the club more,” Scherzer said.

If you take Scherzer’s 12 starts out of the mix, the Nationals are 20-22 which is just 2-games under .500, but what if the Nats were 10-2 in Scherzer starts instead of the opposite? If that was the case, the Nationals would be 30-24 which would be 1-win behind the Phillies for first place. This team has not performed in Scherzer’s starts, and it is beyond normal baseball comprehension that the team has not won more games for the 3-time Cy Young award winner.

If you look at ERA, Scherzer is at 3.26 because of that 6-run outing. Without that blowout start, Scherzer has had a 2.75 ERA which would put him almost exactly where his ERA is for his Nats tenure (2.76). If you look at advanced statistics, his FIP is the best in the Majors at 2.35 prior to today’s game. FIP tries to neutralize poor defense, and it is clear that something has gone awry in Scherzer’s batting average against. Too many balls have found green outfield grass. Scherzer’s BABIP leading into this game was .358 while his prior Nats seasons had him at .248 to .273. That is the rest of the mystery. There would seem to be some reasons for the decline including the defense behind Scherzer while there were many starters on the injured list.

There is also the issue with Scherzer’s pitch counts taking him out of the game too soon and dealing with the “Russian Roulette” in the bullpen. Today was just another example of that when Scherzer labored through 6.0 innings at 103 pitches. He has lacked that putaway pitch that has seemed to elude him in key spots like the 12-pitch at-bat today to Curtis Granderson. That was an inning’s worth of pitches to one-batter, and that has plagued Scherzer too often this season.

“They did a great job of grinding me and just fouling balls off,” Scherzer said.

Scherzer’s hard hit rates have increased overall from 28.6% in 2018 to 38.5% this season according to Fangraphs. Also, Fangraphs rated his changeup as a +1.75 last year and now as a -2.33 this season. The last two starts, we have seen improvement in the hard hit rate along with the efficiency of his changeup and curveball. That is the good news, but the bad news is the team losses have continued.

Before there was Sabremetrics, you would be what your ERA said you were and just debate the eye test, but as you can see there is so much more to the dynamics. Fangraphs loves Scherzer, warts and all, but none of that matters if his team is not turning these games into wins. The Nats need to win almost every Scherzer start for the rest of the season and that is all that matters.


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