What makes Max Scherzer so special? It is his desire to always be improving and never being satisfied with the past. Scherzer made his debut on April 29, 2008 at the age of 23 ¾. Since then, his resumé has added 3 Cy Young awards including 2 in the NL and 1 in the AL, 7 All-Star games, immaculate innings, a 20-strikeout game, and World Series champ.
But Scherzer wants more. He knows he won’t reach 300 wins in his illustrious career, but he is 25 Curly W’s from 200. He won’t say that is a goal when asked but said it is a nice number. He also said that 2021 will not be his last season in baseball even though that record-breaking contract that he signed at the time for 7-years and $210 million ends this season.
Yes, that contract was criticized by many when it was made official, and in a poll of MLB executives during Spring Training of 2015, Scherzer was voted as the worst free agent signing of that off-season by a wide margin.
“Ted Lerner went out and signed Max Scherzer,” agent Scott Boras said, “and gave him a record contract, record years, and he was annihilated for it! They told him that was a mistake. That was an overpay!”
It will turn out to be one of the greatest long-term contracts in the history of baseball. What was then a record deal for a right-handed pitcher looks like a bargain today against all of the failed deals other teams have made.
When Scherzer inked the deal with the Nats, all he wanted to talk about was winning. The Nats had just won the NL East crown in 2014 but failed in the NLDS. While the Nats did not look like they needed another ace to go with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister — it was like the gift that kept on giving. It was the spoils of the riches to add Scherzer to that mix. The Nats would push over the CBT salary cap, and their teammate at the time, Bryce Harper infamously said, “Where’s My Ring?”. It looked like a cake walk until they actually played the games, and the season went sideways and Jonathan Papelbon almost choked out Harper. 2015 was a failure on so many levels when you spend the money that the Nats paid out. The team brought in a new manager, and a new bullpen, and added Daniel Murphy for the 2016 season on a 3-year deal for what most believed was their best team assembled.
“This [Nationals’] organization is capable of winning, and winning a lot,” Scherzer said after his signing. “This is a team that can win now, and in the future. When you sign up for seven years, that’s something you want to be a part of. You can [sign for] as much money as you want, but if you’re going to lose, it’s not worth it. When you talk about the next three to five years, this is the team you want to go to.”
Scherzer was right. Within five years, they made the playoffs three times and won the World Series. All winning records in that period.
When Rajat Singh Bagga wrote, “Reinvention is the mother of necessity,” he was not specifically referring to Scherzer, but the 36-year-old pitcher certainly fits that. Most pitchers retire before this age and Max turns 37 in July. Reinventing himself is what he learned early on about making adjustments and continually trying to improve.
“Perfectionist is sometimes the wrong word… It means like you’re never satisfied, or you’re upset by every single failure — any type of failure, and so for me, I don’t look at failure as necessarily a bad thing as long as I’m able to learn from it and take something from it, so that next time I’m in that situation I know how to succeed,” Scherzer said.
He talks about failure often. He said he learns more from what does not work than what does. But it comes down to the process and making adjustments.
“You worry about the process,” Scherzer said.”You worry about how you’re throwing the ball, how you’re executing your pitches.”
The 3-time Cy Young award winner said he has embraced the analytics. But he also said he will not give up his secrets. Everything from his side-session bullpens are off-limits. Limited to his catcher and pitching coach, his current pitching coach Jim Hickey said he tried to spy on Max when they were on opposing teams.
Scherzer does step up to help his teammates and mentor them. Recently he has helped teammate Patrick Corbin with throwing a cutter. Scherzer has consulted with Hickey specifically on top prospects, Jackson Rutledge and Cade Cavalli.
“Honestly, just looking at [Rutledge and Cavalli] and watching how they work, and what they’re doing on the mound — I’m really trying not to get in the way of those guys,” the ace said. “They’re trying to establish themselves. Really for me, it is talking to the pitching coaches and what I see and articulate ideas that might bounce off them. I’m so much older them. I’m 36 and they’re about 22. … You can definitely see it. These guys have some really live arms. So it’s really exciting to be here, and see how these kids go out there and really pitch and continue to develop and be in the big leagues one day.”
It is great to see that Scherzer is helping the Nationals in so many different ways. He does not want to talk about his future beyond this year. He will talk about the future of his teammates.
“You’ve got to get better every single year,” Scherzer said after winning his third Cy Young award. “It’s a new year. You have to find a way to improve yourself. You have to look back on everything that you’ve done and critique yourself and find the holes in your game that you can continue to get better.”
You can just cut and paste that comment every year. Some players make similar comments as some cliché. Max Scherzer lives this down to his core.
When Scherzer added a fourth pitch to his repertoire in 2013, it was the curveball to go with the 4-seamer, the slider, and changeup, and he won his first Cy Young award that year with Detroit. When Scherzer came to the Nats, he added a fifth pitch: the cutter. He dropped his 4-seam fastball usage steadily over the years and won two more Cy’s. This off-season Scherzer said that he is tweaking pitches with his new/old catcher, Alex Avila, who was Scherzer’s teammate years ago in Detroit.
“I try new grips, new mechanics, new slots, and everything,” Scherzer said this week about Spring Training. “I want to see if there is anything in there that you can try something new and all of a sudden — something pops — and you say, ‘Hey that really works.’ And you can take that and run with it.”
“Sometimes it is really tough to experiment during the season. You have to get in the right situation when you do want to experiment. But you really know what you’re doing in-season but in Spring Training you don’t really care if you give up a homer. Hit it as far as you can. (Laughing). I’m working on stuff.”
If the Nats’ ace sounds like a scientist doing experiments in a lab, it really is what he is all about in his bullpen sessions and side sessions plus all of his offseason work at the Cressey complex in Palm Beach. The Scherzer family moved their off-season home to Jupiter Florida so Max could be close to the Nats spring training facility in West Palm Beach and to be near Cressey. His desire to learn goes back to his youth and the classroom. He said he even learned about sports psychology in a class he took back in his days in college at Mizzou 2005. He took math and statistic classes which has helped him in this analytics evolution.
“I don’t like to give away my secrets,” Max said before divulging any tidbits. “I see it like this, ‘It’s a balance.’ You just can’t go out there with analytics and go out there and just pitch on those analytics. You can’t go out there and pitch solely on your strengths like I got a good fastball, a good curveball or slider and think I’m just going to pitch to my strengths. For me, I take a blend of both.”
“What do I do well? What are the analytics telling me? I come up with a good game plan between the pitching coach, catcher and myself. What do we want to try to accomplish here in a [particular] game? What do we think is going to work and what do we think is not going to work. And [then] try to reconvene throughout that game and see where we can make adjustments or not.”
Statistically, Max has gotten better with age and even past his 34th birthday, he still had a 2.92 ERA to celebrate his 35th birthday. But the COVID shortened 2020 season he believed was an outlier and on paper was his worst since 2010 in BB/9 when he gave up 3.2 on average. Scherzer was 25 then. This is now. Scherzer will have to show that 2020 was just a one-year aberration. What he does in 2021 will determine the rest of his career as he approaches the end of this 7-year contract that should solidify his entry as a Hall-of-Famer. He knows age is real, but he also just saw what a 43 year old Tom Brady did to win another Super Bowl.
“It is all about winning,” Scherzer said before. “When you get to the park and you come into the clubhouse, your only thought is about winning, and what it takes to do that.”
Winning. He has his ring, but still has the desire for more. As Scherzer said, he won’t give away all of his secrets. You will have to wait for him to write his book for the rest. If you are his teammate, ask him for some pointers. If you’re not, forget about it.
That’s Max Scherzer, running the streets of Houston near Minute Maid Park the afternoon after his World Series Game 1 start. pic.twitter.com/IWOzJOedYw
— James Wagner (@ByJamesWagner) October 23, 2019