Can you believe that yesterday marked the 9th anniversary of the signing of Max Scherzer by the Washington Nationals? What made Scherzer so special? It was 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, 9 All-Star games, immaculate innings, a 20-strikeout game, and now a 2-time World Series champ.
Scherzer still wants more. He knows he won’t reach 300 wins in his illustrious career, but he is 36 wins from 250, a number he probably won’t reach since he has only won 24 games in the past two years. He is a lock for the Hall-of-Fame on his first ballot, and should be a unanimous choice. With as great as Scherzer has been in his career, that day that he signed with the Nationals was met with some anger by other baseball executives as well as critics.
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. Hindsight has proved out that the Scherzer contract was perhaps the best free agent contract ever made.
I’m giving [the owner] a barometer for championship calibration. This is not running a business — this is where [an owner] is going to have to take some risk. To win a championship, you’re going to have to go over budget. You’re going to have to take a risk. You’re going to have to sign a player and give him the extra year because the competition is there to do it. That’s why when they talked about TED LERNER — Ted Lerner went out and signed Max Scherzer 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! Those types of owners that do that — and base it on a reasoned thought. But really it’s the will. It’s like a player who has a will to perform, to win, to do things.”
— Boras once infamously said
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. Tanner Roark became the odd man out after Scherzer was signed. It was the spoils of the riches to add Scherzer to that mix at that time. 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 with Jonathan Papelbon almost choked out Harper. That 2015 season was a failure on so many levels when you spend the money that the Nats paid out, and did not even reach the postseason. The team brought in a new manager, 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. 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 said after his signing
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 he certainly fits that. Most pitchers retire before this age and Max turns 40 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 years ago
Max 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. Current Nats pitching coach Jim Hickey said he tried to spy on Max when they were on opposing teams. Scherzer will also step up to help his teammates and mentor them.
“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. 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.”
— Scherzer said in Spring Training of 2021
It was great to see that Scherzer helped the Nationals in so many different ways. Taking this to the present, we will see what happens with both Cade Cavalli and Jackson Rutledge. Having Max giving his thoughts to the coaches was a good approach.
“You’ve got to get better every single year. 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.”
— Scherzer said after winning his third Cy Young award
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. That is what makes him so special. He leads by example.
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. Before the 2021 season, Scherzer said that he was tweaking pitches with his new/old catcher, Alex Avila, who was his teammate years ago in Detroit. Credit to Max for being one of the first pitchers to get into pitching labs.
“I try new grips, new mechanics, new slots, and everything,” Scherzer said at Spring Training in 2021. “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. He was a regular every offseason at Cressey — not far from the Nats’ Spring Training facility. 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 in 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.”
Scherzer 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 rings, 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. We were very fortunate to have Scherzer with the Washington Nationals. There are lessons to learn there. Hindsight will usually prove out the truth. Where’s my ring? You got two now Max.