Scherzer’s Slow Start

During his first full year as a big league starter, Max Scherzer showcased a sizzling fastball. The University of Missouri righty, who came to terms with the Diamondbacks after a protracted holdout that included a stint in indy ball, averaged 94.1 MPH with his heater. In 170.1 frames, Scherzer whiffed 9.19 batters per nine innings, walked 3.33 and posted a 3.88 xFIP that ranked in the top 20 among NL starting pitchers.

Shipped to Detroit over the winter as part of a three-time trade that put Curtis Granderson in Yankee pinstripes, Scherzer was expected to team with Justin Verlander to give the Tigers a pair of high-octane aces at the front of the rotation. Recapping Scherzer’s ’09 season, I wrote the following back in January:

Overall, Scherzer’s first year as a permanent starter was extremely promising. Many have wondered why the Diamondbacks shipped him out of town, preferring two years of team control over Edwin Jackson and six years of Ian Kennedy over five years of Scherzer and six years of Daniel Schlereth.

The most likely reason is that Arizona doubts Scherzer’s long-term health and viability as a starting pitcher. To recap his extensive injury history since 2006: shoulder and biceps tendinitis in ‘06, shoulder inflammation in 2008, shoulder fatigue and tightness in 2009. His health certainly bears watching, especially considering that Scherzer’s innings total increased from 109 in 2008 to 175 in 2009 (major league innings plus one rehab start).

There’s little doubt that Scherzer has the talent to become one of the top 20-30 starters in the majors. Few pitchers combine his ability to miss bats with quality control. The question is: can he hold up physically?

While Scherzer hasn’t missed any time in 2010, he also hasn’t displayed the electric stuff that made him such a prized commodity in fantasy circles: his average fastball velocity is 91.7 MPH this year. In 2009, batters whiffed at Scherzer’s gas 13.1 percent of the time. That blew the six percent big league average out of the water. In 2010, though? his whiff rate on the fastball is a nothing-special 5.9 percent. His fastball was thrown for a strike 65.6 percent last year, but that figure has fallen to 61.7 percent with the Tigers (64.4 percent MLB average).

That fastball is clearly key to Scherzer’s success: per Trip Somers’ tool, Scherzer threw a fastball 74.3 percent of the time in 2009 and has gone to it 68.5 percent in 2010. Given the big drop in whiff rate on the pitch, it’s not surprising to see that Scherzer’s contact rate is up to a MLB average 81 percent, compared to last year’s 76.9 percent mark, and his swinging strike rate is also right around the big league average at 8.2 percent. In 2009, it was 10.6 percent.

Back in April, Mike Fast estimated that a starter’s run average increased by 0.25 runs for every MPH of fastball velocity lost. So far, Scherzer has a 6.81 ERA in 37 innings pitched. He hasn’t been that bad: a .346 BABIP and very low strand rate (58.3 percent) haven’t done him any favors. But with just 6.08 K/9 and 3.41 BB/9, Scherzer’s xFIP sits at a mediocre 4.85. A two-plus MPH loss in velocity would suggest a rise in runs allowed per nine frames in the neighborhood of six-tenths of a run. For a guy as reliant on the heat as Scherzer, perhaps it’s a bit more.

This isn’t to set off panic alarms. I’m not going to channel Jim Cramer and scream “Sell! Sell! Sell!” (Plus, I don’t have a fancy sound-effect board, so it wouldn’t have the same resonance.) But, given Scherzer’s checkered health history, the drop off in velocity is troubling and should be monitored. Scherzer hasn’t shown the same ferocious fastball with his new club.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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Jake
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Jake

The problem didn’t start this year. if you look at his velocity charts, there’s been a steady drop since mid-2009.