Sunday against the Padres, Max Scherzer decided to erase his entire history in a single match. It started in the second inning, when he ousted Fernando Tatis Jr., Eric Hosmer and Tommy Pham on a total of nine shots for a flawless inning. It was the third in Scherzer’s career, tying a record held by Sandy Koufax and Chris Sale, and just the 105th in MLB history.
Three innings later, Scherzer hit Hosmer again to become the 19th player in MLB history to strike 3,000 batters.
By the time Hosmer came back in the eighth, he was probably tired of being used as Scherzer’s personal speed bag, so he returned a brace to right field to become the Padres’ first base runner of the game. This prevented Scherzer from winning his third career without a hitting, but he is still one of the 35 pitchers to have pitched at least two.
Since joining the Dodgers at the trade deadline, Scherzer has made eight starts, winning six, while allowing an ERA of 0.88 and an opponent’s hitting line of 0.158 / 0.189 / 0.230 in 51 innings. Scherzer was already pitching well enough with Washington to deserve the start of the All-Star Game, but his absurd run in Dodger Blue propelled him to the top of the league in ERA, WHIP, and nine innings allowed hits.
In just six weeks, he’s already drawing comparisons to the biggest midseason commercial acquisitions of all time – CC Sabathia in 2008, Randy Johnson in 1998, Doyle Alexander in 1987 and Rick Sutcliffe in 1984. According to the Scherzer Way finishes and the number of innings Corbin Burnes of Milwaukee accumulates the remainder of the season, Mad Max could become the first pitcher since Sutcliffe to win the Cy Young after being traded mid-year. If that happens, he will become the fifth pitcher to win four Cy Young Awards.
Scherzer has strong arguments for being the outstanding pitcher of the 2010s. During that decade, he struck out 2,452 batters – more than any other pitcher – and was third in starts and second in innings pitched. He was close to Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander in bWAR, nearly 10 wins ahead of fourth-placed Cole Hamels and tied for fifth in ERA + among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings. Between 2013 and 2019, he made seven consecutive All-Star teams and didn’t finish below fifth in the Cy Young vote, winning three times. His teams have made the playoffs seven times over the decade, culminating in a spectacular title with the Nationals in 2019; Scherzer, who was unable to dress due to neck pain, started the seventh game of this world series.
But this season has been a convenient inflection point for Scherzer to continue to decline. By 35, he had done virtually everything he could, and after a decade of abusing 200 handles a year, his body was starting to wear down. In addition to the neck problem in the playoffs, back injuries forced Scherzer to make his longest stint in IL in 10 years. He handed the mantle of the NL’s top pitcher to Jacob deGrom of the Mets, and it was Stephen Strasburg, not Scherzer, who was Washington’s top playoff pitcher of 2019. During the shortened 2020 season pandemic, Scherzer was just very good. Most pitchers would have killed for his 119 ERA + and 4.00 K / BB, but the two ratings represented his worst performance in the best part of a decade.
With Scherzer’s contract set to expire after 2021 and as he nears his late 30s, it looked like he just had to mop up a few more statistical milestones and wait for the BBWAA to dedicate him to the Hall of Fame. Instead, Scherzer, who turned 37 in July, is enjoying one of the best seasons ever for a pitcher his age.
It is difficult to compare individual starting seasons across eras; Today’s strikeout totals are so high and the starting pitcher’s workloads are so low that they mess up many counting statistics. But with three weeks remaining in the regular season, Scherzer produced 4.6 wins above average, according to Baseball-Reference. This is the 17th best season since integrating a pitcher aged 36 or over, essentially tied – in a funny historical coincidence – with Alexander’s campaign in 1987. About half of the seasons that have been there. ‘await belong to Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro, four pitchers who could do serious Hall of Fame business if you tossed everything they accomplished before the age of 30. And in these time and age constraints, Scherzer holds the fifth best ERA + for a qualified starter.
Scherzer’s tenure with the Dodgers – a situation he used his 10 and 5 commercial veto rights to orchestrate when it became clear the Nationals would not be arguing – could have been a farewell season that associated a waning star looking for another ring with a team in need of spin depth. Orel Hershiser’s tenure with Cleveland in the mid-’90s comes to mind, or Pedro Martínez’s brief stint with the Phillies in 2009. But no such decline has persisted, and Scherzer throws as well as he does. never did.
The most pressing question now for Scherzer is whether his performance will have an impact on the Dodgers’ title defense. There’s a pretty compelling argument for them to be the best National League team on paper, but they’re running out of time to catch and pass the Giants for the top spot in the NL West. Even if the Dodgers enter the wildcard game as favorites, their depth of rotation – Scherzer, Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Julio Urías – won’t count for anything in a win-win game. Scherzer, despite his warm hand and accomplishments, might not even pitch.
But Scherzer’s performance in 2021 reignites the discussion about what the next few years of his career will look like. The seven-year, $ 210 million deal he signed with Washington after the 2014 season is the kind of deal a pitcher doesn’t expect to surpass. But Scherzer was so good he gave himself the chance to ring the bell again.
The most recent comparable season to Scherzer’s 2021 was Justin Verlander’s second Cy Young campaign in 2019, which also took place at the age of 36. Verlander turned this season into a two-year, $ 66 million overtime with the Astros; Scherzer’s agent Scott Boras will almost certainly cite this deal as a precedent when buying Scherzer this winter.
Of course, Verlander missed his six UCL innings in this contract extension and will hit free agency after making a start for the past 23 months. This is the duality of the existence of an old pitcher.
For another illustration of this duality, consider the list of Baseball-Reference pitchers similar to Scherzer through their 36-year seasons. The top seven are a mix of Hall of Famers and Hall of Very Good pitchers, most of whom were as dominant as Scherzer at their peaks. Here are their performances from 37 years old, as well as those of Adam Wainwright, the best composition of B-Ref for Scherzer:
Elite 37-Plus pitchers
|David Cone||2000-03||58||308 2/3||0.8||81||WS|
|Randy Johnson||2001-09||246||1636 2/3||43.2||132||2x CYA, 3xAS, WS, 2x ERA title, 3x SO title, perfect game|
|Tim hudson||2013-15||74||444 1/3||2.3||93||LIKE|
|Pedro martinez||2009||9||44 2/3||0.7||117||Nothing|
|Adam wainwright||2019-21||70||427 2/3||5.5||117||Nothing|
None of these launchers are perfect for Scherzer. Halladay and Pedro were basically washed when they were Scherzer’s age; Guidry started a drastically different era in terms of training and conditioning, which could be the biggest factor for Scherzer’s upcoming seasons. But here we see the range of potential results. Johnson was literally the best old pitcher of all time. Brown and Hudson dragged on for a few more seasons, turning into All-Star-level performances at times. And Wainwright, who looked positively toasted from 34 to 36, somehow found the fountain of youth. From 37 to 39, he’s been as effective and durable as he has been in half a decade, and he’s looking forward to continuing into his 40s.
Scherzer, like Wainwright, used modern conditioning techniques to ward off the ravages of time. (Here, “modern conditioning” means something different from that of Clemens, who was one of the best pitchers in the world in his forties, when his blood plasma was mostly HGH.) Unlike Wainwright, however, Scherzer has been inhumanly enduring throughout its heyday; his 2019 back and neck problems seem to be behind him. And at a time when pitchers have their elbow ligaments changed like the spark plugs in a car, Scherzer has spent 81 days on the IL, in total, over his entire major league career.
The last decade of Johnson’s career has been a strange event that may never be matched. But could Scherzer continue to be a no. 1 starting until his 40s and pushing for 4000 strikeouts? If he wants to, there’s no reason he can’t.