The Washington Nationals announced Stephen Strasburg will start Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs on Friday night and Gio Gonzalez would start Game 2 Saturday evening. That leaves ace Max Scherzer on the mound for Monday’s Game 3 at Wrigley Field.
Scherzer was pushed back in the rotation after hamstring tightness cut his stint short on Saturday night, and that delay could be significant.
Scherzer has pitched very well against the Cubs, who are 21 for 101 against Scherzer with 30 strikeouts, yet his propensity for giving up home runs could become a problem in Chicago.
Since joining the Nationals, Scherzer’s home rate has risen to 17.1 percent of his hits allowed, compared to 11.7 and 11.9 percent, respectively, during his time with the Arizona Diamondbacks (2008 and 2009) and Detroit Tigers (2010 to 2014). The park effects between Nationals Park and Wrigley are negligible (surprisingly) — they rank 13th and 15th, respectively, this season with just a few percentage points separating them in terms of how often home runs are hit relative to the rest of the league.
However, the more detailed stats show that Scherzer could see some trouble.
The average launch angle off his pitches is 19.3 degrees this season, the fourth highest among pitches throwing at least 1,500 pitches, with 47 percent of balls put in play becoming fly balls. And those are the balls more likely to leave the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. In fact, if you take all the fly balls hit off Scherzer this season and overlay them onto Wrigley Field, he would have allowed five more home runs for sure with perhaps another eight making their way over the fence.
For Scherzer to be successful on the road in Chicago, he must have command of his fastball. Of the 22 home runs he has allowed this season, 16 are at the expense of his four-seam fastball, often thrown over the middle of the plate — easy pickings for any hitter with solid bat speed and power.
Plus, for whatever reason, Scherzer hasn’t pitched well in the clutch, also known as high-leverage situations. According to FanGraphs, both Gonzalez (0.88 clutch score) and Strasburg (0.61) have performed better in the clutch than Scherzer (0.38). And since this compares a player against himself, it gives us a much better overview of how well a pitcher has or hasn’t done in these types of situations relative to all others.
This isn’t to say Scherzer couldn’t raise his game in an important situation, but he has allowed a higher batting average and more home runs per nine innings in high-leverage situations over the past three seasons.
|Max Scherzer (2015 to 2017)||Home runs per 9IP||BA against||Percentage of balls hit “hard”|
|All other situations||1.1||0.189||28%|
And the worse the Nationals do in Games 1 and 2, the better Scherzer needs to perform in Game 3. According to whowins.com, the visiting team in the series moves on to the next round 60 percent of the time after taking a 1-0 series lead. That increases to 89 percent of the time if the lower-seeded team is victorious in the first two games.
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