Scherzer is consistent. Only David Price has thrown more innings since 2012, and no one who has thrown at least 800 innings since then has struck out as many hitters per nine innings as Scherzer. The Nationals have contended every season since 2012, and missed the playoffs twice — in seasons they entered with World Series expectations. They, like Scherzer, have been relentlessly relevant.
But they, too, are still wanting. Scherzer lost in the division series once, the championship series twice, and the World Series once with the Tigers. He fell again in the Division Series with the Nationals. Scherzer built himself to win the biggest of games, over and over, and loves the opportunity to make the decisive pitch. Last October, he came up one pitch short.
“Honestly, that was one of the toughest of my career,” Scherzer said. “because of the fact of how crazy Nats Park was, how awesome the fans were, just how intense that series was, and the effort I thought our team gave. Our team as good an effort as I’ve been a part of and really could’ve competed with anybody. That’s the gut punch in all this. We put that on the line and didn’t win.”
He might as well have been describing himself, because no one can reasonably question his effort since signing that seven-year contract worth $215 million two seasons ago. His effort has been better than almost everyone in the National League, and returned award-winning results. Scherzer helped the Nationals get close enough that one pitch could make or break them. But one pitch to Joc Pederson will linger in his memory, the last one he threw in 2016, one that resulted in a home run — Scherzer’s perplexing kryptonite.
“That’s one of my flaws,” Scherzer said. “I’ve got to find a way to keep the ball in the ballpark.”
Scherzer’s willingness to admit flaws and address them, while not letting his confidence be consumed by them, is a key component of his unique competitiveness. Another is his attention to detail, something that manifested itself most clearly when he would wander the clubhouse calling “Willy!” every fifth day. He and catcher Wilson Ramos met before almost every start, talking through the game plan, building a relationship that yielded two no-hitters and plenty of near misses. Both sides always admitted the game-planning aspect of that relationship was always a work in progress. Now, Scherzer will likely work most often with newly acquired Derek Norris, not known as an elite defender.
“Talked to some guys in San Diego and talked about how hard he worked behind the plate and he’s a good guy to throw to,” Scherzer said. “He knows how to call ballgames. Those are the reviews I heard.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Scherzer has only thrown more than 10 games with eight catchers in his nine-year career. His best ERA came with Ramos, 2.54, followed by fellow National Jose Lobaton, 3.02. His best batting average against came with Ramos, too — 2.01. Lobaton is second, .222. His best strikeout-to-walk ratio came with Ramos, too.
Perhaps that success was a product of Scherzer’s growth as a pitcher, of him hitting his prime, dictating his game plan — or even just pitching in the more-forgiving National League. Perhaps he and Ramos clicked more than was obvious from afar. Either way, he must now adjust to a new catcher. What does his ideal catcher look like?
“The biggest thing that you want is somebody that can frame the low pitch. Somebody with soft hands that can frame the low pitch,” Scherzer said. “It also doesn’t hurt to have a short little fat body on ’em. I feel like that helps get you a few calls, gives you a nice little bull’s-eye to throw to.”
Norris fits the … er, sturdy … profile. He also rated ahead of Ramos in terms of the percentage of strikes called out of the zone while he was catching. In other words, according to StatCorner, in 2016, Norris fit that pitch-framing profile better than Ramos.
Most players deny any awareness of hot-stove tempering. No point in paying attention until something happens, most argue. One must perform regardless of who is around, others insist. But Scherzer admitted he followed the rumors, like the Nationals’ pursuit of Chris Sale, Mark Melancon, and eventual unexpected blockbuster for Adam Eaton. Not all of their efforts paid off, but Scherzer said “you’d rather be on this side.”
“We’re trying to win. And you want to be a part of organizations that are trying to win and win at all costs,” Scherzer said. “I feel like that’s what we’re trying to do, trying to make acquisitions that put us over the hump. So I’m excited. That’s why I’m here.”
Scherzer played against Eaton in the American League Central, and has faced him 17 times in his career. Eaton has a .333 average against him. He described him as a “tough out,” who “always found a way just to get knocks against me.” He also admitted disappointment in seeing Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez go.
“I believe in those guys,” said Scherzer, who Dusty Baker charged with mentoring Giolito late last season, bringing him through workouts, teaching him how to prepare. Scherzer said he got in touch with Giolito after the trade, to tell him that trades are not always a bad thing.
“You have to look at it as a good thing, that there’s a team that wants you and you have an opportunity now,” Scherzer said. ” … he has a lot of work in front of him. He knows that. And it’ll be fun to keep tabs on him across the way, because I think highly of him.”
Scherzer is more important to the Nationals’ rotation now than ever, since Lopez and Giolito provided depth, and Stephen Strasburg has battled injuries and Gio Gonzalez inconsistencies. Nationals starters have the second-best FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and most strikeouts per nine innings in baseball since his arrival. They, like Scherzer, have been strong. They, like Scherzer, feel they have more to work to do.
And in the midst of what is looking to be a quiet, splash-free offseason, Scherzer also serves as a reminder: The Nationals looked to be done adding when they signed Scherzer to that seven-year deal last January. They tend to wait out the market, spend only when ready, though they offered big deals early this offseason, too. No obvious Scherzer-type is available this offseason, particularly with the market for closers settled and seemingly no room for a big slugger. Yet the Nationals entered the winter after the 2014 season with the best rotation in baseball, and didn’t seem to have much room for a Scherzer-type then, either.