WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — There will come a time when Max Scherzer will reach his peak, and the inevitable downhill slide that eventually conquers all professional athletes, Hall of Fame-caliber or not, will emerge to sap his powers. He just doesn’t think he is there yet. Not after consecutive Cy Young Awards. Not after five straight seasons of 200-plus innings. Not after leading the National League in strikeouts each of the past two years.
“I don’t know,” Scherzer said. “I may be better in 2018.”
How? Well, Scherzer won’t divulge those details, afraid word will spread through the media to opposing clubhouses. But he is certain there are areas for growth. Five months shy of his 34th birthday, he believes the peak hasn’t been reached.
Scherzer’s quest for improvement and a third consecutive Cy Young unofficially officially began at 1:05 p.m. Sunday at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, when he slung a fastball by the Atlanta Braves’ Ronald Acuña, the consensus top prospect in baseball, for strike one. After getting Acuña to ground out up the middle into an infield shift, Scherzer missed his spot with a 1-0 fastball and Dansby Swanson swatted it over the wall. He wasn’t fretting over it.
“That’s good,” Scherzer said. “Get those solo shots out of the way now. You can hit as many home runs as you want in spring training.”
Swanson’s long ball was the only damage inflicted in Scherzer’s two innings in the Nationals’ 9-3 win. He threw just 23 pitches. He struck out three and didn’t issue a walk. He pounded the strike zone with his entire repertoire, and his fastball sat at 93 mph, according to the television broadcast’s radar gun. He emerged satisfied. Manager Dave Martinez, after getting his first in-game glimpse of Scherzer in the same uniform, called Scherzer’s performance “awesome.”
“You really have no adrenaline whatsoever here in a spring start for the first one out,” Scherzer said. “So I was able to at least put a foundation of establishing off-speed in the zone and working off of that.”
Scherzer reported to spring training eons ahead of where he was a year ago, when he didn’t throw his first bullpen session until the first week of March because of a stress fracture in the bottom knuckle of his right ring finger. It was a perplexing nuisance. He was forced to withdraw from the World Baseball Classic. It put his status for the start of the season in doubt and forced him to tinker with a three-fingered fastball to build arm strength. Alarms were ringing. Scherzer proceeded to win his third Cy Young in five seasons anyway. This spring, Scherzer arrived healthy after a couple of minor injuries, including repeated neck stiffness and a hamstring tweak in his final regular season start, nagged him in 2017.
“My mood’s better,” said Scherzer, who became a father in November. “Even my wife could tell you. She said it’s been nice having you healthy in an offseason.”
If there was any doubt about his health, Scherzer dispelled it with an intense 60-pitch bullpen a day after reporting to camp. Trademark grunts were included. He insisted the strenuous session, though unusual for most pitchers at that early stage, is typical for him when not dealing with an injury. It was the first time Martinez watched his ace throw off a mound since taking the job. He came away marveling at Scherzer, whom he recently compared to Randy Johnson, though he has already picked up on Scherzer’s ways.
“Max himself is unusual,” the rookie manager noted.
One of Scherzer’s idiosyncrasies, according to catcher Matt Wieters, is his ability to absorb new information and apply it when necessary. Wieters said Scherzer seeks data from anyone willing to share any, from the club’s video coordinators, coaches and other players. He looks for swing-and-miss numbers, pitch-take tendencies and power zones. And he does it more than most others.
“He’s one of the more actively pursuing pitchers on the information that I’ve ever been around,” Wieters said. “It’s not like blind trust. He knows what he wants, and he can implement it in his game.”
For now, the focus is on staying healthy and building up arm strength for Opening Day. Scherzer admitted feeling a little fatigued after warming up in the bullpen. It was fewer than two dozen pitches after that, but he expects to be sore in the morning. However, fatigue early in the spring, he insisted, is a good thing. He would prefer to pitch out of the stretch more, but he threw all his pitches in the zone and worked ahead in the count.
Sunday, therefore, was a success. It was, he believes, the beginning of an ascent to another level.
“In my mind, the peak is higher,” Scherzer said. “You can see it however you want. I know what’s on my mind.”
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