“Lefty, you call it,” Scherzer barked to catcher Spencer Kieboom, telling him to act as if there was a hitter at the plate. The other starters had finished their 30 pitches. They eased in, tossed, like almost everyone does so early in spring. But Scherzer was behind 2-1 to a lefty. Then he was facing Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. Then, when a change-up drifted too far off the plate, he yelled “Damn it!” and no one laughed. They had all gravitated to him — teammates, Manager Dave Martinez, General Manager Mike Rizzo, owner Mark Lerner — because his right arm is magnetic, and so is his attention to grain-sized details, and so is the way he critiques himself, maybe the best pitcher in the world.
Each mock at-bat ended in a strikeout. Scherzer finished at around 60 pitches. There was a silence after the last fastball, once it cracked against Kieboom’s mitt, and then Spin Williams began to clap for the close of a bullpen session. Scherzer will turn 35 in July, in the middle of his 12th major league season, and thinks he can still get better. He won’t say how, because his opponents might read this, but he’ll do anything to prove it. That started in mid-February. And now it starts, for real, when he faces the New York Mets on Thursday at Nationals Park.
“Well, how about that?” Williams, the Nationals’ senior adviser for player development, asked Rizzo.
“Good,” Rizzo said under his breath as Scherzer walked past. “Pretty freaking good.”
‘It doesn’t describe me’
Scherzer looked at the ceiling of the Nationals’ spring training clubhouse while he considered the numbers.
Statistics can be molded to fit a narrative. It happens in contract negotiations, on television, in scouting, and Scherzer thought it may be happening right now, at his locker in early March. Take the best pitching seasons of the past 20 years, filter them down to players 34 years or older, and look at when the performances happened. Eighteen of them are from 2005 or earlier. The other two — Roy Halladay at 34 in 2011 and Justin Verlander at 35 last year — are outliers. Most elite pitchers aren’t aging like they once did. Scherzer looked down and shook his head.
“It means absolutely … how do I say jack ---- in a way that can go in a newspaper?” Scherzer said. “I get what you’re trying to say, but that means absolutely zero to me. It doesn’t describe me.”
But if there is a trend of pitchers slowing in their mid- to late 30s, why doesn’t it apply to him? And why does he believe, against even greater odds, that he can improve?
The first answer came with a laugh: “I feel like if I talk to you about it, Freddie Freeman is listening on the other end. I don’t want to tell Freddie Freeman what I am trying to get better at.”
The second came without one: “I’d rather not say publicly because, one, I don’t want to jinx it, and, two, I have my private reasons of what I do to prepare myself, in the offseason and in season, that allows me to be durable.”
Durability is just one element of Scherzer’s value to these Nationals, who have World Series hopes that start with him, the unquestioned franchise player since Bryce Harper departed. Scherzer has never had a serious arm injury, and he credits that to a nonstop throwing program and his conditioning between starts. He has thrown at least 214 innings every season since 2013. That was his first Cy Young year, with the Detroit Tigers, and he has since won two more in Washington. He was runner-up in voting last season to Mets starter Jacob deGrom, whom he faces Thursday, after finishing with a 2.53 ERA, league-high 18 wins and career-high 300 strikeouts. It only intensified his search for something, anything, to sharpen.
Nationals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist wants Scherzer to be better in “wipeout counts,” when he has two strikes and a chance to put hitters away. He threw a few too many hanging sliders last year, Lilliquist said, and he wants Scherzer to instead bury those pitches below the zone. It was just the third time since 2002 that a pitcher finished with 300 or more strikeouts. Lilliquist thinks his ace could have had more.
“That’s a very minor thing, but with Max you can look for those little nuances,” Lilliquist said this March. “But with the way he prepares and takes care of his body and how much time he puts into breaking himself down, we shouldn’t be talking about why he can do it at 35. Hell, he could maybe do this at 45.”
In the offseason, when he’s not gripping a ball, Scherzer dives into analytics and video to assess himself. The findings, of course, aren’t to be shared. But he has noticed it’s harder than ever to spot ways to adapt. When Scherzer watches himself at 24, when he was 9-11 with a 4.12 ERA for the Arizona Diamondbacks, it’s like looking at a high school pitcher. He has learned so much in a decade, added pitches, ditched others, gone from a middle-of-the-rotation starter to having a Hall of Fame case. Yet the next changes, between 34 and 35, or 35 and 36, or 36 and 37, will be much subtler. There just isn’t as much room to grow, and there never will be.
He loves that challenge, to find tiny tweaks to a grip, to squint at his delivery on loop, to reinvent himself in even the smallest way. He noticed as recently as this winter that something was off, and it led to an easy fix.
“Okay, I can tell you this, because I thought it was kind of cool,” Scherzer said as he readied for a fake windup, his feet pointed to the right, an invisible glove at his chest. “There are times when my rocker step is just a little too big, and that gets too big I start moving east to west, and all my weight goes toward third base, and I fly open and my pitches start to ..."
He paused there and smiled. Even the mistakes are classified.
“That’s just a minute detail,” he added. “You reflect on that, and you get that ironclad in your head, what it looks like, so you know where you are comfortable with your rhythm and tempo and can repeat your success. So that’s one thing.”
‘We are young’
Now Scherzer had a rocker step in his head — a short, compact rocker step — and he bobbed back and forth while discussing what’s ahead. He won’t predict how many more years he’ll pitch, since he could be wrong, and he doesn’t have a specific goal. He has thought about it, as anyone would, but is more focused on his first start of this season, then the next one, then asks, “Do you see a pattern?”
As he is explained this, his tunnel vision for the next task, “We Are Young” by fun started blaring in the Nationals’ clubhouse. It was fitting, if not extremely cliche, and Anibal Sanchez grabbed Scherzer’s shoulder as he sang, or sort of screamed: “Tonight, we are young, so let’s set the world on fire!” Scherzer gave his teammate a loud high-five and complimented his falsetto. Sanchez turned 35 on Feb. 27. Scherzer is next.
When Rizzo labeled Scherzer a first-round pick in 2006, when he was a 21-year-old from the University of Missouri, it was because he could see Scherzer excelling in the majors. When Rizzo signed Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract in January 2015, it was because he could see Scherzer excelling right now.
“I knew he was never going to be satisfied, never going to be stagnant,” Rizzo said of a deal that will end when Scherzer’s 37. “And he’s so intelligent that he is going to try to find that new way to beat you, whatever it is.”
The music kept playing. Sanchez kept reaching for the high notes. Scherzer sat down at his locker, slumped a bit, to pull on his shoes for another spring workout. He started mumbling about the numbers, the ones he was told 25 minutes ago, the ones that discredit how he views himself. He looked up at the ceiling again, crunching them, mouthing “last 20 years” and “only two pitchers” and “2005,” and then he was done.
“Okay, that’s interesting,” he said. “But rules are meant to be broken. That’s the saying, right?"