Bryan Holaday stood in front of the home dugout at Marlins Park in June, leaned back against the padded railing, then let his face say what his mouth couldn’t.
“How much do you really know Max?” the Miami Marlins catcher asked, grinning, because that’s a complex question when discussing one of the best pitchers of his generation. “I would need him to sign papers before I shared too much. Otherwise, he’d kill me.”
That’s Max Scherzer: intense, intensely private about pitching, intent on doing everything he can to win and prove anyone, or everyone, wrong. Talk to enough of his catchers since he began his college career — talk to 22 of them — and that’s the pitcher who emerges.
The 35-year-old is and always has been at his best when told he can’t do something. That includes food challenges at the University of Missouri. That includes minor league matchups with no one watching. And that will soon include the National League wild-card game, against the Milwaukee Brewers at 8:08 p.m. on Tuesday, Scherzer’s next chance to lift the Washington Nationals and build his Hall of Fame résumé.
There was chatter of whether Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg should start for the Nationals in the one-game playoff. But Scherzer’s catchers, past and present, saw why doubting him is dangerous. They saw it from right behind the plate.
Max Scherzer enrolled at the University of Missouri in the fall of 2003 as a top recruit from Parkway Central High. He didn’t pitch much his freshman year, making just two starts, but he emerged with an 1.86 ERA in 106 innings during his sophomore season.
University of Missouri, 2004
Flanders was a senior when the hard-thrower arrived at Missouri, itching to pitch. One day, the veterans challenged Scherzer to take down three Chipotle burritos in one sitting. “Just because everyone said he couldn’t do it,” Flanders remembered before adding: “And he didn’t skimp on any of the toppings.”
La Crosse Loggers, Northwoods League, 2004
Russell, a catcher at Marshall University in the early 2000s, played for the La Crosse Loggers in the Northwoods League in the summer of 2004. Some of the country’s best college talent gathers there each summer to compete in front of scouts. The Loggers needed a pitcher about a quarter of the way through the season. The coaches called Russell and gave him the address of a small high school gym in rural Wisconsin. They needed him to catch and evaluate a kid named Max Scherzer. Russell had never heard the name. The first thing Russell remembers is that Scherzer had different colored eyes — one brown, the other blue. Russell predicted he would throw in the high 80s or low 90s and that the Loggers would pass on Scherzer and pick up one of the studs from Cal Berkeley. But Scherzer threw much harder. Russell had trouble tracking the ball inside. And Scherzer made the team. “I couldn’t believe a guy who threw that hard had such a good change-up and a nasty slider,” said Russell, now a history teacher outside of Toronto. “You couldn’t touch him.”
Field got to campus a year after Scherzer, as a community college transfer, and heard the Scherzer buzz. He heard that Scherzer “blew up” in the Northwoods League. He heard, more than once, a tale that already was lore in the Missouri locker room: “This is the guy who apparently ate three burritos at one time,” Field remembered thinking. “So that told me he wanted to be challenged on the mound.”
The Arizona Diamondbacks selected Scherzer with the 11th pick in the 2006 draft. He signed with them about a year later, at 22, and began a minor league career that included three stops across two seasons.
Visalia Oaks, 2007; Tucson Sidewinders, 2009
Curreri was Scherzer’s first catcher after he signed with the Diamondbacks. They met with the Class A Visalia Oaks. Curreri was told he was needed to squat for a Scherzer bullpen session on the right-hander’s first day in the quiet California town. Curreri expected Scherzer to be calm and shy while getting his bearings. He was wrong. “We figured it out day one,” Curreri recalled. “He was down there barking at himself for throwing a change-up in the dirt.”
Visalia Oaks, 2007
Scherzer was untouchable June 12, 2007. The Visalia Oaks were facing the San Jose Giants. Pablo Sandoval was in the Giants’ lineup. Scherzer, meanwhile, had a no-hitter through seven innings with Mercado behind the plate. But he hit his 90-pitch limit, a strict mandate from the major league front office, and Manager Hector de la Cruz came out to pull him. Scherzer was furious. He refused to give up the ball. But Mercado remembers de la Cruz pleading with Scherzer to leave the mound, and he eventually did. “[Scherzer] was like: ‘Come on, man. Give me another one!’ ” Mercado recalled. “The manager was like: ‘I understand. I have a job and two kids. I don’t want to get fired here. You’re, like, a top prospect.’ ”
Visalia Oaks, 2007
“You knew little buttons to push with Max, little things that could spur him on,” said Ford, who also matched up with Scherzer while playing at Baylor. “Instead of 94, 95 [mph], you’re going to get 96, 97. You just have to make a comment to him, ‘Your stuff doesn’t look that good,’ and all of a sudden he would just blow guys away. … I also remember him trying to hit and taking massive swings in [batting practice] and telling our coach that he should be a pinch hitter.”
Tucson Sidewinders, 2008
Hammock can’t recall the batter’s name. He just knows the batter crushed fastballs. Everyone knew it. It was all over the scant scouting report passed around the Sidewinders’ clubhouse in 2008. But Scherzer wanted to challenge the batter with all heaters, all up in the zone, all aimed at showing he could beat anyone with whatever he wanted. And he did. He struck him out on three fastballs. “That was a meaningless Triple-A game,” said Hammock, now the Diamondbacks’ catching coordinator. “Just seeing that in the couple times I caught him, it was like, ‘Wow, okay, this guy can do it.’ It was part of the stubbornness.”
Visalia Oaks, 2009
Schmidt caught Scherzer one time, at the start of the 2009 season, because Scherzer needed a minor league tuneup before joining the Diamondbacks. Schmidt was excited to prove he could work with a major leaguer. The result of that outing wasn’t all good. Scherzer pitched just 4⅔ innings. But his fastball moved so late and came in so fast that Schmidt’s glove was ripped to pieces. “I didn’t have an agent or equipment, but he tore the pocket out of my glove,” Schmidt said. “I was kind of bummed about it because I couldn’t afford another glove at the time. … It was the first game of the year, and I’m coming into my single-A season with a broken glove. I’m not talking about the laces. It tore the whole leather off it.”
Scherzer made 16 appearances, seven of them starts, in his first season with the Diamondbacks in 2008. He spent the rest of that year bouncing back and forth between the minors. He was young and certainly still developing and never got close to his full potential before Arizona traded him to the Detroit Tigers in December 2009.
“He had as a rookie what every pitcher wants now with their fastball,” said Snyder, who caught Scherzer’s major league debut against the Houston Astros on April 29, 2008. “It was hard and really just drove through the zone. The movement was great. If we were tracking spin rate then, I’m sure it would have been great. He had a lot to work on. But the four-seam fastball was astounding from the start.”
Carlin was one of the Diamondbacks’ backup catchers in 2009 and caught just one of Scherzer’s starts that year. But they were close enough. That was until they passed each other during a charity golf tournament that offseason. Carlin tried to strike up a conversation. Scherzer, dialed in to winning, unwilling to turn his drive off, walked right past him. “He gave me the ‘What’s up?’ and kept going,” remembered Carlin, who now manages the Lake County Captains in the Cleveland Indians organization. “I was like, ‘Did he just big league me?!’”
Tucson Sidewinders, 2008; Diamondbacks 2008-09
Before Montero was paired with Scherzer for parts of two seasons as the Diamondbacks’ everyday catcher, he worked with him during a minor league rehab assignment. The organization wanted Montero’s feedback on one of its top prospects. Scherzer didn’t have his best stuff that day, and his slider was shaky, so Montero suggested he try throwing his change-up to right-handed hitters. Scherzer still does that when he’s ahead in counts.
Montero later saw Scherzer grow into a middle-of-the-rotation starter who was directionless in the weight room. He remembered the Diamondbacks trading him to the Tigers over shoulder concerns and was shocked how durable Scherzer became once he landed in Detroit. Scherzer has since made 30 or more starts in nine of 10 seasons. “They were scared he wasn’t going to stay healthy,” Montero said. “I think that’s why they traded him, and look how it ended up. I guess that wasn’t a good trade."
The Tigers acquired Scherzer in a three-team deal that, in hindsight, was a colossal steal. They got a pitcher who would win the Cy Young Award in 2013 and begin a run of seven consecutive all-star appearances.
It was a regular June day at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City in 2013. Scherzer was months from his first Cy Young Award but couldn’t quite find his command against the Royals. Avila pondered how to get him on track. So he walked to the mound and offered a fantasy football trade. An intentionally bad one. Scherzer, confused for a moment, got fired up that Avila thought he would accept such a one-sided deal. He yelled a little. Then he threw seven innings to improve to 9-0. “He feeds off that type of adrenaline,” said Avila, whose 107 games with Scherzer are the most of any catcher. “At first, it took him off guard, but he was absolutely into it.”
Tigers, 2012 and 2014
“He was a little different back then,” said Holaday, remembering his debut with the Tigers in 2012. The two have since become close friends and vacation together in the offseason. “They told me I was starting the next day, and I thought, ‘If I catch anybody but Max, it’ll be fine.’ That spring training he was like a lunatic in the bullpen. He would throw a couple bad pitches, and he would start cussing and stomping around. And I couldn’t tell if he was yelling at me. Sure enough, he was slated to throw that day. … That was a fun game to be my first one.”
At a random pitchers-and-catchers meeting in the summer of 2013, Peña remembers Scherzer telling him: “Peña, if I win the Cy Young, you’re going to have a Rolex for Christmas.” Peña laughed and didn’t think much of it. He figured Scherzer was just messing around. But Scherzer won the Cy Young that October, and about a full calendar year later, Peña got a knock on his door. He had to sign for a FedEx package. He was now playing for the Cincinnati Reds. “I opened the box, and I was like, ‘Oh, my god,’ ” Peña recalled. The Rolex arrived with a note. The beginning of it read, “You thought I forgot about you?”
Tigers, 2011 and 2014
When Martinez first met Scherzer in Detroit, after the catcher spent the start of his career with the Cleveland Indians, he avoided Scherzer on start days. Pitchers don’t like to be talked to or in some cases even looked at when they get ready to pitch. But Scherzer developed a start-day routine with Martinez’s son, Victor Jr., from which he never strayed. He would take Victor Jr. into the outfield and throw him passes with a football. He also would send him on routes around the clubhouse. The kid was his good-luck charm. “He taught my son about the game of football. I don’t know [expletive] about the game,” Martinez said. He and Victor Jr. laughed in the car this September, near their home in Orlando, as they remembered those times. “I was clueless about football,” Victor Jr. added. “[Scherzer] took me to my first game.”
The Nationals signed Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract in January 2015. The deal came as a surprise given that Washington already had Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister in its rotation. But now the Nationals had an unquestioned ace who since has become a franchise cornerstone.
“I’ll never forget when he first got to the team in 2015, and he takes me into a small room at the spring training complex,” Ramos recalled at his locker in the visitors’ clubhouse at Nationals Park in September. He plays for the New York Mets now. He smiled, almost wistfully, before offering the next part. “He looked at me very seriously and goes: ‘I don’t want to ever have to shake you off. Ever. You need to be on the same page as me all the time.’ And, you know, I think it worked out for us. Two no-hitters and a 20-strikeout game together.”
“He had a plan for everybody. You just have to follow that plan and what he likes to do early and late,” said Lobaton, now in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, adding that Scherzer got him two watches: one for helping get his second Cy Young Award and a second for suggesting a small tweak two starts before Scherzer’s first no-hitter. “It was harder for me with the signs. With a runner on second, he used a lot of stuff [to avoid sign stealing]. Really weird. That was the only hard part for me. The rest was just making the pitches look good and being on the same page.”
Nationals, 2016 and 2018
“I just got called up in 2015. I learned a lot that year,” Severino, now with the Baltimore Orioles, said of first working with Scherzer. “I was in the dugout almost every night, and he would sit close to me and ask: ‘What pitch would you call in this situation? What pitch in this count?’ It’s like a real game but in the dugout. He started teaching me a lot about pitching and what pitch to call.”
“I had great numbers against him until he started throwing a cutter,” Wieters said, laughing, of facing Scherzer before he became his regular catcher in 2017. “I first caught Max when we were on Team USA in college. You knew about the fastball. You sat on the heat because if not it would just whiz by you. But then came the cutter. I’d be waiting for something and one time the ball literally hit my back foot. And I still swung.”
“I once went to high-five him during a spring training start, and he just walked right past me. I didn’t know that wasn’t allowed,” Kieboom remembered with a laugh. “Later, when he was out of the game, he came up to me, and he goes: ‘Sorry, I just don’t do that. I am in the zone. I’m pitching.’ It’s easy to imagine Max at 75 years old going all out in a game of bocce or something. And nothing will have changed.”
“I looked at him and asked, ‘You’re not going to pitch like that, right?’ ” Gomes said of when Scherzer started and tossed seven scoreless innings with a broken nose June 19. He suffered the injury while attempting a bunt in batting practice. “His face was covered in bruises. There was a ton of blood when it first happened. Everyone was staring at him like, ‘There’s just no way.’ But he went out there and dominated. I think, more than anything, it was because we all thought he shouldn’t.”
A lot stands out to Suzuki from his first year catching Scherzer. They have been inseparable since early May, always around each other in the dugout, always talking sequences and scouting reports and how they can gain an edge. But of all that Suzuki has seen, on the field and off, he’s most excited for what Scherzer could do next. “You’re almost overconfident with him on the mound,” Suzuki said of Scherzer starting the wild-card game for Washington. “There’s not a pitcher on the planet that you’d want instead of him in a one-game playoff. Guys start talking: ‘We have Max. We’ll be okay.’ That’s what it’s like when you have the best.”
Top photos by Getty Images. Design by Brianna Schroer.
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