Scherzer battled Mike Trout, as close to an immortal as you can be at age 26, to a full count, forced him to foul off two pitches — the second a rising fastball clocked at 99 mph that Trout barely got a piece of. Finally, Trout walked and the crowd groaned.
In the second inning, Scherzer continued to attack on every pitch, following the dominant baseball theory of this era. There are three “true outcomes” entirely within the control of the pitcher or hitter: strikeout, home run or walk. Scherzer tries to strike out everyone while fanatically dodging walks but knowing that his aggression may at times lead to a home run.
In that second inning, Scherzer fanned two more, but Aaron Judge, who had 52 true outcomes in 2017 that allowed him to trot around the bases and 25 more thus far this year, smoked a 95-mph Scherzer fastball deep into the left field bullpen for a homer. All rise, indeed. Everything that Scherzer did, his entire feral method, seeking total defeat of the hitter while, necessarily, flirting with his power to avoid walks, sent baseball electricity through the entire ballpark.
If Max Scherzer is baseball’s main problem, then what’s the hurry in finding a solution?
Everything that’s supposed to be wrong with baseball today — too many strikeouts, too few hits, not enough action plays that call for athletic defense, the pursuit or avoidance of walks and home-run-or-nothing hitters — can be seen in their extreme form whenever Scherzer pitches, not just on the biggest of stages.
No NL starting pitcher strikes out so many hitters (12.2 per nine innings) or suppresses batting averages (.179) as well as Mad Max. No-hitters (two) and a 20-strikeout game have been his highlight moments with the Nationals — low-contact games that, it should be noted, did not bore Washington fans. Those who decry too many whiffs and too many home runs have a valid aesthetic criticism. But they tend to forget that every homer and every strikeout makes the fans of one team do this crazy thing — they cheer.
And on Tuesday night there was plenty to cheer. Starting with Judge’s blast, the true outcomes mounted up to record highs in favor of the hitters as five men — that’s five on each team, not five altogether — hit home runs for a staggering total of 10, four more than had even been hit in this game. The American League won, 8-6, in 10 innings. Yes, there were 25 strikeouts. But that, in the modern game, is the price of lighting the fuse to so much dynamite.
Pleasing, exciting baseball is dependent on many factors. But one matters more than all the others: How many runs are scored?
Over the whole course of baseball history, the average has stayed very close to nine per game. No one can prove that is the “correct” or best number. But when a sport flourishes at the highest level for almost 150 years, then its long-term norms must be doing something right to keep the customers coming back.
This year, despite all the analytics-driven angst over an excess of the three true outcomes — and Commissioner Rob Manfred touched inconclusively on the subject Tuesday — the AL is scoring 8.88 runs per game while the NL, without the designated hitter, averages 8.78.
This level of run-scoring in 2018 does not mean that baseball is close to some ideal balance. It isn’t, as this launch-angle-worshipping slugfest showed. But, at least for now, the fact that the score of the average game is 5-4, and that lots of strikeouts don’t prevent the biggest fireworks display in all-star history, probably means that the intensity of our panic attacks should be modulated.
To see the present more clearly, it helps to have a time machine to take you back almost a half-century to find out what the past can teach.
The All-Star Game at Nationals Park, the first in Washington in 49 years, was handed to us at an ideal time to get a grip on MLB’s current state — its problems and, just as important, their size and scope.
The sweeping perspective from 1969 — when baseball was in true crisis — to 2018, when the game has annoying flaws but few intractable problems, gives us a chance to unload our bucket of decimal points, take a breath and do what All-Star Games were intended for: enjoying the sport a little more, crabbing a little less.
With hindsight, it’s a shock to realize what a dangerously sick sport baseball was the last time the Midsummer Classic was in D.C. The previous season, the average MLB game only produced 6.84 runs — far below the sport’s century-long average of nine runs a game. MLB came to D.C. pulling out its hair and searching for fixes, such as lowering the mound or creating the DH.
Below the surface, MLB, still seven years away from the revolution of free agency, was greedily setting the stage for a 25-year labor war. In 1969, young Johnny Bench had already earned an all-star nod and won a Gold Glove; he got a raise from $11,000 to $23,500. That same year Hank Aaron, who began that season with 510 homers, made $92,500.
That’s a sick sport with a dull product to sell and angry employees.
In 2018, baseball has serious issues but is far from traumatized. Looked at across wide swaths of time, there are probably only a couple of things wrong that the sport won’t cure through its own evolution and adjustments.
Baseball has always been criticized more than any other American sport. That is because baseball — its fans, players and media — loves to criticize itself. Everybody else piles on. Only baseball can turn too many home runs into a “crisis” while football turns too many head injuries into a “concern.”
How soon we forget — barely a decade ago, performance-enhancing-drug-induced power almost made the sport a joke, with home run records getting demolished by cheaters. That’s a problem. What we have now is more a period of adjustment.
More modern pitchers, with emphasis on building core strength and studying biomechanics, throw harder than Willie Mays could have imagined. In Sunday’s Futures Game, right-hander Hunter Greene, 18, the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft by the Cincinnati Reds, threw 19 fastballs between 100 and 103 mph.
Yet Luis Basabe, 21, pulled a 102-mph pitch halfway up the right field bleachers. No one in the majors has hit a pitch that fast for a home run this year. The next hitter tattooed another 102-mph fastball into left field for a sharp single.
“That was 102 — inside. And he turned on it. Tip my cap to that guy,” said Greene, literally lifting his hat. “That was very impressive.”
Each generation of hitters learns how to cope with its own generation of pitchers. Watch the Nats’ Juan Soto, 19, choke up and spread out his stance with two strikes to avoid strikeouts — and to beat shifts. Nationals prospect Carter Kieboom, 20, has watched Soto’s success and developed his own two-strike approach. “You get two ‘A’ swings, then you battle,” Kieboom said.
Baseball in its ideal state — and I am still searching in vain to find the season, just one year, when this perfect equilibrium existed — would have fewer whiffs, more singles, more defensive chances and hitters who could cope with shifts without forgetting that extra-base hits win games but all groundballs are trash.
Come back in 49 more years. Bet baseball’s still here. Some young fan, who was in the bleachers Tuesday night, can tell everybody how all those issues of 2018 worked out. She probably won’t conclude that Max Scherzer ruined baseball.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.