The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dialing back the Max: Nationals seek to manage the relentless Scherzer

Max Scherzer pitches against Atlanta earlier in spring training.
Max Scherzer pitches against Atlanta earlier in spring training. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Barry Svrluga

JUPITER, Fla. — On the third pitch of his day, Max Scherzer allowed a triple off the center field wall. To the first batter of the second inning, he coughed up a no-doubter solo homer. Entering his outing Monday, he had walked two men all spring. Monday, he walked the opposing pitcher, then allowed him to score on a three-run bomb off the bat of a Miami Marlin named Derek Dietrich. After five innings, he had given up six runs and three bombs.

“I actually like that I got hit around,” Scherzer said afterward, straight-faced. “That was good.”

Such proclamations can be made 10 days before the Washington Nationals open the season in Cincinnati with Scherzer — who owns the National League Cy Young Award until someone takes it away — on the mound. He can say that because he had allowed just three hits in his first four outings, over which he had struck out 21 in just 14 innings. He is a pitcher of such stature that he can shake off his manager and say he needed one more inning on a random March Monday in a half-empty ballpark against the lowly Marlins.

“He knows what he needs to do,” Manager Dave Martinez said.

What he needed Monday: to get to 90 pitches. What he needs next: 100 more in his final Grapefruit League tuneup. And during the season: That’s an evolving discussion, and it’ll be interesting to monitor.

“I want to go out there and make 33 starts,” Scherzer said. “. . . If I control my job of how I pitch, my job is to go out there and post up every fifth game. That’s the only goal for me, what I look at for the season.”

Thirty-three, huh? What Scherzer has demonstrated as he enters his fourth season in Washington is there are sometimes competing forces: what he wants to do, and what is best for him and his team, which has championship aspirations. It’s remarkable that his name is Max, because that’s how he seems to walk through life — giving maximum effort, wanting the maximum number of starts so he can record the maximum number of outs.

About that: Last August, the Nationals placed Scherzer on the disabled list because of a neck issue. It was his first trip to baseball’s wasteland in eight years. The injury was minor. The conversation that put him there was monumental. Ask Mike Rizzo, the Nationals general manager, if he remembers it.

“Oof,” Rizzo said. “I’ll never forget it.”

Boswell: Mike Rizzo waits on a contract extension from the Nationals, one he’s easily earned

To argue against Scherzer, you better come armed with facts. That’s true if it’s about an NCAA tournament bracket or baseball’s current labor situation or his routine of eating a massive roast beef sandwich before each start. But about pitching? Watch out.

“When you speak to Max about baseball, you have to have coherent arguments and evidence. It’s like a friggin’ court case,” Rizzo said. “Because if he catches you, he’ll call,” um, cow dung.

Who knows how this year will play out, and whether Scherzer will have some sort of minor tweak again? But Rizzo’s argument last August showed Scherzer that he could get his rest and still make 31 starts — enough to stay in contention for the Cy Young Award, which the Nationals knew was important to their ace. But Rizzo also told Scherzer: If you walk into the postseason with less than 200 innings, that would be perfectly fine — and maybe better.

That’s not an accident. Scherzer’s total last year: 200⅔ innings pitched, his lowest total since 2012. The key is to convince Scherzer that it’s okay — not just okay, but preferable — to record fewer outs, to throw fewer pitches, because at this point in his career, the outs to record and pitches to throw that matter come in October.

So keep that nice, round number of innings — 200 — in mind, not just for Scherzer but for Stephen Strasburg, who finished third to Scherzer’s first in the Cy Young race last year after throwing all of 175⅓ innings. Scherzer topped 228 innings in each of his first two seasons in Washington. Here’s betting he never reaches that total again.

This is a trend, one to maximize relievers and protect starters, and it isn’t unique to the Nationals. It also isn’t completely because of managers’ tendencies to go to a power-pitching, matchup-heavy bullpen early on or to avoid having a starter face a lineup for the third time. All are factors, sure. They’re not alone.

“In the new day and age of no assistance with amphetamines and the other stuff, the workload strategy has changed,” Rizzo said. “I think that’s a fact.”

Since 2013, when Scherzer won the first of his three Cy Young Awards when he was still with Detroit, no pitcher has thrown more innings, an average of more than 218 a year. But the days of 240-inning seasons may be over.

Since the turn of this century, there have been 30 seasons in which a pitcher threw at least 240 innings. None have come in the last three years. Last year, Boston’s Chris Sale led all of baseball with 214⅓ innings. Five years earlier, a dozen pitchers exceeded that total. Just two years before that, 19 pitchers threw more innings. The Nationals have faced scrutiny for how they protected Strasburg coming off Tommy John surgery in 2012. The truth is, they have been monitoring their pitchers — not to mention how other teams have handled such situations — before and since.

“We’ve been doing this a long time,” Rizzo said.

The Nationals’ overhauled coaching staff is experienced, fiery and very, very loud

Scherzer, who will turn 34 in July, is not yet at the midway point of his seven-year, $210 million contract, so he has more important time ahead than behind. He is coming off a season in which he led the National League in strikeouts (268), walks and hits per inning pitched (a minuscule .902) and batting average against (.176). It’s impossible to imagine he will trend up from here.

But what if the Nats are smart in how they manage his effort? Scherzer’s preparation won’t change. Last week, Rizzo had something about which he needed to talk to Scherzer. He cruised around the Nationals’ complex in West Palm Beach. Unable to find him, he went back to his office and made a call to the clubhouse staff. “If you see Max . . .” The staff knew right where to find him: in the video room. By himself. Watching tape. Of how to get out Joey Votto, who happens to be the best hitter on the Cincinnati Reds, who happen to be the Nationals’ opponent on Opening Day.

“I don’t understand, if you’re a young pitcher and Max would allow you, why you are not hanging on his belt loop and just mimicking everything he does,” Rizzo said Monday. “Because he gets it. He’s an intelligent pitcher. He knows his body. He knows his delivery, because he’s made himself know it.”

He knows, too, how to prepare for a season. When he came out for that fifth inning Monday, he was no longer happy to get hit around, to work from the stretch. “He pitched with a little meaning,” Martinez said.

The result: strikeout, strikeout, strikeout. That’s the Scherzer the Nationals know, getting an extra inning and crushing the opposition. It’s just worth keeping an eye on how often Scherzer gets that extra inning this season, all with an eye on his career — and the Nationals’ October fate.