Washington Nationals starter Max Scherzer has held right-handed batters to a .216 average over eight seasons in the majors. But on June 2, for the first time in his career, Scherzer gave up two home runs in a game to the same right-handed batter — Kevin Pillar of Toronto.
So how did Pillar, a career .255 hitter who had never faced Scherzer before, solve arguably the best starter in baseball this season?
“You give me a hundred more at-bats off him, I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to do what I did that day,” Pillar said.
Even before he signed with the Nationals, Scherzer, the 2013 American League Cy Young Award winner, was among the best in baseball. But through 14 starts in Washington, Scherzer has gotten better, with a 1.76 ERA and 123 strikeouts to lead the majors in both categories entering Monday’s games. He is walking fewer batters, striking out more, throwing more strikes, inducing weaker contact and getting hitters to chase pitches outside the strike zone.
“It’s so hard to face him,” said Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, a former National who has 45 career at-bats and a .313 on-base percentage against Scherzer. “Every single one of his pitches is good.”
Many factors make Scherzer, 30, a dominant pitcher — his stuff, his mind, his arm — but the most unique might be his delivery. Scherzer has what is known as a three-quarters arm slot. Instead of the traditional over-the-top delivery, Scherzer’s arm stretches out to his right. For many right-handed batters, the release point adds an element of deception.
“The ball looks like it’s coming on top of you,” said Blue Jays right-handed slugger Edwin Encarnacion, who is 5 for 15 with a home run against Scherzer. “That makes it much harder.”
Aside from meticulous mental and physical preparation, Scherzer has mastered a fierce delivery and command of his pitches, which took time.
“Not everybody can command both sides of the plate,” Encarnacion said. “There are some pitchers that can go inside but not outside. He can do both.”
Scherzer takes pride in being able to throw any of his pitches, including his off-speed stuff, at any point in an at-bat, even when the batter is ahead. He gives hitters few clues as to what is coming next.
“He repeats his delivery every time,” said Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison , whose fly out to left field ensured Scherzer’s no-hitter Saturday. “He throws from the same arm slot. Some pitchers sometimes will compensate, throw from a different arm slot or slow down. His ball comes out the same spot every time. That’s one of the things that can make a guy tricky, if every ball coming out of his hand is coming from the same spot, that’s what makes it hard to decipher fastball, slider, change-up.”
Scherzer’s unique delivery also adds extra spin and movement to his fastball, which he throws nearly 59 percent of the time. As it nears the plate, it moves almost sideways, away from left-handed batters and in to right-handed batters. Opponents are whiffing at nearly 25 percent of his fastballs, better than all starters except Chris Sale of the White Sox, according to BaseballSavant.com.
One of Pillar’s home runs came on a fastball, and he had to adjust his swing to account for the fastball’s movement.
“You know his ball is going to come back in, so you don’t want to look in because then the ball is going to be underneath your hands,” Pillar said. “So you want to set your sights out knowing you’re going to swing [inside], but you know you have to look out here to see the ball moving back.”
Scherzer also has a killer instinct late in the game. In his May 27 start in Chicago against the Cubs, Scherzer’s fastball was 91-94 mph. In the seventh inning, with the Nationals leading 2-0, it hit 97 mph. On his 107th pitch of the game, he hit 96 mph and then struck out second baseman Addison Russell on an inside change-up.
“I wasn’t expecting 98,” Russell said. “He pumped that thing right by me. He’s got a lot of talent.”
Scherzer wants to be the aggressor, so he throws first-pitch strikes 70.8 percent of the time, third most in baseball. His full arsenal of pitches is so good that he puts the ball in the strike zone. He is second in baseball in strikes thrown at 70.9 percent. He likes attacking left-handed batters with his fastball and change-up and the occasional curveball, the pitch that helped him blossom in 2013. He primarily uses his fastball and wipeout slider against right-handers and isn’t afraid to throw them change-ups, too.
“Whoever wrote the book about pitching never pitched in the big leagues,” Scherzer said. “Righty-righty change-ups are eventually a really good pitch. For me, my change-up really plays because it allows me to show a pitch that dives down and in to a [right-handed batter] and use a slider more away to a righty. It allows me to keep the looks different. It allows you to mix and match more.”
Scherzer’s demeanor on the mound is also part of his pitching. He works quickly, taking about 21 seconds between pitches, his fastest rate in six years. When runners are on base, he is more deliberate. But when he’s in a groove, his giddiness is evident.
“When he’s striking out guys, he’s got, I call it the old Western walk,” said Nationals center fielder Denard Span, who is 5 for 19 with a home run against Scherzer but hasn’t faced him since 2012. “He’s got his elbows up in there, and he knows he’s outworked the other guy on the mound. It’s hilarious to me when he gets in the zone. He starts circling the mound. I’m out there laughing. This guy is unbelievable. It’s a little nerdy-slash-goofy. But you can’t deny his hard work. He’s prepared.”