The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Max Scherzer wasn’t predestined for baseball greatness but has a hard-earned Hall of Fame case

Max Scherzer has been fighting — and beating — mediocrity his entire life. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Rick Kirby was the basketball coach at Parkway Central High in Chesterfield, Mo., for more than 20 years, one of those beloved local figures who influence all corners of America. He was one of those defense-first types, the gritty kind who makes you do things right.

Of all the kids Kirby coached, his most unlikely legacy might lie in one 6-foot-something forward who took to the whole thing, falling head over heels for the grit and the grind. That kid would risk any blow from an elbow or two for a chance to throw his own. He loved the chase, even if he wasn’t the most naturally talented kid in the race.

Max Scherzer always had an affinity for scratching and clawing.

“I loved the intensity of it,” Scherzer said years later, elbows on his knees in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, where he is the heart of the team, four years into his tenure. “I loved the physical demands of it, the conditioning, the scouting of it.”

Starting pitchers, as a genre, do not have a reputation for scrappiness. Scherzer, whose dominance is the product of a years-long wrestling match with mediocrity, wouldn’t be a major league pitcher without it.

The Scherzer competitiveness — the betting-on-swings-in-the-batting-cage, put-me-in-to-pinch-hit-coach, here-Manny-Machado-see-if-you-can-hit-95 competitiveness — has its origins in his days spent jostling bigger forwards in the paint or starting at quarterback as a freshman for the Parkway Central football team.

At least that’s where he says it comes from. Maybe he isn’t telling us everything. He never really does, even if something about the earnest twinkle in that blue eye and the stern stare of the brown one combine to leave you thinking you somehow have the whole picture.

Scherzer always holds something back. After nearly every start, as he delves into adjustments and strategy and detail that so few starters feel any reason to give, Scherzer dodges a question. He can’t tell you everything. The other guy might read it in the papers and know what’s coming.

The thing Scherzer never banks on, in which he never takes solace — the thing he never uses as a reason to sit still for just one minute — is that the other guy doesn’t think like he does.

“He has a very, very powerful brain. I don’t know if that’s the right way to say it,” said Tony Vitello, the baseball coach at Tennessee who coached Scherzer at the University of Missouri. “The guy’s got a great arm, but the best weapon he has is that brain.”

That brain — and its incomparable wiring — explains how an earnest Midwestern kid became a player who some would say is the most accomplished right-handed pitcher of his era. Scherzer was never destined to stomp around the grounds of major league stadiums, never a can’t-miss talent who would have disappointed everyone had he turned out merely mortal. Mediocrity never disappointed Scherzer, either. It motivated him, over and over, until he had all but eradicated it from his baseball life.

“There’s only been one or two Bryce Harpers — guys who have been the greatest thing ever from day one,” Vitello said. “Max’s high school numbers were not that good. His freshman year [at Missouri] was not that great. When he got into minor league baseball, he did well — not great. His first few years in the big leagues, he was nothing special.”

Now Scherzer is one of six pitchers to win the Cy Young Award in both leagues, one of 10 to win three of them and one of 11 pitchers to strike out at least 1,000 batters with two different teams. He probably will start his third All-Star Game on Tuesday night. He just might have a case to be the National League MVP. He almost certainly has one for the Hall of Fame.

'I want to know why'

Scherzer was born outside St. Louis to University of Missouri alumni, a Cardinals fan by birth. He wasn’t a top recruit in high school — drafted in the 43rd round, not the first, by those Cardinals as a high school senior — but he was good enough to catch the eye of a Missouri scout who saw enough in Scherzer to schedule a visit. Vitello, then a young assistant for the Tigers, was tasked with taking Scherzer to his opening night dinner.

The only advice he had gotten about the fiery teenager was not to stare. The kid had weird eyes — one brown, one blue. So advised, Vitello could think of nothing else — “the old ‘don’t picture a pink elephant’ ” conundrum. Scherzer found a way to take his future coach’s mind off the eyes almost immediately. He insisted his host order the El Diablo pasta, so named for its kick.

“It had me sweating like crazy,” Vitello said. “His personality kind of took over the whole dinner.”

Energy was never the problem for Scherzer, who used to try so hard on every pitch that his hat would fall off as he whipped his head during his follow-through. Mention “the head whip” to anyone who has scouted him over the years, and they will know exactly what you mean.

The Missouri coaching staff tried to help him, teaching him balance, to stay back through his delivery, to stop leaping at hitters — a bad habit that made him miss, up and in, to righties over and over again. He threw too many pitches. He got a chance as a freshman and lost it. After the Tigers got blown out one day, Vitello turned a corner in the dugout to see Scherzer standing there.

“I want to know why I didn’t pitch in that game,” Scherzer said.

“He was ready to fight me,” Vitello remembered. “He’s never lost that spirit.”

“I didn’t pitch the last 50 days of that season,” Scherzer said, more than a decade later, voice low, teeth gritted, still haunted by the notion as he sat in front of the locker on which a Cy Young Award leaned a few months before.

Scherzer spent those 50 days working out and doing long toss, and he gained a few miles per hour on his fastball in the process. Vitello and head coach Tim Jamieson suggested a drill to help Scherzer stay balanced on his back leg, not to get over his front foot. Scherzer thought he could make the drill better, so he modified it. Then he spent hour after frigid winter hour in the Tigers’ indoor facility, getting as many repetitions as he could. When he came back as a sophomore, he pitched to a 1.86 ERA in 16 starts and struck out 131 batters in 1061/3 innings.

“I thought, ‘I’m not just going to flame out here,’ ” Scherzer said. “ ‘I’m here to pitch and succeed.’ ”

'Are you in or not with Max?'

Not long ago, Josh Byrnes, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ vice president of baseball operations, was driving around with highly touted rookie starter Walker Buehler when Scherzer’s name came up.

He hadn’t meant to mention him, but most conversations about major league pitching these days eventually wind around to Scherzer.

He is, at 33 years old, a bona fide freak. Even Clayton Kershaw hasn’t held up. Even Justin Verlander hit a rut. The statistics say Scherzer is better at this age than he has ever been before. None of that is normal. And no one saw that coming.

“To see [Scherzer] now and the consistent greatness . . . to at least understand some of the steps that got him here, it’s quite a baseball story,” Byrnes said. “It’s quite a lesson for anyone.”

Byrnes was the general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks when Scherzer again became eligible for the draft after his junior season. After his revelatory sophomore season, he entered his junior year as a projected first-round pick. But that junior year did not go as well as he had hoped. He slammed the middle finger of his pitching hand in his apartment door while rushing off to play Xbox one afternoon. He pitched through the pain of a mangled finger, compensated and developed biceps tendinitis. When big league evaluators hear “biceps” anything, they immediately think “elbow.” The alarmists jump straight to “Tommy John.”

So when Byrnes and his scouting director, a fiery guy named Mike Rizzo, headed to the Big 12 tournament to see Scherzer pitch not long before the draft, they were trying to see whether this kid was still worth their 11th overall pick. Would he ever be the same?

“Mike and I sat down, and we looked around and were like, ‘Where is everybody?’ This is the conference tournament. This is a big outing to decide: Are you in or not with Max?” Byrnes said. “We’re walking out, and [Rizzo] was like, ‘Are you good with taking him?’ ”

Rizzo, today the Nationals’ general manager, was always good with taking Scherzer. Tim Lincecum was on the board that year, and most teams ranked the diminutive righty ahead of Scherzer. Rizzo, looking back, is pretty sure the Diamondbacks weren’t one of those teams.

But Scherzer’s delivery still included a little head whip — less head whip, but any was too much. He still had Max-effort tendencies, so to speak. So they argued.

“We had some lively discussions if he was a reliever or a starter, if he had a bad delivery and good arm action, or bad arm action and a bad delivery,” Rizzo said. “There was a lot of pitching philosophy being expounded on during that draft meeting.”

Convincing a front office to draft Stephen Strasburg after watching him throw an 18-strikeout no-hitter, as Rizzo did in Washington, was easy. But Scherzer never “knocked your eyes out,” Rizzo said, so he had to argue for the pitcher’s competitiveness, for his “100 percent attack mode.” Never one for groupthink, Rizzo also argued that Scherzer’s delivery was as clean as they come.

“When I broke him down slowly on film, the delivery was pretty pure — on line, balanced,” Rizzo said. “The ball was where it was supposed to be when his foot was landing. He landed soft. High-heel finish. Nobody else could understand why I thought it was good arm action when everyone else thought it was a bad arm waiting to happen.”

A few years later, when Rizzo had departed for the Nationals, Byrnes led the front office that traded Scherzer to Detroit. Scherzer had a 3.86 ERA in 46 career games at the time, averaging more than a strikeout per inning. Good but not incredible. Arizona had five years of control left at the time, but its medical staff didn’t think he had five years of innings in his right arm. So off he went to the Tigers.

“Not to get off-topic and to trading him, which was obviously a terrible decision,” Byrnes said with a chuckle.

Byrnes had been talking about how Scherzer proved everyone wrong — “the growth mind-set,” which is what he was chatting with Buehler about that day not long ago. Byrnes saw in Scherzer what Rizzo told the Lerner family he would bet his career on when the Nationals owners were deciding to sign Scherzer to the biggest contract in franchise history years later: The only thing Scherzer ever knew for sure was that he could always be better — in performance, in conditioning, in durability. In the past seven seasons, no one in baseball has thrown more innings. He has thrown more than 50 innings more than the next guy.

Scherzer still hates that anyone wondered whether he would be able to hold up. He doesn’t run mile after mile between starts because he has something to prove. He isn’t the kind to issue public requests to doubters that they kiss his backside. His career hasn’t blossomed, like some have, because he needed other people’s criticism to drive him. But Scherzer remembers.

As he headed down the tunnel for a light catch after talking about his draft year, Scherzer slowed, looking over his shoulder with one last thought.

“You know who the Rockies took [with the second pick] that year?” he said, still walking.

“Greg Reynolds,” he said. “Heard of him?”

No slipping

To understand Scherzer, you must first understand Game 6 of the 2011 American League Championship Series. Nearly seven years later, he still talks about it as if it’s the Alamo, the last stand of a forgotten time, the moment at which everything changed forever. Scherzer gave up six runs in 2⅓ innings that day, and the Tigers lost the series to the Texas Rangers. He was, as he and his pitching coach put it, “devastated.”

“He didn’t pitch good that day, and it wasn’t a good time not to pitch good,” then-Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones said. “But you knew that he was going to come back the next year strong. That was going to motivate him for the following year, and it did.”

For Scherzer, that whole 2011 season — in which he pitched to a 4.43 ERA and less than a strikeout per inning — represented the epitome of laziness. He worked physically — that was never the problem. But he assumed too much, like talent was enough. Game 6 issued a reminder that talent alone had never been enough. He had never been that guy.

“I just came in and thought I could roll it out, just show up,” Scherzer said. “That was the worst year of my career. I said then, ‘That will never happen again.’ ”

It never happened again. Two years later, Scherzer won a Cy Young. He earned that big contract with the Nationals before the 2015 season, at which point people in the front office asked the inevitable questions. If he gets paid, will he be the same?

“It was never about the money,” said his wife, Erica. He earned a big contract, so he negotiated one. He is heavily involved with the Major League Baseball Players Association, and he wanted to set a strong precedent for those who followed, to put the bar as high as he could so it would continue to rise. But other than the car and the house and the accoutrements — and the gaggle of dogs the couple has adopted — Scherzer is the same.

He and Erica, a former softball pitcher at Missouri, always talked pitching after starts, chatted through sequences, stuff like that. He never took the stress home with him, she said, not in the way you might expect from a man so prone to public stomping. And the birth of the couple’s first child, a daughter named Brooklyn, didn’t mellow him.

“A lot of people wondered [whether it would],” Erica said. “But he didn’t need that.”

The only difference now, she said, is instead of wrestling on the floor with the dogs, he has a little human to play with, too.

Scherzer still wears khaki shorts and graphic T-shirts to the park, still has cartoon characters on the boxers he leaves by his locker, still directs clubhouse pools with handwritten charts or notes scrawled on scraps of paper and thrown in a hat.

He still trash-talks on a group text, the one in which all his Missouri buddies, including Vitello, keep in touch. His RBI count comes up a little more these days than it used to. Even before the big contract, Scherzer always had picked up the tab for those who couldn’t afford the trip to the All-Star Game or to this or that bachelor party. He hasn’t stopped doing that, either.

“It was just really important to him to have that crew together,” Vitello said. “It wasn’t, ‘I’m Max, and here’s my posse.’ It was everyone together.”

When Scherzer arrived in the Nationals’ clubhouse, rookie dress-up day became team dress-up day. He left his most recent Cy Young Award in the Nationals’ care all winter and told them he would pick it up in the spring. He didn’t need to look at it. Whatever stress he hides, whatever awards he accumulates, this is all still a game, a game he has figured out in a way most can’t — or, perhaps, in ways they didn’t have the patience to explore.

Rizzo often asks veterans to come into his draft room these days, more a courtesy than anything. The rest of them filtered in and out this year, thanking the scouts, getting their face time. Scherzer broke down the potential picks. He loved their eventual first-rounder, Mason Denaburg. He had plenty of thoughts about the rest of them, too. Scherzer is never one to keep his mouth shut about the thing he knows best.

“During games, he can become a type of a distraction for us sometimes,” pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said, chuckling at the thought. “ . . . ‘Max, just hold on a minute.’ ”

Scherzer can’t help it. He is wired that way, to see weaknesses and want to correct them, to see room for improvement and want to improve. He told Nationals pitching prospect Erick Fedde that he should come to him with questions. Scherzer never gives the kid a chance to initiate.

“He’s always coming to get me,” Fedde said. “I’m spoiled that way.”

Scherzer spoils everyone who sees him regularly. He makes the difficult seem easy, the outstanding seem routine — and loves every second of it.

One night in early June, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle sat in the bullpen, watching Scherzer hit. Madson, generally quiet, turned to Doolittle.

“He’s just playing summer ball with his friends,” Madson said. “He’s playing American Legion, and we’re all playing major league baseball.”

Remembering the moment later, Doolittle thought Madson had “the perfect analogy.”

That’s Scherzer — the pesky kid on the playground who plays until the sun goes down, then wants to finish the game in the twilight. He was the kid who just wouldn’t go away, who would slide on rocks if it meant he would be safe, then show off the scrapes later. He’s the guy who throws bullpen sessions in full uniform because he wants to simulate games exactly, the guy who takes a fake lead off first base before he runs every sprint — you know, just for practice.

He’s the guy who might end up in the Hall of Fame when it’s all done. He just can’t help himself.