MIAMI — Clayton Kershaw will not start Tuesday’s All-Star Game for the National League, an oddity for this season because he has been typically brilliant, and an oddity for his career because, even with all that brilliance, he has never received this particular honor. But Kershaw pitched for his Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday, and so in a way, the choice for Joe Maddon, the manager of the Chicago Cubs full-time and the NL team Tuesday night, was easy: Max Scherzer will take the ball.
“I’m kicking at the dirt to be able to go out there and pitch,” Scherzer said, a sentiment that would surprise exactly no one who has watched him since he became a Washington National.
Except here’s where we are in Scherzer’s development, as both a pitcher and as a star: Kershaw could be on seven days’ rest. And Maddon would have selected Scherzer anyway.
“I have a ton of respect for Mr. Kershaw, also,” Maddon said Monday at Marlins Park. “But if you just broke down the numbers, I am being honest: I had already chosen Max.”
Let’s tap the brakes on the talk that Scherzer has overtaken Kershaw as the game’s best pitcher. That’s heady stuff, not to be taken lightly, and a half-season when the numbers show that the Nats’ right-hander has been the best pitcher in the game — first in ERA, first in WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), first in batting average against (.162!) — isn’t enough to push past nearly a decade of Kershaw’s dominance.
But what we can say, almost with certainty, is something I couldn’t have imagined in the winter of 2015: Scherzer’s $210 million contract, then the largest ever for a free agent pitcher, has already paid off for the Nationals.
“He’s a bargain right now,” said Nationals teammate Ryan Zimmerman, the NL’s starting first baseman Tuesday night.
You think he’s joking? He is not. A $30-million-a-year bargain.
“The more you learn about the business side of it, the more you learn that those figures are justified,” said Zimmerman, owner of a $100 million contract. “They wouldn’t give you that money if, first of all, you didn’t earn it and they didn’t think you were going to perform to that level. I think for a guy like Max, I don’t know if there’s pressure. He’s earning it.”
This seems like a time to point out how atypical that is for pitchers. The list of lousy long-term contracts for pitchers is long, from Kevin Brown to Mike Hampton to Barry Zito in yesteryear, but affecting teams to this very day. How does Boston feel about having 5½ seasons left on David Price’s $217 million deal? Price is warring with the media and struggling for health and consistency. Worse would be Jordan Zimmermann with Detroit, right? The old Nationals stalwart’s contract pays him $110 million for the five seasons from 2016 to 2020. His ERA over the first year-and-a-half of that deal: 5.35.
So there are more tales of terror than success stories when those big checks are issued. And there’s still time for the out years of this contract — say, 2020 and 2021, by which time Scherzer will be 36 — to turn sour.
But in becoming just the fifth pitcher to start the All-Star Game once in each league — he started for the American League in 2013, when he was still with the Tigers — Scherzer can make the claim that he is paying for himself. Since 2015, his first season with the Nationals, here are his ranks across all of baseball in ERA, strikeouts per nine innings, WHIP and average against: second, first, second and second, respectively. (The reason we can table the talk that Scherzer has obviously passed Kershaw as the game’s best pitcher is hidden in those same numbers. Kershaw’s ranks during that same span: first, second, first and first.)
The Red Sox would kill for Price to be producing similarly. Zack Greinke is here, an all-star again, and now his six-year, $206.5 million deal with Arizona doesn’t look as shabby. But that contract began with a clunker of a 2016 in which Greinke posted his worst ERA (4.37) since he was a 21-year-old in 2005.
Since signing his deal, all Scherzer has done is produce — at a high level, and at high volume. Not only are his 585⅓ innings pitched since he became a National the most in all of baseball, but no one else is within 20 innings of him. He has provided his team with a ridiculous, alpha male confidence on the days he pitches.
“I’m heading in [to the park], and I think, ‘Oh, Max is going today; we’ve got a really good chance to win this ballgame,’” said Washington second baseman Daniel Murphy, who will start behind Scherzer on Tuesday night. “And then it’s the sixth inning or the seventh inning, and you’re like, ‘Oh, they’ve got one hit.’”
What the other National Leaguers who will team with Scherzer on Tuesday know: an at-bat against him is among the most difficult in the game.
“You really have to elevate yourself to his level of competitiveness,” said Mets outfielder Michael Conforto, who has three homers against Scherzer in 18 career at-bats. “He doesn’t like giving up hits. He doesn’t like giving up runs. He doesn’t like not throwing the ball where he wants to. And that’s not even talking about the stuff that he has.”
“The funky arm angle, the cross-fire delivery,” Zimmerman said. “And then obviously four ‘plus’ pitches at any time to either side of the plate kind of helps, too.”
“Everything looks like a fastball coming at you,” said Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, just 1 for 7 with four strikeouts against Scherzer. “And then the slider, it just breaks so late.”
That stuff, it’s all visible, be it from the dugout or on television. What impresses the Nationals is what they see in the clubhouse — often, in between starts.
“As far as diving into scouting reports, going over the numbers, he’s all about it,” said right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who could also pitch Tuesday.
“He does his homework,” Murphy said, “so he’ll even position us sometimes and say, ‘I think this is optimal.’”
“His preparation is pretty special,” Zimmerman said. “The attention to detail, his attitude the day he starts, all that stuff, for me, has been really fun to watch.”
Kershaw won’t pitch Tuesday, so we won’t get the direct comparison, not in this exhibition, at least. Maybe that will wait till the National League playoffs — again? What we will get is a glimpse of the guy who has been this season’s best pitcher — and whose $210 million contract has been overshadowed by his pure performance.