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Max effort suits ever-evolving Scherzer well

Tigers hurler keeps improving pitches, adding new ones as he strives for greatness @RichardJustice

LAKELAND, Fla. -- If you'd seen Max Scherzer pitch back in his first days in the big leagues, you might not recognize him now. He was really good then. He's flirting with greatness now.

"There's never an end to it," Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "He's always trying to improve. Every bullpen [session] is intense. He's really a guy that's driven. He wants to be the best."

Some guys simply burn a different fuel. Let's be clear about who Max Scherzer was in 2008 when the Arizona Diamondbacks summoned him to the big leagues. In short, he was good and on his way to getting better. Scherzer had a 94-mph fastball and an 85-mph changeup. Those two pitches got him to the big leagues.

"He was basically just a power arm at that point," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said.

Scherzer threw a slider, too, but he had trouble locating it consistently.

"And got punished for it," the pitcher said.

Still, Scherzer had enough to succeed. He pitched 170 innings and had 174 strikeouts in his first full big league season (2009). Once Scherzer improved his slider and came to trust it more, and as he got more comfortable with his surroundings, he surely was going to get better.

Scherzer did more than that, way more. What has happened in five years since is a tribute to his relentless drive and to his curiosity and commitment to being as good as he can be.

How Scherzer evolved from being a very solid big league pitcher to going 21-3 and winning the 2013 American League Cy Young Award is a reminder of the thin difference between good and great.

Scherzer polished one pitch, the slider, and added another, a curveball. He kept tweaking his catalogue as he evaluated himself and looked for weaknesses. That he was unafraid to try something new, that he kept thinking he could get still better, speaks volumes about his makeup.

Anyway, in 2013, Scherzer's fastball frequency had declined from 71 percent in 2009 to 56 percent. He still has a good one, averaging 93.3 mph, tied with teammate Justin Verlander for 12th overall among big league starters. It's still the cornerstone of everything Scherzer does, and because of his other pitches, it's better than ever.

"You always have to evaluate yourself and find ways to get better," Scherzer said. "You have to be critical of yourself and try to come up with new ideas, watch other guys. You never stay the same. In professional sports, you just don't. You either get better or you get worse. That's the reality. The moment you don't want to keep getting better, you get worse."

First, there was that slider. Scherzer never stopped working to improve its grip and velocity and release point. Once he felt he got it right, he began working on a curveball. For some, three quality pitches was enough.

Scherzer wanted another weapon to use against left-handed hitters. He threw all his pitches against right-handed hitters, but he stuck with a fastball-changeup combination against lefties. It was during sessions with Jones that he tried throwing it slower.

And slower still.

First, the pitch resembled something that was a little bit slider and a little bit curveball. Scherzer took some more velocity off it and saw the baseball do things he hadn't anticipated.

"Jonesy," he said after one bullpen session, "I've got a curveball."

Here's the importance of that. Now Scherzer had three pitches -- fastball, slider, changeup -- to throw to right-handed hitters. And he had three -- fastball, curveball, changeup -- to throw against left-handed hitters.

Right there in that bullpen session almost two years ago, Scherzer became the guy with the Cy Young Award trophy. For that curveball, he can thank the Cleveland Indians.

"Cleveland had hit me," Scherzer said. "Cleveland always had like nine lefties and always did a good job against me. I realized I needed a third pitch to face Cleveland. I broke it out against Cleveland and had success immediately off it. It was slow -- 80 mph. The effect was there. I knew I had something going. I just had to continue to throw it throughout 2012.

"Going into 2013, I wanted to be able to pitch more with it. I was able to do that. It got a little bit better. I tightened the grip up a little bit, and it gave me more feel. I was able to throw more strikes with my curveball. There were times throughout the season it was a big pitch for me. It really helped me out with left-handed hitters."

In 2012, left-handed hitters batted .290 against Scherzer. In 2013, they hit .218.

"That's the main reason I was able to have a lot of success last year," he said. "I was able to be consistent against left-handed hitters throughout the whole year. This year, knowing you keep working at this pitch and getting better, I feel like it'll be even better. I'm getting more of a feel of it and able to do different things with it."

The impact?

"There were three different speeds they had to respect," Scherzer said. "Now they have to protect a pitch that's coming into them and a pitch going away from them -- and a fastball. It changes everything. It makes every pitch better."

To throw both a slider and a curve is not the norm. Some pitchers have enough trouble perfecting one breaking pitch, much less two. Scherzer said he didn't begin working on a curveball until he was comfortable with his slider. Once he noticed that veteran right-hander Jake Peavy threw both a slider and a curveball, he figured the combination might work for him, too. It has done more than that.

"That's how good pitchers become exceptional pitchers," Ausmus said. "I was with the Dodgers when [Clayton] Kershaw added a slider. Not that he wasn't going to be a good pitcher, but it has kind of changed the trajectory of his career. Hopefully for Max, the curveball does the same thing."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Detroit Tigers, Max Scherzer