Max Scherzer was stalking across the threshold of greatness when he joined the Nationals. Now he's beyond great. And we have a new way to look at his beyond-greatness.
Scherzer's five-year stretch in Washington is one of the most dominant runs you'll see from a pitcher. Just look at the ERA leaderboards. There's only one starting pitcher with an ERA under three in each of the last five seasons: Scherzer.
Most seasons with a sub-3 ERA, last 5 years
Scherzer -- 5
Clayton Kershaw -- 4
Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole -- 3
Now here's the new stat to look at. Statcast just introduced its own version of ERA -- "expected ERA," or "xERA" -- to try to capture how a pitcher's numbers should look based on how dominant he truly is. Here is the xERA leaderboard.
Statcast debuted in 2015, the same time Scherzer became the Nationals' ace. In the five seasons of Statcast tracking, there's only one starter with an expected ERA under three every year: Scherzer.
Most seasons with an expected ERA under 3
Scherzer -- 5
Kershaw, deGrom, Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, Noah Syndergaard -- 3
xERA: Based on strikeouts, walks and quality of contact allowed
Scherzer's ERA and xERA by season
2015 -- 2.79 ERA | 2.60 xERA
2016 -- 2.96 ERA | 2.85 xERA
2017 -- 2.51 ERA | 2.45 xERA
2018 -- 2.53 ERA | 2.54 xERA
2019 -- 2.92 ERA | 2.79 xERA
Notice two things:
• Scherzer's xERA is consistently great
• Scherzer's xERA tracks with his actual ERA
Scherzer's ERA is always low. His xERA is also always low. There are no big gaps between the two. Scherzer is Cy Young-caliber through and through. He's equally dominant on the stat sheet and in the metrics behind the stat sheet.
(To get xERA, we start with Statcast's overall quality-of-contact metric, expected wOBA, and just convert it to the ERA scale. By making xwOBA look like ERA, baseball's fundamental pitching stat, it's easier for any fan to understand. Everyone knows what a good ERA looks like.)
If you strike hitters out, don't walk anybody and limit hitters to poor contact, you will have a good expected ERA. And you should have a good real ERA. Scherzer has both every year. Here's a closer look.
1) The Ks
Scherzer's lowest strikeout total of the last five years is 243 (last season, when he was hurt). That's amazing.
Mad Max has averaged 274 strikeouts. He's struck out one of every three batters he's faced over a five-season span -- a mark equaled only by fellow generational strikeout artist Sale. Scherzer's strikeout rate has actually increased five seasons in a row since his arrival in D.C.
Most strikeouts since 2015
1) Scherzer: 1,371 (274 per year)
2) Sale: 1,270 (254 per year)
3) Verlander: 1,176 (235 per year)
4) deGrom: 1,111 (222 per year)
5) Cole: 1,098 (220 per year)
Strikeouts are the emblem of dominance. That's why they're the building block of advanced pitching stats, including xERA. It's a true victory by pitcher over batter. Scherzer gets his victory more than anyone.
He's got three wipeout strikeout pitches -- fastball/slider/changeup -- plus two more that tack on some extra Ks, the cutter he added a few years ago to combat left-handed hitters and the curveball he drops in. He can, and will, come after you with all five.
2) The command
On the other end from the strikeout is the walk -- also under the pitcher's control, but bad. If you walk a lot of hitters, you'll probably give up more runs. Walks are not good for the real ERA or the expected ERA.
Scherzer does not walk many hitters. Since he joined the Nationals, he's only walked about one of every 20 batters. His strikeout rate has always been at least 25 percentage points higher than his walk rate; in 2019 it was over 30 percentage points higher. Scherzer's overall 27.6% K-BB% since '15 is just barely behind Sale's, by two tenths of a percentage point.
Scherzer attacks. He threw over 70% first-pitch strikes last year, most in MLB; he was also over 70% in 2015. That gives him two of only four total 70%-plus seasons by a qualified starter since '15. From his first year as a National until now, Scherzer has pitched ahead in the count more often than any other starter.
SP ahead in the count most often since 2015
1) Scherzer: 35.2%
2) Sale: 34.4%
3) Kershaw: 33.5%
4) Verlander: 33.4%
5) deGrom: 33.1%
You know he's coming after you; you still can't hit him. Hitters whiff on one in every three swings against Scherzer (32.6% since '15) … and even when he throws the ball inside the strike zone, they still miss on one in every four (25.6%).
Scherzer tops Major League starters in both categories. He's had 384 strikeouts since 2015 where he hasn't thrown a single ball during the at-bat, nearly 100 more than the next-closest Sale. Scherzer is the relentless king of the swing-and-miss. That's why he strikes out six batters for every one he walks -- good for the real ERA and great for the xERA.
Expected ERA is built on stuff plus command. Naturally, Scherzer reigns.
3) The contact
There is a tradeoff of being a power pitcher like Scherzer who attacks off an explosive fastball. Pitchers with that profile -- the Scherzers, Verlanders, Coles of the world -- get more strikeouts ... and they also tend to be fly-ball pitchers. The good part: They get popups, which are automatic outs. The bad: They can be vulnerable to the home run.
For his first four seasons with the Nats, Scherzer had that high-strikeout/high-air ball profile. Scherzer maintained one of the highest popup rates in MLB, inducing tons of poor contact by getting hitters to hit under the ball. On the flip side, he also led the NL with 31 home runs allowed in 2016. But unproductive fly balls and strikeouts made up for the long balls. Scherzer was the runaway Cy Young winner.
Interestingly, 2019 was a new look for Scherzer. His popup rate dropped by half -- from a Major League-high 15.9% in '18 to a league-average 7.1%. But Scherzer wasn't getting hurt. Instead of forcing hitters under the baseball, he got them to top it into the ground. Scherzer's ground-ball rate increased by the same amount as his popup rate decreased, and his fly-ball/line-drive rate stayed level. Strange but true.
Ground balls aren't automatic outs like popups, but they carry less risk than air contact. They're rarely extra-base hits. They're never home runs. Maybe Scherzer saw the skyrocketing home run rate around the game, and he adjusted to keep the ball in the park. In any case, back and neck issues aside, Scherzer was as great as ever. His closest comparisons by contact profile included the likes of deGrom, Sale, Blake Snell, Jack Flaherty and Mike Clevinger. His ERA and expected ERA remained elite.
Scherzer being elite is not a secret. But when you look at the top of a Statcast leaderboard, you should see the players you know are great. Scherzer's unwavering xERA is just a new reflection of how he resides at the pinnacle of his craft.
David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.