In the first four seasons after Max Scherzer signed his seven-year contract with the Nationals in early 2015, the team won 85 of its ace’s starts. No pitcher started as many victories in that span, as Washington’s talented roster supported an ace at the top of his game.
Not only has 2019 been a different story, but the Nationals’ inability to win with Scherzer on the mound has played a significant role in the club’s highly disappointing 24-32 start. Take out their 2-10 record when Scherzer pitches, and Washington is .500 (22-22).
It’s true that Scherzer has not quite shown the same level of dominance this year, yet he still has been one of the league’s best pitchers by some metrics. Washington’s struggles in his starts are shocking and unprecedented -- even coming a year after the Mets managed to go 14-18 behind National League Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom.
• No MLB pitcher has started as many games that his team has lost this season than Scherzer (10).
• Nine of those losses have come despite Scherzer allowing three runs or fewer. No other pitcher this year has more than six such games.
• Scherzer’s ninth such loss came Monday, when he gave up one run, but the Nats lost to the Marlins, 3-2, in their 54th game of the season. No pitcher on record (since 1908) has recorded nine games like that -- giving up no more than three runs in a team loss -- so early in a season.
• If the Nats lose again on Sunday, when Scherzer starts at Cincinnati, he will have started as many team losses as he did in 2018 -- and more than in ‘16 or ‘17 (10 apiece).
When things go this wrong, there is never only one cause. Here are three ways that good fortune has not been on Scherzer’s side this year:
1) His defense is letting him down
Take a May 1 game against the Cardinals. With one out in the top of the first inning, the Cardinals had two runners aboard thanks to well placed singles off Scherzer when Marcell Ozuna lifted what should have been a routine fly ball, which had a 99 percent catch probability, according to Statcast. But rookie Victor Robles, playing right field, couldn’t make the play on what was generously ruled an RBI double. The next batter, Jose Martinez, hit a weak grounder (80.7 mph exit velocity) that eluded rookie shortstop Carter Kieboom (now back at Triple-A Fresno) for a two-run single.
It’s plays like these that help explain the chasm between Scherzer’s basic results, and his peripheral stats. The righty leads all qualified pitchers with a 2.32 FIP, based on his elite strikeout rate, stellar walk rate and lack of home runs allowed. But he has one of MLB's largest gaps between his ERA and FIP, nearly a full run.
Scherzer is allowing a sky-high BABIP (.359), nearly 100 points above his total from his first four years in Washington. While he is giving up more hard contact, he also has one of MLB’s largest differences between his opponents’ batting average (.251) and expected average (.223), the latter a Statcast metric based on both strikeouts and quality of contact.
Scherzer continues to rack up Ks. But when the ball has been put in play against him, luck -- and the Nationals’ gloves -- have not been on his side.
2) His offense isn’t offering much support
Scherzer has operated with little margin for error in 2019.
The Nationals have averaged 3.4 runs per game when he pitches -- compared with about five in their other games -- putting Scherzer in the bottom 20 in support among pitchers with at least seven starts. In each of the previous three seasons, the Nats averaged at least 4.8 runs per game for their ace.
Scherzer did benefit from a 12-run explosion on April 7 against the Mets. But he also has started nine games this season in which his team has pushed across no more than three runs, the most of any MLB pitcher. Scherzer started just 12 such games all of last year.
3) His bullpen is setting fires, not putting them out
The Nationals’ relief pitching has been a persistent problem throughout 2019, and nobody has felt that more acutely than Scherzer.
Averaging 6.4 innings per start, he isn’t exactly asking the bullpen to shoulder a huge load. Yet that group has come up short again and again.
In Scherzer’s 12 starts, he has allowed 31 runs (28 earned) over 77 1/3 innings. The bullpen has allowed 40 runs (36 earned) over 27 2/3 innings. That equates to an 11.71 relief ERA in those games -- the highest endured by any pitcher with at least five starts this season, according to MLB Network, as of Tuesday.
Not only has the bullpen given up multiple runs behind Scherzer nine times, but it also has allowed all four baserunners it has inherited from him come in to score. Three times this season, Scherzer has left a game in position to notch a win, only to have the ‘pen be unable to hold it.
No pitcher has dealt with more lost wins in 2019, and perhaps, no pitcher has dealt with more poor luck overall.