Scherzer on track for hitting 'record'

September 2nd, 2021

When it’s time to pick the words that will be carved on 's Hall of Fame plaque, there will be no shortage of impressive numbers and achievements to cite. The right-hander already has eight All-Star selections, three Cy Young Awards and nearly 3,000 strikeouts, to name a few. And he’s hardly finished.

But here’s one that assuredly will not be bronzed for Cooperstown: 0-for-a-season.

Scherzer, who turned 37 last month, remains dominant on the mound in 2021, compiling a 2.40 ERA in 25 starts, including his first six since a Deadline trade from the Nationals to the Dodgers. But at the plate? That’s a different story.

When Scherzer next steps into the batter's box, this will be the 2021 batting line he drags with him:

50 PA, 0-for-47, 0 BB, 0 HBP, 2 sac bunts, 1 sac fly, 1 RBI, 18 SO

You can probably do the math, but that works out to a slash line of .000/.000/.000. And that means Scherzer is in historic territory of the sort to which he is unaccustomed. With his 0-for-2 night at the plate Wednesday against the Braves at Dodger Stadium -- when he also helped his club take the lead in the NL West -- he is now ahead of Wei-Yen Chen's record for the most trips to the plate in a season without reaching safely, although opportunities remain to avoid that fate.

Most PA in a season with zero times on base^

1) 50 -- Max Scherzer (2021 Nationals/Dodgers)
2) 49 -- Wei-Yin Chen (2016 Marlins)
3) 42 -- Jason Bergmann (2008 Nationals)
4) 36 -- Vicente Palacios (1994 Cardinals)
5) 35 -- Hal Finney (1936 Pirates)
^Does not include reaching on an error or fielder’s choice

Scherzer also is currently hitless in 47 at-bats, although that particular record is out of reach. In 1962, pitcher Bob Buhl went an astonishing 0-for-70 for the Milwaukee Braves and the Cubs, although he drew six walks and was hit by a pitch.

(We’re specifically dealing with single seasons here, but Scherzer’s streak is actually at 54 plate appearances going back to 2019 -- 60 if you include the postseason. Then again, if you go across seasons, other pitchers have gone through a streak of at least 50 plate appearances in recent years, led by Ivan Nova, who didn’t reach 70 straight times between June 11, 2017, and July 22, 2018. Or, if you want a Hall of Fame example, Nolan Ryan endured a 63-PA drought during the 1984-85 seasons.)

But Scherzer is no Chen (.068 career OBP), Buhl (.129) or even Ryan (.148) when it comes to handling the bat. Of the 48 active pitchers who entered this season with at least 200 career plate appearances, Scherzer ranked sixth in batting average (.193) and eighth in on-base percentage (.221).

Even the best-hitting pitchers are bad at it, a big reason why there are calls for a permanent universal DH. But relatively speaking, Mad Max has been no pushover at the plate -- perhaps not surprising given his famous competitive spirit and will to win. At times, he’s been a downright tough out in big situations.

Of course, not stepping to the plate at all in 2020 -- when the universal DH was adopted temporarily as part of the COVID-19 protocols -- could have combined with Scherzer’s advancing age to cut into his hitting ability. (MLB pitchers had a .128 average and .159 OBP in 2019; this year that’s fallen to .110/.148).

But let’s assume that Scherzer’s career numbers represented his true talent level and that with him in line for five more starts this year, he will wind up with a total of 62 plate appearances. Given those figures, senior data architect Tom Tango calculated that, entering this season, the chances of Scherzer failing to reach base safely that many times in a row would have been an astonishing 5 million to 1.

So the odds were on Scherzer's side, although as the season winds down, the chances dwindle. Still, while hitting of course isn’t his top priority, Scherzer has been well aware of the 0-fer and surely is motivated to bring it to an end. Counting him out would not be a wise strategy.

Here are four more reasons to believe that Scherzer will snap the streak:

1) He makes the pitcher work
Scherzer competes, he doesn’t give in and he knows the strike zone. Compared with the MLB average for all players, Scherzer has chased less often (25.0%) and swung at strikes almost as often (65.5%). His 34.0% whiff rate isn’t huge for today's game. And he’s worked nine of his plate appearances to a three-ball count, seeing more three-ball pitches (17) than all but two pitchers not named Shohei Ohtani. Twice this season, he’s taken what should have been a walk -- a three-ball offering out of the zone -- only to have the umpire call a strike.

2) He puts the ball in play
That’s in relative terms, of course. But Scherzer’s 40.0% K rate -- not far above his 34.9% mark from the mound -- is better than average for a pitcher at the plate (44.8%). Among 75 pitchers with at least 20 plate appearances, Scherzer is tied for the 31st-lowest K rate. Compared with the five pitchers on that list who are striking out in at least two-thirds of their chances, that gives him a lot of balls in play that have a chance to find holes, albeit mainly on the ground.

3) His expected stats are better
Not good, of course, but better. Based on his strikeouts and quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle), Scherzer has posted an expected batting average (xBA) of .078, meaning that he “should” have three or four hits in his 47 at-bats, rather than zero. Setting aside Ohtani, only four pitchers with at least 30 PA this season have a larger gap between their expected and actual average.

4) It’s a game of inches
Scherzer doesn’t have a base hit this season. But as suggested above, he easily could have one (or more). He has four balls in play with at least a .300 xBA and 11 with at least a .200 xBA. Those turn into hits all the time. But Scherzer has launched deep fly balls that got chased down by outfielders, smacked hard grounders that zipped right to infielders and dribbled slow grounders that he couldn’t quite beat out. All it takes is a foot here or a foot there to change the result.

Time is running out on Scherzer, who won’t get too many more opportunities at the plate this season (even assuming good health). And baseball can be cruel, even to the great ones. Still, he seems due. If he keeps grinding out at-bats and putting balls in play, something good is bound to happen. Right?

The most important storylines here are about Scherzer pursuing his next career milestone and helping the Dodgers become back-to-back champs. Going 0-for-2021 would be a footnote. But it’s a footnote one of baseball’s ultimate competitors surely does not want.