How Scherzer can get his season back on track
At one point this June, Max Scherzer threw a 16-strikeout one-hitter, then came within one hit batter of a perfect game in his next outing. That was the pinnacle of a first half that saw Scherzer introduce himself to the Nationals with a 2.11 ERA through 18 starts heading into the All-Star break.
Unfortunately for the Nats, Scherzer's season has encountered some turbulence since, as he has posted a 5.12 ERA in his last 10 outings. In what he called an "extremely frustrating" game on Labor Day, Scherzer allowed five runs and three homers in six innings against the Mets, unable to hold a 5-3 lead in a crucial game his team lost, 8-5.
With the Nats' postseason chances dwindling quickly, Scherzer will get another chance to turn things around on Sunday in Miami. To do so, he must find a way to avoid the hard contact that has plagued him of late, most notably by refining his fastball command.
There is good news for Scherzer. His fastball velocity has gone up in the second half, his strikeout rate hasn't budged, and while his walk rate has jumped from 2.8 to 4.7 percent, that still ranks in the top 20 in the Majors over that span.
Scherzer's biggest problem has been when batters have made contact, they have hit the ball hard -- and often over the fence. His two starts in September are a perfect example, with Statcast™ measuring his opponents' average exit velocity at 95 mph, with an average launch angle of 20 degrees. That 95/20 combo is basically a clean line drive, and based on preliminary research we can expect it to produce about a .410 batting average and an .850 slugging percentage. In Scherzer's case, the average batted ball hit off him in September has traveled 264 feet, more than 30 feet farther than in any other month this season.
It's not just September, either. Over his last 10 starts, Scherzer is allowing a .283/.327/.534 slash line, while serving up more than two homers per nine innings, compared with 0.68 in the first half. There certainly could be some degree of bad luck involved, considering opponents are hitting a gaudy .358 on balls in play and 22.2 percent of their fly balls have traveled for homers, a rate more than double what Scherzer has produced over his career.
Of course, that is only a small piece of the puzzle, and Scherzer has not shied away from responsibility for the slump. After giving up six runs over three innings on Aug. 14 in San Francisco, he discovered on video his arm slot had dropped slightly -- something that caused his fastball to "flatten out," lose late movement and made it easier to hit. By his most recent outing, he believed he had made an adjustment but still found his execution lacking.
"I'm just making mistakes in the zone," Scherzer said, following the loss to the Mets. "I'm leaving the ball thigh-high, instead of getting the ball down at the knees. That's something that's been symptomatic here, it seems like, in the second half. That's something I've got to get better at. I've got to get better at getting the ball down in the zone, getting it back down to knee level. That's what's gonna keep me up late tonight, is figuring out how I should do that."
It's a problem with no easy solution, but the data does back up Scherzer's diagnosis. For example, Statcast™ shows in August and September, his average four-seam fastball has been about 1.2 inches higher than from April-July, as well as about a half-inch of horizontal distance closer to the center of the plate. While that might not sound like much, it easily could be the difference between the ball catching the sweet spot of the bat or not.
Meanwhile, ESPN Stats & Info recently found Scherzer's rate of fastballs in the lower third of the strike zone or below dropped to 15 percent from July-August, compared with 22 percent from April-June. During those two more recent months, his heaters found the middle third of the zone 44 percent of the time, highest in the National League.
Location issues have consequences. During the first half, Scherzer held batters to a .208 average, .339 slugging percentage and five homers on his four-seamer. In the second half, despite no lost velocity, opponents have hit the pitch for a .297 average, .601 slugging percentage and 11 homers in eight fewer games.
With only five starts remaining this season, at most, Scherzer has a limited time to make the adjustments necessary to rediscover his fastball command and effectiveness. Doing so might not be enough to push the Nats to the postseason at this point, but it could put a nice cap on what still has been a productive debut campaign in Washington.