Flies and whiffs: Scherzer's unique dominance
Strikeout rate, walk rate, flyball rate all among MLB leaders
Something you probably already know: By all the important metrics, Max Scherzer has been among the most dominant pitchers in baseball this season. His 1.94 FIP is the lowest among all qualified starters; his 1.82 ERA is second only to Zack Greinke. His 30.8 strikeout percentage is the fourth-highest; his 3.1 percent walk rate is the third-lowest. When he faces off against Cincinnati's wonderful Johnny Cueto on Tuesday night, it's no slight at all to Cueto to suggest that Scherzer will easily be the most dominant pitcher on the mound. Scherzer's that good.
So he's great, and you know that. But did you know that the particular way in which he's doing it sets him apart -- in some cases, well apart -- from his peers? There's no one right way to be a great pitcher. There's just different kinds of great. Scherzer's variety stands out more than most.
To quickly illustrate that point, let's share the following chart that shows all 1,226 qualified pitcher seasons since 2002 as a single dot apiece. On the vertical axis, we're charting fly ball percentage. On the horizontal axis, we're showing strikeout percentage minus walk percentage, which is a quick way of saying "how much of a strikeout rate does a pitcher give back in free passes?" As you can see, an overwhelming majority of pitchers are clustered in the middle.
By himself in the upper right, Scherzer stands alone:
What Scherzer is doing this year is mostly unparalleled, in that he's showing the rare combination of high strikeouts, low walks, and many fly balls. If you look at Scherzer's contemporaries in the "fly ball club" this year, with fly ball rates above 40 percent, you'll see that most just aren't missing bats. Phil Hughes has a 14.7 percent strikeout rate. Jered Weaver, just 12.2. Only Taijuan Walker gets even to 23 percent. Scherzer's excellent 30.8 percent is the clear outlier there.
(In case you're wondering about those other outliers on the chart: The two dots directly below Scherzer are Curt Schilling's 2002, probably the best season of his career, and Chris Sale's current season headed into his Monday start against Toronto. Below that, Clayton Kershaw's MVP 2014. It's good company to be in.)
It's not necessarily that fly balls are the desired outcome for every pitcher, and all you need to do is look at Dallas Keuchel's addiction to soft contact and grounders to realize that there's more than one way to be an ace. After all, fly balls are a whole lot more likely to leave the park or land for extra base hits than grounders. On the other hand, flies (including pop flies) that stay in the park are less likely to turn into hits, because batted ball luck is less important. If you can avoid homers -- and Scherzer's 5.1 percent home run to fly ball ratio is an excellent third in baseball -- it's not a bad way to get by, especially when the defensive issues of Washington shortstop Ian Desmond have been so well-chronicled.
By checking into Statcast™, we can see that this is exactly how Scherzer has been so successful. Overall, among pitchers with at least 40 batters faced, Scherzer's 86.21 mph exit velocity is above-average, but less than elite (42nd overall). On fly balls -- and remember that for most pitchers, fly balls are hit much harder -- that jumps only to 88.06 mph, with his ranking rocketing to 11th. He's missing more bats than just about anyone in baseball, and when hitters don't miss, they're making low-quality, low-probability contact. Combine that with the fact that he doesn't issue free passes, and it's an essentially unhittable combination, as the Pirates found out on June 20.
The spin data through the start of July backs this up, too. Scherzer's four-seamer is notable because it's his highest fly percentage pitch (41.8 percent of balls in play) and because it's got a very high spin rate of 2,500 rpm, sixth-highest among pitchers with at least 100 thrown. We know that high spin rate fastballs can look to the hitter like they resist the effects of gravity for slightly longer, meaning that when a hitter swings, the ball can be just above where he expects it to be -- which gives him contact on the lower half of the ball, and a ball probably put into the air.
What Scherzer has done is to build something special. He's taken Chris Young's fascinating batted-ball profile -- despite a fastball that rarely tops 87 mph and trouble missing bats, Young has thrived for years on inducing fly balls that stay in the yard -- and married it with Corey Kluber's dominating strikeout rate. It's a combination we very rarely see in baseball. You might say it's working out somewhat well for the Nationals so far.