How does the best pitcher east of Clayton Kershaw get better? Because Max Scherzer has done just that this year.Scherzer is on his way to career-best marks in ERA, strikeout percentage, strikeouts per nine innings and WHIP. He's on pace for his second-best walk percentage, his second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio and
How does the best pitcher east of Clayton Kershaw get better? Because Max Scherzer has done just that this year.
Scherzer is on his way to career-best marks in ERA, strikeout percentage, strikeouts per nine innings and WHIP. He's on pace for his second-best walk percentage, his second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio and his best opponent batting average.
So how is the Nats' ace doing it? By relying on one of the methods Kershaw used to go from very good to otherworldly: refining and emphasizing his slider. It's become a pitch that he can use to get swings and misses within the strike zone, and there's not much that's better for a pitcher than that.
It's the same way a lot of pitchers are coping with the league-wide power surge, actually. Across baseball, fastballs are a smaller percentage of all pitches, and sliders are being thrown more.
But few pitchers are doing it with the effectiveness or conviction of Scherzer.
He's throwing his fastball 50.2 percent of the time -- easily a career low -- while throwing 28.1 percent sliders -- just as easily a career high. Scherzer has already thrown nearly as many sliders in 2017 (421) as in the entire '14 season (496 in 220 1/3 innings).
And nobody is touching it. At all.
Of those 421 sliders, exactly one has been barreled. That was an Adam Jones homer on May 9. Scherzer has seen 110 at-bats end on a slider, and seven of those at-bats have been base hits, an .064 batting average.
Meanwhile, 120 Scherzer sliders have resulted in a swing and miss -- a 28.5 percent whiff rate that is the second highest of all Major Leaguers who have thrown at least 200 sliders.
Zack Greinke is first in slider whiff rate, but there's a difference between the two. Scherzer is getting those swinging strikes while throwing his slider for strikes. It's a devastating combination.
Scherzer has thrown 51.8 percent of his sliders in the strike zone, the 12th-highest rate among the 82 pitchers who have thrown at least 200 sliders. Greinke is at 31.8 percent, second lowest.
So even if Scherzer doesn't get a whiff on a slider, it's not likely to hurt him in the count. You can take the pitch, but there's a pretty good chance you're taking a strike. That makes it different from a chase slider like Greinke's, where at least if you identify it and can lay off, you may get a ball for your troubles.
Put another way: nearly two-thirds of Scherzer's sliders have resulted in a foul ball, a called strike or a swinging strike. His 63.9 percent rate is easily the highest among pitchers who have thrown even 100 sliders this year. James Hoyt is second at 59.4 percent, and the gap between first and second is larger than the gap between second and 12th on that list.
So you can take it, but you're probably taking a strike. You can swing, but there's an excellent chance you're going to miss. And even if you get the bat on it, there's almost no chance you're going to get a base hit.
All of which is to say, good luck, National League hitters. You're going to need it.
Matthew Leach is an executive editor for MLB.com.