The makings of Mad Max: Coaches and friends on why Scherzer was destined to be all-time great

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·12 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Max Scherzer treated art three panels road uniform 2022
Max Scherzer treated art three panels road uniform 2022

The intensity is as advertised. On the mound, Max Scherzer is so locked in that he won’t allow the shortstop to break his focus to tell him who’s covering second on a comebacker, as we found out when Francisco Lindor was mic’d up last Sunday.

Even when he’s not pitching he’s always spoiling for a fight, whether by chirping profanely and gesturing at the Cardinals’ players from the dugout in St. Louis last week or getting tossed from a game at Citi Field this week for telling the umpire how badly he missed a strike three call on Dominic Smith.

As such, it already feels like Scherzer was born to pitch in New York and, well, put it this way: Mets fans couldn't have a bigger crush on him right now if he were related to Tom Seaver.

So just who is this guy anyway? I wanted to take a deeper look at how he became Mad Max, if you will. And what I learned from talking to people who coached him or played with him in high school and college in Missouri is that there’s a lot more to the three-time Cy Young Award winner than that image of a man possessed.

On the baseball side, somewhat surprisingly, he wasn’t always the sure thing you might have guessed. He barely pitched his freshman year at the University of Missouri because his coaches thought he was so unpolished and he had to make dramatic improvements just to be college-ready.

On the more human side, what may be most fascinating is that the people who know him well were unanimous in saying Scherzer eventually became an all-time great at least as much because of his intelligence as his strong arm or even that famous intensity.

"His brain is his most powerful weapon, not his arm," said Tony Vitello, once the assistant coach at Missouri who recruited Scherzer there and is now the head coach at Tennessee. "He had a really high score on the ACT for college but he’s not just book smart. He’s got a lot of savvy, so that brainpower works for him in many ways."

This from a guy who experienced Scherzer’s intensity at peak level.

"He was ready to punch me in the face one time," Vitello recalled by phone this week. "He wasn’t pitching much as a freshman, and when he didn’t get into a game that we were losing by a pretty big score he cornered me in the dugout and wanted to know why he didn’t pitch.

"He was right, too. It was a spot to get him some experience in a conference game. Fortunately, he didn’t punch me."

Some 18 years later, standing at his locker in the Mets’ clubhouse a few days ago, Scherzer recalled the incident vividly.

Apr 25, 2022; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer (21) walks off the field after the fifth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 25, 2022; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer (21) walks off the field after the fifth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

"We can laugh about it now because Tony and I are such good friends, even though I 100 percent would punch him," he said, chuckling. "I definitely was extremely upset and I let him know."

Scherzer then paused and seemed to reflect briefly on a period during his career that still clearly bothers the heck out of him.

"I didn’t pitch for the last 50 days of that season," he said pointedly.

It’s a reminder that for all he has achieved, there was a time in his life when Scherzer’s baseball future was very much unclear, a time when he was thinking the economics classes he was taking as a finance major at Missouri might be more valuable to his real-life future than his fastball.

A year earlier, having grown up in Chesterfield, Mo., Scherzer was only drafted out of high school by his hometown St. Louis Cardinals as an afterthought, selected in the 43rd round.

"I was a raw talent," is the way he put it.

Vitello offered more detail.

"He was trying to throw the ball through a brick wall on every pitch," the college coach said. "His hat would come off on every pitch. He was kind of out of control but you could see the untapped potential. He had the arm strength."

Yes, Scherzer could always make eyes pop when he threw a baseball.

"From a really young age, Max had an electric arm that was different from anybody else," recalled Austin Kirby, who grew up with Scherzer and played high school baseball and basketball with him. "In terms of arm talent he was just one of those blessed guys."

His arm was so strong, in fact, that Scherzer started at quarterback for the varsity team as a freshman at Parkway Central High School in Chesterfield. And he pitched for the varsity baseball team as a freshman as well.

May 1, 2022; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer (21) pitches in the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
May 1, 2022; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer (21) pitches in the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

"He had such a live arm that you had to see it to believe it," said Rick Kirby, Austin’s father, who coached Scherzer in baseball and basketball at Parkway Central. "I remember when he was a freshman, before the season started, some of the seniors were getting on him one day at practice, saying, 'if your arm is really that good, let’s see you throw the ball over the left-field fence.'

"And we were in the first base dugout. So Max says OK, and he takes one step out of the dugout -- I mean, one step! -- and he throws the ball over the left-field fence like it was nothing. And he threw it with barely any arc on it. It was just a laser. Those seniors were kind of like, 'Oh my God.'"

Scherzer shrugged when asked about Kirby’s anecdote.

"It’s true," he said. "I always long-tossed from a distance, so I knew I could do it. There was a hill out past the fence and I threw it up on the hill. I don’t know how far. Pretty far."

As for football, Kirby estimated that Scherzer could throw a pass "60 or 70 yards" and yet after starting at quarterback as a freshman and sophomore, he gave up football mostly to focus more on pitching.

But also because, Scherzer said, "As a quarterback I had tunnel vision. Turns out that’s good for baseball but not football. I had a good arm but I didn’t play the position well."

Nevertheless, Scherzer was by all accounts a great all-around high school athlete. Both Rick and Austin Kirby still marvel at what a good hitter he was and an instinctive center fielder on days when he didn’t pitch.

And then there was basketball, which Scherzer loved as much as baseball because it was a sport so well-suited for his ultra-competitive spirit.

Rick Kirby, after all, was an old-school coach who had played for Illinois against Bobby Knight’s great Indiana teams in of the mid-1970s, and he emulated Knight’s tough-love style to some degree, demanding all-out effort, especially on defense and in rebounding.

"If you didn’t work hard on defense, you didn’t play," Kirby said. "I was pretty intense and Maxie was a guy who bought in as much as any player I ever had. He was always on the floor going for loose balls, and he’d take a charge against anybody. He’d do whatever it took to win. He’d run through a brick wall for me."

Scherzer recalled that he loved playing for Kirby because the coach "brought out my intensity," and as a starter his last two years the Parkway Central team went 50-10, finishing third in the Missouri state tournament his senior season.

Austin Kirby was the team’s best player, an All-State point guard, yet he recalls how Scherzer in many ways set the tone with "his fire and competitiveness" as well as his willingness to take harsh criticism from his coach without complaint.

Max Scherzer
Max Scherzer

"Max was the guy going to Missouri as a Division I baseball recruit, which was a big thing, but my dad would yell at him like he was the 13th guy on the team at times," Austin said. "Half the time my dad would get everybody’s attention by yelling at me, but Max would get the brunt of it as well because we were friends and my dad knew he could yell at him and Max would take it. It didn’t bother Max. He’d do anything to win."

At his locker this week, Scherzer’s face lit up when I asked him about his basketball days.

"We had a really good team," he said. "If I had to describe my game, it was like a poor man’s Draymond Green. An undersized 4-man. I could rebound a little bit, play defense, take an outside shot if it was there."

A glue guy, in other words. Yet baseball was always the priority for Scherzer, and in retrospect that disappointing freshman year at Missouri proved to be a turning point in his career.

Vitello said that Scherzer’s work ethic made all the difference, recalling a relatively simple balance drill the coaches showed him to harness his delivery and allow him to pitch with more command.

"He was always jumping out over his front foot, trying to throw so hard," Vitello said. “We showed him one balance drill and he did that drill relentlessly. He just kept working and working, and the massive leap he made from his freshman year to his sophomore year was incredible.

"He went from having potential to being dominant in about eight or nine months. A lot of it was command, but he actually started throwing harder too because he wasn’t trying to throw so damn hard. Everything became a little more efficient.

"That’s who Max is. With that combination of brain power plus work ethic plus athleticism, he’s always worked at something until he figures it out. He did it at the college level, and then at the pro level he went from being just another guy to being one of the all-time best. His evolution has been pretty cool to watch."

Scherzer, for his part, agreed the work he put in after his freshman year at Missouri was "a critical point for me. I was more balanced and I could channel my intensity correctly instead of just being a wild horse throwing anywhere and everywhere."

Scherzer also said Vitello and some of the older starters on that Missouri team had a huge influence in further developing his famous intensity.

"Tony brought out an even more competitive side in me," Scherzer says. "Same for that group of pitchers there at the time. Their intensity rubbed off on me. They challenged me to be better, to be more aggressive. Missouri was really ground zero for me becoming a big league pitcher, growing into more than just a thrower."

Apr 8, 2022; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer (21) winds up to pitch during the fourth inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 8, 2022; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer (21) winds up to pitch during the fourth inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

There were still ups and downs on the path toward a major league superstardom. Then-Arizona Diamondbacks scouting director Mike Rizzo selected Scherzer with the 11th pick of the 2006 MLB Draft, but after Rizzo left to become the Washington Nationals GM, the D-Backs traded Scherzer to the Detroit Tigers following his second year in the big leagues, mostly out of fear that his maximum-effort delivery would lead to arm injuries.

And then even after Scherzer won a Cy Young Award in Detroit, the Tigers wouldn’t offer him enough to keep him from getting to free agency and reuniting with Rizzo in Washington to the tune of seven years and $210 million.

Along the way Scherzer just kept getting better. The work ethic and intensity were a big part of it, to be sure.

Case in point: Rick Kirby said he went to Los Angeles for a game Scherzer pitched during his brilliant second-half stint with the Dodgers last season, and when they got together for dinner afterward the coach asked his former player, by now age 37, what his day-after workout would look like.

"Max said, 'I’ll run about seven miles tomorrow -- I run to get all the lactic acid out,'" Kirby recalled. "And I’m thinking, this guy’s work ethic is still second to none."

Yet Rick Kirby and his son both make the same point as Vitello, saying the most underrated part of Scherzer’s success is his smarts.

"You see the intensity but I don’t think people understand, Max is very, very cerebral in his approach to everything," said Austin. "In school he was always very numbers and analytic-driven."

In addressing that point, Scherzer said, "I’m glad I took all the econ classes, all the stat classes at Mizzou. For a while I thought my path might be something in commercial real estate, but they’re very good life skills, and just a way to think in handling numbers, which is part of the analytics game now."

So how does Scherzer himself prioritize the factors that led him to the mountaintop as the highest-paid player in baseball? Well, he doesn’t downplay his intensity, to be sure.

"It’s always been in my DNA," he said. "It’s my personality. But I try to be well-rounded on the mound. I’m not just going out there trying to be a linebacker running through a brick wall. Pitching allows you to take on a lot of information and there are a lot of decisions you have to make: how you’re setting up your pitches, the adjustments you have to make, navigating a lineup multiple times.

"Thinking through those situations is a lot of times better than trying to blow through them. So, yeah, you’re going to have to use your brain to pitch, but guess what? It also works well when you go out there with a little intensity, with a little fire underneath you, and want to attack."

Consider that to be Scherzer’s summation on the subject and indeed it goes nicely with his new gig as a Met. In short, the intensity will always be the fun part for him, and oh by the way, it sure plays well in New York.