Max Scherzer is meticulous, the sort of person who sees baseball as a game of centimeters, because inches are too big. Every so often, in the middle of a long season, Scherzer will pore over video of his last start, pause it mid-delivery and vow to change things. A centimeter can mean that much.
His right arm is his gift and his treasure, and if ever he notices his elbow above his shoulder line – even a hint of the dreaded Inverted W, which is correlated with though not scientifically proven to cause arm injuries – he corrects it. Little gets past Scherzer.
"You've seen in history guys blow out that way," he told Yahoo Sports last September. "I've never been a guy who does it, but every now and again, it'll creep higher than that plane, and I'm very cognizant of it."
Every little detail matters to Scherzer, the reigning American League Cy Young winner – every pitch a series of cues he must hit, every season an anthology of his accomplishments, every word rich with meaning. Which made Sunday's tack by the Detroit Tigers all the more curious. Of all the people at whom to lob a cluster bomb of loaded verbiage, they chose the person likeliest to parse the text and try to assign meaning to it.
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And there was meaning, all right, because something like this – it just doesn't happen in baseball. Contract negotiations falter all the time. The ones between Scherzer and the Tigers did just that. Protocol says both sides fall back on a trope – they weren't able to come to an agreement, or they couldn't find common ground, or some such niceties – and move along no matter how deep the animus.
Whatever happened during the discussions struck a nerve with Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, who lit up Twitter with a statement that talked of the Tigers' "substantial" offer that would have made Scherzer one of the "highest paid pitchers" except "the offer was rejected" despite the "organization's intent to extend" Scherzer, which "would have accomplished that." Masters courses in passive-aggressiveness will add the Tigers' statement to their current curriculum.
Now, Dombrowski's disappointment is understandable on the surface, seeing as his maligned maneuvering this offseason ostensibly was to free up money to re-sign Scherzer, and that FoxSports.com's reported offer of six years and $144 million would make Scherzer among the highest-paid pitchers in baseball – not to mention the second oldest of those with $127 million-plus deals. He's 29 now, turns 30 in July and only rotation-mate Justin Verlander (30) got his $100 million-plus more wizened.
When he signed, Zack Greinke was almost a year from his 30th birthday, Johan Santana just shy of his 29th. CC Sabathia and Cole Hamels were 28, Matt Cain 27, Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez 26, and Masahiro Tanaka 25. Enormous pitching contracts that encompass lots of years and feature a high average annual value are the domain of young men, and Scherzer's age plays against him. Of course, he and agent Scott Boras can argue his wear and tear pales compared to those peers and thus positions him in the proper place to seek more.
When Kershaw signed his seven-year, $215 million deal, he did so with 18,643 regular-season pitches thrown. That's on the low side. Hernandez got seven years despite 24,872 pitches, Verlander seven with 25,424, Sabathia seven after 26,252. Scherzer's total after six major league seasons: 17,316.
Here's the truth: If Scherzer is healthy – and the Tigers wouldn't have offered him what they did if he weren't – a six-year, $144 million for a pitcher coming off a Cy Young season and entering free agency with a little more than 20,000 pitches after this season simply isn't a deal to which Boras or one of his clients will agree. It's stupid money. Insane money. Untoward money. It's not the market, though, not when $9 billion course through the game and the players seek their rightful share of it.
Hamels got $144 million over six years in July 2012 with 20,069 pitches thrown. Los Angeles gave Greinke $147 million over six, plus an opt-out, in December 2012 as he approached his 24,000th pitch. And Tanaka, whose pitch count is horrifying to even consider, scored seven years, $155 million and an opt-out. The ceiling is now Kershaw. Boras doesn't traffic in floors.
Even if the intent wasn't to make it personal, the wording of the Tigers' statement ensured it came off that way. One general manager posited the only rational explanation behind Dombrowski releasing it was to prevent Boras from going to ownership and negotiating a deal himself, which is wildly cynical and makes complete sense considering his history of goading the Tigers into guaranteeing nearly $350 million to Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Prince Fielder.
More than anything, the timing was wrong. This is the sort of thing a team says at the end of a negotiation during free agency, not before a season. It was classic grandstanding and reeked of insecurity, as though the Tigers had to tell the world how hard they tried when the right move would have been to do what the Indians and Justin Masterson did earlier in the week. They said they tried, said it didn't work out and said they'd wait until the end of the season.
The least shocking part of the drama came when Scherzer spoke and took the high road. One source said he had no idea the Tigers planned on releasing such a terse statement and that it took him by surprise. Nevertheless, instead of breaking bad and criticizing the team for trying to make him look like the bad guy, he fulfilled his part of the bargain, saying all he wants to do is win a championship for owner Mike Ilitch and the city of Detroit. The contract stuff will work itself out. Yada, yada, yada.
It was a 10-8 round for Scherzer. He's one of the smartest players in baseball, book wise and life savvy, and enough of both to understand business is business, and business, on occasion, compels one party to go the wrong way. This is not the sort of thing he'll allow to ruin relations; he's too much of a pragmatist for that. It's not the sort of thing he'll forget, either, because turning down nearly $150 million, even if in theory it's the right thing to do, poses an immense risk.
His arm could go at anytime. He's aware of this. He saw Adam Wainwright come back from Tommy John surgery good as new. He also saw the rash of second Tommy Johns this spring, the sort that would scare $100 million off any long-term offer Scherzer would get were the injury malady to strike him.
"There's always that in the background," Scherzer said. "I just feel that if I do all the hard work in the training room, taking care of my shoulder in every which way, my scaps, my chest, my arms, my back, I'm not going to worry about it. I'm not going to sit here and live in fear of blowing out. I'm going to make sure I work as hard as I can so that will never happen."
Scherzer believes in that work and in his arm. Otherwise, he would be standing atop a dais sometime this week, shaking Dombrowski's hand and pledging to make good on this stupid, insane, untoward money. Instead, he's batting away the missteps of his boss, priming himself for seven months down the road when the fun of free agency starts and sweating the one detail that matters most: The ball is in his court. Now it's time to see what he does with it.
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