It's time for Mets to start worrying about Max Scherzer
Before his start against the lowly Tigers on Wednesday in Detroit, Mets right-hander Max Scherzer hadn't looked quite like himself this season, but there was really no reason to be overly concerned.
He allowed three runs in his first start, but that was after firing five scoreless innings and tiring in the sixth. He was similarly strong through the first five innings of his second start (allowing two runs) before again finding trouble in the sixth -- when he shockingly allowed back-to-back-to-back homers.
In Scherzer's third start, he shut out the high-octane San Diego Padres for five innings, allowing just one hit and striking out six. After that game was of course the fiasco against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, when Scherzer was ejected before the fourth inning (after throwing three scoreless frames) because two umpires determined his hand was too sticky after he used sweat and rosin (and washed his hands with alcohol under the watchful eyes of an MLB official).
Throughout the early part of the season, there had been lots of talk about Scherzer's fastball velocity. But that was misguided since his average fastball velocity through his first three starts was in line with where it was last season during his first three starts.
My expectation was that Scherzer would be angry and motivated heading into Wednesday's start against the Tigers, and that he would put his early-season ups and downs behind him. Then the game started.
Scherzer walked leadoff hitter Zach McKinstry, forcing him to pitch from the stretch early (more on that in a bit). He then gave up an infield single, got a deep fly out, and allowed a sacrifice fly to Nick Maton. The next batter, Spencer Torkelson, ripped an RBI double to the gap in left center to make it 2-0, Detroit.
With one out in the second inning, Scherzer gave up a solo homer to Eric Haase. After a 1-2-3 third inning that included two strikeouts to end it (one swinging and one looking), Scherzer fell apart in the fourth. His inning went like this:
- Line drive single by Akil Baddoo
- Home run by Matt Vierling
- Strikeout of Haase (looking)
- Line drive single by Andy Ibanez
- Ground ball single to McKinstry
At that point, Scherzer was removed and replaced by Zach Muckenhirn, who allowed one of the inherited runners to score.
Scherzer's final line was ugly: six runs on eight hits with one walk and three strikeouts in 3.1 innings. His ERA rose from 3.72 to 5.56 (his FIP is 6.36). And what made it more alarming was that it came against quite literally the worst offensive team in the sport.
While I'm not going to join those who are frothing at the mouth while claiming that the 38-year-old Scherzer is washed, that he should retire, and that the Mets' season is over (they're all on Twitter, collectively losing their minds), I will say that it is time to start worrying.
As noted above, Scherzer's fastball velocity over his first three starts this season was right around where it was at the same point last season. Following his last two starts, his average fastball velocity is 93.1 mph (it averaged 94.1 mph last season and has averaged between 93.1 mph and 94.9 mph since the 2010 season).
The focus here should be on Scherzer's command, since his inability to harness it against the Tigers is what did him in. When you have a fastball that isn't overpowering and you can't locate your secondary pitches, you're probably going to get hit hard.
Was what hampered Scherzer on Wednesday partly due to rust after not pitching for 13 days? Probably. Was part of it due to pitching in cold conditions? Maybe. Were his spin rates down a bit? Yes. But I would need to see those spin rates stay down before thinking it's anything but random noise from one uneven start.
"I didn’t do a good job of locating and I didn’t pitch well out of the stretch," Scherzer said after the game. "When you have a long layoff, the first thing that goes is pitching out of the stretch. That’s where mistakes are made."
Adjusting to the pitch clock could also be at play here, and it's something Scherzer has discussed this season -- including a few days before his start against Detroit.
"There is a time component now," Scherzer told The Athletic. "In a runner’s analogy, it would be trying to run foul poles (with longer rest intervals), cut the rest to 15 and see how that feels. There’s a level of concern with pitchers’ health, that the pace may be too much for pitchers."
As Scherzer tries to get back on track, a look at his stats to this point are eye-opening.
He's allowed five home runs (2.4 per nine after allowing 0.8 per nine in 2022), has a walk rate of 4.00 (it was 1.5 last season and is 2.4 for his career), and a strikeout rate of 7.9 per nine (it was 10.7 last season and is 10.7 for his career).
Scherzer's advanced stats are also largely poor.
His chase rate and whiff percentage are above average, and his fastball spin is well above average (in the 82nd percentile), but everything else has been troubling.
That includes a barrel rate in the seventh percentile, an xSLG in the 16th percentile, and an average exit velocity in the 20th percentile. Scherzer is also below average when it comes to xERA/wOBA (26th percentile), hard hit percentage (41st percentile), and xBA (49th percentile).
What makes this so hard to predict going forward is that the sample size we're working with to determine a concern level is just five starts -- with the only truly alarming one coming in poor conditions after a 13-day break.
But the Mets should be concerned about Scherzer right now, especially given the state of the rest of their rotation, which is getting Justin Verlander back but has been abysmal all season.
While it's fair to be worried about Scherzer right now, it shouldn't surprise anyone if this is simply a blip, and that he turns it around starting with his start next week against the Reds in Cincinnati.
Scherzer is one of the best pitchers in history, and he is coming off a 2022 campaign where he had the lowest ERA of his career. The odds are that Scherzer will become Scherzer again. But the longer he goes without doing so, the more the concern level will rise.