2012 Top 10 Stories: #3 – Max Scherzer Arrives

Three years ago, the Tigers acquired Max Scherzer in a megatrade and the club envisioned him as part of a high-octane one-two punch with Justin Verlander. Scherzer displayed flashes of his potential with the Diamondbacks in 2008 and ’09 and observers in the desert thought that Scherzer would be part of a lethal rotation combo, but with Brandon Webb.

He appeared in 16 games (seven starts) in his rookie season and though he didn’t earn a win, he posted a solid 3.05 ERA and 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. In ’09, he made 30 starts on his way to a 9-11 record with a 4.12 ERA and fanned 9.2 batters per nine innings.

ScherzerHead.jpgScherzer was an unknown quantity for most Tigers fans when he came to Detroit with Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth in the three-team trade with the D-backs and Yankees. But the promise – oh, the promise! – was tantalizing.

And before long it was baffling.

Here’s part of what I wrote on the SweetSpot blog about six weeks into the 2010 season:

After a dazzling debut on April 7 in which he held the Royals to one hit over six innings in a no-decision, Scherzer has been nothing but a question mark in Detroit’s rotation. He hasn’t won in nearly a month, he’s given up 48 hits in 37 innings so far, and in his last two starts alone he allowed 15 earned runs in 9.1 IP.

Scherzer enters his Friday start against the Red Sox with a 1-3 record and a bulky 6.81 ERA. He’s also been a major contributor to the number of innings the Tigers bullpen has pitched in the first six weeks of the season: Scherzer averages barely five innings of work.

After a dominant two-start demotion to Toledo, Scherzer returned to the Tigers for good on May 30 and finished the year at 12-11, 3.50 ERA in 195.2 innings.

He took a step forward in some areas during the 2011 season but still showed a frustrating inconsistency, often dazzling in one start, imploding in the next. In virtually the same number of innings pitched as in ’10 – 195.0 – Scherzer saw his ERA jump almost a full run, but his walks and strikeouts both decreased. And, he surrendered 20 more earned runs and 33 more hits from the year before.

Given how his regular season played out, it came as no surprise that Scherzer sparkled against the Yankees in the ALDS and, equally unsurprising, he collapsed in two ALCS starts against the Rangers.

The 2012 season was a entirely different story and an entirely different Max Scherzer. In his third season with the Tigers her set career highs with 16 wins and 231 strikeouts.

He led the league with 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings, finished second with 231 strikeouts and tied for sixth in wins.

Untouchable for stretches, he struck out nine-or-more batters in 13 of his starts during the season – tops in the majors. These marked the most by a Tigers pitcher since Mickey Lolich posted 15 games with nine-or-more strikeouts in 1971.

In his May 20 start against the Pirates, he struck out 15, all swinging.

Of course, Scherzer’s breakthrough season was all the more remarkable to watch after a devastating personal tragedy. As Jason Beck wrote this week:

Alex Scherzer wasn’t just Max’s little brother, he was his best friend and confidant. It was Alex’s skill with numbers that fostered Max’s fascination with statistics as he blossomed into a Major League pitcher. When Alex died without warning in June, Max contemplated the best way to honor his brother’s memory. In the end, the mound became a haven for the right-hander, and baseball was a way for him to put smiles on people’s faces. It was a new appreciation for life while he found the kind of on-field success that had driven Scherzer for years.

Scherzer led the Majors in strikeouts for most of the summer before a muscular issue in his right shoulder cost him a couple of starts. His postseason performances through that adversity earned Scherzer respect from teammates and opponents alike.

He made three postseason starts, one each in the ALDS, ALCS and World Series, allowing 12 hits and four earned runs in 17.1 innings pitched. Against the Yankees in the pennant-clinching LCS Game 4, carved up Joe Girardi‘s lineup: 5.2 IP, one earned run, two walks, a pair of hits and 10 strikeouts.

In Game 4 of the World Series, Scherzer dealt a quality start against the Giants – 6.1 IP, three runs, seven hits, and eight strikeouts. Given how the Giants offense constructed runs, and how punchless the Tigers’ lineup had become, he really had no chance to earn a win.

But that exemplifies the difference between Max Scherzer in 2102 from the one we watched in 2010 and ’11. In those first seasons in Detroit, he often failed to give his team a chance to win.

If we’re to believe what we saw this past season, those days just might be a thing of the past.

The Top 10 Stories of 2012

Random Thoughts Before Game 5

In no particular order:

  • From the what-if file: Imagine the added dimension a healthy and capable Daniel Schlereth would add to the Tigers bullpen.
  • Kevin Kennedy was asked what he’d do if the Tigers have a four-run lead going into the ninth and Justin Verlander at a 120 pitches. His answer? “I know what Jim will do … ” Kennedy said Leyland will likely go to his bullpen; it’s what he’s done all year. And that’s what makes us all so queasy.

The Tigers and Athletics will battle in the fifth and deciding game of the American League Division Series this evening at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. It marks the eighth time in the club’s post-season history the Tigers have had a series go to the maximum number of games. Detroit has compiled a 3-4 record in the previous seven series. The Tigers won Game Seven of both the 1945 and 1968 World Series and Game Five of the 2011 American League Division Series, while the team suffered the loss in Game Seven of the 1909, 1934 and 1940 World Series and Game Five of the 1972 American League Championship Series. 

  • Everyone I talk to today tells me that I should feel great about Game 5 with Verlander on the mound. But why don’t I? It’s because my gut tells me he gets too amped up for these big starts and gets dinged for early runs – like Coco Crisp‘s leadoff homer in Game 1. So, here’s what the Game Notes say:

Verlander is making the 10th start of his post-season career this evening. In his previous nine starts, he is 4-3 with a 4.96 ERA (49.0IP/27ER) and 59 strikeouts. Verlander is 2-0 with a 3.65 ERA (12.1IP/5ER) and 17 strikeouts in two starts against the Athletics during his post-season career. 

Yeah, but … looking at his career numbers he’s given up 48 hits in those 49 innings. Plus 30 runs and 24 walks. And, before his Game 1 start last Saturday, his career ALDS ERA was over five. I’m not trying to be negative, only trying to express why I’m hesitant to crown him a true big-game pitcher yet. We’ll know better after tonight.

Finally, Happy Birthday, Dmitri YoungJeff Larish and Gregg Olson. Enjoy the game tonight, folks.