This is Max Scherzer, the Detroit Tigers' starting pitcher for Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees. The Yankees' highest priority is beating him to keep their season alive in a potential Game 5 tomorrow night. Scherzer's kind of a creepy-looking dude with that blue eye/brown eye mutation, but as Randy Johnson proved (albeit not in New York), you don't need to be easy on the eyes to be a good pitcher.
|2012 - Max Scherzer||16-7||32||187.2||179||78||60||23||231||1.274||3.74||90||3.27||77||4.0||4.6|
He might be the Tigers' #4 starter in this series, but he was arguably the Tigers' best pitcher behind ace Justin Verlander this year. Even though Doug Fister had a lower ERA-, Scherzer made six more starts and as that gaudy strikeout total might have you believe, he led all MLB starters in strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) at a startling 11.08. It was not close either--only one other starter in baseball had a K/9 over 9.35, Yu Darvish, and he was a distant 10.40 K/9. He made the Pittsburgh Pirates look absolutely silly in a 15-strikeout performance back on May 20th, and even National League MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen whiffed thrice.
Scherzer's strikeout tendencies combined with the 2012 Yankees' franchise record 1,176 strikeouts do not bode well. Taking a step back to last year's Division Series mess, in an off-year, Scherzer was still able to handle the Yanks, pitching 6.1 two-hit shutout innings in a Game 2 victory. He also came back to throw an inning and a third in relief of Fister in the Game 5 clincher, allowing just two weakly-hit ground ball singles (one came around to score when Joaquin Benoit stumbled in relief). He's not yet a certified Yankee-killer though, since they beat him on April 29th thanks to seven walks and seven hits. Curtis Granderson crushed a 95 mph fastball and sent it both over the right-center field wall and out of Austin Jackson's glove for a home run. The Yankees can take solace in that they have beaten him before, granted that Scherzer struggled in April and has improved since then.
That old baseball axiom "pitching wins championships" has been befuddled by the 2012 Yankees in the postseason. Their pitching staff has been stellar with a 2.36 ERA in the playoffs, and yet they are 3-5 thus far in eight games. Even if counterpart CC Sabathia is perfect through nine innings tonight, he will not be able to win if the Yankees cannot score against Scherzer or the Tigers bullpen. So, how do they beat Scherzer?
1) Catch up to the declining fastball
Like many strikeout artists, Scherzer can bring it with his fastball and throws it frequently. 60.8% of his pitches in 2012 were fastballs, and he averaged 94.2 mph. He topped out in the high 90s in several of his second half starts.
However, toward the end of the season, he experienced some right shoulder fatigue, and as the chart indicates, his velocity drastically fell. He was actually skipped in the rotation once to give him a break. During his ALDS Game 4 start against the Oakland Athletics, manager Jim Leyland removed Scherzer two batters into the sixth despite five innings of shutout ball in the potential clincher. The reason?
"Well, if you watched, the velocity started to drop pretty good. To 90 to 91. He hasn't really pitched that much lately. It looked like he was pretty much spent (after 91 pitches). I didn't want him to make a mistake and have (Yoenis) Cespedes hurt us. That's why we made the move. Max wanted Cespedes, but I could see his velocity was dropping."- Leyland, Detroit News
Scherzer brought his "A" game (no pun intended) through the first few innings, but the fatigue soon set in. Leyland did not trust Scherzer's fastball against a masher like Yoenis Cespedes. If Scherzer's velocity is not there tonight, the Yankees have to pounce on it. They were a terrific fastball-hitting team in 2012, and Granderson was particularly good at crushing these mistakes. As the video link to his homer against Scherzer on April 29th proved, he can even hit some of Scherzer's best fastballs too. Also high up on that wFB list are Mark Teixeira and Grandy's slumpmates Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, and Alex Rodriguez. It is unclear how many members of that group will be selected for the starting lineup today, but their fastball-hitting statistics certainly bode well for them, especially if Scherzer's fastball isn't sharp.
2) Work up the pitch count
The previous point mentioned Scherzer's fatigue, and due to this weariness, he has not exceeded 91 pitches since the diagnosis. His 2.88 BB/9 in 2012 does not portend a seven-walk day of wildness like he had in late April, and even while fatigued he's only walked six batters in 16.1 innings. Still, Oakland was able to drive his pitch count up to over 90 by the sixth inning, so there are still ways of making Scherzer work without necessarily walking. Obviously, if he wants to issue free passes, they should take it, but simply putting together decent at bats would do the job. There were some good at bats in the Game 3 loss to Verlander and reliever Phil Coke, so the potential is there.
Since he has not had a good game in awhile, it would be extremely beneficial for the Yankees to strike early and often. Doing so would put runs on the board for CC, get that pitch count up, and not let Scherzer think for a second that he can get into a groove.
3) Lay off the slider
Scherzer throws a changeup about as often as his slider, but the latter has pretty much always been a better secondary pitch for him. Opposing batters hit just .201 against his slider in 2012, compared to .253 against his fastball and .289 on his changeup. The slider averages in the mid-80s, and it was his highest-weighted pitch on FanGraphs. Hitters swung at 36.3% of his sliders outside the zone, resulting in 59 of his strikeouts. Meanwhile, the Yankees were not awful at hitting sliders, but they were not nearly as good with those as fastballs. Cano, Granderson, and Ichiro Suzuki were the only Yankees to have a wSL of at least one, and Grandy's been swinging at way too many pitches out of the zone lately.
If Scherzer gets ahead on the count, there's undoubtedly a decent chance he will try to put them away on a slider down and away since his fastball has not been sizzling lately. The Yankees must do their best to avoid these chases and make him beat them with fastballs. Hell, it might not be a bad idea to just take a good amount of the non-fastballs since they notoriously struggle with off-speed pitches too. Scherzer's changeup has not been as good, but only Cano, Swisher, and Eric Chavez did much with changeups this year. The Yankees have been hurting themselves on chases in the postseason, and they did a good job avoiding strikeouts in Game 3 against Verlander, the game's preeminent strikeout pitcher. If they can do more of the same against Scherzer, a fine pitcher but not quite at Verlander's level, they are bound to give their big man some much-needed run support.
The Yankees can beat Max Scherzer. It is not a tall task, even with his league-high K rate. The fastballs should be there for the slugging.