There are great pitchers — Johan Santana arrived onto the scene, absolutely dominated over a short stretch of time, then was claimed by Father Time and Uncle Injury, fading from the league. There are Hall of Fame pitchers — Roy Halladay won a Cy Young in both the AL and NL, anchoring bad Blue Jays teams and excellent Phillies teams before the aging curve took its toll. And then there are unicorns.
Max Scherzer is a unicorn. He is 36, in his 14th major league season. He has thrown nearly 2500 major league innings. And if he was on the Yankees right now, he would be their best starter by ERA and K-BB%, and second behind Gerrit Cole in virtually every other metric. He is absolutely perfect for a team struggling to build a coherent rotation. The weight of his contract makes it unlikely any but the biggest-market teams could afford him, even as a rental. He makes more sense than any other trade target for this Yankee roster at this moment.
And it’s unlikely the Nationals shop him, and even more unlikely the Yankees buy.
The Nats are kind of in a tough spot. They started the week in second place in the NL East, looking up at a Mets team that’s fine, but not spectacular. You could trick yourself into thinking you can make a real run at the postseason, load up on a couple of rental players at the deadline, and play competitive baseball through September, and if the right guys got hot, and the right Mets went cold, who knows what would happen?
Then they dropped three of five this week, in tandem with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Dodgers last weekend, dropping them below .500, and crucially, behind both the Phillies and Atlanta in the division. Fourth place is a tough spot to be in, as we can see with the Yankees — you need to play well, but you need so much “luck” with the teams ahead of you in the division all going cold at once.
Over the last seven days it’s entirely possible the organization has had to re-evaluate their deadline strategy. The Yankees need another pitcher, and frankly, I’m tired of the “he was hurt/suspended/not impressive in the minors last year, but we believe he has a ton of upside” type of pitcher. I want the unicorn. I want the guy who, even after his worst start of the season, has a 2.66 ERA, 2.87 xERA, and 3.32 FIP. I want the guy with a 35 percent strikeout rate.
Now, with any pitcher, and especially any pitcher who relies a lot on a hard fastball, we need to look at spin rate. And this is where, if you were concerned about Scherzer, you might have a point:
His spin rates have dropped since the announced crackdown, and like every other pitcher in baseball, that’s going to raise eyebrows. What’s interesting is his fastball has dropped more than any other pitch — MLB wanted to cut down on “rising” fastballs, but also gross curveballs. Scherzer’s curve hasn’t dropped by nearly the amount his fastball has, and is right in line with previous seasons, like 2017 and 2018, when he finished first and second in Cy Young voting respectively.
It’s fair to pay attention to those spin rates, although I think it’s equally valuable to go back and look at the games played since the crackdown began. Yes, Scherzer’s last start against the Padres went poorly, giving up seven runs in 3.2 innings. But he struck out seven against just a single walk, the damage coming on two home runs, one of which will never happen again.
The game before that, against the Dodgers, Scherzer went six full, giving up one run, one walk and struck out eight. Since the June 3rd memo, if you want to compare him to the Yankees’ ace, he’s one of the few men in baseball that can actually be compared fairly to Cole’s numbers before his latest start:
So yeah, Max was probably putting something on his fingers, and now he’s not. He’s been not quite as good since. But his performance has been much more stable than some of his contemporaries — and again, he’s never giving up a grand slam to a reliever again.
The last reason to go get Max is something I don’t talk about much, because it’s not really something we have exposure to, and that’s clubhouse energy. The Yankees appear to be an extremely stoic club — some would even say passive. Max Scherzer is not that. Max Scherzer is a man who, on days that he starts, will chew through concrete to win, and wears that emotion and determination very visibly. I don’t know how much that kind of stuff helps or hurts a team. But I do think that kind of punch would present, at least, a very different look from a team that doesn’t always seem as emotionally invested in the game as they could be.
Max Scherzer as he exists in 2021 should be a reminder of two of Brian Cashman’s greatest mistakes. First, he didn’t sign Scherzer as a free agent, a deal that is arguably the most valuable free agent signing in history. Scherzer just cost money in the winter of 2014, and since joining the Nationals has finished no lower than fifth in Cy Young voting every season save 2020. Second, Cashman had an opportunity to land another unicorn pitcher in 2017, a deal that would have involved taking on salary for a future Hall of Famer, and the Yankees passed. That unicorn ended up being the MVP of the 2017 ALCS, eliminating the Yankees en route to a World Series championship.
Go get Max Scherzer. The Nationals know they have too tall a hill to climb. Everyone can see the state of the Yankee rotation. I do not care about the competitive balance tax. I do not care about deferred money. I do not care about the possible, potential, maybe return of Luis Severino. I care about giving Max Scherzer the ball to lead this team out of the hole it’s dug itself, and I care about having him start game two of a playoff series in pinstripes.