The 30-year-old Scherzer is a combination of bulldog mentality, electric stuff and thinking man’s pitcher. The thinking-man part impressed me most when we talked in April 2008, just three days before his first major league callup. The Arizona Diamondbacks prospect had been sensational for Triple-A Tucson, posting a 1.17 ERA in his first four starts of the Pacific Coast League season.
The 6-foot-3 righthander displayed excellent command that spring, according Tucson pitching coach and former big leaguer Mike Parrott, who praised the prospect’s ability to locate his mid-90s fastball to both sides of the plate. But Scherzer was just as apt to talk about statistical advantage and the mental side of the game.
"You have to throw a strike 65 percent of the time on the first pitch," Scherzer said. "Seventy-five-80 percent of the time you need to work ahead of hitters. When you focus on that—trying to get ahead of them rather than ‘let's hit a spot’—it just allows you to throw strikes more often."
Scherzer grew up in Chesterfield, Mo., a western suburb of St. Louis, and spent three years at the University of Missouri before he was drafted 11th overall in 2006. Missouri pitching coach Tony Vitello had religiously pushed throwing first-pitch strikes to gain the edge of working ahead of hitters. Scherzer said he initially didn't buy into Vitello's approach, but he learned getting ahead of hitters is a far more important tenet than throwing the ball by hitters.
"If you get into those pitcher's counts, it doesn't matter what type of stuff you have, you're going to have success,” Scherzer explained. “It doesn't matter if you throw 80 miles an hour, you're going to have success if you're 1-2 and you can get other pitches over. That's the way the game is."
“Any numbers—college, high school, professional baseball—will show you that if you get ahead, you’re going to subtract about 100 points (from the hitter’s average) for each strike you throw,” Vitello said. “We try to teach it as best we can, so they buy into it.” Scherzer did and blossomed into the Big 12 Conference Pitcher of the Year as a sophomore in 2005.
Three years later, Scherzer joined the Diamondbacks after working just 179.1 minor league innings. He was dominant in his major league debut on April 29, 2008, working 4.1 perfect innings in relief and striking out seven Astros. He threw 35 of his 47 pitches for strikes.
Despite his impressive debut, Scherzer’s command proved inconsistent and he endured the typical growing pains of a young pitcher. The stuff and determination were there, but consistent big league success would come only after the 2009 megadeal that shipped Curtis Granderson to the Yankees, Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy to Arizona, and Austin Jackson and Scherzer to Detroit.
While Scherzer has posted double-digit wins in each of his five seasons with the Tigers, his command has made him an elite pitcher the last three summers. His strikeout rate skyrocketed to an American League-leading 11.1 per nine innings in 2012, and he averaged more than 10 per nine IP the last two seasons. Scherzer’s posted his lowest walk rates the last two years, including a career-low 2.4 per nine in 2013, when he went 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA and league-low 0.97 WHIP to win Cy Young honors. He finished 18-5 (3.15) in 2014.
Scherzer eventually returning to Detroit has been widely speculated, but the Tigers are among at least four teams in the last two weeks to say they were not actively pursuing the righthander. The Yankees and Giants have most recently.
It might have seemed the Tigers were clearing space for Scherzer when they dealt Rick Porcello to Boston recently, but they immediately acquired Alfredo Simon from Cincinnati. The Giants were another team possibly interested in Scherzer, but they have said “no way” after re-signing Jake Peavy. New York was another possible landing spot, but the Yankees recently added Nathan Eovaldi in a trade and signed Chris Capuano.
Will a surprise team emerge in the Scherzer sweepstakes? That’s possible. With the Boras client in no hurry to make a deal—and the run of recent transactions dramatically changing the landscape—who knows which owner will step up and open his wallet?