The per­fec­tion­ist

Nats’ all-star pitcher Max Scherzer finds suc­cess is in the de­tails

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY RICK MAESE

Here are a few things about pitcher Max Scherzer: He has two dogs and two cats, and one of those dogs — Bo — has one brown eye and one blue eye, just like Scherzer. He mar­ried a for­mer soft­ball pitcher, and shortly af­ter sign­ing that record $210 mil­lion con­tract with the Na­tion­als six months ago, he bought a Tesla. Here are a few more: He’s 30 years old, a Mis­souri na­tive who loves golf and fan­tasy sports and is beloved by both for­mer and cur­rent team­mates. ¶ But per­haps the most im­por­tant thing to know en­ter­ing Tues­day’s All-Star Game: All of that — the golf, the car, the con­tract, the pets, the mul­ti­col­ored eyes — is just win­dow dress­ing, all in the back seat while base­ball rides shot­gun. Scherzer is ob­sessed with the game and all of its in­tri­ca­cies. ¶ The time of day or the time of year doesn’t mat­ter; base­ball doesn’t ever get shut off or even turned down. ¶ “Never. Not even the off­sea­son,” said his wife, Erica May Scherzer, the afore­men­tioned for­mer soft­ball pitcher. ¶ And be­cause of this, any at­tempt to un­der­stand Scherzer prob­a­bly has to take place at the ball­park, where so much of what makes Scherzer tick — and just about ev­ery­thing that makes him great — is on dis­play ev­ery day: com­pet­i­tive fire, un­matched

work ethic, at­ten­tion to de­tails and a un­re­lent­ing mis­sion to get bet­ter. A right-han­der who chased per­fect games in back-to­back starts last month, Scherzer shies away from call­ing him­self a per­fec­tion­ist.

“A per­fec­tion­ist ex­pects to be per­fect,” he ex­plains. “If you’re not per­fect, you’re frus­trated, and it leads you into a neg­a­tive cy­cle.”

This is what sep­a­rates Scherzer, why he was named this past week to his third straight all-star game and why he just might be pitch­ing even bet­ter than his 2013 Cy Young cam­paign: He ac­cepts his flaws, mostly be­cause it gives him some­thing to work on.

“You’ll never be per­fect,” he said, “but you can al­ways try to find a way to get bet­ter. Ev­ery sin­gle day you can find some way to im­prove.”

In­tense, com­pet­i­tive

Team­mates de­scribe a lov­able, goofy, play­ful prankster who con­ceived the cho­co­late syrup showers as a postgame cel­e­bra­tion and takes pride in run­ning the club­house fan­tasy leagues and bet­ting pools. Scherzer also is ea­ger for any sort of chal­lenge. Re­liever Matt Thorn­ton spent the past two off­sea­sons work­ing out with him in Ari­zona and learned that ev­ery­thing— ev­ery stretch, run and drill— has to have a win­ner.

“There’s noth­ing that he does that’s not a com­pe­ti­tion,” Thorn­ton said.

Ev­ery fifth day from April to Oc­to­ber, it es­ca­lates to a whole other level. Scherzer is un­mis­tak­able. He stomps around the mound like a bull with a short fuse and an even shorter to-do list. If it weren’t for the base­ball uni­form, he would look pre­pared for a street fight.

“He truly is the guy on game day who’s in a dif­fer­ent gear,” Na­tion­als closer Drew Storen said. “From the sec­ond he shows up, he’s on a mis­sion. It’s pretty im­pres­sive. It wears me out watch­ing him.”

Scherzer tries not to flip the switch too early in the day, in­stead bring­ing his in­ten­sity to a slow boil in the two to three hours lead­ing up to the first pitch.

“If I’m locked in at 11 a.m., there’s a prob­lem,” he said, “be­cause I’m go­ing to be men­tally gassed by the time 7 o’clock rolls around.”

That same in­ner fire makes Scherzer fiercely pro­tec­tive. Two days af­ter each start, he throws a bullpen ses­sion, usu­ally about 40 pitches. He will try to re-cre­ate pitches from his last out­ing and sim­u­late at-bats he an­tic­i­pates in his next start. These ses­sions take place in se­cret, the au­di­ence usu­ally lim­ited to the bullpen catcher and Steve McCatty, the pitch­ing coach. And if some­one else wan­ders in?

“He’ll kick peo­ple out,” Thorn­ton said. “Tell them, ‘ Go on, get out of here.’ It’s just the way he wants to work. He’s got a rou­tine. One thing about base­ball es­pe­cially: You don’t mess with a guy’s rou­tine.”

Scherzer’s se­cre­tive dur­ing games, too, renowned for hav­ing one of the game’s most com­pli­cated sign sys­tems, elab­o­rately de­signed to pre­vent base run­ners from tip­ping pitches to bat­ters. For­mer Tigers catcher Brayan Pena once ex­plained to USA To­day that “you have to have a Har­vard de­gree to . . . un­der­stand them.”

Jose Lo­ba­ton caught Scherzer’s first spring train­ing game with the Nats, and Scherzer tried ex­plain­ing his sys­tem be­fore­hand.

“I talked to [Wil­son Ramos] and said, ‘Wil­lie, I got this guy to­day. He told me about the signs, and I don’t know what I’m gonna do in the game,’ ” Lo­ba­ton re­called. “He said, ‘ Re­ally? It’s that bad?’ ”

The catcher must uti­lize dif­fer­ent parts of the body and elab­o­rate pat­terns that change depend­ing on the count, num­ber of outs or who’s on base.

“It’s not the same ev­ery time,” Lo­ba­ton said.

Back at their North­ern Vir­ginia home, Erica knows this side of Scherzer all too well. She also pitched at the Univer­sity of Mis­souri and also loathes los­ing. They have an un­spo­ken rule at home: no board games.

“It never ends well,” she said. “We have cer­tain games — Mo­nop­oly and Risk — that we stay away from be­cause it’s go­ing to turn into a fight. The com­pet­i­tive­ness is ev­ery­where.”

Scherzer com­peted with that same in­ten­sity well be­fore the Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs made him a first-round pick in 2006. The main dif­fer­ence: When he was younger, he didn’t al­ways know when to dial it back. Scouts would pass through the Mis­souri cam­pus and openly won­der whether Scherzer would break down. Many thought he was des­tined for a ca­reer in the bullpen, surely un­able to sus­tain that energy level over sev­eral in­nings, much less an en­tire sea­son.

Early in his col­lege ca­reer — and at dif­fer­ent times in the mi­nors and early in his ma­jor league ca­reer — he seemed hellbent on over­whelm­ing the op­po­si­tion. Tim Jamieson, the Mis­souri base­ball coach, said he was throw­ing, not pitch­ing.

“He ei­ther felt like he had to miss bats or he felt like he had to be bet­ter be­cause he’s fac­ing bet­ter hit­ters,” Jamieson said. “But Max fig­ured it out pretty quickly.”

In­trigued by strat­egy

Even to­day, Scherzer isn’t happy think­ing about his play­ing time in that first year of col­lege ball — “Kind of a typ­i­cal fresh­man,” his coach said, “had to fig­ure stuff out”— and still wishes he was al­lowed to bat more back then, when his team in­stead re­lied on a des­ig­nated hitter.

He doesn’t for­get these per­ceived slights. Last month, Scherzer strung to­gether a pair of ex­tra­or­di­nary out­ings: a one-hitter that fea­tured 16 strike­outs, fol­lowed six days later by a 10-strike­out no-hitter. The lat­ter would have been a per­fect game had Scherzer not hit a bat­ter — with two outs and two strikes — in the ninth in­ning. Jamieson sent Scherzer a con­grat­u­la­tory text mes­sage. Scherzer’s re­sponse made no ref­er­ence to his in­cred­i­ble pitch­ing per­for­mances and in­stead noted for his old coach that he had just ex­tended his hit­ting streak to five games.

That wouldn’t sur­prise Rick Schu, the Na­tion­als’ hit­ting coach. Scherzer doesn’t want to be con­sid­ered an easy out and is con­stantly pick­ing Schu’s brain. He wants to talk swing path and bat speed and how to put back­spin on the ball — any­thing that will give him an edge. Schu calls him the “hard­est-work­ing pitcher that I’ve ever had.”

“I’ve seen it,” Scherzer said. “When the pitcher gets a knock, there’s a lot of ways to cre­ate runs from that. Now you’re on base and you’ve got the top of the or­der rolling around — your best hit­ters.”

Turns out, no coach on staff is safe from Scherzer. First base coach Tony Tarasco calls him a “con­stant pain in the butt.”

“But in a good way,” he said with a laugh.

A base coach is gen­er­ally try­ing to pro­tect his pitcher and keep him out of harm’s way. But Scherzer pushes Tarasco to let him tag up, to get the per­fect lead, to be ag­gres­sive when the ball is in play.

“I don’t think he wants to be just another pitcher on the bases,” Tarasco said. “He al­most takes of­fense to it.”

Dur­ing bat­ting prac­tice a cou­ple of times a week, Scherzer will stand near sec­ond base and study the way the ball comes off the bat. Then he’ll do the same roam­ing the out­field. He’ll talk to po­si­tion play­ers to bet­ter un­der­stand their reads and po­si­tion­ing in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions.

“You just have a com­pletely dif­fer­ent view of the game,” he said of life on the bases. “I see the game from the mound and ev­ery­thing seems so big and far away. When you’re on base, it feels so com­pact.”

The ex­tra work has paid off. He hadn’t regularly hit since 2009, and af­ter start­ing the year 1 for 13 at the plate, he has eight hits in his past 26 at-bats and has scored four times. At Philadelphia last month, he led off the fifth in­ning with a sin­gle to right. He ad­vanced to sec­ond on a wild pitch, hus­tled to third on Michael A. Tay­lor’s bunt sin­gle and scored on a sac­ri­fice fly.

“I just think he is in­trigued with the strat­egy of the game,” Tarasco said. “There’s some­thing in his DNA that makes him want to be the best at ev­ery­thing.”

It’s easy for fans and play­ers alike to get lost in the game, and Erica said Scherzer can be con­sumed by base­ball — and sports in gen­eral — year-round. Three years ago, his younger brother, Alex, com­mit­ted sui­cide at the age of 24. Scherzer was crushed. He went home briefly but was back on the mound for Detroit two days later, mak­ing his sched­uled start with his par­ents watch­ing from the stands. He doesn’t talk about this pub­licly, but a few days later Scherzer told Tigers beat re­porters, “It was the most dif­fi­cult start I’ve ever had to make inmy life.

“But it was worth it,” he said, “be­cause ev­ery­body that was close to me, my fam­ily, they gave me a chance to get out there and have a smile, get out there and en­joy life. And that’s the most im­por­tant thing.”

Very su­per­sti­tious

Here’s what can be slightly dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile: Scherzer goes to great lengths to con­trol ev­ery as­pect of his game, but he’s still sus­cep­ti­ble to su­per­sti­tion, per­haps more than any player in the Na­tion­als’ club­house.

He eats a mas­sive roast beef sand­wich be­fore each start. He has been known to wear his shorts back­ward when the tem­per­a­ture dips. He doesn’t grab the ball from his glove, pre­fer­ring to flip it into his bare hand. Once, af­ter start­ing the 2013 sea­son 13-0, he didn’t change a flat tire on his car for four starts, scared it would ruin his run of good for­tune. (“That one wasn’t re­ally a su­per­sti­tion,” he in­sisted.) But the rest? Only he knows. “He’s got them pretty locked tight to his chest,” said Na­tion­als starter Doug Fis­ter, a team­mate for 21/ sea­sons in Detroit.

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“He has this su­per­sti­tion on top of ev­ery­thing else that you don’t talk about your su­per­sti­tions,” his wife said. “There’s a few I know, a few oth­ers that I only think I know.”

Erica said Max, like a lot of ballplay­ers, ad­heres more to rou­tine than su­per­sti­tion. A pitcher is just one man on the field, which means he’s mostly pow­er­less when the ball is in play. Cling­ing to habits or pat­terns is just another at­tempt at con­trol­ling the game.

“We’re crea­tures of habit,” Scherzer ex­plained. “We’re al­ways try­ing to fig­ure out how to do the same thing the ex­act same way. You’re try­ing to make sure ev­ery­thing’s on the same ex­act pat­tern. It makes you crazy.”

Su­per­sti­tions aside, Scherzer tries to stick to the same rou­tine on the days lead­ing up to each start. The day be­fore his turn in the ro­ta­tion, he will watch the game from the dugout and en­vi­sion him­self on the mound, and by the next af­ter­noon, he will have a game plan for each hitter.

Then the day af­ter a game, he re­views ev­ery­thing, pay­ing par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to his fi­nal 15 pitches. Those are the ones, he said, that re­ally de­ter­minewhether an out­ing was suc­cess­ful. Ei­ther he was still throw­ing strong and hit­ting his marks late in the game — or he was about to get yanked and re­placed by a re­liever.

More of­ten than not this sea­son, those last 15 pitches would make most pitch­ers en­vi­ous. He has three com­plete games and was tied for the Na­tional League lead in in­nings pitched (1231/ 3) en­ter­ing Satur­day. Scherzer is still strik­ing out as many bat­ters as ever (10.4 per nine in­nings), but his walk rate has been cut in half from last sea­son ( just one per nine in­nings). He has twice earned the league’s pitcher of the month hon­ors, and his WHIP (0.80) is not only the best in the game, it’s lower than any­one since 1900 with the ex­cep­tion of Pe­dro Martinez (0.74 in 2000) and Wal­ter John­son (0.78 in 1913).

And Scherzer is still hop­ing for an even bet­ter sec­ond half to the sea­son. He broke into the ma­jors with just two re­li­able pitches but worked on his slider, tin­kered with his change-up and won the Amer­i­can League Cy Young Award in 2013 af­ter adding a curve­ball. This year, he added a fifth pitch to his reper­toire — a cut­ter — but used it only spar­ingly in the first half of the sea­son. As NL teams see him a sec­ond or third time, he has that cut­ter in his back pocket to keep bat­ters on their toes.

“I’m ready to make ad­just­ments at any time,” he said, “and it can hap­pen within the at-bat. I’m wait­ing for the op­pos­ing teams to make the ad­just­ments first. Be­cause if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The sport is lit­tered with stars who sawa de­crease in pro­duc­tion af­ter sign­ing big con­tracts, but the mere sug­ges­tion that Scherzer might have re­laxed this sea­son makes him laugh. “Any­one that thinks that ob­vi­ously doesn’t know me,” he said.

He likes to tell peo­ple — team­mates, fam­ily mem­bers, re­porters — “You’re ei­ther get­ting bet­ter or you’re get­ting worse. You never stay the same.”

“He truly lives and dies by that,” said his wife, Erica. “It’s one of those things where he wants to get bet­ter ev­ery year, ev­ery start, ev­ery pitch.”

EZ SU IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY THE DAN WASHINGTON WOR­THING­TON/ POST

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASHINGTON POST

Max Scherzer, shown here dur­ing a rain de­layMon­day, is 9-7 with a 2.12 ERA go­ing into his fi­nal start of the first half Sun­day.

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