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