WASHINGTON — Strikeouts have overtaken baseball as never before, climbing steadily for a dozen years, a tidal wave that just keeps rising. Nearly eight weeks into the season, there have still been more strikeouts than hits. In 1984, the year Max Scherzer was born, just two qualified pitchers averaged a strikeout per inning. This year, through Wednesday, there were 31.
Nobody has mastered the modern game the way Scherzer, the Washington Nationals’ three-time Cy Young Award winner, has. He is averaging 14.25 strikeouts per nine innings, which would be a record for a full season. In his last start, on Saturday, he recorded his 100th strikeout in his 63rd inning, the fastest any pitcher has reached 100 strikeouts in a season.
“Yes, this is the best I’ve thrown the ball in my entire career, but it’s only because I continue to get better every single year,” Scherzer said last week by his locker at Nationals Park. “That’s my only goal.”
Scherzer’s personal evolution has collided with the evolution of baseball, and the results have been staggering. He is 7-1 with a 1.78 earned run average, the lowest of his career. He has allowed the fewest hits per nine innings in the National League (5.48, also a personal low) and struck out 40.9 percent of opposing hitters, which would be a major league record.
His first name is fitting: Scherzer defines strike throwing, to the max.
“Everything comes out of his hand as a strike,” said David Price of the Boston Red Sox, a former teammate of Scherzer’s in Detroit. “It might not even be a competitive pitch, but out of his hand, it’s a strike. Everything’s coming out of that same little window.”
Scherzer’s average fastball is 93.8 miles an hour, essentially the same as it was when he reached the majors a decade ago with a perfect debut for Arizona: 13 up, 13 down, in relief, with seven strikeouts. But he now uses his fastball much less, cognizant of hitters’ tendencies to pounce on his early-count fastballs and drive them for home runs.
They are wise to try that approach because Scherzer has gradually added and refined pitches, making for a deep and devastating arsenal. Besides the four-seam fastball — which has one of the best spin rates in baseball, giving it life through the zone and making it seem to rise to the hitter — he has a changeup, a curveball, a slider and a cutter.
Lefties once hit the right-handed Scherzer well; they batted .292 off him in 2012, the year before he started winning Cy Young Awards. Then he discovered a knack for imparting spin, not just power, to a ball. He added a curveball in 2013 — he never thought he could throw it from his low arm slot — and then a cutter in 2015.
Lefties barely hit Scherzer anymore, with a .188 average this season. But they handle him better than right-handers, who are hitting .140.
“It’s tough to pick up spin,” said Washington’s Mark Reynolds, a right-handed slugger who is 1 for 14 with seven strikeouts in his career against Scherzer. “It could be a fastball and it runs in on you. It could be a slider and it breaks down and away. He’s kind of like Jake Arrieta in a way; he steps at you with a funky delivery. Guys that have those little nuances about them are tough to pick up, and when you combine the way he throws with the stuff he has, it’s pretty special.”
The way Scherzer throws gives hitters little basis for comparison. He essentially short-arms the ball, seeming to push it — “like it’s coming out of his shoulder,” Price said — from a low, three-quarters angle on the extreme third-base side of the rubber. Scherzer said he tried to stay almost underneath the ball, for maximum backspin that keeps his fastball on a true plane. His mechanics are natural but calculated.
“For me, it was all about the arm action of hiding the ball behind my body so that the hitter never really picks up the ball until it’s at the release point,” Scherzer said. “I never want the ball above my shoulders until I’m really firing. I feel like I can generate more velocity with my arm path. The way my arm works, there’s so many benefits to it — from a health standpoint, as well.”
General Manager Mike Rizzo, who signed Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract in January 2015, was the scouting director who drafted Scherzer for the Diamondbacks in 2006. Rizzo took him 11th over all from the University of Missouri, after five other college pitchers had been chosen.
“His delivery was unique, and it turned a lot of people off of him,” Rizzo said. “But we loved it. We embraced it. I thought his arm action was clean, his delivery was solid and he was an extreme athlete who could stay online and balanced. While a lot of people thought he was an injury risk, we thought he was going to be injury averse because of the way he threw.”
Rizzo had left Arizona by December 2009, when the Diamondbacks traded Scherzer to the Tigers in a three-team deal that brought them two starters — Ian Kennedy from the Yankees and Edwin Jackson from the Tigers. Scherzer has indeed stayed healthy, making at least 30 starts in each of the last nine seasons.
Scherzer is the leader in victories and strikeouts in the decade of the 2010s, and has lately been much more durable than the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, another three-time Cy Young Award winner who has also been a most valuable player. Kershaw has made 30 starts in just one of the last four seasons, and has not pitched since May 1 because of biceps tendinitis.
It is reasonable, then, to suggest that Scherzer may now be the best pitcher in baseball — or, at least, in the conversation with Kershaw, Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, Boston’s Chris Sale and Houston’s Justin Verlander. Those pitchers would most likely thrive in any era, and to watch them pile up strikeouts is to watch true pitching greatness.
The vexing issue for baseball, as it tries to capture a younger generation craving action, is that pitchers of all pedigrees are keeping the ball out of play. Asked if he and his fellow pitchers were simply too good — more dominant for shorter bursts — Scherzer said no, with a thoughtful, detailed answer that explains a lot about the state of the game.
“This is a front-office thing that’s funneling down,” he said. “They’re looking to try to develop pitchers to be strikeout pitchers. So when they’re looking at young kids on the farm and deciding who’s going to be the next major leaguer, they’re looking at the guys that have the big velo. Give them the right mechanics and multiple off-speed pitches, and when they come to the big leagues, they’re more polished.
“There’s so much information now, and that even goes down to the college game. You have so much video, you can watch every YouTube video of guys and mechanics, and so I just feel like the younger generation’s more educated than ever before.”
On the flip side, Scherzer added, front offices are looking for batters who can hit home runs, not batters who can help them string three hits together to score a run.
“To have that much power, you’re going to be sacrificing somewhere, and typically that’s in the approach — ‘Hey, we’re going to try to launch it, so we’ll sacrifice some swings and misses and some strikeouts in order to capitalize on the power when we do connect,’ ” he said.
“So for me, it’s kind of how the game keeps evolving — we keep seeing more strikeouts, more strikeouts, more strikeouts — and you’re seeing everybody trying to hit home runs. When you have those forces on both sides, pitchers and hitters, the strikeouts are just going to continue to go up.”
In pitching, we know how high is up, at least for a nine-inning game: 27 strikeouts in a row on 81 pitches. No one has done that, of course, but Scherzer is testing the limits. He has two career no-hitters, once missing a perfect game when he hit a batter on a full count with two outs in the ninth. He recently recorded 22 of 27 outs via strikeout — over one start against Philadelphia and part of another in Arizona — and authored a 20-strikeout masterpiece in 2016.
That night, against his old Tigers team, Scherzer joined Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood and Randy Johnson as the only pitchers with 20 strikeouts in the first nine innings of a game. (Clemens did it twice.) Scherzer had a chance for 21, but the last batter, James McCann, grounded out on a slider to end the game.
Scherzer said he expected McCann to foul off the pitch, which came with an 0-1 count, because all night the Tigers had failed to put his best pitches in play. How would he have finished McCann if he had, indeed, gotten that foul ball?
“I don’t know,” Scherzer said. “I’d have to see how he fouled it off.”
That answer said a lot about his refined pitching intellect, his ability to read swings and the vast array of choices he can use in response. It offered a clue into the mind-set of baseball’s best strikeout pitcher: He doesn’t really try for strikeouts. Not exactly, anyway.
“I’m trying to make sure that I get to my 0-2, 1-2 counts,” Scherzer said. “That’s really how I would rather phrase it: I’m trying to make sure that I can drive the count into my favor. I know when I get to 0-2, 1-2, when I’m ahead in the count, that I hold a distinct advantage over every single hitter. I have so many options because I don’t have to work within the strike zone anymore.”
When the ultimate strike thrower expands the strike zone against a generation of free swingers, this is what might be unfolding: The most dominant pitching season we’ve seen.