Max Scherzer’s internal pep talk as he approaches each season, each game and each pitch goes something like this: As an athlete, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.
And for Scherzer, there’s no option. He’s going to get better.
This plain-and-simple, professional mantra, along with an ardent curiosity, unyielding determination and good old-fashioned love of the game are all catalysts to Scherzer’s career success up to this point. He’s a perfectionist, always searching for that next tweak that will improve the way he plays the game. He’s simply not content to let himself remain in the same spot for too long.
A willingness to evolve his style of pitching has led to a continuous growth spurt on the mound, which involved the 2013 Cy Young Award winner not only reworking a few of his standbys, but also adding more pitches to his collection.
When Scherzer started out in 2008 with the Arizona Diamondbacks, he was known to primarily throw a mid-90’s fastball and an 85-mph changeup. Those two pitches were enough to secure him a memorable MLB debut and a full-time starting position with Arizona heading into the 2009 season.
In a nod to both his late brother, Alex, and college major in business finance, Scherzer began to use advanced baseball statistics (sabermetrics) to identify weaknesses in his performance and begin to make improvements. He soon realized that to become fully effective, he’d need a full arsenal of pitches, which meant refining his slider and picking up a strong curveball.
Scherzer’s fastball has always been his primary pitch and is an offering Tigers manager Brad Ausmus calls "generally always good." A slight decline in fastball velocity — approximately one mile per hour since 2012 â- hasn’t appeared to hinder his heater’s effectiveness or strikeout rate.
An increased familiarity with his changeup and more control over it in recent years have made this one of his most reliable pitches, as well. As recently as a few starts ago, Scherzer made some adjustments to his changeup (a slight modification to his grip, resulting in more downward action) and has since reported positive results.
His slider, a pitch Scherzer has worked for years to refine, frequently bottoms out on batters, dipping at the last possible moment, only after a batter has already committed to a swing. The secret to his curveball was discovered almost by accident when he began slowing the pitch down until he found its point of maximum effectiveness. Fifteen miles per hour slower than his average fastball, he prides his curveball on its ability to disrupt a batter’s timing.
And just like that, with one tinker after another, Scherzer became a four-pitch weapon.
Scherzer’s full battery was on display in last Thursday’s 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. He employed all four pitch types in the victory, throwing a season-high 14 strikeouts in eight shutout innings, and holding Pittsburgh to three hits and two walks over the contest.
Tuesday night in Tampa, Scherzer gave up four runs in the first two innings, but was able to settle down and get through seven innings of an 8-6 Tigers victory in 11 innings. He racked up another nine strikeouts along the way.
But today, it will be back to work. After all, those pitches aren’t going to keep perfecting themselves.