Scherzer’s place in history

Whether or not you think Jose Tabata intentionally moved his elbow into the path of Max Scherzer’s two-out, ninth-inning curveball this past Saturday, the final result stood as an example of a very rare phenomenon: a perfect game broken up on the would-be final out of the game. While still securing the no-hitter put Scherzer firmly into the record books, the history of the almost-perfecto is incredibly interesting in its own right, as is the unparalleled dominance the Nationals right-hander has shown in his past two starts.

Scherzer now has a distinct place in the discussion of historic pitching performances. We should make sure to put the emphasis on the plural of the word performance, because Scherzer just put together arguably the best back-to-back outings by a starting pitcher since at least 1914. His final combined line for his starts on June 14th and 20th:

18.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 HBP, 26 K

Scherzer faced 57 batters over his two starts: he struck out just under 46% of them. To put that in context, he had a better strikeout rate over the entirety of two consecutive complete games than Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, or Dellin Betances have in their relief appearances this season. By the numbers, he was more or less the equivalent of facing the best closer in baseball on a particularly dominant day for two entire games.

His incredible strikeout rate is one of the main reasons for his unmatched Bill James Game Scores of 100 and 97 over the two games (respectively), making him the only pitcher since 1914 to have game scores of at least 97 in consecutive starts. To get a refresher on game scores, here’s the calculation for them from Baseball Reference:

Start with 50 points. Add 1 point for each out recorded, (or 3 points per inning). Add 2 points for each inning completed after the 4th. Add 1 point for each strikeout. Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed. Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed. Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed. Subtract 1 point for each walk.

If we keep diving into the history of game scores, no pitcher has had consecutive starts of at least 96 scores, either, and only two other pitchers join Scherzer if we lower the bar to back-to-back game scores of 95 (R.A. Dickey, June 2012 and Bob Veale, Sept./April 1964-65).

This type of calculation rewards strikeouts heavily, something we have to keep in mind when comparing these starts against starts from pitchers of different eras, but the point remains: these two starts were 18 innings of almost perfect pitching.

We can see what made Scherzer so effective over these past two starts by looking at a plot of his strikeouts (courtesy of Baseball Savant):

Scherzer_Two_Strikes

Immediately we can see the pattern: low and away sliders and curveballs to right-handers, high fastballs, and the odd changeup mixed in. He had a great distribution of his strikeouts between different pitches, as nine were fastballs, nine were sliders, four were curves, and four were changeups. That points to the common thread with all low hit/walk, high-strikeout outings: the ability to make hitters swing and miss coupled with impeccable command of all pitches in a pitcher’s arsenal.

That point is clear in Scherzer’s swinging strike rates over these two starts. Not only did he get hitters to miss more often than usual, he got them to swing more often in the first place — illustrating an important point which is often overlooked. League average for swinging strikes (the percent of all pitches that are swung at and missed) is 9.7% this season across baseball. In Scherzer’s no hitter on Saturday, his rate was 15.1%. The start before, when he struck out 16 Brewers, it was 22.7%.

This means, over two complete games, that 19.1% of pitches Scherzer threw were swung at and missed — over double the league average rate.

If we judge Scherzer on his game scores, we can feel comfortable saying he just pitched the best consecutive games since 1914. Johnny Vander Meer famously threw back-to-back no hitters during the 1938 season, but he also walked 11 batters between the two games.

Do we believe Vander Meer achieved the greater feat because he didn’t allow hits in his two games, or do we believe Scherzer had the better run because of his gaudy strikeout totals and extreme ability to limit base runners? History will almost surely remember Vander Meer better, but history has an affinity for taglines.

We require labels to put on performances like these — Perfect Game, No-Hitter, etc. And, if anyone deserved a no-hitter, it was probably Scherzer during one of these back-to-back starts. The funny thing is that the no-no came in the lesser of the two games. On the 14th, Scherzer struck out 16 batters while only allowing 15 balls hit into play (including zero line drives). He ended up with nothing but a great start, record books-wise. On Saturday, he struck out 10 while allowing 23 balls hit into play (including three line drives); history will remember it forever.

What’s even more interesting to think about is Tabata singling instead of being hit by the pitch on Saturday. In that case, Scherzer basically gets nothing out of these two starts except a slightly disappointed standing ovation and a what if. A writer would stumble across these two starts while looking through data ten or twenty years from now and remark at the incredible run of pitching that goes uncelebrated.

We can say Scherzer was unfortunate that Tabata got hit in the ninth inning on Saturday. We can also say that he is fortunate that the collective baseball mind devalues the meaning of a hit by pitch, elevates the meaning of allowing no one to get a single, and that none of the line drives hit on Saturday found holes in the defense. For Max Scherzer, baseball is funny like that. For countless other pitchers who allowed only one baserunner via a single for an entire game, baseball is cruel like that.

These two starts are probably the best back-to-back games ever pitched since 1914. They were both incredible, but one was better. The other? It’s going into the record books.