Max Effort

This is weird to think about now, but there was a time when Max Scherzer seemed like he would be kind of an eh pitcher.

Scherzer was a huge prospect, of course. He was drafted with the 11th pick of that weird first round of 2006. Weird? Well, maybe I think of it as weird because that was the year the Kansas City Royals had the first pick in the draft and, bizarrely, did not have a general manager. They had fired general manager Allard Baird just weeks earlier, and even though they did hire Dayton Moore before the draft began, he had insisted on staying with Atlanta until the draft was over.

The Royals were all over the place with that first pick, they probably identified five or six different players and kept shifting. This looks a lot worse in retrospect because that draft turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime draft, with Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, and, yes, Scherzer. The Royals really were not on any of them.

The Royals decided to go with a big-right handed pitcher with great stuff named Luke Hochevar. And in doing so, they passed on the big right-handed pitcher with great stuff who pitched just up the road at the University of Missouri, Max Scherzer.

For the first few years, I imagine the Royals’ regrets went in other directions. Scherzer came out of the gate sluggishly. Well, first he pitched superbly and moved quickly through the minor leagues, but then his first full year in the big leagues he was fine but uninspiring enough that the Diamondbacks traded him to Detroit in a three-way deal that brought them Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy.

Then his first three years in Detroit, again, he was fine, better that fine, he was a good pitcher. But greatness eluded him. As a 26-year-old he was surprisingly hittable (league hit .272/.325/.455) — surprising considering the nasty stuff Scherzer had.

The next year, he was better, but not so much that many people noticed. He was 28 years old, and by 28 even brilliant prospects tend to be what their big league numbers say they are. If you asked anybody in baseball then what they thought of Max Scherzer, they probably would have said: “Nice pitcher. Great arm. Never quite gets the results you expect.”

And then — he got results. He won the Cy Young award and became probably the best right-handed pitcher in baseball. He has been that ever since.

What changed? What caused such a massive transformation? Well, in truth, it wasn’t that massive a transformation. Scherzer was probably better than people realized before 2013. But the were a couple of shifts. He did start throwing a curveball to go with his fastball, slider and change-up. It wasn’t a great pitch at first, but the curve seemed to complete the picture, giving the hitter another speed and angle to consider. That made a difference.

But mostly: it was just subtle improvement in big moments. Scherzer mainly started throwing better pitches when behind in the count. In 2011, hitters ahead in the count batted .341/.481/644 off of him. They teed off — they knew what was coming and knew how to handle it.

Two years later, in his first Cy Young year, hitters ahead in the count batted just .232/.423/.482. That’s a ridiculous difference, but it comes from being a millimeter sharper and just slightly better prepared. This is the frustrating matter for baseball players and executives. The difference between good and great is so slim, such a tiny sliver, and yet it does separate.

Scherzer is now a force of nature. He has pitched at more or less that Cy Young level more or less every year since 2013. And, of course, he won his second Cy Young last year. He might win another one this year.

Scherzer was electric again Thursday night, pitching seven against Arizona, striking out 11, allowing just two hits. One of those hits WAS a home run, which is basically the one Scherzer flaw — he gives up a lot of bingos. In fact, he was the first Cy Young winner to lead the league in home runs allowed since …

Well, we’ll leave that as a trivia question for you.

Cain is able (to miss barrels)

Matt Cain long has been one one of my favorite pitchers. I think it goes back to years ago when one of the reporters covering the Giants — I’m pretty sure it was Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle — described Cain as a “mensch.”

That’s a wonderful word “Mensch.” It technically translates from Yiddish to “human” but it really means more than that, it means someone who does the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. A mensch is someone who borrows your lawnmower and returns it filled with gas and the oil changed. A mensch is a person who sends thank you notes. A mensch is someone who stands up on the subway so someone older can sit down, who gives up better airplane seat so families or couples can sit together, who (dare I say it) catches a foul ball and gives it to a kid.

In any case, there was something professional and admirable about Cain more or less from the start. He never had dazzling stuff, but he gave you 200-plus innings every year. He came right at you — fastball, slider, change-up — and found ways to somehow induce weak contact. He always seemed to perform better than the advanced numbers suggested he would. He took the blame for losses, gave away the credit for wins, and he never, ever got hurt.

And then — he got hurt. In 2013, in his ninth big league season, he was put on the DL for the first time. That ended up being his last even semi-healthy season. In 2014, he was shut down in July with elbow problems and ankle problems. In 2015, he began the year feeling great but he pitched poorly and then he hurt his forearm. Last year it was a hamstring injury, and when he came back he couldn’t get anybody out.

So it has been wonderful to see Cain in 2017 pitching great, and the key has been a return of that unique ability to make hitters just slightly miss. Among starters, he’s in the Top 10 for “lowest barrel rate,” meaning lowest percentage of excessively hard hit balls.

Here’s the Top 10 for lowest barrel rate:

  1. Jharel Cotton: 2.0%
  2. Ervin Santana: 2.0%
  3. James Paxton: 2.1%
  4. Jason Vargas: 2.3%
  5. Andrew Triggs: 2.3%
  6. Matt Cain: 2.4%
  7. Kyle Freeland: 2.8%
  8. Jon Lester: 2.9%
  9. Mike Leake: 3.0%
  10. Chase Anderson: 3.0%

Here’s hoping the mensch stays off the bench.

And, yes, this whole bit was a setup for that one stupid line.

The Longest Minute

Mike Schur and I do this silly little podcast that we call The PosCast. We do not know what we’re doing, and yet we somehow have been doing it for like six years. Mike is a fabulously successful TV writer and producer who has been responsible in recent year for the incomparable “Parks and Recreation” and the wonderful “The Good Place.” I’m a sportswriter schmo, if that’s how you spell it. That’s our show.

In any case, one of the things we do on the PosCast is something we call The Yankee Minute where for a time — usually much longer than a minute — we rant and rave about how much we despise the Yankees and how they keep finding new and more diabolical ways to haunt our dreams.

This week — because these Yankees are particularly haunting — we spent the entire show talking Yankees. And, to make it even, we made the gigantic mistake of having lifelong Yankee fan Alan Sepinwall — TV critic for Uproxx as his day job — join us to rub the Yankees success in our faces.

Trivia answer: The last Cy Young winner before Max Scherzer to also lead the league in home runs allowed to wascChicago Cubs ace Ferguson Jenkins in 1973. Fergie made it to the Hall of Fame despite leading both leagues in home runs allowed — he actually led either the AL or NL in homers allowed seven times.

Here’s a cool little statistic for you: Ferguson Jenkins gave up 484 home runs, third all-time. But 310 of them were solo home runs, so that’s about as much as you can minimize the damage (those 310 solo homers are most in baseball history).

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