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Thursday, October 18, 2012
Scherzer makes Tigers Series favorite

By David Schoenfield


On June 6, Max Scherzer gave up eight runs in a loss to the Indians, serving up a three-run homer to Michael Brantley in the first inning and later a two-run homer to Casey Kotchman.

On June 12, Scherzer allowed three runs in six innings at Wrigley Field, walking five and getting a no-decision in a Tigers loss.

At that point in the season, Scherzer was 5-4, although with a 5.76 ERA. The Tigers were 28-33, six games out of first place in the AL Central, and Drew Smyly and Casey Crosby were in the rotation.

Doug Fister would return to the rotation a few days after that following a short DL stint (he also missed most of April). The team would later trade for Anibal Sanchez. But Scherzer also turned around his season. On June 17, he pitched eight scoreless innings against the Rockies with 12 strikeouts and no walks. Over his final 19 regular-season starts, he went 11-3 with a 2.53 ERA.

Then on Thursday, he delivered his sweetest performance of the season: He took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, struck out 10 feeble Yankees in 5.2 innings and the offense beat CC Sabathia in an 8-1 victory that completed a four-game sweep of the Yankees and sent the Tigers to their first World Series since 2006 and 11th in franchise history.

Scherzer’s second-half surge and playoff performance symbolizes what we know: This is not the same Tigers team that was struggling along in mid-June. This is not the same Tigers team that won 88 games and owned the seventh-best record in the American League over 162 games but snuck into the playoffs via a weak division. This is a team no longer playing Ryan Raburn at second base or Brennan Boesch in right field or Delmon Young in left field.

Detroit's Max Scherzer
Max Scherzer tips his hat to the Detroit crowd after allowing one run while striking out 10 in 5 2/3 innings.
This is a team with a powerhouse rotation that just crushed the New York Yankees. This is a team with the best 3-4 combo in baseball. This is a team with the best pitcher in baseball -- and a guy named Max Scherzer, who has been every bit as dominant in the second half.

What turned it around for Scherzer? Let’s investigate. First, the numbers:
Two numbers there stand out: He had a .383 batting average on balls in play early in the season (BABIP); that dropped to a more normal .307 average after June 12. He did have slightly better walk and strikeout rates later on, but that spread on BABIP certainly indicates there was some bad "luck" going on.

Of course, it’s not always as simple as just labeling the results good luck or bad luck. When looking at his arsenal -- Scherzer throws his fastball about 60 percent of the time and his slider and changeup about 20 percent each -- we can see the biggest improvement came on his changeup.

Plate appearances ending on a changeup through June 12: .369/.411/.512 (91 PAs)

Plate appearances ending on a changeup after June 12: .218/.299/.299 (97 PAs)

I checked Scherzer's heat maps and there isn’t a noticeable difference in location. He primarily uses the pitch against left-handers, low and away, and he even threw it for a strike 61 percent of the time up to June 12 and 61 percent of the time after June 12. But up to June 12, hitters posted a .448 BABIP against the changeup, just .286 after. Maybe he was tipping his pitches; maybe he did a better job of setting up the changeup with fastball command. And, certainly, there was some luck.

Something else happened, however. Keep in mind that Scherzer is a fly ball pitcher. Boesch had started nearly every game in right field (and would continue start regularly until mid-August). Through June 12, Young had started 19 games in left field. Center fielder Austin Jackson had missed two weeks while on the DL. Boesch and Young were two of the worst defensive outfielders in the majors. Quintin Berry wasn’t Jackson in center field.

The Tigers simply improved their outfield defense -- by a lot. Andy Dirks began playing out there more often, sharing time with Berry in left and moving Young permanently to the DH spot. Boesch’s bat never got going and he was eventually dumped in favor of an Avisail Garcia/Dirks platoon in right field (with Dirks playing left field in place of Berry against left-handers). Aside from the extra plays made, it has to help a pitcher’s confidence, knowing he actually has outfielders behind him who can run down a fly ball or the occasional line drive. You don’t have to be exact on all your pitches. Second baseman Omar Infante was also brought in, and he proved to be a big defensive upgrade over Raburn and Danny Worth.

Through June 12, the Tigers’ staff ERA was 4.28. Through the rest of the regular season it was 3.43. And against the Yankees in the ALCS: 1.38. The staff allowed just six runs in four games -- and four of those came courtesy of Jose Valverde in that disastrous ninth inning. The starters allowed two runs in four games.

Against the Yankees, Scherzer said he "really had my changeup and slider going. When I can combine that with my fastball, that’s what really make me effective."

Scherzer reminds me of a pitcher from the 1930s, the way his cap fits on his head and that three-quarters, slingshot delivery. He gets great movement on his fastball but still manages to keep his walks under control. And the stuff is electric; he was second to Verlander in strikeouts in the AL and first in the league in strikeouts per nine innings.

To me, Scherzer is a big reason the Tigers will be World Series favorite, no matter which team comes out of the National League. Whether or not he slots in as the No. 3 or 4 starter, he's pitching like an ace right now.