Thursday, July 4, 2013
Scherzer, Harvey should start All-Star Game
By David Schoenfield
Max Scherzer struck out the side in the first inning. He fanned Jose Reyes swinging on an ankle-high changeup, a pitch that followed two 94 mph four-seam fastballs. He fanned Adam Lind looking with a 96 mph fastball at the knees and on the outside corner. He got Colby Rasmus swinging at an 89 mph changeup that started at the knees and dove down at the last instant like it had been shot by a sniper.
In between, he threw two curveballs and a slider (the one mistake of the inning, a pitch that hung inside and that Jose Bautista one-armed to deep left field, although Andy Dirks mistimed his leap at the wall and should have made the catch).
Fastball, four-seamer with movement, speeds varying from 91.6 mph to 97.9 mph on this night. Changeup, thrown anywhere in the 80 to 89 mph range, dives down and away from left-handed batters to the outside corner on a regular basis. Curveball, generally thrown a little slower than the change. Slider, averages 85 mph, keeps it down in the zone.
It's not really that fair.
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Scherzer is 13-0 with a 3.09 ERA after the Tigers beat the Blue Jays 6-2 on Wednesday night, and he'll be the first to point out it takes a lot of luck and a lot of run support to head into the season's fourth month still undefeated.
Roger Clemens, back in his breakout season of 1986, was the last pitcher to win his first 13 decisions. He won 14 of his first 15 starts before finally losing July 2, and would go on to finish 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA and win his first Cy Young Award. Scherzer's streak looks more impressive than others at first glance since it has come at the start of the season. Since Clemens won his 14 decisions in a row, five other pitchers have won at least 13 in a row within a single season, and 11 others have done it over two seasons (including Clemens, who won 20 in a row from June 1998 through June 1999).
That's not to take away from Scherzer's dominant start. He deserves to start the All-Star Game, based not on just his gaudy record. Check out these numbers:
Batters against his fastball: .201
Batters against his changeup: .224
Batters against his curveball: .125
Batters against his slider: .152
For the season, opponents are hitting .196/.244/.336 (BA/OBP/SLG) against Scherzer, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is a sick 139-26. That .244 OBP is second-lowest among American League starters (behind Hisashi Iwakuma), and his .580 OPS is also second-lowest (behind Chris Sale). His strikeout percentage of 31.1 is second in the majors to Yu Darvish.
If there's one aspect of Scherzer's game to criticize, it's that he has allowed a .248 average with runners on base compared to .174 with the bases empty. With nobody on, he works quickly and efficiently; with runners on, he noticeably slows his pace. We can dig into all the numbers, but those results could be just clutter at this point or they could mean something. The biggest difference in results comes off his changeup -- a .177 average allowed with nobody on and .304 average with runners on. The heat maps show he gets the changeup up in the zone more often with runners on, but we're also looking at just 48 plate appearances.
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Matt Harvey should start for the National League, even though he picked up the loss in Wednesday's 5-3 win for the Diamondbacks over the Mets. Harvey actually took a 2-0 lead into the sixth inning -- for him, that's a lot of run support. He entered with a 7-1 record despite a 2.00 ERA thanks to a string of gems in which he picked up a no-decision, including, remarkably, three games in which he fanned at least 10 batters with no walks (he allowed a total of two runs in those three starts).
Harvey had a shaky first inning Wednesday but escaped a bases-loaded jam with a double play. He settled down from there, although he battled fastball command all game, before Miguel Montero walked with one out in the sixth and Martin Prado singled past shortstop Omar Quintanilla on a high slider that didn't slide. Harvey struck out Jason Kubel for the second out, but then Cody Ross hit a 1-0 slider -- a backup slider, as Mets announcer Ron Darling called it -- just over the fence in left field for a three-run homer, the first three-run shot Harvey has allowed in his career.
He'd give up two more runs in the seventh, the first time this year he's allowed five runs and just the second time in his 28-start career. While Prado and Ross both hit bad sliders, it's been a huge weapon for Harvey this season; batters had been hitting .168 off it with one home run, 36 strikeouts and three walks. Just one of those nights. Harvey's ERA rose all the way from 2.00 to 2.27.
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I guess the argument is that Clayton Kershaw has a 1.93 ERA and has the much more glittery career résumé and thus deserves the All-Star start over Harvey. Adam Wainwright, likewise, is a veteran guy having a terrific first half. I get that; those are difficult arguments to refute. But the All-Star Game is a chance to showcase the big stories of the first half, and Harvey's emergence as one of the game's dominant pitchers has been one of the biggest stories so far. The game, of course, is at Citi Field, home of the Mets. Maybe it's a perfect storm of events, but it's a nice perfect storm.
It reminds me a little of 1976 and a different Tigers pitcher. Mark Fidrych was only a rookie (Harvey just missed rookie eligibility) but had emerged as an energizing personality that summer, talking to baseballs and throwing complete game after complete game. He was 9-2 with a 1.78 ERA at the All-Star break; he'd started only 11 games in the majors.
But sometimes the storyline trumps all else. Fidrych, and not Jim Palmer or Catfish Hunter or Luis Tiant, got the start for the American League.