Max Scherzer closed out his third month with the Washington Nationals on a high note. In his past three starts back in June, Scherzer went 3-0 with 33 strikeouts in 26 innings pitched. The three starts included a complete game one-hitter that preceded his first career no-hitter.
The Nationals’ prized offseason signing, who inked a seven-year, $210 million deal in January, entered July with a 1.79 ERA, which ranked second in MLB behind only Zack Greinke. The Nats had a 3.5 game lead over the New York Mets in the NL East at that time.
It has been all downhill for Scherzer and the Nationals since. They are 23-31 since July 1. The .426 win percentage is the seventh-lowest in baseball. The Nationals’ playoff odds are down to 14 percent entering Wednesday Night Baseball (8 ET, ESPN/WatchESPN), according to Fangraphs.com.
Here are the numbers behind Scherzer’s struggles and what to expect going forward.
Location, location, location
Since the start of July, Scherzer ranks 80th in ERA (4.66) and 75th in opponent OPS (.755) among 96 qualified pitchers, thanks in part to 13 home runs allowed during that time. Only Dan Haren has given up more home runs since July 1 (16).
Nine of the 13 home runs allowed have come on Scherzer fastballs, which he has had trouble locating.
Scherzer entered July having thrown his fastball in the lower third or below the strike zone 22 percent of the time, which was already below the league average. That percentage dropped to 15 percent in July and August, which was the second-lowest rate in baseball behind teammate Jordan Zimmermann (12 percent).
That resulted in Scherzer’s fastball finding the middle portion of the zone 44 percent of the time, the highest rate in the National League. Five of those fastballs down the middle have resulted in home runs.
Joey Votto capitalized on this issue back on July 7 in a 5-0 win for the Reds. Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos setup low and away in a 1-1 count before Scherzer missed middle-in with a 94 mph fastball. Votto drove the ball 369 feet to right field for a home run.
It was more of the same in a loss to the Rockies on August 9. Scherzer struck out 10 in the game but he gave up three home runs in the process.
On the second and third Rockies home runs, Ramos setup low and away and called for the fastball. Scherzer missed middle-middle on both pitches, resulting in home runs by Daniel Descalso and Carlos Gonzalez. The solo home runs erased what was a 3-1 lead for the Nationals.
While the fastball location and home runs allowed are troubling, Scherzer’s peripheral numbers do not look very different during his rough stretch.
Scherzer’s average fastball velocity has increased from 93.7 mph in the first three months of the season to 94.1 mph over the past two months. His fastballs have had more horizontal movement recently as well.
Scherzer’s strikeout rate has fallen 1.5 percentage points from the first three months of the season to the past two months (30.7 to 28.2 percent) while his walk rate has risen one percentage point over that time (3.3 to 4.3 percent).
Opposing batters hit the ball hard on 18 percent of balls in play against Scherzer through the end of June and 20 percent from July on. That has been helped by a batted ball profile that has actually improved over the past two months. Scherzer’s ground ball rate has risen from 36 to 42 percent while his fly ball and line drive rates have both decreased by at least one percentage point.
The elite fastball velocity and wealth of secondary offerings are still there for Scherzer. He will look to locate his fastball down in the zone more frequently against Michael Wacha and the Cardinals Wednesday night.