When Max Scherzer signed a seven-year free agent contract with the Nats two offseasons ago, he returned to the National League, and part of that bargain meant he had to hit again. Scherzer began his career in the NL with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but spent five years with the Detroit Tigers in the American League before coming to Washington.
Hitting is not easy for pitchers. Only few are good at it. Scherzer may fall in that category, as his .217 average in 2015 ranked fourth among pitchers with at least 40 at-bats.
But even if they aren't good at hitting, there are other things that pitchers can draw out of the experience. Stepping into the box gives pitchers a perspective that can't be recreated on film or in scouting reports.
"There's different things that you see from other guys that you get to see firsthand," Scherzer said. "That when you talk about executing pitches in certain locations, you get to really feel that execution."
Since joining the Nats, Scherzer has faced some of baseball's top pitchers from Jose Fernandez to Zack Greinke to Noah Syndergaard. Before landing in D.C. he saw Chris Carpenter, Clayton Kershaw and Randy Johnson.
"You realize when you face those guys what a good slider looks like and how demoralizing it is to swing at. Honestly, you get a feel when you face guys like that for what pitching up in the zone really does. You get to see the life on the baseball and see how hard it is to catch up to it, and as a hitter how good it looks," Scherzer explained.
There have been times where Scherzer's seen something during an at-bat that took him by surprise. He's seen breaking balls and fastballs that have blown him away. But, getting into specifics of who to credit and what to give them credit for could cross the line of competition between pitcher to pitcher.
"I want to say it, but I don't want to say it. I don't want to tip my hand," he said with a hearty laugh.
What Scherzer would detail is his approach to pitchers when they stand in the box against him. He doesn't hold anything back and sees no reason to.
"Sometimes with the pitchers you gotta throw them offspeed even more because pitchers, we're terrible at hitting offspeed. We can sometimes find a way to take our slider bat speed and hit a fastball because we sit in the cage and hit fastballs all day, but typically pitchers really struggle against offspeed. So, if you see us throwing offspeed to a pitcher and you may wonder why not the fastball, it's because they really can't hit an offspeed pitch. I don't care if he can time up a fastball, anybody can time up a fastball. It's really, really hard to hit offspeed at this level."
Hitting has added a different element to Scherzer's life in the majors. Still, Scherzer loves going up against other top starters as a pitcher.
"You look forward to those matchups. You don't get to measure yourself, but it's one of those things where you just love to compete. I love to compete against the best. When you're going up against the elite guys in the game, you just want to beat them. You want to go out there and outpitch them and just compete against them," he said.
"Those games sometimes are the most fun because it brings the best out of me. I know when I was pitching in the AL, going up against Chris Sale, I threw my first complete game in a game I was going against him because I knew I had to bring my A-game that day. I knew I had to pitch deep into that game, that I had to do everything. Because look, this is how it is. You're facing the best. You've gotta pitch your best. Sometimes they bring the best out of you and force you to do everything a little bit better."