Contract clocks are ticking while everyone waits.
That’s good news for Juan Soto. He is moving closer to future free agency day-by-day. It’s good news for Sean Doolittle. He can become a free agent this winter, probably his final chance to recoup cash after being underpaid for years.
And each day pulled off the calendar moves Max Scherzer closer to the end of his seven-year, $210 million contract. This is Year 6. No one knows if it will include a major-league start or just go by without baseball. But it is known that service time was negotiated into the initial agreement between the league and union in late-March when baseball stopped. This year counts contractually, even if it may not on the field. Which means Scherzer is nearing his end -- at least on this deal -- in Washington.
Scherzer turns 36 years old on July 27. He’s thrown 2,290 regular-season innings. Last year, he made only 27 starts, his first time below 30 since becoming a full-time starter in 2009. Neck and back issues caused multiple injured list stints. He thinks he knows what led to those issues and expected to have them remedied when the 2020 season was supposed to begin.
“The rhomboid, the paraspinals, all the muscles… my throwing mechanics were affecting those [muscles] and I could not figure out why,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington at spring training. “I think we identified that it was my front glove side. My front glove side was actually climbing up early as I was coming down the mound and that’s what was, when I was going to throw the baseball, creating all the pressure on the middle of my back. When I dropped down my front side, that actually alleviated the middle back and put all the stress back out on the lat and serratus, where it should be. And, I just had found a bad habit. It was actually a snap-of-the-finger fix and something that should have benefits going forward.”
LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW BELOW
So, let’s assume that is true. What does he have left? What is next for him contractually?
When his agent, Scott Boras, met with the Lerner family to work out Scherzer’s initial deal, he argued to them Scherzer was the equivalent of a lightly used luxury vehicle.
“One of the key focuses of his contract is what I call the pitching odometer,” Boras told NBC Sports Washington. “Because Max chronologically and his pitching odometer -- he was almost like three years younger. He had less innings than a Felix Hernandez or a CC Sabathia or a [Clayton] Kershaw who were all great pitchers in their time. But he had almost three or four seasons less. So when we look at his age, keep mind that I’ve always said, the Washington Nationals, innings-wise, signed a 27-year-old. So, they didn’t sign a 30-year-old. I’ve always looked at Max that way. So certainly, his performance, production, certainly who he is have all rang true to that appraisal.”
Boras has a valid talking point here. By the time Scherzer was 29 years old -- he turned 30 midway through his first season in Washington -- he had 1,239 1/3 innings in the majors. Scherzer entered the league with Arizona as a 23-year-old. He made just seven starts among his 16 appearances that year. He then became a full-time starter the following season.
When compared with Hernandez, Sabathia and Kershaw, Scherzer’s usage is distinctly lower to that point. Hernandez threw 2,262 ⅓ mostly fruitless innings for the going-nowhere Seattle Mariners by the time he was 29 years old. Sabathia threw 2,127. Kershaw was at 1,935 after making 21 starts in 2008 when he was 20 years old. To Boras’ point, the trio had much more major-league labor on their arm and body.
As did Greg Maddux, whom Boras used as a comparison point when asked how much longer he thought Scherzer would pitch. Maddux threw 2,120 ⅔ innings from age 20 to 29. He also pitched until he was 42.
“When you have the competitive zeal and you have the ability to locate a fastball to the true pitch ability of a four-pitch performance like Max has, you can’t look at them in the perspective of others,” Boras said. “They’re on a unique island. That rare place is a definition that is unilaterally his own because of who he is.”
This is, of course, Scherzer’s agent speaking. So, add the proper caveats.
Also look at the decline Maddux went through in his final full years on the mound.
He pitched five full seasons from age 36 on, and his ERA rose progressively: 2.62 at 36, 3.96 at 37, 4.02 at 38, 4.24 at 39, 4.20 at 40.
Scherzer’s future will be hard-pressed to match his past, though the body of work since arriving in Washington has held. He averaged 219 innings, a 2.76 ERA, 11.3 Ks/9 and a 0.931 WHIP in the first three years. The last two: 197 innings, 2.70 ERA, 12.4 Ks/9 and 0.962 WHIP.
If he doesn’t pitch in 2020, Boras can reboot his odometer argument. Scherzer will be 36 years old, but his innings total will be in line with that of Hernandez, Sabathia, Kershaw and Maddux when they were 29. So, how much does he have left? And how much will teams want to pay for it?
“When you look at that and you say, ‘How long can Max go?’” Boras rhetorically asked. “The answer is I see no visible signs that would suggest that Max is not capable of being who Max has been for a good period of time.”
Stay connected to the Capitals and Wizards with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.
MORE NATIONALS NEWS: