Max Scherzer

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Max Scherzer leaves another first-day imprint at Spring Training

Max Scherzer leaves another first-day imprint at Spring Training

WEST PALM BEACH -- An old baseball trope argues a starting pitcher can’t be the leader. Forget the mammoth salary or even historical results. They don’t play every day, so their impact is muted by the time gap. This does not apply to Max Scherzer, taking its place with other supposed baseball norms shucked aside by the 34-year-old Nationals staff ace.

He spreads his gospel in both words and deeds. The oft-injured Koda Glover sought advice from him last season when devising an offseason plan. Don’t let your arm go dormant, Scherzer told him. Play catch a month after the season ends. Maybe sooner. Ignore what you’ve been told in the past. Scherzer started this in 2013 when he often felt behind in January because his shoulder was on vacation in November and December. No longer.

Scherzer was dressed, roller bag in tow, late last season on the way to a waiting team bus bound for the airport. He stopped to talk with Erick Fedde, who earlier finished another meandering outing and was now packing for a return to the minors. They discussed what to work on when he goes back down so he can come back up.

Mike Rizzo turned to Scherzer before the 2018 MLB amateur draft. Washington was focused on a pitcher. It wanted feedback from Scherzer on the options. He liked Mason Denaburg, a high school kid from Florida. The Nationals selected him in the first round.

Which brings us to Thursday for the team’s high-paid and age-repelling leader. 

Scherzer’s opening bullpen session of the spring has turned into an event -- even if he finds the reasons for such attention dubious. The 60-plus pitches delivered in his first bullpen session last year took all outsiders by surprise. A grunt-filled repeat came Thursday, when Scherzer threw so long the rest of his group mates stood and watched for several minutes. 

Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist anchored himself behind Scherzer. Rizzo leaned on a fence a few feet away. Reporters groaned to bend at the knees for a different video angle. The pitching group dropped from five to four to three to Scherzer and Jeremy Hellickson. After the presumptive fifth starter flicked his glove up to indicate a final throw, Scherzer continued throwing with purpose, calling out counts, the side a ghost batter was hitting from, challenging catcher Spencer Kieboom to call a pitch for the made up situation Scherzer presented. Details aren’t add-ons for him. They are everything, and the calendar doesn’t dictate their importance.

Two hours earlier, Scherzer strolled to his locker. He knew it was time for a state of the team -- and state of baseball -- address. This opening discussion has joined the bullpen session among the first expectations of spring when it comes to Nationals baseball. A second consecutive slow-moving offseason provided ample fodder, rising tension in his voice, and specific points to be relayed. 

“It's not just Bryce [Harper], but there's other free agents as well, and now this is consecutive offseasons,” Scherzer said. “Now you've got to start searching for what the answers are, and why is this continuing to happen -- because it should not be happening. No other sport has this in their free agency. Why is this exclusive to baseball? You've got to start looking at different reasons of why is this happening. 

“One thing I think that is going on, that's pervasive, is the amount of commentary from club officials and everybody that make their knowledge public of what they're trying to do in the offseason. It just feels like teams are negotiating through the media. To me, that's one of the key driving forces in why we're seeing a slower market than usual. We know every intention of every single team. It's something that other leagues consider tampering and they don't tolerate that.”

There’s more.

“When you take what's happened over several offseasons now, and going through the free agent process myself, you realize that teams go to the media and teams probably speak that they don't want you. I knew, with Bryce coming into free agency, that this was going to continue. And we continue to see teams discuss not wanting players. To me, this seems only to be happening in baseball, where teams are making public statements that they don't want top-notch players. To me, that's a problem within the sport.”

And more, this time with clear irritation.

“When there’s too many teams that are not trying to win, that poisons the game, poisons the fan experience and it creates bandwagon fans. If you’re constantly just trying to go in this win-loss cycle that MLB is pushing, you are creating bandwagon fans and that’s not the type of fans you want to create. You want to create the fans that are following the team, year-in, year-out. It’s put on the fans, honestly, to demand that from the league.” 

A full 20 minutes elapsed, matching the length of Scherzer’s first availability with manager Davey Martinez’s. Scherzer called last year “terrible” for the team. He thinks a single set of rules is appropriate for MLB, even if that means a universal DH (though he suggested a possible scenario where the pitcher and DH both hit). Scherzer outlined why old recommendations for offseason rest didn’t work for him. He’s rumored to be toying with a new pitch, one of the few things he chose not to elaborate on.

What the bullpen and interview session amounted to was final clarity. Any unfounded doubt about who spoke for the team was wiped away the first day pitchers could throw. It’s their star right-hander, the one who arrived in Florida the first week of January, obsesses about improvement despite three Cy Young awards, walks it, talks it, grinds it. The message for his teammates? Follow along.

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Nats' Max Scherzer puts pitching arm to good use thanks to Alex Ovechkin's hat trick

Nats' Max Scherzer puts pitching arm to good use thanks to Alex Ovechkin's hat trick

Washington National ace Max Scherzer is putting his throwing arm to good use in the offseason thanks to Alex Ovechkin.

The pitcher and his wife, Erica May-Scherzer, were in attendance for the Caps' 6-2 blowout win over the Detroit Red Wings Tuesday night where Ovi notched a hat trick for the first time since Nov. 25, 2017.

In classic hat trick celebratory fashion, Scherzer threw his cap onto the ice at Capital One Arena.

Scherzer has always been a big supporter of the Caps. Back in June, the Cy Young Award winner and Nats first baseman, Ryan Zimmerman, led the "Lets Go Caps" chant during Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final. He even credited striking out 13 batters the following day to the Caps' win. 

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2018 Nationals Position Review: Questions remain at starting pitching behind Scherzer, Strasburg

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2018 Nationals Position Review: Questions remain at starting pitching behind Scherzer, Strasburg

As we continue our look at the 2018 Nationals roster position-by-position, we turn our attention towards the starting pitching, which can best be defined as Max Scherzer and everyone else.

2018 Nationals Position Review: Starting Pitching

Max Scherzer

Age: 33

2018 salary: $22.1 million

2018 stats: 18-7, 2.53 ERA, 33 GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 220.2 IP, 300 K, 51 BB, 12 HBP, 0.911 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, 12.2 SO/9

During a season where there were several things going wrong with the Nationals organization, Scherzer once again was a model of consistency. An 8.0 inning performance with 10 strikeouts and three runs or less is not just the bar, it is the standard.

Every fifth night in D.C. was must-see baseball because Scherzer was pitching. 

These numbers would suggest a higher win total than the 18 he garnered this season (same can be said about 2017). But, an inconsistent offense was the demise of one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball. 

His numbers this season were extremely similar to his back-to-back Cy Young awards the past two years. Already he is lined up as a finalist for the NL Cy Young award for this season. His 300 strikeouts and 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings were career-highs.

Were it not for the ridiculous numbers Jacob deGrom put up, Scherzer would be in line for his fourth Cy Young.

Next season is when Scherzer gets a big pay increase. Jumping up to over $27 million a year for the final three years of his deal, Scherzer is in line to earn more in 2019 than any other Nationals player. It is near impossible to argue that the ace is not worth the money. But having Scherzer and Bryce Harper potentially accounting for a combined $60 million of the Nationals payroll is a huge factor in the team’s hesitation to bring back the outfielder to a lucrative contract. 

Tanner Roark

Age: 32

2018 salary: $6.5 million

2018 stats: 9-15, 4.34 ERA, 30 GS, 0 CG, 180.1 IP, 146 K, 50 BB, 10 HBP, 1.281 WHIP, 9.0 H/9, 7.3 SO/9

There was a period near the end of the summer where Tanner Roark was hot and with the hope of Strasburg coming back, the postseason run was imminent. Getting a win in five straight starts reminded us of the variety that he is able to command over the plate. 

He would be an okay No. 3 or No. 4 pitcher, the problem is he was pitching second on a semi-regular basis. The injuries that led to this is not necessarily his fault. What is concerning is that he consistently allowed a batter to reach base in every inning. He was always behind.

At 32, he has been on the Nationals for six years now with three really good seasons and three blah seasons.

Entering his final year of arbitration with the team, he likely won’t make much more than he did this season. It is imperative in 2019 that he has another good season before entering free agency. 

Stephen Strasburg

Age: 30

2018 salary: $15 million

2018 stats: 10-7, 3.74 ERA, 22 GS, 0 CG, 130.0 IP, 156 K, 38 BB, 8 HBP, 1.200 WHIP, 8.2 H/9, 10.8 SO/9

It’s crazy that Strasburg has been with the Nats for nine seasons now. Another injury-plagued season inhibited the former No. 1 draft pick from not only pitching like a No. 2 but also from performing as a pitcher worthy of the title. 

This season was the worst WHIP of his career at 1.200. He could not stop guys from hitting to get on base. His ERA (3.74) was also a career-worst. Washington needed another repeat performance of 2017 where he finished third in the Cy Young voting.  Instead, he had to take breaks for multiple injuries throughout the year. 

Injuries will always circle around the conversation of Strasburg. If healthy (which is a big if), he still is the Nationals best option aside from Scherzer. Based on his progression from Tommy John surgery in 2012, this year looks just like an anomaly. It is hard to tell though given the history and how certain situations transpired. 

His contract doubles, like Scherzer, to $35 million in base salary in 2019.

Jeremy Hellickson

Age: 31

2018 salary: $2 million

2018 stats: 5-3, 3.45 ERA, 19 GS, 0 CG, 91.1 IP, 65 K, 35 BB, 8 HBP, 1.073 WHIP, 7.7 H/9, 6.4 SO/9

Injuries propelled Jeremy Hellickson into meaningful starts for the Nats last season. While he did not get far into games, manager Davey Martinez knew the limitations of his starter. Every night he typically got to the sixth inning using a fair amount of pitches but was able to manage his base runners.

Some nights he was a pleasant surprise in the rotation and kept the game competitive. That is more than most of the non-Scherzer starts from this rotation. 

Nevertheless, he is a free agent for 2019. Given the bigger question marks behind Scherzer in the rotation, he is not likely to return to Washington given its needs. If he does return, then expect him to be called on to be a regular starter.

Erick Fedde

Age: 25

2018 salary: $545,000

2018 stats: 2-4, 5.54 ERA, 11 GS, 0 CG, 50.1 IP, 46 K, 22 BB, 0 HBP, 1.530 WHIP, 9.8 H/9, 8.2 SO/9

All Erick Fedde got was 11 starts in 2018, his second year in the big leagues.

The Nationals’ 2014 draft pick showed the ability to retire batters this season, but at the same time, he left plenty of balls over the plate. Only once did he make it to the seventh inning.

His second stint as a starter in September was far better than his stretch in the first half of the season. Next season expect him to be with the Nats more than in the minors and be the plug-in guy in the rotation.  

Gio Gonzalez*

Age: 33

2018 salary: $14 million

2018 stats (with Washington): 7-11, 4.57 ERA, 27 GS, 0 CG, 145.2 IP, 126 K, 70 BB, 2 HBP, 1.531 WHIP, 9.5 H/9, 7.8 SO/9

Gio Gonzalez was with the club for 6-plus seasons before being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. Compared to recent seasons, 2018 was Gonzalez's worst year since his rookie season back in 2008. 

This year though was extremely ugly. All of his losses in the second half of the season were terrible, not something you can afford from a guy that is supposed to be third on the depth chart. It got to the point that every time he left the mound, it was because the Nats were out of contention in that game.

Trading Gonzalez for prospects made sense once the Nationals fell out of contention.

He is a free agent for this offseason, and, while unlikely, it isn’t out of the question for the Nats to re-sign him. The only way that would reasonably happen though is if he signed for less money than his previous contract. Another, more desperate team will likely throw money at his feet. 

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