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.”
“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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