Through his first eight games as a Washington National, Max Scherzer is off to the best start of his career by several measures.
His ERA is a pristine 1.75, good for fourth in the National League. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 8.25, over double his career average of 3.49. He's tied for third in the majors with 66 strikeouts and leads the league in FIP (2.02).
He's even more efficient than ever with an average of 13.9 pitches per inning, down from over 16.5 the year before. That's allowing him to last longer in each of his outings, as the right-hander has pitched at least seven innings in seven of his eight total starts.
Scherzer says the fun is just getting started. He is new to the NL and has worked that to his advantage. Now comes the hard part: staying one step ahead as the league makes adjustments.
"The hitters are trying to get a feel for me and I'm trying to get a feel for them. Right now I'm just going out there and attacking them, pounding the zone with the fastball and seeing what they are trying to do off of that. I can tell the league is already trying to make adjustments. I've had more first batters of the game going up there and swinging at the first pitch than I think I've had in my whole career. It's stuff like that where the cat-and-mouse game is starting to come out. That's the fun part," he said.
Scherzer has impressed both his manager, Matt Williams, and general manager Mike Rizzo with his attention to detail and preparation in between starts.
"He just competes so much. In every aspect, the preparation he puts in is just remarkable," Rizzo said. "He prepares from the time he leaves his start for his next start."
Scherzer explained his routine in an interview with CSN Washington:
"Once we get the next team in, I at least take a glance at [scouting reports] to see what they are going to do. Before we face a team before that series, I like to have an idea what I should be looking at and how I should be attacking their hitters. So when I'm out there watching the game and watching our guys go at it, I pitch with our pitchers. I try and guess what's coming next. I work on my instincts on what's the best sequence for this situation. Every situation is different. You wouldn't use the same sequence with no runners on that you would with runners in scoring position. I'm always constantly working on my instincts and what are the right pitches in the right situation," he said.
Scherzer is not only leading by example for the Nationals, his impact goes beyond personal statistics. He has helped younger players on the team and not only pitchers. Bryce Harper, for instance, has received advice from Scherzer on how to approach counts and what types of things annoy pitchers during at-bats.
"I've talked to [Scherzer] a bunch of times about it. When you're taking pitches on the inside half and they're one or two inches off and they're calling it a ball, you know that makes the pitcher freak out a little bit," Harper explained earlier this month.
Scherzer has also helped Harper with making adjustments.
"Just understanding what the game is dictating, understand what's going on. Understand what the most successful thing a pitcher can do towards you," Scherzer said. "You can have your strengths all that you want. But you also have to respect what the other side of the game is doing. That's where you're going to get into that paper-scissors-rock moment. You're not guessing, but you're anticipating things. You're anticipating things that are going to give you your biggest success. When you're able to to those things in those situations, that's the next-level stuff that I think he's capable of."
Scherzer has been very impressed with what Harper has done so far, playing at an MVP-pace and all, but we're talking about a guy who played five years with Miguel Cabrera, arguably one of the best hitters to ever play the game. Scherzer sees potential in Harper to reach Cabrera's level, but it will take time.
"From what we've seen from Bryce, he's really swinging the bat well. The thing is, Miggy does it every year and in all parts of the year. He's done it for five years in a row. That's the separator here, is the consistency over a long period of time. I think Bryce, what he's doing right now, he's doing phenomenal stuff at the plate. But pitchers are going to start adjusting to him. That's the biggest thing that's going to happen here. Pitchers are going to start trying to do different things in different sequences. Everybody's going to try and find a way to get him out. It's going to be fun to see how Bryce handles that. I think he's going to handle it, but you gotta watch him do it.
"That's the cool part of being in the dugout with a player like him. You start seeing guys approach him differently and how he handles it. That's the fun part of the game and that's what I got to see with Miggy. When guys started pitching him differently, how does he handle it. The way he handled it was unbelievable. He was patient and understood what was going on. I saw guys throw 3-1 slider down and away to Miggy and he's sitting on that pitch hitting it opposite field, knowing they were going to do that. It's that next-level stuff that he can do that we'll see if Bryce can do that or not. That's going to be the fun part to watch," he said.
Though Scherzer has been brilliant on the mound himself, he likes to keep it light in the clubhouse and in his interactions with teammates. He is now well-known for introducing a new postgame celebration where players get doused in Hershey's chocolate sauce. Hershey's even sent the Nationals over 100 bottles of the ice cream topping to help the cause.
"Chocolate sauce is the perfect topping for ice cream, so might as well top off a game and give that person in the on-the-field camera interview a little something to taste," Scherzer explained.
Scherzer has been the distributor of chocolate so far, but his teammates are now looking for an opportunity to return the favor.
"I hope he throws a no-hitter, or something extraordinary, so we can get him," Denard Span said. "But we've got to come a little more clever than chocolate syrup. We might have to throw some nuts on him, some whipped cream, a cherry, everything."
Williams has known Scherzer for years dating back to their time with the Arizona Diamondbacks and says the right-hander hasn't changed one bit. He's still going to make his teammates laugh on his off-days and pitch lights out when his name is called.
"Four days out of five it's fun-loving, it's occasionally quirky, but on the fifth day it's business. He separates that real well," Williams said.
Keeping it fun is important to Scherzer, who believes it is necessary for baseball players during a long 162-game season.
"You have to. With 162 games, man, this is a marathon. Every single day you have to bring it. That's the beauty of this sport," he said.
"Football, don't get me wrong, it's a great sport. You play it 16 times a year and you have to go absolutely crazy for those games. But you don't practice baseball, you play baseball. You have to play it every single day and 162 games a year. That's the challenge of our sport is to mentally do this every single day. It can grind on you, it can wear on you. So if you can have moments where you can bring some humor and some jokes around the clubhouse, you have to because when you're in between the lines it's a grind."