PHILADELPHIA - Max Scherzer is a student of the game. And that means more than just throwing the ball over the plate.
When you think of Scherzer, many gravitate to the pair of no-hitters he threw last season or the Cy Young Award he won in 2013. But one of the big assets that some may fail to realize is his ability to derail an opponent’s running game.
Against the Atlanta Braves during Monday’s start, Scherzer was able to catch speedster Mallex Smith attempting to steal second base with the help of his first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and catcher Wilson Ramos.
With a runner on first, the Nationals right-hander slows down his approach to the plate, changes his rhythm and stalls out. It frustrates the runner, who often has to repeatedly dive back into the base and therefore is unable to get a relaxed, healthy lead.
Scherzer said holding the ball came from how uncomfortable he felt in his pickoff moves to first.
“It really originated from I never liked to pick over quick because there was a couple of times where my foot got in the hole and I threw the ball away. (The hole) right in front where my right foot is,” said Scherzer, who starts tonight against the Phillies. “So I tried to quick pick and I fired it in the air. I was like I’m not going to pick anymore.
“I really want to get a good pickoff. But you can completely control the running game without even a pickoff. I found that you can do that just by holding the ball. The longer you hold it, the more frustrated the runner gets.”
Scherzer said a former Tigers teammate, one who has stolen 325 bases in his career, tipped him off how a pitcher could make a base stealer’s life miserable.
“I got to play with Rajai Davis and after comparing notes he said he hates when a pitcher holds the ball,” Scherzer explained. “He absolutely hates it because he just can’t get a jump. He gets lead feet and that’s something that has always stuck with me ever since, that you have to hold the ball to really curtail the running game.
“But you really have to practice it. It really has to be something you do. It’s got to be a part of your routine to be effective out there. If you asked me to hold the ball for 15 seconds now, I can do that. That’s easy. But when you first start doing it, it’s extremely difficult.”
Scherzer said holding the ball for more than the usual few seconds took repetition and practice to perfect.
“You just get used to it,” Scherzer said. “You realize that I don’t need to fire on that one-one thousand, two-one thousand, I don’t need to fire on that second one-one thousand to be in rhythm. I can create that rhythm 10 seconds out. I can create it 15 seconds out. You just got to practice and let your body get used to that. Now it’s almost hard for me to quick pitch.”
Pitching coach Mike Maddux has observed Scherzer mastering the art of holding runners in practice.
“I think Max is very good at it,” Maddux noted. “He’s got a comfort zone doing it. We ask everybody to hang onto the ball as long as they can, but at game speed, you ask somebody to hold the ball for five seconds that five seconds will go by in about one a half, maybe two. Just cause the speed of the game and your adrenaline is going. But Max has the ability to hold the ball longer than most people and still maintain his momentum.”
Maddux said the Nationals work with Scherzer and the other pitchers one-on-one on how to hold the ball. The only way to get good at it is to practice it before each start. It’s a communal effort by Maddux, bullpen coach Dan Firova, bullpen catcher Nilson Robledo and field staff coordinator Octavio Martinez.
“It’s just us and it’s hard to do, Maddux said. “But it’s something that we practice because if you don’t practice it, you’re not going to do it in a game.”
Scherzer said he did not have to clue Ramos in on his hold-the-ball technique. It came naturally during each situation when a runner was leading off the base.
“He’ll give me the hold sign every now and then, but I’m so oblivious to it because I already know the report, I already know who’s on first,” Scherzer said. “I know how I’m classifying him: burner, fast, stealth or not at all. Once I kind of figure out what type of runner I’m dealing with, that factors into how I hold the ball and how quick I need to be to the plate and how much attention I need to give him.”
Scherzer made up how he would classify each baserunner he might face on his own.
He studies the opposing lineup and decides beforehand if the runner falls into a specific category.
“You got the burners, the guys who if you don’t change your looks and everything, they are going to get the base,” Scherzer noted. “Those are your Ben Reveres, Rajai Davises. Then you got your fast guys, guys who are probably going to steal about 20 bases. Then you got your stealth guys, guys who wouldn’t necessarily think they can run, but can get the base if you forget about them, and then you got guys that don’t run at all.”
The ball-holding technique is another facet of Scherzer’s pregame plan.
For all the talk about his stuff and how hard he throws or where he can place a pitch, Scherzer believes that the mental preparation for each game is just as critical to his success.
“It’s all the work that goes in between the start that allows you to be mentally tough during the start,” Scherzer said. “For me, when I’m on the mound, I know I’m fully prepared. I know I’ll put in all the running and the lifting, all the work on the mound, to be at my best. That mentally gives to me the edge of what I need to do to be able to go out there.
“When your mind’s right, you feel right.”