After “best season” of career, Scherzer will still try to improve

As our offseason coverage kicks into high gear, we’re going to review each significant player on the Nationals roster. We continue today with Max Scherzer, who even after back-to-back Cy Young Awards found ways to get better.

PLAYER REVIEW: MAX SCHERZER

Age on opening day 2019: 34

How acquired: Signed as free agent, January 2015

MLB service time: 10 years, 79 days

2018 salary: $15 million

Contract status: Signed for $35 million annually from 2019-2021, with salaries deferred into $15 million annual payments from 2022-28. Receives $15 million annual signing bonus in 2019-21. Free agent in 2022.

2018 stats: 18-7, 2.53 ERA, 33 GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 220 2/3 IP, 150 H, 66 R, 62 ER, 23 HR, 51 BB, 300 SO, 12 HBP, 0.911 WHIP, 7.2 fWAR, 8.8 bWAR

Quotable: “This was the best season of my career.” - Scherzer

2018 analysis: Every December, Scherzer shows up at Nationals Winterfest and proclaims that his goal is to get better the following season. And every time, everyone else is left thinking it would be nearly impossible for the right-hander to get any better than he was the previous season, which usually concluded with a Cy Young Award. And then every time, Scherzer proves that indeed he was capable of improving, somehow elevating his pitching to another level.

Scherzer-whips-blue-sidebar.jpgThis season was no different. Scherzer pitched more innings, threw more pitches and struck out more batters than he did when he ran away with his third career Cy Young Award in 2017. He led the league in wins, complete games, innings, strikeouts, WHIP, pitches and strikeout-to-walk rate.

Scherzer’s crowning moment came in what proved to be his final start of the season, Sept. 25 against the Marlins. His 10th strikeout of the game was his 300th of the year. In reaching that plateau, he joined an ultra-elite club of major leaguers to do this since 1990: Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale.

Under normal circumstances, Scherzer would be a shoo-in for his third consecutive and fourth career Cy Young Award. But Jacob deGrom and his otherworldly 1.70 ERA will prevent that from happening. Thing is, deGrom wasn’t the only pitcher in the National League plagued by a lack of support from his lineup and bullpen. Yes, 16 times this season deGrom allowed two or fewer earned runs and didn’t get a win. But it also happened to Scherzer 10 times. With just a bit more help from his teammates, he might very well have finished another remarkable season with 23 or 24 wins.

2019 outlook: It’s safe to assume Scherzer will show up for Winterfest in December and once again insist he wants to be better in 2019 than he was in 2018. Never mind that he’ll turn 35 in July, or that he has set such an exceedingly high bar for success that it’s almost impossible to believe there’s any room left for improvement.

If Scherzer says he can get better, who are we to doubt him? Here’s one area where he could legitimately make some strides: avoiding big blows off his slider and cutter. Those pitches - he throws the slider to right-handed batters, the cutter to lefties - can be among his most effective. But they also lead to some of the most significant damage done to him.

Even though only 26 percent of his pitches this season were sliders or cutters, a whopping 48 percent of the home runs he surrendered (11 of 23) came on those two pitches. In short, when he leaves either pitch over the plate, it gets hammered. Consistency in location on those pitches will be vital for Scherzer, and if he can’t do that he might need to consider turning to his curveball (which represented only 8 percent of his pitches) or changeup (16 percent) more regularly to avoid those damaging big blasts.

This, of course, is nitpicking, which is about all you can do when trying to find reasons to critique Scherzer. He is, quite simply, the most consistently dominant starter in baseball right now. And though logic suggests that one of these years it will no longer be true, there’s still every reason to believe the inevitable decline isn’t coming quite yet.

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