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 was headed toward another Cy Young Award campaign before back injuries forced him to gut his way through the rest of the season.
PLAYER REVIEW: MAX SCHERZER
Age on opening day 2020: 35
How acquired: Signed as free agent, January 2015
MLB service time: 11 years, 79 days
2019 salary: $35 million
Contract status: Signed for $35 million in 2020 and 2021, with salaries deferred into $15 million annual payments beginning in 2022. Receives $15 million annual signing bonus in 2020 and 2021. Free agent in 2022.
2019 stats: 11-7, 2.92 ERA, 27 GS, 0 CG, 172 1/3 IP, 144 H, 59 R, 56 ER, 18 HR, 33 BB, 243 SO, 7 HBP, 1.027 WHIP, 157 ERA+, 2.45 FIP, 6.5 fWAR, 5.8 bWAR
2019 postseason stats: 3-0, 2.40 ERA, 6 G, 5 GS, 30 IP, 21 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 4 HR, 15 BB, 37 SO, 0 HBP, 1.200 WHIP
Quotable: “I did everything I could. I’m just a part of this team. I’m not bigger than this team. I’m just the guy who got the ball tonight and started.” - Scherzer, after Game 7 of the World Series
2019 analysis: Few, if any, pitchers set the bar so high for themselves from year to year. When Scherzer took the mound on opening day, his chances of topping his 2018 performance (which would’ve been good enough for a third straight Cy Young Award if not for Jacob deGrom’s historic season) felt slim at best.
And yet after seven innings of shutout ball against the Royals on July 6, Scherzer was proving it was actually possible. He was 9-5 with a 2.30 ERA, a ridiculous 181-to-23 strikeout-to-walk rate. He was pitching as well as he ever has in a storied career, whether dealing with a broken nose and black eye, lackluster run support from his teammates or a lack of sleep after his wife gave birth to the couple’s second child.
And then came the first sign of physical trouble. Scherzer skipped the All-Star Game due to a muscle strain in his back. He would return for a pedestrian start against the Rockies on July 25, then return to the injured list for another month. By the time he finally returned for good, he had made only one start in a seven-week span. This from a guy who previously had spent only 20 days on the IL in his career.
Scherzer worked his way back carefully, never fully looking like the best version of himself. But he entered the postseason healthy. At which point he did return to something close to the best version of himself. In his first five appearances of October - four starts, one surprise relief appearance in Los Angeles - he went 3-0 with a 2.16 ERA.
Then came the biggest shocker of them all: Scherzer was a last-minute scratch from his Game 5 start in the World Series after his neck “locked up” so much he couldn’t get out of bed and couldn’t dress himself. Thanks to the efforts of his teammates - and the magic of a cortisone shot and other round-the-clock treatment - Scherzer was able to return to start Game 7 three nights later. And though he wasn’t at his best, he managed to gut his way through five innings, allowing only two runs, and put the Nationals in position to win their first championship.
2020 outlook: Scherzer had never experienced a season like this one, especially from a physical standpoint. Which now raises a significant question: Will there be any domino effect on him entering next season?
Nobody works harder than this guy to keep his body in great shape, and nobody has shown an ability to adapt over time and recognize he has to make changes as he gets older like Scherzer has. If anyone has earned the benefit of the doubt, it’s him.
But Father Time doesn’t care much about any of that. Scherzer is going to turn 36 next summer. He’s entering the sixth year of his seven-year contract with the Nationals (a contract that, by the way, has worked out way better than even the most optimistic supporter could have foreseen). His arm may be in top shape, but his neck and back certainly weren’t this season.
It’ll be something to watch throughout spring training and early in the regular season, as Scherzer attempts to get back into his normal routine and pitch every fifth day without suffering any negative effects of his heavy-workload 2019. Knowing him, he’s still got the determination to author more great moments in a career already overflowing with them. Will that be enough to actually make it happen?