Can Scherzer regain elite form in final year of contract?

Our offseason player review series continues today with Max Scherzer, who wasn’t his elite self but still managed to be effective.

PLAYER REVIEW: MAX SCHERZER

Age on opening day 2021: 36

How acquired: Signed as free agent, January 2015

MLB service time: 12 years, 79 days

2020 salary: $35 million (deferred), $15 million signing bonus

Contract status: Signed for $35 million in 2021 (deferred), $15 million signing bonus, free agent in 2022

2020 stats: 5-4, 3.74 ERA, 12 GS, 1 CG, 67 1/3 IP, 70 H, 30 R, 28 ER, 10 HR, 23 BB, 92 SO, 1 HBP, 1.381 WHIP, 123 ERA+, 3.46 FIP, 1.8 fWAR, 2.2 bWAR

Quotable: “I’ve been getting beat earlier in the year in those situations where I’m deep in the game, where the game is on the line, and I haven’t come through. I feel like in the past two outings, I’ve been in those situations now and I’m executing late. Just stinks that the year is over.” - Scherzer, after his final start of the season

Thumbnail image for Scherzer-Fires-Blue-WS-G1-Sidebar.jpg2020 analysis: After watching sheer pitching brilliance from Scherzer since he arrived in D.C., we’ve wondered if and when the future Hall of Famer might finally start to look mortal. That transformation may well have begun this season.

Scherzer wasn’t bad, not by any stretch. But he certainly didn’t pitch up to the incredibly high standard he set for himself the previous five years. His walk rate was his highest in a decade. His home run rate was a career worst. And he put more men on base than he had since 2011 with the Tigers.

The most notable change in Scherzer’s performance was his increased struggle to get through quick innings early and to avoid major damage late. With hitters better at fouling off pitches and working the count than ever before, he averaged 18 pitches per inning, two more than he averaged in 2019. That often left him fatigued by the time he reached the fifth or sixth inning, and the results weren’t pretty.

Scherzer often stresses the importance of the final 10-15 pitches of his starts, but those proved to be his worst nemesis this year. Once his pitch count got over 100, opponents hit a staggering .455 (10-for-22) with three homers, five walks and a 1.526 OPS. He did better in those situations in his last two starts, but the damage in earlier outings cost the Nationals games.

Ultimately, Scherzer still proved to be a good big league starter. His stuff remained as sharp as ever. He continues to be one of the best strikeout pitchers in baseball. And he appeared to be rounding into form just as the abbreviated season came to an end. It’s entirely plausible he would’ve pitched much better if he had another 20 starts this season.

2021 outlook: Hard as it may be to believe, Scherzer is about to enter the seventh and final year of his gargantuan contract with the Nationals. Nobody would dare question whether he’s been worth the $215 million the club committed to him back in 2015, and nothing he does next season will change that.

Still, it’ll be awfully interested to see how Scherzer performs in his age-36 season. With a full winter to rest and a full spring to prepare, he should be in excellent shape come opening day 2021. And he may well be better built to succeed over a six-month season than a two-month season.

Is this the end of the road for Scherzer? He has never really brought up his intentions once this contract expires, but it’s tough to imagine him hanging them up already, especially if his body and arm still feel good. It’s also tough to imagine him going somewhere else to finish out his career. Given what he’s meant to the Nationals, you’d think the two sides could find common ground on a short-term contract for 2022 and perhaps beyond.

First things first. Scherzer needs to throw everything he’s got into the 2021 season, get off to a better start than he did this season and prove once again why he’s the pre-eminent pitcher of his generation.

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