Max Scherzer had a heck of a season in 2016. He was the National League’s only 20-game winner with a 2.96 ERA and an MLB-leading 284 strikeouts in 228.1 innings pitched (most in the NL), capping the season as the NL Cy Young Award winner, making him just the sixth pitcher to earn the award in both leagues, joining Roger Clemens and Roy Halladay as well as Hall of Famers Gaylord Perry, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson.
And it doesn’t sound like he is ready to slow down any time soon.
“I want to find a new way to be better, go out there and find new ways to get guys out,” Scherzer told USA Today’s Jorge L. Ortiz back in November. “I’ve been dreaming up different ways to do it. When I get to spring training, that will be my thing, to find a new way.’’
The latest projections from Baseball Prospectus are not convinced — they see Scherzer declining, his wins above replacement dropping from 6.0 to 3.4 in 2017. Steamer’s projection, on the other hand, predicts Scherzer will improve slightly from 5.6 to 5.9 fWAR for the upcoming season.
Cy Young Award winners improving their fWAR is not common. Since 2006, the first year MLB played under its new drug-testing rules, only five pitchers improved the season after winning the award: CC Sabathia, Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw (twice). The average decline is 1.2 less fWAR the following season.
One area Scherzer could improve is in the amount of home runs allowed. Scherzer gave up a league-leading 31 home runs last season — 20 percent of the team’s total — at a rate of 1.22 per nine innings pitched, his highest mark since the 2011 season with the Detroit Tigers (1.34). In fact, Scherzer is the first Cy Young Award winner to also leading the league in home runs allowed.
“That’s one of my flaws,” he told The Post’s Chelsea Janes. “I’ve got to find a way to keep the ball in the ballpark.”
More than half of Scherzer’s home runs allowed were at the expense of his fastball (16), but his slider left the yard eight times, the most ever by that pitch in Scherzer’s career. That’s because he threw more of them right down the middle of the plate than ever before, a trend that’s been on the rise for two seasons.
If Scherzer can get better command of his slider perhaps fewer balls will leave the park, but he could also get more help on the lower part of the plate with catcher Wilson Ramos no longer on the team.
Newly acquired catcher Derek Norris had 800 pitches called strikes in the lower-third of the strike zone in 2016, accounting for 4.87 percent of his pitches. Jose Lobaton, the Nationals’ other catcher, had 225 out of 4,507 pitches called strikes (4.99 percent). Both are better than Ramos (3.88 percent), now a member of the Tampa Bay Rays. Ramos was Scherzer’s primary backstop in 2016 (174.2 innings), and it resulted in just 141 pitches called for strikes (3.96 percent) in the lower-third of the strike zone, a rate that placed him 71st out of 79 pitchers throwing at least 2,500 pitches.
More strikes can only help Scherzer — in 2016, he held opposing batters to a .487 OPS when he was ahead in the count, but saw that explode to .877 when he fell behind. That’s roughly the difference between the production from Baltimore Orioles slugger Manny Machado (. 294 average with 37 home runs last season) and an inferior version of Jason Heyward (. 230 with seven home runs and a .631 OPS).