Things haven’t been going well for the Mets lately. But as they finished a homestand and left for Detroit earlier this week, there were reasons to be optimistic. One of those reasons was that New York would be getting both Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander in the rotation together for the first time.
During their respective homecomings to Comerica Park, they each took a loss. Verlander pitched decently in his team debut, but two solo home runs in the first inning ultimately doomed him. As for Scherzer, though, it was a much rougher ride during his return from suspension.
He made one of MLB’s worst offensive teams look like a powerhouse. Scherzer allowed six runs on eight hits (two home runs), one walk, and three strikeouts in 3.1 innings. He hasn’t pitched into the sixth inning since his second start of the year, which was on April 4th.
Is Scherzer cooked? I don’t think so. While his 5.56 ERA and -0.1 fWAR through 22.2 innings are far from anything we’d expect, I have a hard time believing someone who’s dominated virtually their whole career is suddenly washed. Maybe that’s the optimist in me, but so be it.
Even with that in mind, the concern is real right now. Here are four early-season statistics that are the most concerning in my eyes.
Home runs allowed per nine innings
Scherzer has been a fly-ball pitcher for the majority of his big-league career. So, even when he’s going well, he can be susceptible to allowing a home run. But after allowing 23 dingers in 2021, he allowed just 13 in 2022.
He’s already watched six of his pitches leave the yard in five starts, leading to an unsightly 2.38 homers allowed per nine innings.
The sample size is still small, but this is also something that’s plagued Scherzer since the end of last year. He allowed multiple homers in a start just twice — once on May 1st (three) and then again in his final regular-season start on October 1st against the Atlanta Braves (two).
Then, of course, he allowed four to the San Diego Padres on October 7th in his only 2022 postseason start. When looking at his homer numbers so far in 2023, five of them have come in two starts. Three came against Milwaukee on April 4th, and two more came against the Tigers in his most recent appearance.
Scherzer’s strikeout and walk rates have consistently been elite over the years. The last time he finished with a strikeout rate below 30.0% was in 2014 (27.9%). Also, the last time he finished with a walk rate worse than 7.8% was in 2010 (8.8%).
Would you like to guess what those numbers look like to start 2023? Don’t worry, I’ll just tell you. His strikeout rate is 20.8%, while his walk rate is 10.4%. Both of those would be single-season career-worst marks if the season ended today.
Thankfully, a big-league season for a pitcher lasts longer than 22 innings. There’s plenty of time for a turnaround. When Max is pitching to his ability, he’s got control of the strike zone while piling up punchouts. Neither of those things is currently happening.
Decreased fastball velocity
After his lackluster appearance against the Tigers, Scherzer was upfront about his inability to locate pitches. He also spoke about how he’d like his velocity to creep up a little bit more:
Max Scherzer was asked what he'd like his ideal velocity to be:
"Another tick or two. To me that's more of the issue when I'm averaging 92.5 mph. I'm down a tick and a half. You gotta figure out what's going on" pic.twitter.com/Yi37CZSvCZ
— SNY (@SNYtv) May 4, 2023
Upon looking at his average fastball velocity in recent years, this is not necessarily a new thing. Take a look (via FanGraphs):
- 2018: 94.5 mph
- 2019: 95.0 mph
- 2020: 94.9 mph
- 2021: 94.5 mph
- 2022: 94.1 mph
- 2023: 93.6 mph (so far)
As it currently stands, Scherzer has lost about 1.5 “ticks” off his average fastball velocity since 2019. And since 2020, that number has gone down by a half-tick each season.
Because the right-hander’s appearances have been inconsistent recently, he may just need to get into a rhythm again before that velocity comes back. But maybe that doesn’t happen? This may not seem like a big deal, but being able to pump a ball into the mid-90s can help mask missing your spot on occasion.
If that little bit of velocity doesn’t return, it becomes even more important for Scherzer to have impeccable command overall, especially with his secondary pitches. This leads me to my final point…
Lack of effectiveness from his slider
Scherzer’s slider has consistently been the second-most used pitch throughout his MLB career. His 23.4% usage rate from last year was his highest since 2017. At the moment, he’s tossing it at a 19.8% clip.
That decreased usage is probably good since opposing hitters have posted a 1.218 OPS and 228 wRC+ against it. For some context, those numbers were at .413 and 22, respectively, in 2022. That’s close to his career production with that offering (.485 and 39).
It’s clearly not fooling hitters nearly as much, and they’re spitting on sliders landing outside the strike zone. In 2022, Scherzer’s slider produced a 46.3% chase rate and a 71.3% swing rate on strikes. Those numbers are currently at 27.0% and 73.0%, respectively. The overall contract rate has also increased from 53.4% to 70.3%.
Once again, we go back to the initial question. Is Scherzer, one of this generation’s most consistently dominant pitchers, cooked? It’s not looking great at the moment, but the jury is still out on that. If he’s still struggling after getting back into the groove of pitching every fifth day (let’s call it another three or four starts), then the Mets may have a real problem on their hands.
You can reach Matt Musico at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter: @mmusico8.