Scherzer deserves to be AL's starter in All-Star Game
Tigers righty has emerged from Verlander's shadow as one of league's best arms
DETROIT -- They rock the All-Star vote here in the Motor City with white T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, "Get the D to NYC," with the "D" in question the Old English variety, of course. And as Tigers players filtered out to the field for batting practice Wednesday, one of those shirts sat atop the seat of the man most deserving of the All-Star starting nod for the American League.
It is a credit to both the unpredictability of ball and the depth of the Detroit rotation that the man in question is not Justin Verlander, whose first-half numbers are positively pedestrian, perhaps the result of that massive accumulation of innings Verlander has acquired in recent years.
No, if the Midsummer Classic were played today, Max Scherzer, owner of an 11-0 record going into his start Friday night in Tampa Bay, would probably be the one summoned to start by Jim Leyland. In this instance, any accusations of homerism would ring hollow.
At the age of 28, Scherzer has asserted himself as one of the game's best and brightest, stepping out from Verlander's shadow and putting together a calendar year's worth of sterling starts to enter the elite conversation.
"I feel I can go out there and pitch against any ballclub and have success," Scherzer said. "I feel I'm always able to go out and have my 'A' game, I can get opponents out and there isn't a pitcher I back down from. I accept the challenge from anybody."
An upcoming challenge could be the National League starting lineup at Citi Field. And if that's the case, hopefully Verlander, who got lit up in last year's game at Kauffman Stadium, can give his teammate a little advice about what can happen when you throw nothing but heat at the stars of the Senior Circuit.
That is, however, a lesson Scherzer has learned and applied to the regular season. His trust and command of his secondary pitches -- including a curveball he only began incorporating consistently this year -- is what has allowed him to make The Leap in 2013.
"You see him backing off his fastball and saving it for when he needs it," Verlander said. "I don't know if that's something he learned from watching me pitch or something that naturally happened for him, but it's working wonders for him. He got into some trouble before, overthrowing by trying to strike everybody out. Now, he's striking everybody out, but he's going about things in a different fashion."
There is disagreement in the Detroit dugout as to how much the new curveball plays into this. Leyland has called it little more than a "show pitch," but a conversation with Scherzer makes it clear how much value he places on the pitch.
And given the numbers this season, it seems OK to side with Scherzer on this one.
"I tried a backdoor slider a little bit last year, but I was never any good at it," Scherzer said. "The backdoor slider morphed into a curveball. Once I realized I could do that, I could tell it was really disrupting the hitters' timing. So I knew it was a pitch to keep growing.
"Finally in Spring Training this year, I made an adjustment with my grip that allowed me to tighten up so I had more feel for that release point. So I'm able to command it a lot better, throwing it in the zone and outside the zone."
Scherzer is throwing the curveball 7.7 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs.com, and his fastball usage is at a career low of 56.3 percent. The combination of that mid-90s fastball and a slider rated as one of the best in the game is devastating, as Scherzer's 10.63 strikeouts-per-nine innings mark demonstrates.
What's nice -- and convenient -- about Scherzer's season is that he has numbers that appeal to both the stat geeks and the purists. Even Scherzer, who is known to be more sabermetrically inclined than most, can appreciate a spotless 11-0 record, and you understand his output all the more when you get a grip on his WHIP and his FIP.
"I think he pleases a little bit of everybody," Verlander said. "I know his [ERA] isn't as low as everybody else out there, but I also know he's found some balls in bad spots and his WHIP and average against are as good as anybody's."
The ERA is at 3.05, but Scherzer's Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) mark is 2.55. That's not terribly surprising, given his supporting cast in the Tigers' infield, and that's one reason why his opponents' batting average on balls in play was an abnormally high .380 in the season's first month.
Scherzer is quick to correct the misguided assumption that a stat-savvy starter such as himself would check his numbers after every start. It is, after all, the season stat line that interests him (and his agent, Scott Boras, who knows Scherzer is putting himself in position to be one of the top prizes available in the post-2014 free-agent class).
But Scherzer does put particular weight on his strikeout-to-walk ratio, which, at 5.08, trails only Seattle's dominant duo of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma in the AL.
You can't fake that one.
"Guys who have good strikeout-to-walk ratios are really good pitchers," Scherzer said. "That's not really a fluky stat. Win-loss records can be a fluky stat. Strikeout-to-walk ratio is not."
Still, you can't help but notice that 11-0 record. Scherzer is just the fifth starting pitcher in the past 40 years to start a season 11-0, and the first to do so since Roger Clemens in 1997. And you might not be surprised to learn Cy Young Award voters take note of this type of thing. Three of the previous four pitchers to start a season with that record went on to win the award.
Given Scherzer's performance in the second half of 2012, when he went 8-2 with a 2.69 ERA and limited opponents to a .229 average, what's happened thus far in 2013 can't be labeled an outright surprise. But the fact that the Tigers' -- and the AL's -- best pitcher right now is a guy not named Verlander at least seems counter-intuitive.
A lot can happen in the next week and a half, but, for now, Scherzer is in prime position for the AL honor, just ahead of Yu Darvish and Bartolo Colon.
"He's got my vote," Verlander said. "Obviously I'm a little bit biased, but I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody more deserving."