December 11, 2018

Firing On All Eight

June 6, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

A friend recently opined that it is difficult to appreciate the arc of history when one is in the middle of it.  You cannot know how the moving hand will compose an ending, but last night, with temperatures around seventy degrees, Max Scherzer was cruising like a V-8 Oldsmobile out on an old country highway, holding rock steady, the sign on the side of the road, reading simply “Cooperstown, NY.” Watching Mad Max cruise to his Major League leading tenth win last night, it was difficult not to note the significance.

Scherzer leads the majors with 120 strike outs as well as the 10 wins and has an ERA of 1.92. All of that is impressive, but when you consider that he is 33 years old, and the past five seasons have all looked like this one, the performance becomes all the more remarkable.

There is one other pitcher who compares to Mad Max in dominating this era. Justin Verlander is 35 and the good old boy from Goochland High School in Virginia is putting up equally impressive numbers after finding new life in Houston, Texas. One can argue that he is Max’s equal, but not me. Verlander has compiled a 1.24 ERA this season and has seven wins. Former team mates who each won the American League Cy Young Award during the most recent golden era for the Tigers, it is compelling to watch these two wily competitors pile up “quality starts” like pearls on a string.

Verlander has the longer career and the more remarkable consistency. Well into his 14th season, Verlander is nearing 200 wins for his career, a benchmark that may put him over the top as well in the hunt for the HOF.  Max Scherzer has only come into his own since his miracle 2013 season in Detroit.  His 21 wins that year swept away the Cy Young competition–even Bartolo Colon with 18 wins at age 40. Scherzer has 150 wins for his career to date, so it will be interesting to see who finishes higher up the food chain.

Since that 2013 season, Max Scherzer has put together one of the great runs in the game. His ERA from 2013 through 2017 is 2.87, during which he averaged 218 innings. Over a similar six-year span, Sandy Koufax posted far superior numbers, but it is difficult to compare the realities of baseball in the mid-1960’s to those of today. Scherzer may not match Koufax, but for his unique moment in the game, his dominance may be as notable.

Last night’s game highlight came in the “immaculate” sixth inning when Max struck out all three Tampa Bay Rays hitters with only nine pitches. It is the second time he has accomplished the feat, matched only by Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Lefty Grove. He threw 99 pitches for the night, 81 of which were strikes, again a singular benchmark for excellence by a pitcher.

Should Scherzer continue on pace for the remainder of the 2018 season, he likely will win his fourth CY Young. Three have put him in rare company, so we shall have to see who is in his club at the end of the season. Whatever club it may be, he is under contract to the Washington Nationals through the 2021 season when he will be 36. And that is a good thing, indeed. It is difficult to project what kind of pitcher he will be by then, but he has proven remarkably resilient to date, adding a cutter to his repertoire this season to offset a small reduction in his average fastball velocity

A wager that Scherzer will continue to remain competitive for years to come is an interesting one that I will not chance to make. The one certainty that struck me last night is how lucky I was to be there to see the great man pitching a masterpiece. I was not there for either of the no-hitters in 2015, again a feat matched by few in the game (Johnny Vander Meer, Virgil Trucks, Allie Reynolds, Nolan Ryan). But that is what is such a treat in seeing him pitch. Anything is possible every time he goes out onto the bump.

At the end of the day–or the evening as the case was last night, Washington baseball fans are watching history every night Max Scherzer takes the mound. And on those magic nights, when he is at the top of his game, it is a rare treat indeed. Not since Walter Johnson has there been a player of Scherzer’s stature take the field in DC. The Big Train had an amazing 21-year career, all of it here in Washington. It was a century ago and worth thinking how few saw it, how long it has been since there has been anything to match it.

We are gifted to watch something as wonderfully unique as Scherzer. Don’t get lost in the day-to-day routine of history and fail to see those individual standouts that mark our passing. Mad Max will be pitching again on Sunday against the San Francisco Giants and possibly Madison Bumgarner. The weather will be hot and the leather will fly farther, but it is one of those days that hopefully will warrant the potential. Max Scherzer seldom disappoints. He almost always is cruising behind a big V-8, one that will take him a long way we can hope.

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