Max Scherzer is better than you think

Some view this short, two-game series between the Indians and Tigers as an opportunity for the Indians to make a statement, now that they've passed the Tigers for first place in the AL Central. No matter that Cleveland took two of three just more than a week ago in Detroit; the Tigers are still the team to beat in the Central, so every series against them is a chance for a division rival to make a statement.

Well, a statement was made on Tuesday night, but it was Max Scherzer making it -- and doing it with an exclamation point. The Tigers right-hander pitched eight brilliant innings against the hottest team in baseball, giving up a run in the first inning but getting stronger as the game progressed, retiring the final 22 batters he faced. The Tigers won 5-1 -- Miguel Cabrera did more Miguel Cabrera type of stuff, hitting the go-ahead two-run homer in the sixth -- as Scherzer improved to 6-0 and lowered his ERA to 3.61.

Scherzer is one of my favorite pitchers to watch. He wears that 1930s-style hat, kind of all scrunched up like it's been tucked into his back pocket all day. He starts his delivery with his glove in front of his face and winds up with his hands going over his head, delivering the ball from a three-quarters arm slot. He gets all kinds of movement on his two-seam fastball, throws a wicked slider and can crank his four-seamer into the upper 90s, like he did in twice striking out Jason Giambi on 97 mph heaters.

His final pitch in the eighth, his 118th of the game, was a 98 mph fastball that Drew Stubbs swung through. It was his fastest pitch of the night. There's the exclamation point. It was one of those games in which you ask: Why doesn't Scherzer do this more often? Why isn't he the 1A to Justin Verlander's 1?

Maybe that's an unfair expectation to hold for a pitcher who is already very good -- he went 16-7 with a 3.74 ERA last year while ranking second to Verlander in the AL in strikeouts and first in strikeouts per nine innings. It was that kind of dominance, combined with a strong second half, that had me picking Scherzer as my sleeper Cy Young pick.

But Scherzer has also been one of those guys where the sum of the parts doesn't always quite add up. He entered Tuesday's start, for example, ranking fifth in the AL strikeouts, second in strikeout rate and in the top 10 in fewest hits and walks allowed per nine innings, and had allowed a reasonable five home runs in 54.1 innings. He controls the running game (opponents are 3-for-8 stealing against him). And while he was undefeated thanks to excellent run support, his ERA was a mediocre 3.98.

That's been a running theme of Scherzer's career -- his ERA never matches his peripherals:

2011: 4.43 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 3.70 xFIP

2012: 3.74 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 3.23 xFIP

2013: 3.98 ERA, 2.44 FIP, 2.55 xFIP

If you're not familiar with FIP or xFIP, those are advanced metrics that estimate what a pitcher's ERA would be given a normalized batting average on balls in play and home run-to-fly ball rates. Scherzer's BABIPs have been high -- .314 and .333 the past two seasons -- but is now down to .275 this season after Tuesday's two-hit effort. That suggests some bad luck, but it's not always so simple to say he's pitched in bad luck.

For example, while Scherzer has allowed five home runs this year, he's allowed 15 doubles and two triples. He's allowed a .201 opponents average -- 11th among starters -- but he's 32nd in slugging percentage allowed, so he does give up some extra-base hits. He has been a little prone to the big inning as well:

  • April 6: Yankees get three in the sixth (two walks and a single, bullpen allows two guys to score).

  • April 24: Royals get four in the third (five straight hits).

  • May 15: Astros get four in the fourth (J.D. Martinez hits three-run homer).

Now, that could be a product of bad luck, random sequencing or Scherzer losing a bit of his stuff with runners on base. Checking some numbers:

2013: .238 wOBA with bases empty, .312 with runners on

2012: .317 wOBA with bases empty, .307 with runners on

2011: .362 wOBA with bases empty, .336 with runners on

So he hasn't pitched as well with runners on this year, but he doesn't have a track record suggesting there's a problem there.

Add it up, and I draw the conclusion that the big innings have more or less a random set of results this year, and his ERA will begin to slide closer to his peripheral numbers.

In other words, watch out American League, because I think we're going to see more performances from Scherzer like the one we saw Tuesday night in Cleveland.