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Max Scherzer's sort of good, sort of disappointing season

Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer came within five outs of throwing his second no-hitter of the season, beating the Reds 5-1 on Monday to improve to 13-12 while lowering his ERA to 2.91.

While win-loss record obviously is reflective of run support -- something Scherzer was lacking in the first part of the season when he was throwing out dominant game after dominant game -- Scherzer certainly has had a very good season after signing that seven-year, $210 million contract that made him the second-highest paid pitcher on an average annual basis behind Clayton Kershaw.

Scherzer ranks second in the NL in strikeouts, third in innings, ninth in ERA and fourth in WAR. It's difficult to argue that he hasn't earned his salary.

On the other hand, you also can argue that maybe a little more was expected from Scherzer. After all, he'd posted a 2.90 ERA with the Tigers in 2013 and a 3.15 ERA in 2014. Moving to the National League -- and, in particular, the National League East, home of the weak-hitting Phillies, Braves and Marlins -- and away from some poor defensive clubs in Detroit meant Scherzer was a good bet to lower that ERA by at least half a run, maybe more. Before the season, I had him a strong second in my Cy Young prediction behind Kershaw, figuring an ERA below 2.50 was a sure thing.

For the first part of the season, that appeared to be the case. Through his first 16 starts, he was 9-6 with a scintillating 1.82 ERA. It wasn't Kershaw and Jake Arrieta battling Zack Greinke for the Cy Young Award but Scherzer. But his next 16 starts, as the Nationals eventually collapsed into humiliation, weren't nearly as good: 4-6, 4.19 ERA, 20 home runs allowed in just 101 innings. The strikeout and walk rates remained excellent; it was all about the home runs.

There's a common denominator in those home runs allowed: 15 of the 20 home runs he's allowed over his past 16 starts have come against fastballs. Scherzer has a good fastball, average velocity of 94.1 mph with movement. He gets a good strikeout rate with it: 27.2 percent; that's the second highest among qualified starters, behind Chris Sale. So Scherzer gets a lot of K's with his fastball, which is why he's not afraid to use it, even with two strikes, when a lot of pitchers go to their off-speed stuff most of the time. Here are the counts on which those 15 home runs were hit:

Steve Pearce: 2-0

Manny Machado: 2-2

Christian Yelich: 0-0

Michael Conforto: 0-0

Yoenis Cespedes: 1-1

Brandon Moss: 3-2

Martin Prado: 2-2

Marcell Ozuna: 1-0

Matt Duffy: 1-1

Hunter Pence: 0-0

Daniel Descalso: 0-0

Carlos Gonzalez: 1-2

Pedro Alvarez: 0-1

Neil Walker: 1-1

Joey Votto: 1-1

Four came with two strikes, but most came in hitters' counts or when the count was even. Part of the problem is Scherzer throws his fastball up in the strike zone and too often in the middle of the zone:

That makes Scherzer's fastball hittable, even with his plus velocity and movement. In his first 16 starts, batters hit .210/.244/.326 against his heater; in his next 16, they hit .269/.300/.533. I'm guessing this is an issue of fastball command, but maybe there's more to it, like pitch sequencing. His pitch breakdowns are pretty similar in both halves (in fact, he threw his fastball slightly less in hitters' counts or when the count was even in the second half).

Pitching is complicated; it's not always so easy to pinpoint the why behind certain results. Heck, it could even just be the unpredictable nature of the game. The fastball worked in the first half; opponents happened to hit it in the second half.

All we know is hitters hit a lot of home runs off Scherzer's fastball, and his mediocre second half become a part of the Nationals' meltdown, along with the injuries, the bullpen, the manager, the rest of the rotation, the clubhouse chemistry and maybe the Thomas Jefferson mascot.