Max Scherzer could be poised for stardom

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The names on the list are Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan and … Max Scherzer.

Now here's the category: Name the four qualifying starting pitchers in American League history who have averaged at least 11 strikeouts per nine innings in a season.

Max Scherzer, a man who entered that club by whiffing 11.1 per nine innings last year, has seen those other names. He knows they're pretty cool. He’s also aware of what name isn't on that list.

That would be a friend of his -- some guy named Justin Verlander.

Asked Sunday if he'd mentioned to Verlander which Detroit Tigers starter has made that list and which hasn't, Scherzer flashed a smile as wide as the Ambassador Bridge.

"Oh yeah," he replied, with a thoroughly enjoyable chuckle.

Verlander, for some reason, prefers to focus on a different list -- that also-prestigious Most Total Strikeouts in 2012 list -- possibly because, when the punchout dust had finished settling last year, Verlander ranked No. 1 in the big leagues in whiffs (with 239 in 238 1/3 IP). And Scherzer finished No. 2 (with 231, in only 187 2/3 IP).

Just for the record, they're only the sixth set of teammates since 1900 to rank 1-2 in the majors in the same season -- and only the third AL duo. (The others: Ryan/Frank Tanana for the 1976 Angels, Lefty Grove/George Earnshaw for the 1930 Athletics.)

"The American League is pretty good. There are some really, really good pitchers in this league," Scherzer said, proudly. "That's a big category to be a part of -- and a sign of success. Typically, it's a sign of success when you generate that many strikeouts. So for both of us to finish 1-2, that's a pretty good accomplishment."

But all that matters now, for this Tigers team, is what these two men are ready to accomplish next. And while Verlander is the known quantity, it's the unknown upside of Scherzer that gets pulses thumping in this clubhouse.

"So far in his career with us, since I've been the manager,” said Jim Leyland on Sunday, after Scherzer had finished ripping off two perfect innings in his first start of spring training, "I've seen two periods of time where he got into a good [arm] slot and repeated his delivery on a pretty normal basis. And he's been lights out both times he did that, for that period of time."

Imagine then what Max Scherzer might be capable of if he could ever repeat that delivery consistently, over a full season -- or, ideally, a bunch of full seasons.

"Who knows," said Leyland.

But Scherzer talked Sunday like a man who believes he has crossed that threshold for good now. After he found his delivery in the middle of last season, he went 11-3 with a 2.53 ERA in his last 19 starts, with 143 strikeouts in just 117 1/3 innings.

Asked if he was confident this spring that that delivery was now burned into his DNA, Scherzer replied: "When you struggle and then you find something mechanically that works for you, you don't have to write it down. That's just instilled in you. I know exactly what it feels like to have my hands break in front of my body. And now, it's just second nature."

But Scherzer also knows that merely finding something that worked for him last year "doesn't guarantee success" this year. That delivery tweak only allows him to go out and "execute my pitches." But now, he said, "it's up to me to go out there and do it."

Nevertheless, at age 28, Scherzer approaches this season in what seems to be a far different place than he's ever entered any season in his career.

"I thought I had a great year," he said Sunday. "I thought I got better as a pitcher. I thought I took some strides. I thought my secondary pitches were as good as ever, and especially my slider. I got consistent with my slider over, really, my last four months of the season. It was as good as it's ever been. I wasn't making mistakes with it. And that was the reason I was able to start stringing together quality start after quality start."

But just when he had almost pitched himself into the AL Cy Young conversation last September, a case of "shoulder fatigue" got in the way, causing him to leave one September start after two innings, skip a turn later in September and then find himself limited to just one start per postseason series in the Tigers' journey to the World Series.

So this spring, the club has taken it slowly with him, not because they're concerned he still has issues, but "because of all the innings, and a lot of pitches last year," Leyland said.

Any time any pitcher gets any sort of special treatment in spring training, it can seem like a red flag. But Scherzer sounds like a guy who is convinced he's healthy.

"I'm just progressing as I normally would, heading into the season right now," he said. "I'm not going to think about getting hurt. I'm just thinking about my next start."

But now, finally, here's something for the rest of the American League to think about. If Max Scherzer keeps this up, could he turn into Justin Verlander Lite? It isn't impossible. Consider this:

Opposing hitters versus Verlander last year: .217/.270/.331.

Opposing hitters versus Scherzer in those last 19 starts: .222./277/.360.

Except here's the difference: Verlander does that EVERY season. Scherzer did it for four months of ONE season.

But what happens if he's unlocked the secret formula that allows him to keep on doing it? Scary thought. But not for the Tigers.

Just for all the teams that have to face them.