One of baseball's most intelligent starting pitchers, Max Scherzer, was on the ESPN campus on Monday to talk baseball with the company's various platforms.
I devoted the interview time to a subject I knew he was passionate about: Numbers in baseball. Here's what he had to say.
Simon: "You first made your sabermetric interest known in a 2008 interview with Baseball Prospectus. How has your interest evolved since then?"
Scherzer: "I understand what sabermetrics get across, and what they're getting across is to keep it simple. Especially for me, as a pitcher, that's something that helps me -- finding ways to keep it simple. Numbers can only tell so much. There's no number for what it takes to understand a scouting report or what a guy is sitting on, like if you have a guy on first, do you need a slide step here, and can you hold the runner at first and still execute a pitch down and away against this hitter?
"But the sabermetrics let you look at it from a macro level and understand what you're doing over a season and what you need to be focused on. For me, that's about really trying to minimize your walks. You want to try to find situations where you can get extra strikeouts and other things that will make you better."
Simon: "How is your interest evolving?"
Scherzer: "You're aware of what makes a good pitcher and what it takes to have success consistently. Every pitcher is striving for it and trying to figure out how to do it. For me, I try to take every avenue, whether it's learning a curveball [or] trying to pick up a cutter. It's also trying to understand the numbers side. How can I make myself a better pitcher in situations? How do I generate more swings and misses? How do I minimize walks and get more first-pitch strikes?
"Pitching is both an art and a science."
Simon: "OK, so what are you studying?"
Scherzer: "I've got my own program, i.e. software, that I'm really comfortable with. It puts me in the right situations."
Simon: "How many players have their own program?"
Scherzer: "Quite a few. I shared some of the philosophies on how it all blends. It's an art and science approach to pitching. Maybe you need a more scientific approach; that way, your mind can wrap around the idea that 'hey, if I get to these thresholds, I can have success.' Just focus all my energy to find a way to get ahead in the count. It can be as simple as that. You can give yourself easy goals to hit within a start. That allows someone like me to stay focused."
Simon: "Two things have become much more popular lately: pitch framing and defensive shifts. What are your approaches with regard to each of those?"
Scherzer: "Framing is there. Certain catchers get more calls than others, but the pitcher has to put the ball in the right spot to let the catcher do that. It's more parts catcher, but there is a pitcher part to that, especially if you want to work the outside edges and down and give the catcher a pitch he can [frame]. [The more you're] able to execute the pitch in the vicinity of where his glove is, the easier it is for him to frame.
"With defensive shifts: You see how they're implemented, and it's not just a mad scientist doing this. It's a real fact that if you shift, you can prevent more hits. Sometimes, it's a matter of moving your whole infield around to get to the point of it being a positive.
"I put all that on the coaches. The coaches do a phenomenal job of doing their research to try to figure out if they want to shift and who they want to shift against so that they feel comfortable.
"I don't worry about infield shifts at all -- you play where you're gonna play. I'm just gonna pitch my game."
Simon: "So you'll never call it off?"
Scherzer: "No. If my coaches feel that it helps the team to do that and we're gonna prevent the most hits by doing that, I want to be on board. I want to prevent hits."
Simon: "Have you had to talk to some of your teammates about that -- those who might not be as flexible?"
Scherzer: "It’s a personal thing. Everybody's different. For me, I'm more worried about the outfielders because I'm much more of a fly-ball pitcher. So I'm more concerned about the position of outfielders.
"Left-handed hitters shoot me down the left-field line. When they go to the left-field line, they hit the ball with top spin, so it's a tough catch to make. When they hit to the left-center gap, they hit it with backspin. The ball hangs up in the air longer, and the center fielder can run it down.
"I move my left fielder against left-handed hitters, more often than not, toward the line to make sure he can cover that ball and let the center fielder get to the left-center one.
"Those are the shifts I talk to our coaches about because I feel like we have prevented more hits by employing [them]."
Simon: "Is there anyone on this team with whom you regularly talk sabermetrics?"
Scherzer: "I think it goes beyond talking sabermetrics and talking about numbers that actually matter. I may not be talking sabermetrics, but the concepts of what they're trying to achieve. What are the checkpoints to become a better pitcher?"
Simon: "What types of things would you like to see that don't currently exist?"
Scherzer: "[Something on] the ability to hold baserunners and limit the running game. That's a very undervalued aspect of trying to evaluate a pitcher. When you allow stolen bases, that changes the game. That's overlooked."
Simon: "With regard to preparation, when it comes to a situation such as the one you were in against the Oakland Athletics in Game 4 of the 2013 ALDS -- bases loaded and nobody out in a one-run game -- does being as well-prepared as you are help with staying calm and focusing?"
Scherzer: "No, not in that situation. That's pure adrenaline. Pitch on your instincts. It was awesome, awesome once it was over. [laughs]
"It was one of those situations where you just try to get those guys out. They're a really talented ballclub, and they could really hit anything.
"I got in that situation, and you go into damage control -- how can I limit this to one run? You need a pop fly, a strikeout. I fell behind against Josh Reddick 3-1 and challenged him with fastballs, hoping he'd pop it up. I got to 3-2 and had a feeling he was going to be sitting on a fastball. I threw a changeup [and] executed it well enough that he had to respect [the] fastball. He swung and missed.
"So I've got something going. Then I faced [Stephen] Vogt. He's really good. I was able to get ahead 0-2, and I threw a fastball by him, down in the zone. That's when you start smelling -- maybe I can get out of this.
"[Alberto] Callaspo has always hit me well. I got ahead of him quick. He shot one down the line, just foul. I got to 0-2 [but] couldn't get him to chase a changeup. I got him to 3-2. I'm like, 'All right, here we go.' I challenged with a fastball. He hit it to center, and we caught it."
Simon: "How big a believer are you in momentum? After you got Reddick out, I was thinking, 'He's getting out of this.' But I can't imagine you thought that."
Scherzer: "No. Because I knew how well Vogt was swinging. You just try to do anything to get him out. I wasn't even thinking strikeout. You respect him and realize it will be extremely tough to get him out."
Simon: "I can see you reliving it as we're talking about it."
Scherzer: "Uh-huh, I'm going through all the situations."
Simon: "There was a book published a while ago about how Tom Seaver would pitch to Babe Ruth. Let's do a hypothetical here: It's the sixth inning of a 1-1 game. Ted Williams is coming up. There is a man on first and nobody out. What are the factors you take into account in pitch selection, knowing where you stand?"
Scherzer: "You can't just walk him. It depends how aggressive he was. Did he first-pitch hack?"
Simon: "He did each of the first two times up."
Scherzer: "Sure. If he's going to be aggressive, you want to throw something soft. Maybe try to dump in a curveball."
Simon: "Your curveball has been iffy that day."
Scherzer: "That doesn't matter. You have to throw the pitch you think is right and believe in your execution."
Simon: "He doesn't bite at it. You're down 1-0."
Scherzer: "Then you've got to challenge him with the heater. You're always trying to piece together what the out-pitch is going to be. How am I going to get him out? Once I get two strikes, what's the out-pitch? You try to read what he's doing to understand whether it's a curveball, change or fastball to get him out."
Simon: "He squares up your 1-0 fastball and fouls it off straight back. What do you do at 1-1?"
Scherzer: "If he fouls off a fastball, throw a changeup and mess with his timing. Hitters hate that."
Simon: "You missed low. You're down 2-1."
Scherzer: "I'd throw it again."
Simon: "He swings and pops it up. You got him out."
Scherzer: "There you go! Hopefully, it would go something like that, but who knows?"
Simon: "What’s the challenge of someone like that?"
Scherzer: "When you face the really good hitters, you don't go in with much of a scouting report. They hit everything you throw. You really have to pitch and mix up what you're doing and rely on your instincts. There's not anything I can do. I just have to feel out what he's trying to do [and] pitch to [my] strengths as much as possible."
Simon: "You just got Ted Williams out. How do you feel?"
Scherzer: "It was hypothetical, right? So I'd say I feel hypothetically good. [laughs]"