Max Scherzer is one of the best pitchers in baseball. His resume says so. In 2013, he led the American League in wins and won the Cy Young Award. In 2014, he led the AL in wins again. In 2015, he became just the sixth pitcher in MLB history to throw two no-hitters in the same season. This year, he tied a major league record by striking out 20 batters in nine innings and is a front-runner for the NL Cy Young Award, which, if he wins it, would make him just the sixth pitcher to nab the award in both leagues.
Despite all that, Scherzer’s most impressive accomplishment might just be taking the mound every fifth day.
It sounds simple. Just go out there and throw. Yet these days, every time you turn around, it seems like another pitcher is getting hurt. From 2002 through 2006, there was an average of 53 pitchers per season who started at least 32 games. Over the next five years, from 2007 to 2011, that number dipped to 49. Over the past five years, it has plummeted to 41. This season, there were only 39 such iron men. Just look around: The Mets' rotation has been decimated by injuries. Ditto for the Indians. Even his Royal Highness Clayton Kershaw missed time. Lots of it.
Meanwhile, there’s Scherzer, the Nationals ace who punches the clock so hard, you’d swear it just said something about his mama. Since the beginning of 2009, his first full season in the majors, the 32-year-old righty hasn’t missed a turn and has started more games than anyone not named James Shields. He has made at least 32 starts in each of the past six years, one of only three hurlers who can make that claim (Shields and Jon Lester are the others). Since the beginning of the 2013 season, he has worked more innings (891 2/3) and thrown more pitches (13,948) than anyone in baseball. Funny thing is, he doesn’t look the part.
The workload leaderboard is filled with freaks. Corn-fed hosses who look more like pillars than pitchers (Lester, Madison Bumgarner); lanky guys with unusually long levers (David Price, Chris Sale); and age-defying tricksters (knuckleballer R.A. Dickey). Then there’s Scherzer. Listed at 6-foot-3, he says he’s really "six-two and like three-quarters, rounding," but even that might be a little generous. At 215 pounds, he’s the second-slightest member of Washington’s opening day rotation. He doesn’t have a gimmick pitch, unless your idea of a gimmick is high-90s cheese. Still, he’s able to go out there, start after start, year after year, and do his thing. Which, not for nothing, is better than pretty much every other pitcher’s thing.
His secret? Acting like a third-grader.
"Year-round throwing works for me," Scherzer says. "That’s what I did when I was 8 years old, and my arm never hurt."
Wait, what? In an uber-alarmist age when pitch counts are paramount, when complete-game shutouts have been replaced by complete winter shutdowns, when the most talked-about hurler in baseball is Tommy John, the key to success is ... just keep throwing?
"Whenever I shut down my arm, whenever I actually stop throwing, that's when my arm hurts the most," Scherzer says. "Everything just doesn't feel good, so I literally throw year-round."
That wasn’t always Mad Max’s M.O. His first few years in the big leagues, he did what all the cool kids did, going dark from October until January. But inevitably, when he powered up his power arm again, it would bark louder than a German shepherd in a thunderstorm.
"My shoulder just hurt too much to get through it," says Scherzer, a first-round pick of the Diamondbacks in 2006 who was traded to the Tigers following the 2009 season. "Specifically, the biceps tendon. It just took forever, all the way through spring training. By the time the season started, it would finally feel good."
So a couple years into his tenure with Detroit, he flipped the script. Now, instead of holstering his hose for three months, he just keeps right on throwing. From the moment the season ends, all the way through the end of the year and beyond, he throws at least twice a week. We’re not talking about pitching off a mound and pumping 95 mph heaters into a catcher’s mitt. Instead, Scherzer just plays catch. Ya know, like an 8-year-old would. And in true kid fashion, he couldn’t care less who he’s throwing to, just so long as he’s throwing to someone.
The past couple offseasons, his regular partner was Matt Thornton, a recently retired reliever who, like Scherzer, lives in the Phoenix area. With his two dogs in tow, Scherzer would ride his bicycle over to Thornton’s house, and they’d just set up shop right there in the front yard -- a couple of big leaguers in full Little League mode. Even when Scherzer goes on vacation, he brings along his elementary school self. Whether that means tossing a football on the beach with his wife Erica, or schlepping a couple of gloves and a ball to a getaway bachelor party, he always finds a way to throw.
"Anything just to keep it moving," says Scherzer, who gives his third-grade curricul-arm a check-plus for helping him become the dominant -- and durable -- hurler he is today. "Once I moved to throwing year-round, yeah I go through some ups and downs just like anybody, but it’s much more manageable. I can easily work through those instead of having to work through a whole spring training of feeling like I’m playing catch-up."
Although Scherzer isn’t the only big league pitcher who throws nonstop, he’s among the few. "I would say he’s in the minority," says Washington pitching coach Mike Maddux, "but it works for him." Adds Nats reliever Shawn Kelley: "Most people shut it down, heal up. Anything to give yourself a mental break." Of course, Scherzer isn’t most people.
A workaholic who’s known for his passionate, high-energy mound presence, he's essentially the Tasmanian Devil with a glove. "He’s an animal. He’s got one of the best work ethics I’ve ever seen," says Thornton, who saw plenty during his six-team, 13-year career. "Both offseason and in-season." Instead of running poles -- the rote ritual of going foul pole to foul pole like many pitchers do between starts -- Scherzer is just as likely to go on a four-mile jog through the streets of whatever city he happens to be in. The day after he pitches, you can usually find him in the outfield playing 3-on-3 soccer, the lone starter in a pitchers-only game that was his brainchild. When he’s not going all "Forrest Gump" or "Bend It Like Beckham," there’s a good chance he’s getting his "Rocky" on in the weight room. Says Thornton: "Nowadays everybody’s so worried about corrective exercises, and people forget to work, and lift, and maintain. Squats. Deadlifts. All the big things that make you go during the season. Max Scherzer is going to work his tail off in between starts. He's not worried about things like pelvic rotation. He's worried about taking the ball every fifth day and trying to dominate."
The Nationals might need him to do even more than that. With stud right-hander Stephen Strasburg out because of a strained flexor mass and fellow starter Joe Ross still rounding into form after battling shoulder inflammation, Washington’s rotation -- a strength for much of the season -- is suddenly a boldfaced, 72-point question mark heading into an NLDS showdown with the Dodgers. As if that weren’t enough, All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos has a torn ACL and MVP candidate Daniel Murphy (he of the strained buttocks) hasn’t started a game in three weeks. Add it all up, and if the Nats are to stand any chance of advancing, they will need Mad Max to do his best MadBum impression. Whether that means Scherzer starts on short rest remains to be seen.
“I don't know,” the Nats' Game 1 starter said earlier this week when asked if he might take the hill for Game 4 too. “That's a situation where you gotta see how the series is unfolding in Game 4. I know I’ve come back in relief before, but like I said, you gotta cross that bridge when you get there.”
No matter how much rest Scherzer gets in between playoff starts, this much is for sure: Even when Washington’s season ends, he won’t be getting much rest.