WASHINGTON -- Look around the league, and there’s no shortage of big-name pitchers struggling early. Suddenly, Max Scherzer appears to be one of them.
Facing the Philadelphia Phillies on a balmy Tuesday night in DC, the Washington Nationals ace turned in another subpar start, his second straight and his third in five outings this season. As has been the norm for Scherzer so far in 2016, things got ugly early when he walked leadoff hitter Odubel Herrera on four pitches to start the game. It was the first time in nearly five years in which Scherzer issued a four-pitch walk to the first batter he faced. He followed that by allowing a home run to the very next batter, Andres Blanco.
Just like that, the Phillies were up 2-0 and Scherzer was an ace in a hole. Again. The Nationals ended up eventually losing 4-3 to Philadelphia.
If there’s one pattern that’s most alarming about the 31-year-old righty, it’s been his effectiveness -- or lack thereof -- in the first frame. He has served up three gopher balls in the first already this season, tied for most in the majors. His 14.40 ERA in the initial inning is higher than that of any other hurler.
But on Tuesday, as was the case in his last start against Miami, the damage wasn’t just contained to the first inning. Scherzer labored through six innings, throwing 116 pitches, allowing at least one baserunner in every inning and multiple baserunners in all but two frames. He walked as many batters in one game tonight (4) as he did in all of April last season. It’s a problem that's not lost on him.
“I walked four guys tonight,” Scherzer said after the game. “That's just unacceptable. That's a cause of having bad fastball location. I know that if I can dial that in and start attacking the zone, the walks will go away and I'll be ahead in the count and typically where I have success.”
Perhaps even more distressing: Even when Scherzer is able to throw his heater for strikes, hitters are pouncing all over it. Last season, opposing batters posted a .680 OPS against Scherzer’s fastball. This year, they’re crushing his gas to the tune of a 1.034 OPS. Again, this is hardly news to him.
“I just don't have great fastball location,” Scherzer said. “My fastball's in a little bit of a funk right now. I know it, and I kind of know what I need to do. I'm just not getting extension through that pitch and I feel like that's the reason why I'm missing on command.”
But perhaps the most telling sign of Scherzer’s sudden unScherzerness came not on a walk or a feasted fastball, but on a strikeout.
Facing Philly starter Vince Velasquez in the top of the fourth, Scherzer got ahead quickly 0-2 on a pair of fastballs before missing with a heater and a slider to even the count. The 23-year-old Velasquez, who came into the game with four strikeouts in six career plate appearances, then proceeded to foul off consecutive pitches -- a 95 mph four-seamer and an 85 mph slider -- before finally swinging through another slider for the punchout. All in all, it was a seven-pitch at-bat, which is approximately four pitches more than you’d expect it to take for Scherzer to fan Velasquez.
At-bats like that are the reason Scherzer is averaging a swollen 17.0 pitches per inning this season, up from 14.7 last season. It’s just of one many disturbing markers for Washington’s ace early on. Here are some others:
His three mediocre outings have come against the three lowest-scoring teams in the National League -- Atlanta, Miami and Philly.
The Braves have a hit a major league-low three home runs this season, and Scherzer has allowed 67 percent of them.
He has already issued 12 walks this season. Last year, he didn’t walk his 12th batter until June.
Through five starts in 2015, Scherzer had a 1.26 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 7.8 K/BB ratio. Through five starts in 2016, he has a 4.35 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 2.5 K/BB ratio.
In the end, maybe it's nothing more than just a simple slump. After all, Scherzer has been through them before, as recently as last August in fact, when he allowed seven homers during a month in which he went 0-3 with a 6.43 ERA in five starts. Maybe this is just a common cold spell made conspicuous by the clean statistical slate that is the beginning of a new season. Scherzer, for one, sure seems to think so.
“You can't really pinpoint any month to any other month,” he said. “You go through funks, and right now, this is a funk. But at the end of the day, this is an easy thing to correct. This is just a minor tweak. You get through it. For me, I envision myself attacking the zone at a much higher rate next start. Is there something there? Yes. But at the same time, it's not something major that I need to worry about.”
Not yet, anyway.