The true madness of Max Scherzer

The Nats' ace swears he's normal. The evidence -- three Cy Youngs, 152 strikeouts in 2018 and a near obsession with minor tweaks -- proves otherwise. Erik.S Lesser/EPA

Max Scherzer swears he's normal. The evidence points to the contrary.

The day before a recent start in Baltimore, the Washington Nationals' ace plopped himself in front of a laptop at the video table inside the visitors clubhouse. But instead of watching film of opposing hitters like pitchers tend to do, he pulled up an analytically driven website called TruMedia. He proceeded to pore over a series of numbers and heat maps, comparing the 2018 version of himself to the 2017 version who won a second straight Cy Young award. This statistical self-flagellation came on the heels of a bullpen session in which the veteran righty felt compelled to make a mechanical tweak to his delivery.

The adjustment, wherein Scherzer decided to lower his hands and move them away from his face ever-so-slightly, wasn't a major one. In fact, it was barely noticeable to anyone not named Max Scherzer. Nevertheless, it was a tweak -- the kind of thing a pitcher resorts to when things aren't going well.

To be clear, things were going just fine for Scherzer. At the time of the tweak, he was 8-1 with a 2.13 ERA and off to one of the best starts in a career that seems increasingly likely to gain enshrinement in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. He had a 0.91 WHIP and was on pace to finish with more strikeouts than any pitcher in nearly 20 years.

From the outside looking in, it hardly seemed like a time to fiddle.

But Scherzer hadn't been happy with his previous two outings. Facing the Los Angeles Dodgers in Washington, he fanned 13 in seven innings and allowed two runs but tied a season high by walking -- wait for it -- three batters. The following start at Miami, his final line showed more hits than innings pitched (gasp!), and he gave up four earned runs to force his ERA over 2.00 for the first time this season.

From the inside looking out, it was high time to play tweak-a-boo.

What followed was a pair of vintage Scherzer outings: a 12-strikeout gem against the Orioles in which he allowed just two hits over eight shutout innings and an overpowering start against the Tampa Bay Rays in which he had 13 punchouts and no walks, threw 81 of 99 pitches for strikes and recorded an immaculate inning (nine pitches, nine strikes, three whiffs), becoming just the fifth hurler in MLB history to accomplish the feat twice.

"It's not obsessive," Scherzer says, scoffing at the notion that his work habits border on the pathological. It's the day after his start against Tampa Bay, and the Nats and Rays are slated to play a 1:05 p.m. getaway game. Even though the Washington clubhouse opens to the media at 10:30 a.m., there's virtually no one in the place, as is typically the case when the locker room opens earlier than most players' normal wakeup time.

But Scherzer's there -- with bells on. And he has no intention of humoring the idea that his process is unique in any way. "Every single pitcher is making changes every single start. You can talk to any pitcher about this," he says.

One pitcher who resides a few lockers away doesn't necessarily corroborate Scherzer's theory.

"Most pitchers wouldn't be tweaking anything," Nats starter Gio Gonzalez says. "But he's not content. He's trying to win another award."

Scherzer's hunger to win a third straight Cy Young -- if he pulls it off, he'll join Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson as the only pitchers to do so -- was apparent right from the start of spring training. In his first bullpen session, he threw 60 pitches, roughly double the typical number for a starter in his inaugural workout. Afterward, Scherzer revealed he'd thrown four bullpens on his own prior to the start of camp, and this was technically his fifth session. He then proceeded, as is his custom, to plead normalcy.

"I'd be really shocked if the other starters hadn't thrown five bullpens," Scherzer said. "You could probably go across the league. Most starting pitchers have thrown about four or five bullpens, so I don't think there's anything really new about that. This is what starting pitchers do."

Maybe they do, maybe they don't. But regardless of how many bullpens Joe Starter throws prior to spring training, the fact remains that Scherzer was the only pitcher in Nats camp -- or likely any camp, for that matter -- who unleashed even remotely close to 60 pitches his first time out. Later, manager Davey Martinez, in his first year with the Nationals, said simply: "Max is unusual."

How unusual?

"I don't throw 60 pitches in any bullpen," Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price said. A former Cy Young winner himself, he has known Scherzer since their college days, when the two played together on Team USA. Even back then, Price could tell Scherzer was unique. "He's definitely a different breed, always has been," Price says. "Just seeing the way he goes about things. He's a machine."

Like any multimillion-dollar piece of gadgetry, the mysteries of Scherzer's innermost workings are often veiled in secrecy. "They're pretty intense," Gonzalez says when asked about the bullpen sessions his teammate throws between starts. Gonzalez is careful not to divulge details except that Scherzer, unlike most pitchers, always dresses in full game-day uniform from head to toe -- even when the RealFeel approaches triple digits, like it did Monday afternoon in Washington for his most recent side session. "If that's how he pitches in the game," Gonzalez says, "that's how he wants to pitch in the bullpen." Unlike in a game, though, Scherzer prefers to not have any unnecessary spectators on hand -- unless, of course, they've gone through security clearance.

Shortly after Price was traded from Tampa Bay to Detroit in 2014, he found himself at Yankee Stadium, where the Detroit Tigers were visiting for a four-game set. One day during the series, Price moseyed out to the bullpen to watch his old pal Scherzer, then a reigning Cy Young winner with Detroit, throw between starts. He was greeted with paperwork and a pen. Said Price: "I had to sign a waiver to watch it."

Maybe the form Price signed really did have to do with him eyeballing Scherzer's side session. Or maybe it had more to do with Price's just-completed trade. (Price swears it was the former, though he admits to not having read the fine print.) Regardless, there's no denying that Scherzer was dead serious about his work back then. Four years, two Cy Youngs and one fat contract later, not much has changed.

"He's definitely a different breed, always has been. Just seeing the way he goes about things. He's a machine." Red Sox pitcher David Price

Three weeks before the Nats' season opener in Cincinnati, general manager Mike Rizzo was scrambling around the team's West Palm Beach training facility in search of his $210 million arm. He looked almost everywhere but couldn't find Scherzer. The last place Rizzo thought to check was the video room, because why on earth would a three-time Cy Young winner be watching film so far in advance of the regular season? But the video room is exactly where Scherzer was, studying footage of Cincinnati Reds slugger Joey Votto, whom he would face on Opening Day.

But wait, it gets better.

Although Mad Max going all stalker on a nemesis made for a compelling narrative among Washington media (Votto entered the season hitting .400 lifetime off Washington's ace), it was a false narrative. This wasn't about a one-on-one battle. Instead, it was about Scherzer's struggles against left-handed hitters -- or at least his perceived struggles.

"I wasn't necessarily looking at Votto, per se," Scherzer says. "There were a ton of lefties I was looking through before the season. I was searching for this one little thing."

It's worth noting that Max Scherzer's struggles against lefties are comparable to Kryptonite's struggles against Superman. Last year, Scherzer limited left-handed hitters to a .215 average, second-lowest among righty starters in the National League. His .692 OPS allowed ranked third. Despite that, at a time of year when hitting the links is far more common than hitting the video room, he felt compelled to binge-watch Votto & Friends.

"You have to be able to analyze yourself and critique yourself from every which way," he says. "Any time I've put extra work in, I see results." His preseason film study is no exception.

So far this season, opposing lefties are batting just .195 against Scherzer, 20 points lower than they did last season. Their .632 OPS is more than 60 points worse than a year ago. Then there are the whiffs: Scherzer's K rate against left-handed hitters has increased from 26 percent in 2017 to 34 percent this season. That's the second-best mark among all National League starters, including southpaws. Combine that with his usual righty-cidal tendencies (his .144 BAA against right-handed hitters is the best in the bigs), and you have one of the most dominant hurlers around, not to mention one of the most manic.

"He's the most detail-oriented guy I've ever been around," says Nationals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, a former big league pitcher who has shared a clubhouse with notoriously meticulous hurlers such as Roger Clemens and Adam Wainwright. That attention to detail is why, in April, Scherzer felt perfectly comfortable swiping second base (he's one of four MLB pitchers with a steal this year). It's why, after three-plus seasons in the NL, his hitting has improved to the point that his .265 average ranks third among pitchers. It's why earlier this month, when Davey Martinez needed an emergency pinch hitter in the 14th inning of a tie game against the Braves, he called on his ace. Scherzer responded by lacing a single up the middle, then dashing his way around the bases on Wilmer Difo's triple to score the eventual winning run. Not that anyone in the Washington dugout was shocked.

"If Max has the chance to hit," Nats closer Sean Doolittle says, "you know he's been in the cage. You know he's been swinging and that he's probably been in Davey's ear for a few innings."

Adds Lilliquist: "Max goes to a different level with everything: hitting, baserunning, pitching, all facets of the game." Even when the game isn't baseball.

Of all the nuggets that speak to the madness of Mad Max, perhaps none speaks more loudly than his recent appearance at Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final. Prior to the contest, Scherzer and longtime Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman were out to dinner with their wives at Proof, a local restaurant just around the corner from Capital One Arena. The day before, they'd been contacted by the Capitals about being the Fans of the Game and leading the team's pregame cheer. Knowing full well that Joe Gibbs, the former Redskins coach and eternal Washington sports god, had donned a Caps jersey and led the cheer prior to a Game 3 win, Scherzer knew he needed to step it up.

"Let's do something extra," the pitcher told his teammate.

Faster than you could say Evgeny Kuznetsov, there was Scherzer standing in a packed arena, flanked by Zimmerman, hollering "Let's go Caps!" while rocking full hockey gear.

Sweater. Gloves. Helmet. Even a stick.

On the one hand, given that Scherzer was slated to start the following day against Tampa Bay and given his workaholic nature, it's hard to imagine his Stanley Cup antics were fueled by adult beverages. On the other hand, if you watch the clip of Scherzer doing his thing with Zimmerman (and no, that's not an SNL skit), it's hard to believe he was completely sober -- unless you know the guy.

Says Doolittle: "That's how Max is all the time."

Even after the moment had passed, Scherzer was amped. He walked around the arena with Zimmerman, going on and on about how, between dining with friends and walking around the nation's capital and one-upping Joe Gibbs, they'd just experienced some of the coolest hours of their lives.

"I would've never thought about it that way," Zimmerman says the following afternoon, a few hours before Scherzer's start against Tampa Bay. "He thinks differently than most people -- in a good way."

It's that different way of thinking that led Scherzer to fix something that, by all appearances, didn't seem even remotely broken, which in turn led to his steamrolling Tampa Bay, immaculate inning and all.

"When you have the talent that he does," Zimmerman says, "that's obviously good enough to get people out. But when you combine it with the preparation, work ethic and competitiveness, that's what makes him who he is. It makes him the best pitcher in baseball."

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