Friday, May 25, 2012

Max Scherzer’s Strange Season

Scherzer pitched a great game on Sunday, 7 IP, 2 ER, 1 BB, 15 K.  Those 15 strikeouts propelled Scherzer to the top of the leader board in K/9 at 11.65.  Scherzer also leads in another category, batting average on balls in play (BABIP) at .394.  This is a main reason why his ERA is an unimpressive 5.73, even though there are several ERA predictors that say it should be lower (3.88 FIP, 3.34 xFIP, 4.19 tERA, 3.00 SIERA).

One of the things that made Sunday’s start so impressive was that all 15 strikeouts were swinging strikeouts.  His swinging strike percentage* (12.5%) has been high all year, currently tied for second only behind Cole Hamels (13.0%).  Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson also have a 12.5% swinging strikeout percentage.

*Swinging strikeout percentage is the number of swing and misses divided by total number of pitches.

Looking further in PITCH f/x data, batters have swung at 47.9% of his pitches.  Only 79.3% of those swings has contact was made, which is currently 4th lowest in all of baseball behind Anthony Bass, Edwin Jackson and Cole Hamels.  Batters have swung at 68.1% of the pitches that were in the strike zone, but again, batters haven’t been making a lot of contact, only 79.3% of those swings contact was made (3rd lowest in the league behind Justin Verlander and Matt Moore). 

So, Scherzer has done a great job of deception; lots of swings with very little contact.  The contact that has been made has been damaging….or has it?   Not all balls in play are equal.  Line drives are base hits more often then fly balls and ground balls.  Ground balls are preferable because they lack the extra base potential that fly balls have (for example it’s impossible to hit a home run when hitting a ground ball).

Scherzer’s breakdown is:
2012 – 20.3% LD, 37.6% GB, 42.1% FB, 0.89 GB/FB
2011 – 20.2% LD, 40.3% GB, 39.5% FB, 1.02 GB/FB
Career – 20.2% LD, 40.6% GB, 39.2% FB, 1.04 GB/FB

The line drive rate is the most important one, as most damage is done with that, but Scherzer’s rate is nearly identical to what he’s always done.  He is allowing more fly balls than ground balls, which is the opposite of what he usually does.  In fact, fly balls are base hits less often than ground balls, so this reversal should show a lower BABIP, not a higher one.  This is the reason why his ERA predictors are lower than his actual ERA.

There are two things against Scherzer.  His BB rate has never been higher, currently at 3.51 BB/9.  And he’s allowed more home runs than ever before, he currently has a 14.3% HR/FB ratio.  However, neither of these stats show up in BABIP; walks aren’t hits and home runs aren’t “in play.”

One conclusion is that the Tigers defense is awful…and well, it is.  The Tigers are 24th in defensive runs saved at -18, and 29th in Ultimate Zone Rating at -15.7.  So, therefore, the other Tigers pitchers must be experiencing high BABIP, right?  No, not really.

Justin Verlander is 3rd in all of baseball with the lowest BABIP at .221.  Verlander has been just as good as Scherzer in deception.  He’s tied for 5th in all of baseball in lowest contact rate at 74.3% (Scherzer is 4th at 73.9%).  Verlander leads all of baseball in lowest contact rate in the zone at 77.9% (Scherzer is 3rd at 79.3%). 

Verlander is better at limiting the damage of contact:
Verlander – 18.9% LD, 40.5% GB, 40.5% FB, 1.00 GB/FB
Scherzer - 20.3% LD, 37.6% GB, 42.1% FB, 0.89 GB/FB

However, that’s not a dramatic difference and certainly not one that should result in a 173 point difference in BABIP.  So what is making Verlander’s BABIP so low and Scherzer’s so high?  The only logical explanation is that this an aberration resulting in a small sample size.  Scherzer has only pitched a little over 48 innings this year and if he continues to do what he has been doing, everything should equal out by season’s end.  


  1. is it really impossible to hit a HR when hitting a ground ball?? what if you hit a screaming grounder to deep center fielder and you have a speed burner? Don't think its impossible.

    1. Give me a real life example of that happening.

  2. Interesting read. I hope with it comes to "equaling out" by season's end that means Scherzer's numbers dropping and Verlander's not rising!

    One thing that pitching stats are difficult to account for is the timing of the bad. When Scherzer has been bad, he has been really bad. So his runs have come in bunches. If a guy only gives up 4 hits and 2 walks in a game, but all are in the same inning, he may give up 4+ runs. If those were spread out, he might not give up any. Scherzer is a streaky as they come. His hits and walks seem to always come in bunches.

  3. Good article, let me know any conclusions.