Scherzer’s Devastating Slider Diminished as Season Progressed

I’ve been told it’s good to “throw a brick through the window” and grab readers’ attention with a really bold statement right off the bat, so here goes: Max Scherzer is a decent pitcher. Please don’t accuse me of click-bait for saying that, I’m just trying to generate some interest here.

Dude’s possessed of John Lackey’s rabid-bulldog mentality on the mound, but has the mid-90’s heater and devastating slider to go with it. In this latest iteration of his perpetual Cy Young candidacy, it’s that latter offering that has really stood out. Scherzer’s slide-piece graded out as the third-most valuable pitch in baseball, saving 30 runs to finish just behind Corey Kluber’s curveball (37.8) and Justin Verlander’s fastball (32.9).

Just like assuming Kyle Schwarber is a .211 hitter right now, thinking that Scherzer’s slider will be as effective in October as it was through June is wholly fallacious.

When looking at value adjust to a 100-pitch basis, Scherzer’s 3.33 runs saved is 52 percent higher than second-place Jhoulys Chacin (2.19). That’s just not right and it’s enough to have you shaking in your shoes at the thought of the Cubs and their swing-and-miss tendencies having to face it. But you and I aren’t doing that because we know the measure of a pitcher isn’t just in the cumulative stats he’s put up all year.

Just like assuming Kyle Schwarber is a .211 hitter right now, thinking that Scherzer’s slider will be as effective in October as it was through June is wholly fallacious. Which is to say that we need to look at the trends he’s established with the pitch over the course of the season, particularly what has been going on lately. I put together a handy little chart to provide some context for our discourse, which I fear may go a little deeper than what I’d first planned.

As you can see, the vast majority of Scherzer’s success with the slider came in first half of the season, and nearly all of that came prior to July. With the exception of his velocity, which remained relatively static (more on that later), each of the statistical categories swung markedly in the favor of opposing hitters over the second half of the season.

A smarter man, one who better understood the limits of his analytical abilities, would have stopped right there with the satisfaction that he’d revealed Scherzer’s mortality. Lucky for us, I’m no such man. Curious to find out what, if anything, had changed for the pitcher, I dug a little deeper into the results.

Scherzer’s slider has mainly 12-6 movement…but there’s been a noticeable increase in glove-side run over the second half of the season.

Given the similar velocity averages, we can probably rule out fatigue or injury on any serious scale. My next inclination was to look at the movement the powerful righty was generating on his premier pitch. Scherzer’s slider has mainly 12-6 movement, so you’d expect to see a fair bit of drop to go along with the traditional sweep.¬†That’s definitely been the case all all season long, but there’s been a noticeable increase in glove-side run over the second half of the season.

But more movement should be better, right? Maybe to an extent, but too much movement can result in a pitch falling out of the zone enough that hitters can hold off on it. To wit, check out the drops in both swing and whiff percentage on the slider in the latter months of the season as shown in that chart above. It should come as no surprise that Scherzer’s walk rate jumped as well, from 1.89 BB/9 in the first half to 3.48 in the second.

The heatmaps below offer a visual representation of Scherzer’s slider location in the two halves of the season. You can clearly see how he was working in the zone early and then exhibited shakier control over time as that sweep increased.

2nd half slider location

And we have now reached the latest checkpoint in our journey, another chance for me to decide to end the ride after honing in on this flaw in Scherzer’s game. We’ve established that his slider is not nearly as effective and that he’s getting fewer swings and misses, which is due in large part to the fact that he’s throwing it out of the zone more often (hey, that sounds like Jake Arrieta last year).

I still felt compelled to press on, but wasn’t really sure which direction to take. So I reached out to Eno Sarris of FanGraphs, who told me that Scherzer will manipulate the slider depending on the handedness of the batter. He throws it harder and with less movement to lefties, then takes a little off to make it a little more of a cutter with more movement against righties.

Whether by choice or necessity, Scherzer appears to have dialed back the power slider and may be getting more movement as a result.

Perhaps, Sarris posited, Scherzer simply saw more righties in the second half, which could account for the increased movement and would also indicate a dip in velo. Said dip doesn’t show up in a big way with aggregate numbers, but becomes evident when viewing pitch speed on a monthly basis.¬†Except Scherzer actually saw even more lefties as a percentage of overall batters after the break. So did I push it too far and arrive at an impasse?

Nah, I think there’s something there. Whether by choice or necessity, Scherzer appears to have dialed back the power slider and may be getting more movement as a result. I’ll spare you further graphical evidence and will ask you to believe me that Scherzer has seen drops of about 1.5 mph in both versions of his slider from June to September. That may not seem like much, but it’s significant when we’re talking elite-level hitters being able to recognize and time up a pitch.

It’s also significant when it comes to Scherzer’s lack of command, which goes beyond just working less in the zone. I know I avoided graphs just a few moments ago, but I think it makes sense to share a couple with you this time. Take a look below at the similarities between horizontal movement and grooved pitches.

Huh, more movement on the slider equals less control, which leads to more walks and more grooved pitches. That’s clearly evident in batting average and slugging percentage marks that are more than 2.5 times higher in the second half than they were in the first. Lefties in particular have been crushing the slider since July — to the tune of a .692 slugging percentage — though the sample is minuscule because Scherzer has backed off the of power version of the pitch.

Batting average and slugging percentage marks against the slider are more than 2.5 times higher in the second half than they were in the first.

And that’s exactly why I want to see Kyle Schwarber in the lineup against Scherzer. No, I need to see Schwarber in there. While the slugger has only slashed .141/.172/.256 against power pitchers this year, we have to make some allowances for the fact that he’s been much better since his demotion. Maybe he gets a hanging slider or maybe Scherzer pipes a fastball; either way, the result could be another of those demoralizing dingers that have become his hallmark.

Righties have looked better against Scherzer’s slider too, with a .205/.239/.273 slash that represents a huge jump over the .099/.099/.143 line they posted through mid-July. Again, this is one of those looks-small-but-is-actually-big numbers when we’re talking about the tiny incremental leverage points teams need to find in October baseball. While Scherzer is easily one of the best in the game, he’s not been pitching his best game since about June.

We’re talking about tiny incremental leverage points teams need to find in October baseball.

I’ve been taking a magnifying glass to Scherzer’s performance here, so it’s important to note that he’s got more than just the slider in his arsenal. As such, he’s still a very dangerous pitcher and can never be taken lightly. But he’s far from unbeatable and looks to be without what had been his biggest weapon. Now it’s a matter of the Cubs taking advantage of that weakness.

Then you’ve got the matter of his tweaked hamstring, which was still giving him trouble as of Tuesday and could further impact the results we just pored over. It may end up being nothing, but it may also impact his ability to drive through that right leg and really finish his pitches. We all saw that from Arrieta, who got shelled in his last start before admitting that he’d had to change his delivery to compensate for a leg that wasn’t 100 percent.

As of post time, I’m not sure exactly when the Cubs will face Max Scherzer in the NLDS, but I can tell you that I’m feeling a lot better about the matchup than I was when I started writing this.

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