Is Max Scherzer the best professional athlete in Washington, D.C.?

By | June 22, 2017
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(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Just ask yourself: how many times does a big-named, high-priced player acquisition arrive in Washington, D.C., and actually live up to the billing?

I’m not talking about “home grown” guys like John Wall, Bradley Beal, Alexander Ovechkin, or Nicklas Backstrom. I’m talking about guys who were “cultivated” elsewhere, and chose to cash in here, under the theoretical premise of “moving on to the next phase of their career” (when, in reality, they’re here to just cash in, and cost on their past accomplishments).

Chris Webber was a phenomenal basketball player basically before and after his stint in Washington. Jaromir Jagr only looked like a disinterested has-been during his four seasons here in D.C.. Even mentioning the name Albert Haynesworth in the DMV will bring about anger, disgust, and nausea.

And then there’s Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals, who signed the richest contract ever handed to a professional athlete in our nation’s capital ($210 million over seven years), luring him away from the Detroit Tigers.

Remember, this is a guy whom the team — somewhat shockingly – signed in the 2015 offseason, and handed all that money to, instead of former home-grown fan-favorite Jordan Zimmerman. While we all had started wondering whether this team would prepare their budget for the insane amount of money it would take to potentially keep Bryce Harper in town, they went out and threw almost a quarter-of-a-billion dollars on Scherzer. On top of that, they were handing that buttload of money to a guy who hadn’t made his first All-Star appearance until his was 28 years old.

When Jayson Stark (now formerly) of ESPN polled 35 MLB executives and asked them to name “the Worst Free Agent Signing” (of the 2016 offseason), almost half of them mentioned Scherzer’s name.

It was like Déjà vu all over again for D.C. sports fans.

And yet, just about two-and-a-half years later, Max Scherzer of our Washington Nationals might be the best pitcher in all of baseball. In fact, he might just be the best player on any Washington, D.C. sports team, to boot.

During their first season(s) in Washington, Webber was nursing a string of injuries (and was rumored to be enjoying “recreational substances” while off the court), Jagr looked like he was daydreaming about when he could cash his next check on every shift he played, and Haynesworth was hoping his $100 million contract entitled him to lay around on the field like a beached whale in the middle of a game.

What did Scherzer do his first season in Washington? He finished among the top 8-to-10 pitchers in baseball in virtually every category, and throwing two no-hitters in one season; his second no-hitter was one throwing error away from being a perfect game. A few baseball analysts came out and said that second no-hitter was one of the greatest pitching performances of all time, and perhaps the most dominant no-hitter ever pitched, thanks to the 17 strikeouts (his career high), lack of walks, and thorough domination of the opponent (the division-rival New York Mets).

And what did Scherzer do for an encore in 2016? How about win the Cy Young award in a landslide, accumulating 25 of 30 first-place votes, becoming only the sixth player in baseball history to win the Cy Young award in both leagues, alongside Gaylord Perry, Rogers Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and Roy Halladay.

Just go back and take a look at those names again. Then let it fully sink in that we’re mentioning Scherzer – one of our guys – in the same list as those guys.

In 2016, he went 20-7 with an ERA of 2.96, and led the National League in wins, innings (228 1/3 ), as well as all of baseball in strikeouts (284) and WHIP (0.97). In a mid-May game, just a few months after he was brought into town, he struck out 20 batters in a nine-inning game, becoming only the fifth player in the history of baseball to do so.

And given the way Scherzer has looked in 2017 to date, we might as well start calling him the “George Clooney of baseball pitchers” – being even more awesome as he gets older. This year, he’s overtaken Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers as “the pitcher you’d least want to face, if your life depended on the outcome of that at-bat.” In an apples-to-apples comparison (both Scherzer and Kershaw have started 15 games this season), Scherzer has allowed 16 fewer hits and five fewer earned runs. He’s struck out thirty more batters than Kershaw has (and the latter has struck out the second most guys in all of baseball). Scherzer is holding teams to more than half an earned run less, per game, than Kershaw (2.09 versus 2.61). His WHIP is 0.81, compared to Kershaw’s 0.93. His Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is 3.5, compared to Kershaw’s 2.7.

Across all of baseball, among pitchers who’ve thrown for at least 80 innings this year, Scherzer is:

  • #1 in Innings Pitched (107.2)
  • #1 in ERA
  • #1 in strikeouts
  • #1 in opponents batting average
  • #1 in total bases allowed to opponents
  • #1 in WHIP
  • #1 in WAR
  • #1 in Opponents On Base Percentage (.232)
  • #2 in fewest hits allowed (61)

And if you want even more proof, take a look at the analytics provided by the Washington Post’s advanced sports stats genius Neil Greenberg.

For those who want to point to Scherzer’s five losses this season – the only blemish on his résumé of work this season – let’s put things into context. For one, a pitcher’s Win-Loss record is one of the most empty stats in baseball; it’s a function of way too many independent variables, outside of how well a certain pitcher performed.

Case in point: the Nationals average a Major League-leading 5.52 runs per game (which they so desperately need, given their atrocious bullpen), but couldn’t muster up more than two runs on offense in three of Scherzer’s five losses. In four of his five losses, Scherzer allowed four or less hits through the course of the entire game. Hell, Scherzer carried a no-hitter for seven innings in yesterday’s game against the Miami Marlins, and still ended up taking a loss because the team could only score one total run (while he allowed two runs on only two hits).

Put plainly, he’s straight up mowing down people this year. As long as the Nationals offense simply does its job, and gets Scherzer about three runs worth of protection, the team is almost guaranteed a win (that is, until the horrific bullpen blows whatever lead they might’ve acquired).

We don’t know exactly how far this Nationals team can progress this postseason. We all know bad things happen to the Nationals, like any/every Washington sports team, when the postseason rolls around. We also know that this pitching rotation isn’t quite as deep and formidable as ones we’ve seen from this team in year’s past.

But however the Nationals fare down the stretch of the second half of the season, and however far they progress come October, more than any other player on the team, Scherzer is the horse that they – along with all of us D.C. sports fans – will be riding to get wherever they go.

Unlike so many contracts issued by D.C. sports teams in recent year, and unlike basically everything taking place on Capitol Hill, it’s finally nice to see big money being well-spent in our nation’s capital.

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