It’s the fastball.
For most of his career, Max Scherzer found success as a traditional power pitcher. He manifested much of that power through a ferocious competitive spirit, intimidating and often overwhelming batters with his large frame, violent delivery, and occasionally maniacal glances. And for much of his career, he threw a fastball that matched his on-field personality: powerful, heavy, and vicious.
That is not the case anymore.
He still relies on his fastball as much as ever, throwing it nearly 50% of the time, in line with his career averages. And the peripheral numbers on the fastball still look good, with a spin rate in the 85th percentile and elite horizontal movement. The problem with Scherzer’s fastball is a bit more visible: It just isn’t very fast anymore.
From 2016 to 2022, his age-31 to 37 seasons, the average velocity on Scherzer’s fastball dipped from a career-high 95 MPH to 94.1 MPH, a little under 1 mile per hour over seven seasons. And in his first five starts of 2023, his average fastball velocity has dipped another mile per hour further, down to 93.1. And with the average MLB fastball hitting a record-high 94 MPH in 2022, this is the first time in his career that Scherzer is definitively throwing a below-average fastball. Last year, it clocked in the 49th percentile, and this year it barely crosses the 35th.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time Scherzer’s average fastball velocity has dipped below 94 MPH. Brooks Baseball has Scherzer’s fastball flying that slowly as late as 2014, a season where he went 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA in a contract year with the Detroit Tigers. The difference, of course, is that the average fastball velocity for starters fell a little over 92 MPH that year, meaning that even a pre-Hall-of-Fame trajectory Scherzer threw an above-average fastball for his time. A lot happens in a decade, however, and that 93 MPH just isn’t popping the way it used to.
And the problem with the fastball isn’t just speed, but also location. Scherzer likes to pitch his fastball up in the zone, which combined with his breaking stuff is nearly unhittable—if fast enough. But batters are walloping his high pitches, hitting at a .500 batting average on pitches in the top center and top left of the strike zone. A 95-97 MPH fastball high in the zone is a big weapon, but at Scherzer’s speed batters are hitting it like a piñata without a blindfold. As in, they’re the ones without the blindfold, not the piñata. You get it.
Of the 22 hits Scherzer has given up this season so far, 16 have come off his fastball, including all four doubles and three of his six home runs. Batters are registering a 55% hard-hit rate for a monstrous .427 wOBA off the fastball, and those hits experience an average amount of BABIP luck considering the .428 xwOBA coming off the pitch. Scherzer’s fastball carries a +4 run value in 2023, which, if it holds, would mark the single worst run value off any of his pitches in the Statcast era. When it’s not fast, it simply isn’t effective.
The good news for Scherzer is that the rest of his pitches have not suffered the same dip in quality. He’s throwing his changeup more frequently than he did last year, and in an admittedly small sample size, it’s looking like his best pitch. His slider has also seen a dip in velocity, but the movement is just as killer. And his curveball...well, hitters are actually blasting that, too, with a .517 wOBA. But at least that’s his least-used pitch.
It’s possible that Scherzer’s struggles are a result of a hidden injury, but considering his age and considering his last few starts of 2022, it’s more likely that this is just how his fastball looks now. But that doesn’t need to be the end for the 38-year-old. Other older pitchers like Rich Hill and Zack Greinke have produced this season despite average fastballs clocking below 90 MPH. Even Clayton Kershaw is pitching at a superstar level with an average fastball velocity ranking in the 20th percentile. There’s plenty of time for Scherzer to find a good pitch mix and strategy to regain his effectiveness and reliability.
The trouble for the Mets is that they need Scherzer to be an ace. Along with his teammate Justin Verlander, he is the highest-paid player in baseball this season, and while the number of dollars doesn’t matter, the expectations that come with that distinction matter a lot. There is no one else on this pitching staff aside from Verlander that the Mets can look to as a legitimate ace. The Mets cannot confidently hand the ball to anyone else in the biggest games and expect a win, and if Scherzer can’t be Scherzer, then no one else can be. For a team with World Series expectations, that’s a big problem, and one that won’t improve without major changes to the rotation.