- The Washington Times
Monday, April 12, 2021

Max Muncy managed to foul off the first cutter he saw in his fourth inning at-bat Sunday against Max Scherzer. But when Scherzer hurled another cutter Muncy’s way the very next pitch — this one sliding three inches off the plate with a late horizontal run — Muncy’s swing came up empty.

In the middle innings of Scherzer’s second start this season, the Washington Nationals ace displayed his versatile pitch arsenal, the type of selection that keeps hitters guessing and whiffing. He struck out five of the seven batters he faced between the second and fourth innings against the Dodgers. Those punchouts came on three cutters, a slider and a changeup. Each batter swung; each batter missed.

During Scherzer’s seven seasons in Washington, that’s where he’s grown the most. When the Nationals signed Scherzer to a seven-year deal in 2015, he had already won a Cy Young Award. But he relied heavily on his four-seam fastball, blowing batters away.

Now, though, as the years have gone by, Scherzer has maintained his dominance through another outlet: adaptability. As baseball changes around Scherzer each season, the 36-year-old changes along with it.

“The game is always changing, evolving,” Scherzer said. “And that’s the good part, that you have to do that as well.”

Scherzer’s fastball is still effective. Much of his success Sunday — and his success throughout his time in Washington — revolves around how he places his four-seam heater. But the development of Scherzer’s secondary pitches factor into his longevity atop the starting rotation.

When Scherzer won the Cy Young in 2013 with the Detroit Tigers, he threw his fastball on 56% of his pitches. He mixed in a slider, curveball and changeup. Since signing with Washington, though, those secondary pitches have become larger parts of his repertoire, and Scherzer added the cutter to the mix.

The cutter — which he throws on average a tick under 90 mph — has more horizontal movement than his four-seamer. That pitch gives Scherzer another weapon to employ, and he displayed the usefulness Sunday. When he struck out Muncy and Gavin Lux with that pitch, both cutters ran in on the left-handed hitters, proving unhittable.

Scherzer employed the cutter just 0.6% of the time in 2015, according to FanGraphs data. In 2020, the right-hander threw his cutter 10% of the time, and his four-seam fastball usage dropped to a career-low 46%. And through 12 innings in 2021, Scherzer’s relying on the cutter at an 11.6% rate.

“I had [the cutter] in 2015, but I’ve been able to kind of understand the break of that pitch a little better and how I can locate it and who I can pitch it to and not to,” Scherzer said. “And so I feel like having those pitches be better has allowed me to grow as a pitcher, along with the slider, along with the changeup, to really have for my mind a deeper arsenal to be able to attack guys with.”

Catcher Alex Avila, who worked with Scherzer in Detroit, saw the first steps Scherzer took to combat left-handed batters, such as Lux and Muncy with a pair of devastating cutters. Scherzer’s slider has long been difficult for right-handed batters to compete against, but when Scherzer began using his slider and cutter against lefties, the real breakthrough came.

Avila pointed to Scherzer’s Cy Young year in 2013 as the point the pitcher became one of the best in the game, using breaking balls or cutters to dive into left-handed batters. That takes precision and control, running a ball in on a batter without carrying it too far.

The main hurdle for Scherzer was mental with the Tigers. Avila said the ace first became comfortable throwing his curveball to left-handers. Once he got that pitch down, the slider and cutter came next. And now, Scherzer doesn’t have any inhibitions.

It opened a lot of things up for him as far as a pitch selection and game-planning standpoint,” Avila said. “And then he’s obviously taken it to another level being here in Washington and being able to use all of his pitches regardless of what side the batter is on.”

The importance of Scherzer’s deeper arsenal is two-fold. For one, as Scherzer works late into games, he can change his approach to hitters each time through the batting order. But as Scherzer sees National League East opponents over and over, changing his methods game to game becomes paramount, too.

With a rise in analytics and video helping batters with their plate approach, Scherzer understands the “cat-and-mouse game” between hitters and pitchers. He embraces that challenge, looking for ways to stay one step ahead of his competition.

Sometimes they catch up, or sometimes he’s not as exact, such as when he allowed four solo home runs on opening day. But for the most part, Scherzer’s seven years with the Nationals have been defined by his eagerness to adapt — and the results have followed.

“I have really grown up here in D.C.,” Scherzer said. “On the field, I continue to evolve as a pitcher, continue to add pitches, and just refined everything I’m able to do on the mound.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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