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The Best at Being Second-Best

As long as Clayton Kershaw is still pitching, every other starter in the majors is competing for the silver medal. Who’s no. 2? According to a bunch of big leaguers, it’s Max Scherzer.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Baseball has always been a numbers game, but players and teams are getting smarter than ever — and fans are, too. Throughout The Ringer’s 2017 MLB preview, in a series we’re calling “How to Baseball,” our experts will explore the developments that stand to change the way the game is played and consumed. We’ve never known more, and while knowledge is power, it’s also a wellspring of questions. We hope to answer some of them — and to remind you all to bunt wisely.

We know Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball by his statistical record (four ERA titles, three strikeout titles), list of accolades (six straight All-Star appearances, three Cy Young awards), or just the eye test. But perhaps the clearest sign that he’s the best pitcher in baseball is that nobody asks who the best pitcher in baseball is anymore; it’s just not an interesting question. Instead, the interesting questions now involve things like “best stuff,” which allows us to pit Noah Syndergaard’s fastball against Kershaw’s slider, or “If you had to win one game …” which allows Kershaw’s 4.55 career postseason ERA to wedge open the door for Madison Bumgarner.

So, let’s take Kershaw out of it. Who’s the second-best pitcher in baseball?

Over a week in Arizona for spring training, I posed these questions to several big league players: If Kershaw’s the best, who’s second? And what qualities does a pitcher need to get to that level?

The answers were diverse, but instructive. Several players named current or former teammates, and Angels righty Cam Bedrosian was quick to stand up for his fellow relievers — “there’s so many good ones in the bullpen and other roles that aren’t glorified as much” — but the name that came up most was Nationals ace Max Scherzer.

In and of itself, that doesn’t mean that much. This was hardly a scientific survey, and while it’s important to get the players’ perspective, that perspective isn’t gospel. There’s an important distinction between a professional ballplayer and a professional evaluator of ballplayers.

Except, the number of different things these players valued struck me. The best pitchers in baseball have many different ways to attack hitters, can adapt to different situations, and repeat their success over 30 or more starts a year for several years in a row. The second-best pitcher in baseball has to be good at everything.

The other striking result is how many of those qualities apply to Scherzer, who is the second-best pitcher in baseball because he is good at everything.

1. Longevity and Consistency

“Just being able to execute, to be able to do it time after time, again and again. That’s what separates a minor leaguer, from their first day to winning the World Series. Just being able to execute more times than not.” — Cam Bedrosian, Los Angeles Angels

From the point he enters professional baseball, it usually takes a few years for a pitcher to mature into a quality starter. International amateurs and American high school draftees enter the system as teenagers, so while they frequently miss entirely, sometimes you get a freak like Kershaw, Bumgarner, or Julio Urias who’s able to skip the line and pitch in the majors at 19 or 20.

College pitchers don’t even enter the professional development system until age 21 or so, and the ones that turn into good pitchers tend to take one of three forms: those that come predeveloped (David Price), those that reach the big leagues quickly and develop later (Chris Sale), and those that take years in the minors to develop (Corey Kluber). Scherzer falls between the second and third pots. He reached the majors at 23 and won a full-time rotation spot at 24, but didn’t turn into Max Scherzer until he led the majors in K/9 when he was 27.

Since then, Scherzer’s been frighteningly consistent. He’s thrown 187 or more innings with an ERA+ of 114 and K/9 of 10 or better in each of the past five seasons and posted three seasons of at least 210 innings and an ERA+ of 140 or better.

Since 2012, Scherzer is second in innings pitched (to Price), second in WAR (to Kershaw), and first in strikeouts. Among pitchers who have thrown 700 or more innings in that time, he’s first in K%, fourth in ERA+ (behind Kershaw, Johnny Cueto, and Sale), and third in opponent batting average and OPS+ (behind Kershaw and Jake Arrieta).

Longevity and consistency set Scherzer apart from two of his biggest rivals for the no. 2 spot: Arrieta and Syndergaard. Arrieta became one of the best pitchers in baseball suddenly at age 29 and stayed there for about a year and a half. His second-half numbers in 2015–12–1, 0.75 ERA, .409 opponent OPS — made Kershaw look merely pretty good. But in 2016, Arrieta took a step back — 197.1 IP, 129 ERA+, 8.7 K/9 — which is still really good, but no more so than a dozen other starting pitchers, and at age 31, that otherworldly 2015 performance could well be a thing of the past.

Longevity is the whole question with Syndergaard. If you think 333.2 career innings are enough of a track record to put him on Scherzer’s level, the rate stats (137 ERA+, 10.4 K/9) bear that out, but Syndergaard’s career high in innings pitched is 183.2, a number Scherzer’s beaten every year since 2009.

A stress reaction in Scherzer’s right ring finger might imperil that streak in 2017, or it might not. Although the injury kept him out of the World Baseball Classic, Scherzer was so determined to return for Opening Day that he started toying with a three-finger fastball grip so he could build up his arm strength without waiting for the finger to heal. Which brings us to quality no. 2.

2. Competitiveness

“With Scherzer … you can tell the intensity with every pitch. It’s like, ‘I’m gonna get you right here.’ As a hitter, you hate it, but you kind of feed off it, too. It’s kind of like a fight, when the pitcher’s feeling that juice, and you’re feeling it, too — if he wins, he wins, but that’s a cool feeling.” — Eric Thames, Milwaukee Brewers

Competitiveness is impossible to quantify. From shouting and pounding their fists to smoldering in silent solitude, different people manifest that attitude in different ways. But Giants infielder Gordon Beckham cited that as a reason for picking Sale, and Dodgers catcher Bobby Wilson said it’s what sets Kershaw apart from the field.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“The first day that I got here, we’re doing grip tests in the weight room for our physicals, and he wants to know who’s the best, who has the most,” Wilson said. “He just always wants to be the best at everything, and I think that really drives him for his continued success.”

Moments later, a roar cut through the white noise of the crowded Dodgers clubhouse. It was Kershaw, fighting noisily through the late points of a table tennis match, as he and partner Darnell Sweeney tried to advance to the final of the team’s doubles tournament.

For as structured as the life of a pro athlete can be, it takes a measure of self-motivation to go out and develop a new pitch, stay in good enough shape to throw 200 or more innings again, or, say, find a creative way to work around an injury.

3. Tunneling

“Wade Davis is my nemesis, for sure. He’s got it all — throwing 98, good curveball, hard cutter, ball looks the same out of his hand. … Not being able to recognize it immediately, when his stuff is that good, makes it even more difficult for players to hit.” — Eric Sogard, Milwaukee Brewers

What Sogard is describing is a phenomenon called pitch tunneling, the subject of a recent research series by Jeff Long, Jonathan Judge, and Harry Pavlidis of Baseball Prospectus. While the distance from the rubber to the plate is 60 feet, 6 inches, the pitcher releases the ball about six feet closer to the plate, and the hitter has to make a decision on whether to swing, and where, when the ball’s about 24 feet from the plate.

Pitch tunneling research quantifies how the ball looks when the hitter has to decide to swing, how much the ball moves afterward, and how much those numbers vary from pitch to pitch, within a player’s repertoire. The more similar a pitcher’s various offerings look at that 24-foot point, the harder the batter’s decision is because he doesn’t know what pitch is coming, and the more a ball breaks after that tunnel point, the harder it is to hit.

Scherzer doesn’t do this all that well on the aggregate. Among pitchers with 1,000 pitch pairs last year, you’ll find the names you’d expect near the top of the post-tunnel break leaderboard: Kershaw (no. 1), Rich Hill (no. 3), Yu Darvish (no. 9). Scherzer is 77th out of 162 in post-tunnel break and 73rd in tunnel differential, the measure of how tightly grouped those pitches are at the tunnel point — in other words, how similar they look to the hitter. (Syndergaard is no. 4 on this list.) BP also measures break-tunnel ratio, which rewards pitchers either for a big break throughout the trajectory of the ball, or a tight grouping from the release point to the tunnel point. By this measure, Scherzer’s still 73rd, about middle of the pack.

While Scherzer has kind of a funky, low-arm slot delivery for a power pitcher, you can’t chalk up the middle-of-the-pack tunneling numbers to a variety of arm slots the way you could with Rich Hill. The 37-year-old has the second-biggest release point variability in baseball, and has by far the largest tunnel differential — the difference between Hill and no. 2 Jerad Eickhoff is about the same as the difference between Eickhoff and no. 23 Aaron Sanchez.

Here’s a chart of Hill’s release points, with his Frisbee trick shot windup …

… versus Scherzer’s, where we see some variation from pitch to pitch, but fewer outliers, like that one sidearm sinker in the corner of Hill’s graph:

So everything doesn’t look the same at 24 feet out, but when you look at Scherzer’s stuff on a pitch-by-pitch basis, that matters less than it might for others.

4. Stuff

“When you have a swing-and-miss pitch you get the strikeouts, you get out of the jams, the playing field’s always on the pitcher’s side, because you can always go back to it and the hitters can’t do anything about it.

“Most guys come up and have a hard fastball and a put-away type of slider, or maybe a curveball, or sometimes a changeup. When you have three pitches, now we’re talking about a guy that’s at the upper echelon. And if they stay healthy the whole time, look at the numbers they’ll put up.” — Cole Hamels, Texas Rangers

Where Scherzer makes up some ground is by having a wide variety of weapons. Last year, when he threw a fastball, the next pitch was another fastball 717 times, with an average difference of 0.0033 seconds of flight time and about half an inch of post-tunnel break between the two fastballs. But 126 times, the next pitch was a curveball, with an average of 0.0812 seconds of difference in flight time and about seven inches of post-tunnel break. He could also call on his slider and changeup (which he did 314 and 247 times, respectively); both come in at about 86 miles an hour and break three or four inches after the tunnel point, the changeup down and slightly in to righties, the slider down and in to lefties.

That fastball-curveball differential isn’t as big as Kershaw’s, but that’s a high standard. The difference between Kershaw’s fastball and curveball is more than a tenth of a second in flight time and 13 inches in post-tunnel break, which I suppose he accomplishes by attaching a parachute to the ball like those plastic army men kids play with.

However, Scherzer’s legitimate four-pitch repertoire gives him a dimension that strict fastball-slider pitchers like Kluber and Sale don’t have, even though their sliders are better and Kluber gets around this by using three different fastballs — a sinker, a cutter, and a four-seamer. Bumgarner changes speed and break from his curveball to either his fastball or cutter better than Scherzer does, but he doesn’t have a changeup or slider to speak of. Johnny Cueto used 22 different two-pitch combinations more than 50 times last year (compared with 16 for Kluber and Syndergaard, 11 for Scherzer, and only eight for Kershaw), but his fastball is more than 2 miles an hour slower than Scherzer’s on average.

Part of how the quality and diversity of Scherzer’s stuff manifests itself is his ability to put up absurd single-game numbers: You’re not going to hit that well if you don’t know what’s coming and couldn’t hit it even if you did. In the past five years, Scherzer has 17 starts with a game score of 80 or higher, including two no-hitters and a record-tying 20-strikeout game. Only Kershaw and Sale have more.

Outside of Kershaw, only Syndergaard and Arrieta can match Scherzer not only for quality of stuff but variety of stuff. When Hamels was talking about having three killer pitches, the next name out of his mouth was Syndergaard’s. If Syndergaard puts up a couple of 200-inning seasons and keeps pitching the way he has so far, this is a different conversation, but while the stuff is there, the numbers aren’t yet.

5. Everything

“Every time [Scherzer] goes out there he goes seven, eight, nine innings. … Just from a stuff standpoint, he’s top of the line, as good as anybody. Obviously, it’s hard to pinpoint anybody to follow Kershaw, but if I had to pick somebody, I’d pick Scherzer.

“If somebody’s no. 2 in the whole world, basically, then it’s the whole package. I don’t think you can pinpoint — it’s not just his fastball, it’s not just his changeup, it’s not just his durability. It’s everything.” — Alex Meyer, Los Angeles Angels

By now, you might have noticed a trend. The first guy on most of these leaderboards is Kershaw — he’s got the best command, the best stuff, the most durability. But Scherzer’s not the clear no. 2 in any individual category: He hasn’t thrown more innings than Price, his stuff isn’t better than Syndergaard’s or Arrieta’s, his per-inning results aren’t better than Sale’s, or Kluber’s, or even Cueto’s.

When you put it all together, though, none of the other non-Kershaw options match up. He has command of a four-pitch arsenal, including a top-notch fastball, and in a business where just being able to make 30 starts a year is a huge asset, he’s one of the most durable pitchers in the game. There’s no one quality that makes Scherzer clearly better than other competitors, but nobody except Kershaw has all of the qualities that makes Scherzer so great.