Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer threw a no-hitter today, defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-0. It was almost a perfect game but he hit a batter with two outs in the ninth. For a detailed look at the game, Federal Baseball has this post you should read. For the historical perspective here's a summary of Scherzer's career leading up to this supreme moment.
St. Louis native Max Scherzer had an unimpressive freshman year with the University of Missouri in 2004, posting a 5.85 ERA with a 23/16 K/BB in 20 innings, almost all of them in relief. His sophomore season in 2005 was much better: he moved into the rotation, posted a 1.86 ERA and ran up a 131/41 K/BB in 106 innings, allowing a mere 59 hits.
His 2006 season wasn't as good although it was still strong: 2.25 ERA in 80 innings with a 78/23 K/BB and 57 hits allowed. He was bothered by nagging injuries and there was concern that he might have to move to relief in pro ball. Some scouts didn't like his delivery and the junior season health issues were a caution flag. He was still selected 11th overall in the first round by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
As was occasionally done under the old draft rules, Scherzer held out for a maximum bonus and signed with independent Fort Worth of the American Association, threatening to re-enter the draft pool in 2007. After posting a 25/4 K/BB in 16 innings with a 0.56 ERA in indy ball, negotiations were eventually concluded. Following his signing with Arizona, he went to Visalia in the Cal League and posted a 0.53 ERA with a 30/2 K/BB in 17 innings. Very similar numbers which imply that the independent American Association at the time was approximately equivalent to A-ball in competition.
Scherzer moved up to Double-A Mobile after the Visalia tuneup, but struggled at times, with a 3.91 ERA and a 76/40 K/BB in 74 innings. He had a good strikeout rate, but too many walks. Worse, there were further concerns about his health. His velocity was notably down at Mobile, just 88-93 MPH, and his secondary pitches weren't as crisp. There were some "I told you sos" going around at that point.
He went to the Arizona Fall League and was used in relief, getting his heater back up to 93-98. I rated him as a Grade B+ prospect entering 2008, the main worries being durability and role.
Scherzer opened '08 with Triple-A Tucson, posting a 2.72 ERA in 52 innings with a 79/22 K/BB. Promoted to the majors, he remained effective in a split starter/reliever role, with a 3.05 ERA in 56 innings and a 66/21 K/BB, losing rookie eligibility. He moved into the rotation full-time in '09 but his 9-11, 4.12 ERA in 30 starts was considered somewhat disappointing by some, although his numbers were above average overall.
Traded to the Detroit Tigers as part of a huge three-team deal with the Yankees and D-backs, Scherzer improved with the change of scenery (not that he was bad in the first place), proving his durability in time and emerging as one of the top strikeout starters in baseball, pitching as a genuine ace for the last thee years and eventually moving on to the Nationals as a free agent. He's collected 28.7 fWAR in 1333 innings.
In historical terms, Scherzer's top comparables through age 29 are Matt Morris, Roy Halladay, John Lackey, Dan Haren, Jered Weaver, Pat Malone, Jon Lester, Brandon Webb, and David Cone. There are several close contemporaries there. Morris and Webb burned out quickly from this point. 1920s/30s starter Malone was on the downhill slope and done as an ace-type by age 32. Cone remained very effective through age 35. Lackey had a serious injury at age 32 but has been able to rebound. Weaver was solid enough at ages 30 and 31 but is now struggling for the first time at 32. Haren has been okay but isn't as sharp as he was pre-30.
The Halladay and Cone comps look apt to me, and with Scherzer currently pitching the best baseball of his life, a rapid burnout doesn't seem especially likely. His velocity is actually up this year and his control is better than ever. That said, while there are no signs of a collapse on the horizon, diminution of effectiveness during the life of a seven-year contract has to be expected.
Overall, although his long-term durability past age 30 is still in question, Scherzer has fully lived up to the expectations generated as a college ace, even exceeding them.