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Prospect Retrospective: Max Scherzer

A look at what Nationals starter Max Scherzer was like as a prospect

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Washington Nationals send ace starter Max Scherzer to the mound today against Jose Quintana and the Chicago Cubs in the 2017 National League division series. Scherzer of course has been one of the best pitchers in baseball for years and he was an excellent prospect ten years ago. Let’s take a look at his career.

Max Scherzer was a dominant pitcher for the University of Missouri in 2005, posting a 1.86 ERA in 106 innings with a 131/41 K/BB. Viewed as a possible first-overall selection for 2006, he instead suffered through injuries in the spring and fell to 11th overall, though on a per-inning basis he remained strong (2.25, 78/23 K/BB in 80 innings).

Drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks, he held out and temporarily pitched for Fort Worth of the independent American Association in the spring of 2007 before finally coming to terms. His report based on what he did in college:

Scherzer is doing one of those Scott Boras holdout things, and as of this writing (late November 2006) he has yet to sign. The 11th player picked overall last year, Scherzer suffered through an injury-plagued spring for the University of Missouri, but still went in the first round on the basis of his 92- 95 MPH fastball, his solid slider and his adequate-but-improving changeup. Some people think he’ll be a closer eventually, since his game relies more on power than finesse, plus there are concerns about his durability. At this point it is all speculation. He certainly has a first-class arm, and he pitched very well in college when he wasn’t bothered by tendonitis. We’ll go with a default Grade B+, until we find out more about how he takes to pro ball, how healthy his arm is, and what his role will be.

Once the contract shenanigans were over Scherzer performed decently but not excellently in Double-A, posting a 3.91 ERA in 74 innings with a 76/40 K/BB. His command was erratic and he had trouble holding his velocity at times, leading to more speculation about a bullpen future. His report entering 2008:

Max Scherzer pulled the Scott Boras “hold out then go to indy ball and sign at the last second” stunt last year. Drafted in the first round from the University of Missouri in ’06, Scherzer hits 95-96 MPH with his heater, and also has a very good slider. His control was excellent early in the season, but as the ’07 campaign wore on, he started to lose the touch with his command. He lost velocity, too, leading some scouts to worry about his health: his arm bugged him at times for Mizzou in ’06 as well. However, Scherzer was throwing 94-95 MPH in the Arizona Fall League, so his trouble at Mobile was probably just a dead-arm period. The Diamondbacks like Scherzer as a starter, but personally I think he fits better in the bullpen. His changeup needs a lot of work, and I think he’s more likely to remain healthy if used in relief. His ceiling is impressive, but there are still some questions about his command and durability. Grade B+.

Scherzer split 2008 between Triple-A and the majors, exceeding rookie qualifications and performing well as both a starter and reliever (3.05 ERA in 56 innings, 66/21 KB). The Diamondbacks made him a full-time starter in 2009 and he was competent enough, going 9-11, 4.11 in 170 innings.

Arizona Diamondbacks v New York Mets
Max Scherzer 2009
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Traded to the Detroit Tigers, he locked down a rotation spot and set aside any worries about his durability, logging 32-33 starts per season with steadily increasing dominance. He won 21 games and a Cy Young award in 2013, then continued dominating after signing with the Washington Nationals as a free agent in the winter of 2015. He’s been worth every dime.

Overall, Scherzer has a 141-75 record, 3.30 ERA in 1897 innings, ERA+127, two Cy Young awards, and has exceeded 200 strikeouts six years in a row. Durability has turned into one of his best assets, and my early fears that he would end up in the bullpen for health reasons were obviously misplaced and badly so.

He’s collected 43.7 fWAR over 10 seasons; his weakest season among the last five still show him with 5.2 fWAR in 2014.

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers
Max Scherzer, 2014
Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Comparable pitchers to this point in his career by Sim Score include David Price, Adam Wainwright, Johnny Cueto, Johan Santana, Denny McClain, Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester, Gary Nolan, and Sal Maglie, mostly contemporaries but certainly an impressive list.

If Scherzer’s career ended today his 43.7 fWAR over 1897 innings would put him in a unique spot: the only pitcher other than Scherzer with fWAR value between 40 and 50 with fewer than 2000 innings is Dizzy Dean at 40.9 in 1967 innings.

Scherzer is on a Hall of Fame trajectory.

MLB: NLDS-Washington Nationals Workout Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports