Garrett Craig made an interesting point today in his piece “Max Scherzer & Strikeout History” here on MCB: Scherzer has a historically high strikeout rate, a very reasonable walk rate and no unusual difficulty vis a vis stranding runners. And yet… his ERA is a very pedestrian 4.13. For this to be possible – that Scherzer is exceptionally good at one very important thing and pretty good at two other very important things and nonetheless mediocre on the whole he must be absolutely terrible at something else. He is and that thing seems to be Batting Average on Balls in Play. Max Scherzer has been historically bad as far as BABIP is concerned this season – his .347 is currently the 8th worst BABIP among qualified starters since the end of the dead ball era. [The record is held by Phillies starter Les Sweetland in 1930 with .357] Why?
As it is mostly understood today, pitchers do have a little ability to influence BABIP, as do defenders and the hitters themselves but a lot of the season-to-season and player-to-player variation is nothing more than random chance. Our explanation will follow this basic framework. Some of it is Scherzer’s fault. Some of it is the fault of Tigers defenders. Some of it is the fault of his opponents. Some of it is – probably – luck.
First, the blame on Scherzer. In theory a pitcher that induces weak contact will have a better BABIP. That isn’t really a complete story – a pitcher that lets the batter hit a pitch slightly different than the pitch the batter was going for should have a better BABIP. Late movement – better BABIP. Irregular movement – better BABIP. Changing speeds and using all parts of the plate – better BABIP. If you simply can’t do any of those things particularly well, you will probably fail as a major league pitcher – hence the observed fact that AAAA pitchers seem to have a BABIP far higher than league average. Max has never been particularly stellar in regards to keeping BABIP low despite really nasty stuff. League average tends to be in the .290s – Scherzer’s career mark is .314 (exactly the same as his 2011 BABIP allowed). I would hypothesize that Scherzer’s nasty stuff is partly to blame. Wait, wait, hear me out – there is at least a little logic to it. If another pitcher, say Rick Porcello, gets contact on his own terms when he makes the pitch he wants to make Scherzer misses the bat entirely. His stuff is so good he is nigh unhittable – unless he makes a mistake. BABIP (and HR/FB etc…) on “mistakes” is bound to be high – those balls get hit hard. Scherzer may be no more likely to make a mistake than any other pitcher BUT he winds up throwing a lot of pitches (and a lot of pitches in or near the zone) because he isn’t inducing contact early in the count – his 22% line drive rate does imply that guys are having their way with these pitches. All else equal – strikeouts up could mean BABIP up. That assumes that Scherzer has a special sort of skill set, though. There are many examples of pitchers (especially relievers) with both high K rates and low BABIPs – like Mariano Rivera.
Next the blame on his defense and park. As we all know, Comerica park is a difficult place to hit a home run but not a difficult place to hit a single, double or triple. The outfield is big. As we also know – the Tigers defense this year has not been a thing of beauty. BABIP allowed for the team as a whole, not just Scherzer, is .310 compared to an MLB average of .293. If we assume that Scherzer’s “true” BABIP is actually .310 that bad-D inflation would pump it up to .327. That’s still lower than his actual .347 (though still awful) but we’re getting closer. Part of this is poor range in the outfield, not getting to balls in the gaps. Part of it accounts for the high number of infield hits that Scherzer has allowed this year – allowing hits on 10% of all infield ground balls is a lot.
Next for the blame/credit on Scherzer’s opponents. It is pretty normal to see BIG gaps in BABIP allowed depending on the side of the plate the batter is swinging from. In Scherzer’s case these are extreme. .297 this year against right-handed batters – .390 against left-handed batters. He’s also much more likely to walk and less likely to strike out those lefties. The problem would be that – as a starter – teams can load up on lefties when they see Scherzer coming. SO… Scherzer sees lefties about 60% of the time and righties (who basically cannot hope to hit him) only 40% of the time. We could call this part of the “blame on Scherzer” but I’ll give it it’s own heading anyway.
The rest would be “luck” but there isn’t all that much “luck” left. Scherzer needs a better outfield D. He needs a second baseman that can make plays (and hopefully he now has one). He also may need to work on another pitch to use against left-handed batters. Really.