This off-season, the Detroit Tigers made headlines when they announced that reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, Max Scherzer, had turned down a long-term extension offer. Detroit offered Scherzer, who went 21-3 with 2.90 ERA in 2013, a six-year, $144 million contract, but he decided to decline the offer and test the waters of free agency after the 2014 season. If he can pitch anything close to how he did in 2013, he could get a ridiculous contract as a free agent, but it is difficult to believe his stock will ever be any higher than it was after last season. Only Max Scherzer’s performance and time can determine whether he made the right call, but he has started the season on the right note.
Max Scherzer was drafted as the No. 11 overall pick in the 2006 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of the University of Missouri. He began his professional career in the D-Backs system in 2007, but his dominant performances in the high-minors convinced their front office that he was ready to play in the Majors, and less than one year after he made his professional debut, he was pitching in The Show. He only made seven starts and had a few appearances out of the bullpen in ’08, and he pitched to the tune of a 3.05 ERA, although he did not win a single game. The next year, as a 24-year-old, Scherzer pitched a full season as a starter, and posted a 108 ERA+, a statistic that divides the average ERA by an individual’s ERA, outputting a value that determines what percentage a player is better or worse than the average. A 100 ERA+ denotes the typical pitcher in any given season, so Scherzer’s 108 clip shows that he was 8 percent better than the league average in 2009.
In December of 2009, Scherzer was traded to the Detroit Tigers in a deal that brought Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson to Arizona. Although Jackson tossed a no-hitter for the D-Backs and Kennedy had a Scherzer-esque season in 2011 when he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA, this trade is one of many examples of Arizona trading good, young players before they have adequately accessed their talent. Carlos Gonzalez, Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, and Adam Eaton were all traded for older players in their respective trades, and few have worked out for the D-Backs. In terms of the Scherzer trade, the Diamondbacks got one bad season from Edwin Jackson along with one great and three mediocre years out of Ian Kennedy, and Scherzer’s career has absolutely taken off in Detroit.
From 2010 to 2012, Scherzer was a quality starting pitcher, but he was not considered a great one by any means. Although he was able to go 43-27 over the three-year span, he posted the same 108 ERA+ that he had in his first full season in Arizona. However, he did have a 9.2 K/9 rate, which measures the amount of strikeouts a pitcher accumulates for every nine innings he pitches. Scherzer averaged more than a strikeout every inning in his first three years in Detroit, which is a rare feat for a starting pitcher. It took until 2013, however, for Scherzer to make his move and put himself in a class with baseball’s best.
Scherzer burst through the gates with a dominant first half of the 2013 season. It took until July for Scherzer to lose his first decision, so he was the obvious choice to start the All-Star Game for the American League, where he pitched a scoreless first inning against the National League and even struck out Reds’ first baseman Joey Votto. It is hard to believe, but after the Midsummer Classic, Scherzer actually pitched as well, if not better, as he did in the first half. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the first half is actually significantly longer than the second, which explains why Scherzer made six more starts in the first half. He compiled a 13-1 record with a 3.19 ERA in the first half and a 8-2 record with a 2.44 ERA in the second. Additionally, even though his home ballpark of Comerica Park is a pitcher’s park, his ERA was 1.27 points better on the road than at home. He led the American in WHIP (Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched), wins, and winning percentage. Nearly every statistic, simple and complex, tells the same narrative about Max Scherzer in 2013: he was phenomenal.
Unfortunately, the game is a business, and especially in today’s market, big numbers mean big money. Scherzer made $6.725 MM in 2013, and through arbitration, he and his agent, Scott Boras, raised that number to $15.525 MM this season, but in comparison to the new money he could make in free agency, his 2014 salary is pocket change. The aforementioned six-year offer from the Tigers had a $24 MM average annual value (AAV), but after an off-season when National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw received a seven-year, $215 MM contract ($30.7 MM AAV), Max Scherzer made his call on the contract because he knows that he could make an obscene amount of money if he plays his cards right.
The Tigers’ decision to make their negotiations public after the face was a strange move. Detroit’s goal was to shift the public opinion to think that Scherzer was ungrateful even when the Tigers offered him a long-term, lucrative deal. It has worked to the extent that the public knows the Tigers were willing to spend money on Scherzer, but it is an odd move to accuse their star pitcher of being greedy while he is still on the team. It is not inconceivable that Scherzer could get significantly more than six years and a $24 MM AAV on the open market. Intelligently, Scherzer has remained silent, but it would make sense that he would have resentment towards the Tigers after pulling that stunt.
Max Scherzer is taking a huge risk this season. If he has another season anything like 2013, he will really cash out. However, it is always a possibility that he becomes a one-year wonder just like Ian Kennedy. He is off to a fantastic start so far, going 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA in his first five starts. In April of 2013, Scherzer was pretty mediocre, posting a 4.02 ERA in five starts. Obviously, he turned it around really quickly last season, but he is on a mission to prove that last season was not a fluke. Only a handful of pitchers have won the Cy Young in consecutive seasons, but Scherzer could be poised to join that group, as there is no greater motivator than the dollar bill. Max Scherzer took a significant risk by turning down the Tigers’ offer, but if he pitches like he has so far, he will undoubtedly have made the right call.
Commentary by Jough Brasch
The Detroit News