“Mad” Max Scherzer’s gamble is looking pretty sane about now

Max Scherzer is “mad”, apparently. “Mad” in the insane sense, for turning down the six-year, $144 million contract Dave Dombrowski and the Detroit Tigers offered to him before the season; for betting on himself to turn in an even better performance than his Cy Young showing in 2013, and get an even bigger payday in free agency this offseason; for doing so in an era when a new pitcher every week seems to need Tommy John surgery, and a year in which he’ll turn 30. More traditionally “mad” – angry, really – because Sports Illustrated brought up the topic of his contact in a recent cover story on him, “Mad Max’s $144 million bet,” a piece which they subtitled with the question “did he make a dumb wager on his future?”

“Mad” in another respect too though. “Mad” like the New York slang meaning – a term defined by the always-reputable Urban Dictionary as “an appropriate replacement for Northern California’s “hella” and Boston’s “wicked”. In the common vernacular, it translates into “a lot” or “extremely.” In that regard, Max Scherzer is most certainly “mad”; “mad” good.

We all know the events that occurred between Scherzer, his (super-)agent Scott Boras, and the Tigers organization during the winter/Spring Training period. Offered that aforementioned six-year, $144 million contract, a deal which would have put him on the same pay scale as Cole Hamels, but perhaps-crucially not as much as Detroit teammate Justin Verlander, Scherzer declined, dismissed the possibility of talks during the year, and thus seemed to clearly announce he would test the waters of free agency after 2014. At this point, things got a bit sour publicly between Boras, his client, and Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, as rumors about ‘who offered what exactly’ and mutual hurt feelings led to some sniping back and forth through the media. Meanwhile, several commentators panned Scherzer’s decision to turn down the money ($144 million!), figuring his value would never be higher. Matters weren’t helped by Miguel Cabrera receiving a massive extension the following week – presumably tying up Detroit’s future payroll.

You couldn’t exactly blame the doubters; since being selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2006 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, the University of Missouri product had been solid, if unspectacular, as a starter prior to 2013. His 108 ERA+ between 2010 and 2012 (and 9.2 K/9 rate over that same span) certainly made him a quality option on the bump for the Tigers, but he wasn’t dominant. His award-winning 2013 then, looked a tad out-of-place; while his superficial stats (2.90 ERA and league-leading 0.97 WHIP) made him worthy of Cy Young consideration, other pitchers were arguably better (both Yu Darvish and Anibal Sanchez had higher ERA+ marks, while Felix Hernandez also had a strong case). Scherzer’s case was almost certainly helped by an incredible amount of run support, a factor which propelled him to a 21-3 win/loss record. Whether he’d get such help again while simultaneously proving his improvement wasn’t a fluke and staying healthy, meant betting on himself during 2014 was a risky proposition.

So far though, Max Scherzer’s “$144 million bet” is looking good to pay out, and do so in a big way. After starting well in 2013 (he had a 13-1 record at the All-Star break), the 29-year-old has been hot out of the gate once again, compiling a 1.72 ERA through his first seven starts. More than simply that crude measure of performance though, Scherzer has either improved his peripherals further from their 2013 spike, or simply maintained their excellency  – the difficulty in doing so being the very reason why many prognosticators (myself included) expected regression. A quick overview; his K/9 rate is up from 10.08 in 2013, to 11.49 this year; his walk rate has improved too, falling from 2.35 BB/9 to 2.30; mixing in his curveball just as much as last season, his opponent’s average allowed has effectively remained the same, currently resting at .195. After getting a little lucky with his FB/HR% a year ago, his rate has stabilized back to league average in 2014, which in addition to an increased ground ball rate has led to a career-best xFIP (2.43).

By every measure, be it tERA (2.75), SIERA (2.36), or the simple eye test, Scherzer has been even better in 2014 than when he won the Cy. With every start then, each outing being one less in which he could possibly incur injury, and a further reminder that he is a legitimate ace, his price tag is going up. Now it’s unlikely he challenges Clayton Kershaw‘s record a.a.v (Kershaw is three years younger after all, and has an even-better track record), but what would Scherzer command on the open market should he win two Cy Young awards in a row?

Scherzer’s future might not be in Detroit, but one thing’s looking certain about the righty this winter; that $144 million figure will undoubtedly be put in the rearview mirror – offers beyond $200 million will be the new benchmark. All he has to do is get there in one piece – the performance is no longer in question – and he’ll be getting paid, big-time.

Not a bad outcome for such a “dumb wager”.

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