Max Scherzer Is Throwing His Cutter More Than Ever

Three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer is close to making a return to the New York Mets.

Scherzer has been out since mid-May with an injury to the left bias ligament. On Wednesday night, he made his second rehab start, throwing 80 pitches and hitting eight double-A batters.

Before being put on the injured list, Scherzer was riding through the first year of his $130 million deal. The 37-year-old right-hander had eight starts with a 2.54 ERA and 1.2 FanGraphs WAR. His 5.36 K/BB placed fifth in the National League and his opponents’ .202 batting average placed fourth. The only NL starters to throw more innings were reigning Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes and 2022 Cy Young favorite Sandy Alcantara.

Scherzer was on track for his ninth All-Star appearance of his career, and he looked as dominant as ever. But while he threw just as well as he did last season, there was one thing he did differently: throwing his cut fastball a lot more than usual.

The table below shows Scherzer’s cutting usage over the years. Different sources categorize pitches slightly differently, so it’s more important to look at annual changes than exact rates.

As you can see, Scherzer has thrown his cut fastball quite a bit this season, and this isn’t the first time he’s upped his cutter ante.

Scherzer introduced the pitch to his repertoire in 2015 when he transitioned from the Detroit Tigers to the Washington Nationals. Initially he used it sparingly, only in 2018 he began to use the pitch as the main weapon in his arsenal.

As of 2013, Scherzer has been one of baseball’s most dominant starters. He was arguably the sport’s best pitcher in 2016 and 2017, when he won two consecutive NL Cy Young Awards.

One can wonder why a player at the peak of their game would make such a significant adjustment to their approach. Because what ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the old saying goes.

So why did Scherzer increase its cutter usage so much in 2018?

Scherzer’s secret struggle

As dominating as he looked in his back-to-back Cy Young campaigns, Scherzer actually showed signs of weakness in 2016 and 2017. In particular, he struggled more than usual with left-handed batsmen.

Scherzer’s performance against righties has been so good these seasons that it masked his shortcomings against lefties, but the split stats don’t lie. From 2016 to 2017 he faced 883 left-handers. Those hitters combined for a .726 OPS and .309 wOBA against him. Scherzer had a 4.32 FIP and a 4.45 xFIP against lefties.

For comparison, the average NL batter had an OPS of .741 and a wOBA of .318 in those years. The average NL starting pitcher scored a 4.29 FIP and a 4.24 xFIP.

About 53% of the thugs Scherzer faced during that time were left-handed. Thus, the best pitcher in the National League was actually no better than average against more than half the hitters he faced.

That’s not knocking on Scherzer – far from it. He was so good against righties that he was still a very deserved Cy Young winner in both 2016 and 2017.

While a casual observer probably wouldn’t even have noticed that Scherzer was just average against lefties, you can bet your bottom dollar noticed Scherzer himself.

While he’s always been better against righties (as you’d expect from a righty), Scherzer was still very good against lefties in his first three All-Star seasons (2013-2015). During those years he held lefties to a .663 OPS and a .291 wOBA. His FIP against lefties was 3.14 while his xFIP was 3.44.

Contradictory as it may sound, Scherzer really developed a flaw in his game these Cy Young seasons. He’s done a good job of covering it up, but Scherzer isn’t the type of player to rest on his laurels or succumb to the aging curve. When Mad Max discovers a weakness in himself, he will do everything in his power to fix it. And that’s exactly what he did.

In 2018, Scherzer increased his cutter use and it became one of his main weapons against lefties. Not entirely coincidentally, his numbers against left-handed batsmen improved dramatically this season.

Scherzer met 452 left-handers in 2018. He held them at a .609 OPS and a .264 wOBA. His 3.03 FIP against lefties was his best since his 2013 Cy Young season, and his 3.58 xFIP, while not quite as impressive, was still a lot better than the 4.45 he had from 2016-17 in the scored average.

Overall, Scherzer’s 2018 season was the best of his career according to FanGraphs WAR, Baseball Reference WAR, and Baseball Prospectus WARP. (Unfortunately, a guy named Jacob deGrom posted a 1.70 ERA in 32 starts this year, beating Scherzer for the Cy Young.)

The current season

So far in 2022, Scherzer is using his cutter at an unprecedented rate. Here’s that chart again with his cutter usage by year.

Scherzer was fantastic as always in 2021, starting the All-Star Game and finishing third in the Cy Young pick. He also performed well against lefties in 2021, keeping them at .264 wOBA and .597 OPS.

If so, why is he using his clipper so much this year? He’s been as dominant as ever in 2021, so why mess with success?

The simplest explanation would be if Scherzer hit more left-handers than usual this year, but that’s not the case. He’s played left-handers a little over 50% of the time, which is slightly lower than his career rate.

However, it might be true that Scherzer faced more hard Left-handed so far this year. This could explain his increasing reliance on the cutter and why left-handers actually bat better against him in 2022 than in 2021, despite the increased use of cutters. His OPS, wOBA, FIP and xFIP against lefties are all higher this season than last year.

Scherzer has faced the Phillies three times in eight starts. While Philadelphia doesn’t have a predominantly left-handed lineup, their top two are hitters – Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber – are both left-handed Force threats.

Aside from the Phillies, the two teams Scherzer has worked the most with his cutter against this season are the Giants and the Nationals. The Giants’ batting order is chock full of tough lefties, including Mike Yastrzemski, Brandon Belt and Joc Pederson. The Nationals don’t have a particularly dangerous lineup, but their two best hitters — Juan Soto and Josh Bell, who hits the switch — are both threats from the left side of the plate.

That theory sounds promising and explains why Scherzer’s numbers against left-handers aren’t that hot this year. Those seven hitters have 1,240 OPS against Scherzer, while all other left-handers combined have 0.389 OPS against him. That group of seven accounts for 20% of the hits, 45% of the walks, and 100% of the home runs that Scherzer has allowed all year.

However, these three teams and their strong left-handers do not explain Scherzer’s increased use of cutters. According to Statcast, Scherzer threw cutters to those seven batters 22% of the time. Against all other left-handers? Also 22% of the time.

So it seems as if Scherzer simply decided this year to throw his cutter more often. It’s not clear why he decided to adjust his pitch mix, but it seems to be working for him so far. While lefties did well against him overall (well, certain lefties anyway), his cutter wasn’t the problem.

Opposing hitters only have a .167 batting average and a .270 wOBA against his cutter. The Cutter was a very successful putaway pitch for Scherzer, resulting in a strikeout in 30.2% of the two-strike counts he threw it in. No NL starting pitch has a higher PutAway% with the cutter.

It remains to be seen whether Scherzer will continue to throw his cutter as often. After all, he has only completed eight starts this year.

However, based on early results, Scherzer would be wise to throw this cutter further. He faced a lot of tough left-handers, and his cutter was one of his greatest weapons.

Featured image by Shawn Palmer (@palmerdesigns_ on twitter)

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