WASHINGTON -- When the Nationals shocked the baseball world by signing Max Scherzer two offseasons ago, they did so without an obvious need for starting pitching, aiming to fortify their rotation with an ace for years to come.
And after the first two seasons of that seven-year, $210 million contract -- the biggest in team history -- the Nationals could not have asked for more.
Scherzer has put together perhaps the two best seasons ever by a Nats pitcher; he posted 7.1 wins above replacement in 2015 and 6.2 in 2016, according to Baseball-Reference, the two highest totals for any Nationals pitcher (2005-present). During the past two seasons, he has gone 34-19 with a 2.88 ERA, and only the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw has posted a higher pitchers' WAR, more strikeouts per nine innings and a lower WHIP.
Scherzer has started on Opening Day for the Nationals for two consecutive seasons. He's taken a no-hitter into the sixth inning in nine of his 67 career starts with Washington, or 13.4 percent of the time, and completed two of them. He tied a Major League record with 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game in 2016. During this year's National League Division Series against the Dodgers, Scherzer started Games 1 and 5.
Last week, he was named the NL Cy Young Award winner by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, and he won the Esurance MLB Awards for Best Pitcher and Best Performance for that 20-strikeout game.
"We see every five days just how exceptional his talent is, and we're honored to see the rest of baseball recognize that as well," general manager Mike Rizzo said last week. "We look forward to what is to come as he leads our staff in 2017 and beyond."
Starting pitchers averaged about 5 2/3 innings per start in 2016, the lowest mark in two decades. The reflects teams' efforts to keep starters healthy and an increased reliance on bullpens. Yet Scherzer remains an anomaly.
Scherzer has logged the most innings in baseball during the past two seasons, but stayed healthy throughout his career, a credit to his conditioning and preparation. Despite these high-innings totals, he is planning to pitch in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
The challenge for Scherzer going forward is continuing to remain healthy.
The Nationals believe Scherzer can do so and continue to pitch at a high level, even though he will turn 33 next season in what will be year three of his seven-year contract. Besides his preparation and conditioning, the Nats point to Scherzer's unrelenting competitiveness, which drives him to continually seek ways to improve his performance on the field.
That's why the Nationals are not only pleased with what they've received the first two seasons, but beyond excited to have Scherzer at the top of their rotation for years to come.
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.