Sky's the limit? Scherzer meeting lofty goals

Sky's the limit? Scherzer meeting lofty goals

WASHINGTON -- There is no hitter who Max Scherzer speaks about in higher regard than Miguel Cabrera. Scherzer witnessed Cabrera, perhaps the greatest hitter of his generation, in the prime of his career while the two played together in Detroit from 2010-14. Something that has stuck with Scherzer was watching Cabrera in '13, one year after he had won the American League Most Valuable Player Award and became MLB's first Triple Crown winner in 45 years.

Cabrera was even better in 2013 than he was in '12. He had a higher batting average, the same number of home runs and just two fewer RBIs, but his slugging percentage, on-base percentage and OPS were higher as he won a second consecutive AL MVP Award. Scherzer was amazed.

"Watching him literally be a better hitter after winning an MVP year and doing something crazy, it just showed you that anyone can get better," Scherzer said.

That has been the model that has helped motivate Scherzer ever since. So even after winning the National League Cy Young Award in 2016, Scherzer set out to be even better in '17.

"It's my goal every single year. That's the only goal I really set for myself is to make sure I'm better every single year," Scherzer said. "I've had a better 2017 than I've had 2016, just like a better '16 than '15 and '14. For the past six years, I've gotten better every single year. That's something that I pride myself on."

And Scherzer has found a way to do it.

In 2016, Scherzer posted a 2.96 ERA, 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings, a 0.97 WHIP and a 3.24 FIP. In '17, he's posted a 2.26 ERA, 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings, a 0.84 WHIP and a 2.79 FIP. Scherzer has cut down on his home run rate from 1.22 in '16 to 1.03 this season. His strikeout rate has improved to 35.8 percent from 31.5 percent last season.

It has made Scherzer the early favorite to repeat as the NL Cy Young Award winner this season.

"He's one of the fiercest competitors on the mound," Mets outfielder Michael Conforto said. "He's got an attitude about him when he's pitching that if you don't rise to his level, he's going to beat you. I think that's what makes him special."

The key to Scherzer's elevated game? His slider, a pitch he has become more comfortable throwing and uses more often as he continues to get results.

Scherzer is throwing his slider 29.5 percent of the time in 2017, up from 22.8 percent in '16 and 17.9 in '15. And hitters have had trouble doing much damage against it, slugging just .189 against it in '17, compared to .308 in '16 and .275 in '15. He is comfortable throwing it to lefties now, which he basically never did before last season.

2015: 1.6 percent sliders to lefties; 36.9 percent sliders to righties
2016: 8.1 percent sliders to lefties; 39.7 percent sliders to righties
2017: 17.3 percent sliders to lefties; 41.3 percent sliders to righties

"I have more feel for that pitch," Scherzer said. "That's just what makes you better... that's why I'm striking more guys out."

Scherzer K's Judge

And it has become one of the best pitches in the Majors, as Scherzer owns the lowest weighted on-base average (wOBA) -- a catch-all metric that measures a hitter's overall offensive value relative to the values of that offensive event, so in short, a home run is more valuable than a single -- against the slider among starters with a minimum of 50 at-bats against the pitch.

Scherzer is having so much success while throwing fewer fastballs than ever. He's using his four-seamer 45.8 percent of the time, by far a career low, compared to 55.25 percent in 2016 and 59.18 percent in '15. Scherzer credits the change to the effectiveness of his breaking pitches, and this pitch mix has allowed him to create more strikeouts. However, he is also aware that so many breaking pitches can be more stressful on his arm, so he has been diligent in maintaining himself.

"That's the cat-and-mouse game," he said. "I'm always going to our strength guys, 'This is what I'm feeling, what do we do to strengthen this?'"

And as Scherzer puts up another stellar season, the numbers are no fluke.

Scherzer is basically performing to his expected stats -- based on launch angle and exit velocity -- as he continues to get better. Both his expected BA (0.170) to actual BA (0.170) and xwOBA (0.235) to actual wOBA (0.243) are within 0.0010 of the expected outcome. Even despite a blip in Scherzer's last outing against the D-backs, he figures to be on track to maintain this current pace throughout the rest of the year, a scary proposition for the rest of baseball.

"It's always, 'No matter what the outing is, you can always find a way to be a better pitcher,'" Scherzer said. "No matter what you do."

A lesson learned from Cabrera.

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.