Max Scherzer has had a good season – he currently ranks 9th in NL pitcher fWAR. He’s already at 155 strikeouts, but despite those positives, he’s also given up 21 home runs in only 18 starts. He’s leading the league in both categories.
Scherzer is in some rare company, as there have only been seven times where a pitcher led the league in strikeouts and HRs.
In the deadball era, Grover Cleveland Alexander struck out 195 batsmen and surrendered 11 four-baggers, or whatever they called it back in 1912. Washington’s own Walter Johnson K’d 243 and gave up a measly 9 home runs to do it in 1913.
After that, there was Urban Shocker in 1922 with 149 and 22, and Tommy Bridges in 1935 with 163 and 22 HRs. In the war-depleted 1944 season, Bill Voiselle led in both categories with 31 HRs and 161 punch outs.
Closer to the kind of baseball we know, in the 1950s there were two that fit the bill. Robin Roberts led the league in 1954 with 185 strikeouts and 35 home runs, and in 1959 Jim Bunning did it with 201 and 37. Those K totals are a bit low, but the homer numbers are more familiar.
These numbers don’t really compete with what Scherzer is doing. He would be the first to do it while striking out more than 201 and giving up more than 20 HR. But Max is on pace for more than that – right now he’s on track for 299 strike outs and 41 home runs.
Forgetting about the league leaders – only seven pitchers in history have struck out more than 250 and given up at least 30 home runs. The names are pretty impressive – Randy Johnson (1999), Curt Schilling (2001), Mickey Lolich (1971), Denny McLain (1968), Ferguson Jenkins (1970), Bob Gibson (1965) and the immortal Mark Langston (1987). Only two – Lolich and Schilling – struck out more than 250 while giving up at least 35 home runs.
Nobody has ever struck out that many while giving up more than 40 home runs. Just to reinforce how good he’s been, Scherzer’s ERA+ of 132 would be tied for the fourth best in that group. And he’s on pace for only 62 walks, which would be lower than everyone but Schilling (39) and Jenkins (60).
Scherzer is giving up too many home runs, but he’s doing everything else so well that it isn’t really hurting him much. Obviously, the strikeouts are a big part of it. But he’s also got the third best WHIP in the league. So, even when he’s not striking guys out, if they’re not hitting home runs, they’re not getting on base.
Of course the home runs are still worrisome. While lefties do hit him better overall, and have a few more plate appearances against him, it’s somewhat surprising that righties are hitting more home runs against him. They are also hitting them in higher numbers when compared to previous seasons.
Looking deeper, against righties he’s given up four HRs on 416 fastballs and six HRs on 299 sliders. Compared to previous seasons, the fastball is getting turned into homers at a slightly high rate, the slider, on the other hand, is getting destroyed.
Those homers seem to be coming when he leaves the ball up in the zone, at least on the slider. And that’s high, and middle, not just high. Low and inside has been hit, too.
He seems to be trying to throw his fastball up and in on righties, and it would make sense if he gets roughed up when he leaves it high and out over the middle of the plate. But instead, he’s getting hurt on inside pitches. And some are high and tight, but some are inside and low.
With the slider, he probably just needs to keep the slider both low and away to righties, which is what he’s trying to do with them anyway. You could make the case that the fastball should be thrown outside once in a while to keep the hitters guessing.
Scherzer will probably keep doing what he’s doing, because he’s striking everyone out, and nobody’s getting on base. A few extra home runs isn’t enough to make him change his approach. If he does keeps it up, he will have a great season, and it might just be historic, too.