Welcome to the new series for pitching junkies, in which we anticipate one excellent matchup per week and diarize it to learn something about the practitioners of the Mound Arts. In the process, we also discover meaningful things about ourselves and our lives through the lens of baseball. There is always a lesson at the end. Each pitchers’ duel receives an official 1-10 rating on the Marichal-Spahn Scale, named after the greatest pitchers’ duel ever.
This Week’s Pitchers’ Duel
Max “Well” Scherzer vs. Scott “Hey, I’m Still Alive!” Kazmir
Bio: Age 28, righty, 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, born in St. Louis, attended University of Missouri
2013 Stats: 13-0 (!!!), 3.06 ERA, 2.62 FIP, 10.63 K/9, 3.9 WAR
Pitches: For the most part, he’s got four: fastball (55 percent usage), changeup, slider, curve. He’s thrown a handful of sinkers, but they’re so rare that we can ignore them. The fastball seems to be increasing in velocity as the year goes on, and averages about 94 mph. It boasts excellent horizontal movement in on righties, tied for most of any right-handed starter in the bigs, and the more I do this diary, the more I find that fastball movement correlates really well to success. FanGraphs, for its part, values it as the third-best heater in MLB. His best pitch is arguably the slider, though, which produces the third-highest whiff rate of any slider in the game, though the fact that his changeup is the only one in baseball that actually sinks relative to a spinless pitch makes it pretty devastating, too. The two pitches are almost identical in velocity, and he mixes them up well with his fastball on two-strike counts (lefties get the change, righties get the slider).
With that type of strategy, it’s no surprise that batters connect with balls in the strike zone at the lowest rate among all starters — when you can’t predict what’s coming, you swing and miss at a lot of strikes. Not unrelated: He’s pretty great at getting swings and misses outside the zone, too. He may not be complex, but he’s a strikeout machine.
Fun Fact: Scherzer has heterochromia iridis, meaning his eyes are different colors. One is blue, one is brown. When the Tigers released a Scherzer bobblehead, they respected the look.
Bio: Age 29, lefty, 6 feet, 185 pounds, born in Houston, no college
2013 Stats: 4-4, 4.74 ERA, 4.59 FIP, 8.36 K/9, 0.4 WAR
Pitches: Four-seam, sinker, changeup, slider, curve, with the sinker accounting for 40 percent of all pitches, and the straight fastball becoming less and less common with every start. If that last link from Brooks can be believed (and it’s usually super reliable), he went through something of an identity crisis in May and June, alternating between using exclusively four-seamers and exclusively sinkers within the game before finally settling on the sinker and nearly abandoning the true fastball (no surprise — according to FanGraphs, the sinker is a much better pitch).
The big question with Kazmir, of course, is why he dropped off after three solid years with the Rays from 2005-07. And the answer is mostly down to velocity; his fastball gradually diminished over time until he was throwing 86 mph for the Angels in 2011. He toiled in the minors for almost two years, but as FanGraphs noted earlier this season, he’s starting to reach his old speed, and the monthly data show that it keeps getting better — he’s averaging almost 94 mph in his latest starts. It’s started to translate into quality outings, too, with two seven-inning, one-run performances at the end of June. So while Scherzer is the raison d’être for this diary, I am very curious to see if Kazmir is truly on his way back.
Fun Fact: He broke Josh Beckett’s Texas high school record for single-season strikeouts with 175 in 2002.
First Inning: We are live at Progressive Field with the Cleveland Indians crew, and I’m trying hard to fight off a vague Cleveland-related depression. But there’s no cure like baseball, and it’s Kazmir’s first 2013 start against Detroit — the second-best run-scoring offense in baseball. He gets Austin Jackson to a 2-2 count, which almost always means he’ll be throwing a sinker or a changeup. The sinker works, and AJ is out on a grounder to first. Another 2-2 sinker gets new All-Star Torii Hunter to ground out to third. Then it’s Miggy, a terrifying specter, but he, too, gets a steady diet of sinkers and grounds out to short. Every Kazmir outing feels like a life or death judgment — is he back or is he permanently doomed? — and it’s life so far as he’s perfect through one.
You may have noticed when you read the name “Scott Kazmir” that this is something of a one-sided pitchers’ duel diary, and you may have further deduced that I chose Scherzer primarily because of his insane 13-0 record (the first man to do so since Roger Clemens in 1986). Wins are a stupid measure of excellence, as any true pitching scholar knows, so let’s just get this out of the way: Scherzer has more run support — 6.17 runs per start — than any other starter in baseball. That’s why he’s 13-0. However, let’s not get too intellectual; he’s still had an amazing year as one of the best pitchers around, and only Yu Darvish strikes out batters at a higher rate.
Right away, on his first three fastballs to Michael Bourn (lefty), you can see Scherzer’s excellent horizontal fading action. It sets him up perfectly for the devastating curve — rare, but deadly. Bourn taps it weakly to third for Marvelous Miggy to clean up. He tries a 1-2 curve to Asdrubal Cabrera, too, but it’s in the dirt and then — OH, GOD — his ridiculous slider, which dives down and in to lefties, almost hits Cabrera in the feet after he swings and misses for strike three. Lovely. He uses it again to bring Jason Kipnis to 3-2, and after two straight fastballs of 95-plus before what looks like a high slider produces a popup. Say it with me, everyone:
Second Inning: Prince Fielder looks terrifying up at the plate, so much so that I half expect Kazmir to poop his pants. Unlikely as it seems. Instead, he ratchets the fastball up to 95 to get a backward K. Victor Martinez is less impressed by the fastball, ripping it into left for a stand-up double and destroying our dream of a double perfecto. And now you can tell Kaz is straining, overthrowing a fastball and a curve in the dirt before Jhonny Peralta crushes a straight fastball down the middle for another double and a 1-0 Detroit lead. He gets Matt Tuiasosopo (along with any fake girlfriends) to strike out on a fastball away, but the real issue for Kazmir is that he can’t locate his off-speed pitches, allowing Brayan Pena to sit dead red and reach on a ground ball up the middle, and Ramon Santiago to walk. That brings A-Jax to the plate, who watches an 85 mph curve, unimpressed, but can’t catch up with two fastballs before whiffing at a third. Kazmir survives the jam, barely.
As we switch from Kaz to Scherzer, I’m starting to feel like Michael Bolton in “Jack Sparrow” — NOW BACK TO THE GOOD PART!
It makes me happy to see Nick Swisher languishing in Cleveland. After watching him mug for the camera and choke in the playoffs for the Yankees for roughly three decades, this feels like justice. He grounds out to short on a fastball, and then — ugh — Michael Brantley bunts for a base hit. That’s so annoying. You don’t do that in a pitchers’ duel diary game, man. You just don’t. It shakes Scherzer a little, who slightly hangs a slider that Mike Aviles drives for a single into left. But Mark Reynolds is on an 0-for-23 slide, and the 0-1 pitch from Scherzer is 97 mph with some ridicky-icky-iculous movement, and then a straight fastball at 98 mph is basically untouchable. That’s domination, gang. Lonnie Chisenhall, who I’m assuming is descended from English barons, fights off fastballs of 97 and 98 and 99 and 97 and 99 mph again, and now it feels like a battle of wills. But the rain starts pouring, and umpire Joe West — who everyone hates and who performs country music under the name “Cowboy Joe West” — calls for the tarp.
While we’re waiting, I have to share this sad, but really compelling story about Scherzer’s younger brother, Alex, who committed suicide in 2012. Alex was deep into sabermetrics and was Max’s voice of reason, in a way, when things weren’t going well on the mound. Alex succumbed to depression just as Max was hitting his stride. Fair warning, it’s a tearjerker and hard to read at points. But just incredibly moving.
Twenty minutes later, we’re back. Scherzer’s first pitch is a slider, and Chisenhall rips it into right for a two-run single. GAH. This is what happens when a guy bunts for a hit. Yan Gomes flies out on the second pitch after the delay, and the rain keeps falling. The diary is on really thin ice right now.
NO SHUTOUTS, NO PERFECTO, NO NOTHING.
Third Inning: The rain does not bode well for Kazmir’s ability to control his off-speed pitches, so it’s no surprise that he’s attacking Hunter with fastballs to start the third. It works to the tune of a groundout to second. But when he starts Miggy off with a 91 mph-er over the heart, I’m worried that a launch is forthcoming. But Kazmir’s fastball is at its best when it tails away to the left, and he gets a whiff from Cabrera to push to 1-2. A couple sliders fail to tempt, and he fouls off three fastballs to run Kazmir’s pitch count up to 54. A slider way too far in proves he’s losing this war. On the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Mig-Mig draws a walk on another inside slider I shall call unseductive. That puts Kaz on the ropes, but Fielder lets him off easy with a fly out to left on the first pitch. Martinez can’t capitalize either, and a couple 95 mph sinkers lead to another groundout.
Scherzer throws a lovely changeup to Bourn to set up a fastball for a groundout, and he seems to be back in the groove after the rain delay fiasco. A first-pitch slider gets Cabrera to ground out to first, but Kitnis rips a two-out single. You’ll notice that Scherzer, who strikes out more than one batter per inning on average, is a bit off his game. As Swisher comes to the plate and I make a hateful noise, my wife reminds me that I used to love him in the World Series year of 2009. And she’s right — I was into all his happy-dappy quirky-birky shit. This is a sad moment that says something about lost innocence and growing old and bitter. Scherzer’s changeup is not biting, and Swisher rips a single to left to repay me for my betrayal.
The key to Scherzer’s changeup is that it drops about 8 inches lower than the fastball, and it simply ain’t today. Brantley walks, and with the bases loaded and two outs, we’re close to a meltdown. This batter could define everything. He starts Aviles with a filthy slider for strike one — a great example of why he batters don’t even swing at one-third of all his pitches in the strike zone. On an 0-2 pitch, Aviles slaps a grounder back into Scherzer’s glove, and he’s out of the inning.
Fourth Inning: The rain keeps a’coming, and you can hear the drops popping on the Fox Sports microphones. Don’t they have covers for that kind of thing? Kazmir is starting to get pissed at home plate ump Andy Fletcher for squeezing him on the left corner, which is particularly brutal since he’s being fairly generous to Scherzer on the other corner. It’s back to wildness for Kaz, but he strikes out Peralta on a 93 mph fastball up in the zone. The cheese is quite obviously not his problem. It’s everything else, and again he’s in the dirt with everything but the sinker against Tuiasosopo. Finally, it’s not good enough; on a 3-2 pitch, Tui bangs one over the right-field wall, and it’s a 2-2 game. Fastballs start to look pretty tame when you know they’re coming. And even if Kazmir survives with one pitch, it’s taking a huge toll on his pitch count, which is already at 76. Pena laces a curve to right, but it’s directly at Swisher, who pulls a total Swisher move by making a weird catch where he acts like the ball almost hit him in the face. After two more balls, Santiago rocks one deep to right, but there again is Swish at the warning track. Kazmir is playing with fire, but he escapes again.
Scherzer’s slider, when on, is a gem, and it’s on and off against Reynolds, who takes the second pitch and grounds it up the middle for a cheap hit that breaks his long dry spell. There will be no long duel with Chisenhall this time when he pops up a first-pitch fastball. Gomes can only watch two sliders sneak to the left corner for 0-1 and 0-2, and then whiffs on a 96 mph heater. As the announcers point out, Scherzer likes to stay in his set for long periods of time to screw with the batter’s timing; there’s an art to holding just until the moment before the batter calls time. Two fastballs produce a Bourn popup, and Scherzer is starting to roll.
Fifth Inning: Kazmir drops a curve in the strike zone! But he misses a changeup, and Jackson fouls off three fastballs. Again, we see the problem with having no off-speed success; there’s almost no chance Kazmir gets into the sixth inning. He’s only thrown more than 100 pitches four times this year, but he makes a start at surviving by getting Jackson on what seems like his first effective changeup of the day. It fades left and drops, and A-Jax can only flail. Next? POACHED, BABY! Then, on one pitch, Miggy pops out! Forget everything you thought you knew! The man is here to pitch!
Scherzer is in danger of losing this pitchers’ duel diary if it ended now, Kazmir would take it. Every inning counts. He can’t locate his junk against Cabrera, leading to an opening walk. We keep talking about Kaz’s pitch count, but Scherzer is up to 72 himself. He’s getting super erratic now, unleashing just his third wild pitch of the season, and then gets quite lucky when a Kipnis rocket goes right at Tuiasosopo in left. Swisher grounds out to first, but his off-speed stuff won’t click against Brantley, who he walks in six pitches. But Aviles eschews patience, and flies out weakly to third on the first pitch. Still anyone’s duel!
Sixth Inning: We haven’t seen the best from either starter, and dollars to doughnuts this inning is the last for both. Let me take this moment to say that the diary is also an excuse to experience announcers I don’t normally hear, and Cleveland’s Matt Underwood and Rick Manning have been my favorites so far.
Dumb hitting starts the sixth for Detroit, which is suddenly swinging at first pitches when Kazmir just needs one long at-bat to send him to the pen. Fielder grounds out to first on one pitch, the second time he’s been impatient today. V-Mart is calmer, and is rewarded with a walk, because guess what? Kazmir can’t get his off-speed pitches over the plate. Peralta fails to take notice, rocking a first-pitch curve to the warning track for out no. 2. Terry Francona has seen quite enough, though, and that’s it for Kazmir.
The Indians’ pen gets the job done, so Scherzer will have to get through another scoreless inning to have a shot at 14-0 before the All-Star break. A litany of sliders gets Reynolds to pop out. He stays away from Chisenhall with fastballs (topping out at 97) before his junk fails him again, but some 95 mph heat earns his fourth strikeout of the night. And on his 101st pitch, he Ks Gomes with a filthy, filthy slider. He’s been lucky all year; can his teammates pick him up again?
Seventh Inning: No, but Scherzer is back for the seventh, with 101 pitches! Unfortunately, Bourn slaps a sneaky single on an outside fastball, jeopardizing everything. He’s a speedy distraction at first, but he slips on the wet track on a steal attempt and then the Tigers get him in a pickle! He lasts about five throws, zigging and zagging, but he’s toast all the same. Scherzer runs up a full count on Cabrera before K’ing him with pure heat, making it 18 consecutive starts with at least six strikeouts. Make it seven! Fastball, Kipnis, 97 mph, burn unit. Scherzer’s surely done now, giving his offense one more chance to bring him to 14-0 but there’s no longer any doubt about my winner.
THUS ENDS THE DUEL. Scherzer wins. But he won’t get the real win. (Detroit will, though, 4-2.)
6.4. This one sneaked up on us, but ended being a decent little standoff.
This Week’s Lesson
Rain can screw with a breaking ball, and it can even derail LADY LUCK.