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2021 Dodgers in review: Max Scherzer

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LA acquired a dominant ace for the stretch run

MLB: NLDS-Los Angeles Dodgers at San Francisco Giants Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Max Scherzer was dominant after the Dodgers acquired him at the trade deadline, expertly filling a void in a depleted rotation. But an arm injury derailed an otherwise strong October.

At the time of the July 30 trade with the Nationals, the Dodgers starting rotation consisted Walker Buehler and Julio Urías, limited versions of David Price and Tony Gonsolin (who would be placed on the injured list one day later), and rookie Josiah Gray, who was sent to Washington in the deal. The Dodgers desperately needed innings, and Scherzer provided them at the highest quality.

Dave Roberts got his first chance to write Scherzer’s name into a lineup a few weeks before the Dodgers traded for him. Roberts picked Scherzer to start the All-Star Game in Colorado, the fourth midsummer classic start for Scherzer and his eighth All-Star nod. Scherzer pitched a scoreless inning.

Scherzer started 11 times down the stretch for the Dodgers, all wins for Los Angeles. It was his best two-month stretch in over five years.

Dominant Max Scherzer stretches

Time Starts IP BB rate K rate ERA FIP
Time Starts IP BB rate K rate ERA FIP
June-July 2016 11 75⅓ 5.2% 33.8% 1.67 2.46
Aug-Sept 2021 11 68⅓ 3.0% 33.6% 1.98 1.96

Scherzer arrived in Los Angeles with an impeccable track record, a no-doubt future Hall of Fame pitcher with three Cy Young Awards. His legendary intensity was on display in his Dodgers debut on August 4. Roberts patted Scherzer on the butt after the first few innings as he came back to the dugout, only to hear Scherzer mutter loudly on the bench.

“Did he just say, ‘Don’t effing touch me?’” Roberts laughingly recounted a few weeks later on ESPN.

Lesson learned, an untouched Scherzer thrived on the mound for two months. His transition from the Nationals to the Dodgers was seamless, and it didn’t hurt going from the team with the 22nd-best record in MLB to fourth-best.

“I’m glad I’m part of an organization that wants to win and has their sights on the ultimate prize. I mean, that’s what we played a game for, is to do that. I’ve been in the league long enough to know that those things don’t always happen,” Scherzer said before his Dodgers debut. “I know why we’re here.”

After Scherzer and Trea Turner were added, the Dodgers were 44-13 (.772).

Most Cy Young Award shares

Pitcher Cy Youngs Award shares
Pitcher Cy Youngs Award shares
Roger Clemens 7 7.66
Randy Johnson 5 6.50
Greg Maddux 4 4.92
Max Scherzer 3 4.61
Clayton Kershaw 3 4.58
Steve Carlton 4 4.29
Pedro Martinez 3 4.26
Justin Verlander 2 4.21
Tom Seaver 3 3.85
Jim Palmer 3 3.57
Source: Baseball Reference

Scherzer’s strong finish vaulted him into Cy Young contention. He got six first-place votes and finished third on the National League ballot, his eighth time finishing in the top five. Scherzer was named on all 30 ballots, receiving 54 percent of possible points, vaulting him into fourth place in all-time in Cy Young Award shares, narrowly passing Clayton Kershaw.

MLB players voted Scherzer the best pitcher in the NL.

The Scherzer runaway train did hit some speed bumps near the end. After allowing five earned runs in his first nine starts with the Dodgers, he allowed five earned runs in each of his last two starts. One was at Coors Field and the other was against the Padres at home, with the Dodgers coming back to win each game.

Mindful of those final two starts, and with Scherzer looking out of gas at 94 pitches, Roberts pulled Scherzer in the fifth inning of the wild card game in a 1-1 tie. Scherzer was excellent in the NLDS against the Giants, though his lone loss with the Dodgers came in Game 3, when he struck out 10 and allowed only one run in seven innings on a bizarrely windy night at Dodger Stadium.

The Dodgers-Giants NLDS was a battle of the two best teams in the majors, with 213 regular season wins between them. Naturally it took until the ninth inning of the fifth and final game to decide the series, and the Dodgers pulled out all the stops. That included starting Walker Buehler on three days rest for the first time (in Game 4) and using Scherzer in relief to close out Game 5 on two days rest, the latter something Scherzer did in four previous Octobers.

That got the Dodgers to their fifth NLCS in the last six years, but the toll was enormous.

Scherzer was in line to pitch Game 1 on regular rest, but after his relief appearance he was pushed back a day to Game 2. In that start he was limited, and though he struck out seven and allowed only two runs, was pulled in the fifth inning. Instead of the trademark Scherzer indignation at being removed from a game, he simply nodded his head this time, and said after the game his arm was tired.

Scherzer’s arm fatigue continued after that start, to the point where he was unable to make his scheduled Game 6 start, which would have been on five days rest. Scherzer told reporters in Atlanta that “it wasn’t a true injury,” and was insistent that he would have been able to pitch in Game 7 if the NLCS got that far.

It did not, with the Dodgers eliminated by Atlanta in six games.

There’s not always one clear reason for a decline or injury, real or perceived. Scherzer turned 37 in July and was at the end of a season throwing 196 innings after only 67⅓ frames in 2020. His final two regular season starts showed that everything wasn’t fully in order, but even while limited Scherzer in the postseason had a 2.16 ERA with 23 strikeouts and five walks in 16⅔ innings.

But the direct line from using Scherzer in relief, rather than rely on the best relief corps during Roberts’ managerial tenure, to Scherzer having two NLCS starts pushed back, forcing the Dodgers to scramble, makes it hard not to imply causation.

“This is a decision that we all kind of came together and we felt good about it,” Roberts said before Game 6. “Could I foresee where we’re at right now? No, but you still have to make the decision that gets us to this point.”

It’s easy to see the temptation. Scherzer is an all-time great pitcher who looked like his classic self during his three months as a Dodger. Wanting that guy to be on the mound is an understandable choice. But given how the season ended, it’s hard not to wonder what if Scherzer didn’t pitch Game 5 in relief?

2021 particulars

Age: 36

Stats: 2.46 ERA, 2.97 FIP, 179⅓ IP, 236 K, 15-4, 5.9 bWAR, 5.4 fWAR
7-0, 1.96 ERA, 2.7 bWAR, 2.9 fWAR with Dodgers

Salary: $35 million (Dodgers responsible for just over $12.4 million), deferred to 2022-28. Scherzer also earned a $150,000 bonus for finishing third in NL Cy Young voting.

Game of the year

In the midst of a five-start stretch allowing no earned runs, including two separate 18-inning scoreless streaks, Scherzer on September 12 retired the first 22 Padres batters faced before Eric Hosmer doubled in the eighth inning to break up a perfect game. Earlier in the game, Hosmer was Scherzer’s 3,000th career strikeout, the 19th pitcher to reach that milestone.

Scherzer, who pitched two no-hitters in 2015, struck out nine in eight scoreless innings against San Diego. It was Scherzer’s third career start of at least seven innings with only one hit allowed.

Roster status

Scherzer is the top free agent pitcher on the market, and probably will decide on a 2022 home Monday.