Max Scherzer was better than expected in his first season in all categories except one – health. After making 30 or more starts in 11 of the past 12 full seasons – and having 27 starts in the other – Scherzer made just 23 starts in 2022, as he missed seven weeks with an oblique injury on his left side and two weeks in September with more oblique irritation. But when healthy enough to pitch, Scherzer put up a 2.29 ERA in 145.1 IP, which put him on the way to a 4.4 fWAR. Here’s what the projection systems see Scherzer doing this year in his age-38 season.
ATC – 168 IP, 3.13 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 202 Ks, 21 HR
Marcel – 151 IP, 2.86 ERA, 1.040 WHIP, 172 Ks, 17 HR
RotoCh – 156 IP, 2.71 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 194 Ks
Steamer – 191 IP, 3.29 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 229 Ks, 25 HR
THE BAT – 181 IP, 3.37 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 216 Ks, 24 HR
ZiPS – 141.1 IP, 3.06 ERA, 1.019 WHIP, 172 Ks, 18 HR
The IP and ERA forecasts are all over the map for a veteran pitcher. The IP is not a big surprise, given Scherzer’s advanced age and his drop in innings a year ago. The ERA forecasts are a bit more surprising to me. While it would be foolish to expect a repeat of last year’s sparkling 2.29 mark, it seems interesting that only two of the six forecasts have him with an ERA in the twos. In his last 35 games, Scherzer has allowed 53 ER in 219.2 IP, which is a 2.17 ERA.
Part of the reason the projection systems see a higher ERA is that they expect Scherzer to allow more homers than he has recently. After having a 0.66 HR/9 with the Dodgers and a 0.81 mark with the Mets, the projection systems on FanGraphs all have Scherzer with a HR/9 of 1.11 or greater. It’s not an outlandish forecast – a lot of times the only way to succeed against these veteran pitchers is to take them deep.
Lifetime, Scherzer has a 1.01 HR/9. It’s just that for the most part, he’s gotten better at allowing HR as he’s aged.
Father Time is undefeated and the thing with older pitchers is that they can fall off the cliff at any moment. Just because Scherzer has been outstanding in his last 35 starts doesn’t mean he will continue to pitch at an elite level. Here’s how some other famous older pitchers fared near the end:
Randy Johnson went from a 176 ERA+ at age 40 to a 112 mark at age 41
Kevin Brown went from a 169 ERA+ at age 38 to a 110 mark at age 39
Greg Maddux went from a 159 ERA+ at age 36 to a 108 mark at age 37
R.A. Dickey went from a 139 ERA+ at age 37 to a 98 mark at age 38
Al Leiter went from a 133 ERA+ at age 38 to a 67 mark at age 39
Jamie Moyer went from a 132 ERA+ at age 40 to an 86 mark at age 41
Bartolo Colon went from a 117 ERA+ at age 43 to a 68 mark at age 44
And this is far from a complete list.
The projections give the 50% most likely outcome. And while that works pretty good for players in the early and middle part of their careers, perhaps it breaks down for star pitchers near the end of their careers. My opinion is that Scherzer either pitches at a level close to what he’s done recently or he falls off significantly.
In the past five years, Scherzer has an ERA+ of 158 and last year it was 169. Assuming a run environment similar to last year, these projection models with an ERA in the threes are essentially projecting Scherzer to decline significantly as his 50th percentile outcome. The four systems featured on FanGraphs have Scherzer with an ERA from 3.06 (ZiPS) to 3.37 (THE BAT). Last year, Jacob deGrom had a 3.08 ERA, which was a 126 ERA+ and Chris Bassitt had a 3.42 ERA, which was a 113 ERA+.
Within a few points, these systems are predicting Scherzer to suffer roughly a 50-point drop in ERA+. While recognizing that’s a potential outcome, it seems overly pessimistic to me that the mean forecast is a drop equivalent to Greg Maddux’ in 2003. Here’s my totally biased forecast for Scherzer:
183 IP, 2.58 ERA, 0.915 WHIP, 203 Ks, 16 HR