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Go Bold or Go Home: Max Scherzer is a Top 10 Starter

Raise your hand if you've said it before: "This is the year Max Scherzer puts it all together." That should cover just about everyone, right? Well don't worry, I'm not going to make that claim in this post. Because Scherzer has already put it all together, the face value numbers just didn't reflect that last season. But they will this year.

Scherzer led baseball in K% (29.4), K/9 (11.08) and SIERA (2.99) last season. He finished 10th in FIP (3.27), 11th in K/BB (3.85), and his average fastball velocity (94.2 mph) trailed only David Price, Jeff Samardzija, Justin Verlander and Matt Moore. Scherzer's 12.2 percent swinging-strike rate tied him for second in the Majors behind only Cole Hamels (12.9 percent). His contact rate on out-of-zone pitches and strikes were both roughly seven percent better than the league average.

Scherzer confounded hitters across the board, but his overall numbers were shrouded by a slow start and a pair of minor maladies that limited him to 187 2/3 innings. Those maladies include hamstring tightness leading up to the All-Star break and shoulder fatigue that caused his velocity to drop into the low 90s in his final three starts. The velocity drop sounds troubling, but Scherzer's velocity has performed similarly in the past without leading to major injury, mitigating the need for major concern. There's also the fact that in those three starts, he allowed four runs in 11 innings with 11 strikeouts. It's not as if when the velocity faded, Scherzer was torched by the opposition.

 Beyond that, there's the matter of Scherzer's defense. Yes, his infield defense will likely be horrid. Again. However, Scherzer is an extreme flyball pitcher. Detroit's primary right fielder last season was Brennan Boesch, who by all measures was a defensive travesty. Boesch was worth -8 runs according to The Fielding Bible and posted an even more unsightly -18.2 UZR/150. Detroit right fielders as a whole posted marks of -17 and -17.5 in those categories, respectively.

Boesch will be replaced by Torii Hunter. At 37 years of age, Hunter is clearly no longer the standout center fielder he was in his early years with Minnesota. However, advanced defensive metrics still love Hunter's glove in right field. The Fielding Bible rated Hunter at +15 runs, and UZR/150 agreed by doling out a generous +13.0 runs to Hunter's right field defense. If those numbers hold true, that's at least a 30-run swing for the Tigers in right field alone. Scherzer threw roughly 13 percent of Detroit's innings last season. Assuming a 30-run uptick in right field defense, Scherzer could expect to shave four runs off his ERA. That alone would have dropped his total to 3.54 instead of 3.74.

In left field, Tigers hurlers were unfairly subjected to 226 innings of Delmon Young "playing defense" -- which can be more accurately described as "breathing and occupying space while adding the occasional 360 for dramatic effect." Andy Dirks graded out well according to The Fielding Bible (+3 runs in 464 innings) but not so much according to UZR/150 (-13 runs). Either way, he's a marked upgrade over Young. If he's considered to be even a league-average glove in left field, Dirks will combine with a strong center fielder (Austin Jackson) and an elite defender in right (Hunter) to provide plenty of cushion for Scherzer's 41.5 percent flyball rate -- which ranked tenth among qualified starting pitchers.

Scherzer is currently going as the 21st starting pitcher off the board -- good for an average draft position of 102, per Mock Draft Central. A look at the pitchers separating him from the Top 10, however, reveals a host of red flags. Names like Jered Weaver (declining velocity/whiffs), Yu Darvish (awful command), Madison Bumgarner (brutal second half), Kris Medlen (no track record), R.A. Dickey (short track record, move to AL East), Roy Halladay (injuries) and Chris Sale (velocity drop, lack of track record) are all going ahead of Scherzer, but is that the right call?

Scherzer is a guaranteed strikeout monster. He's whiffed 9.3 hitters per nine innings in his career and is coming off of a ridiculous 11.1 K/9 in 2012. He plays in a fairly weak division (despite improvements to the Indians) with a potent offense behind him that should lead to plenty of wins. He's walked just 2.7 hitters per nine innings over the past two seasons, which should result in a solid WHIP if his BABIP regresses from last year's .333 toward his career .312.

Scherzer flashed the type of dominance of which he's capable from May 20 through season's end in 2013 by posting a 3.02 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 14 wins and 183 strikeouts in 146 innings. If he can shake the early-season doldrums that have plagued him throughout his career, he has all of the tools to be one of the game's best starters. That may be easier in 2013 than most seasons, as the Tigers have seven games against Houston, three against Seattle and ten against Minnesota in the season's first two months. As a whole, Scherzer's early schedule doesn't look terribly intimidating.

Perhaps the biggest mark against Scherzer is that he's never topped 200 innings in a Major League season, but he'd have pushed to do so had he remained healthy in the final weeks of 2012. He's averaged 193 frames over the past three seasons, and there's little reason to expect a drop-off in 2013. Rather, a step forward is more likely if he can get a strong start out of the gates.

Peripheral stats love Scherzer, and given the questions surrounding the second tier of starting pitchers, it's fair to say that the 28-year-old has a legitimate chance to soar through fantasy baseball's pitcher rankings this season. His 4.6 fWAR already ranked 14th among qualified starters, and given expected regression due to age or lack of stuff from some players ahead of him, everyone's favorite case of heterochromia iridum will finish the season among the ten best arms in fantasy baseball.



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