Max Scherzer does not shy away from challenges. He attacks them with maniacal vigor, usually successfully, and moves on to the next with equal gusto. This spring, he’ll tackle a new one: While some of his peers have opted out of playing in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, Scherzer, always the fiery competitor, assumed the possible risks of pitching in the tournament and accepted an invitation to play under Team USA Manager Jim Leyland, his former manager with the Tigers.
“I have so much respect for Jim Leyland that when he asks me to play, you don’t say no,” Scherzer said earlier this month.
Pitchers and catchers are expected to report to Nationals camp at their new home in West Palm Beach, Fla., in mid-February. Team USA’s WBC opener is less than a month later, on March 10, against Colombia in Miami. The Americans finish the opening-round group play with games the next two days against the Dominican Republic and Canada. Scherzer will likely start one of those three games.
“I’ve seen different games and videos where the fans are going crazy, especially for the Latin American countries,” said Scherzer, who represented the United States on a collegiate team in 2005. “It seems like those fans are crazy out there. Seems like an environment that I want to pitch in.”
Oliver Perez is the only other player on the Nationals that has committed to play in the tournament, a club official confirmed Tuesday. Perez, 34, pitched for Mexico in a qualifier last March and is one of the few players in the world expected to appear in all four WBC tournaments — Perez also pitched in the 2006, 2009 and 2013 editions.
Former Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa, traded to the Angels earlier this month, is also slated to play for Mexico. Bryce Harper declined to play for Team USA. Daniel Murphy, the NL MVP runner-up, would also make sense for Team USA, but he is not among those confirmed to play.
Scherzer is 32 years old, well into his prime, but has never pitched in the WBC. He completed his climb to baseball’s upper echelon immediately following the previous WBC by claiming his first Cy Young Award with the Tigers in 2013. Three years later, he remains firmly among the best, perhaps at his apex, with a second Cy Young Award to his name. Over the past four seasons, Scherzer ranks first in wins, first in innings pitched, first in strikeouts, third in strikeouts per nine innings, 10th in ERA, seventh in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and second in FanGraphs WAR among pitchers.
Depending on who else commits to participate, Scherzer could arguably be the best starting pitcher to play for Team USA in the WBC with those credentials (Roger Clemens was on the 2006 team but he was 43 and at the end of his career). Premier pitchers usually opt out because the timing of the tournament alters their routines. In a normal year, starters utilize spring training to gradually accumulate strength and stamina until the real games begin in early April. The WBC accelerates the timeline, placing pitchers in adrenaline-rushing environments a couple of weeks before Opening Day.
But how exactly the tournament affects pitchers remains unclear. Studies have surfaced to tackle the question — one published on FanGraphs in 2010 and one on Baseball Prospectus in 2013 among them. A three-tournament sample size is probably too small for any conclusions, but the assumption is extra high-octane work that early in the year probably has adverse effects.
In an attempt to minimize the additional stress, the tournament imposes constraints on pitchers resembling those found in the Little League World Series. In the 2013 tournament, pitchers were limited to 65 pitches per game in the first round, 80 per game in the second, and 95 per game in the championship series. They were only allowed to pitch beyond the given threshold to complete an at-bat and are mandated rest periods depending on workloads; at least four days after throwing 50-plus pitches, one day after 30-plus pitches, and one day after appearing in consecutive games regardless of pitch count.
“I’m not planning on doing anything different until I really find out the details of where they need me to be,” Scherzer said. “But for me, it’s just where I’m at in my throwing program.”
Scherzer, who logged 240 1/3 innings between the regular season and playoffs in 2016, said earlier this month that he didn’t know when or how many games he would pitch in the tournament, but hinted to MLB.com in early November that he would make just one start. He could start one of the three first round games and return to spring training before the second round, capitalizing on a new rule that permits teams to replace players between rounds. He could then rejoin if the Americans advance to the championship series, which they’ve never done. The expectation is the majority, if not all, of the player movement will involve pitchers.
For some recent reference, Team USA advanced to the second round and used four starting pitchers in five games in 2013 — when teams weren’t allowed to replace players between rounds. Ryan Vogelsong was the only American pitcher to start two games. He threw 133 pitches across 9 2/3 innings. Vogelsong, 35 years old at the time and battling injury, posted a 5.73 ERA in 19 starts for the Giants after tallying a 3.37 ERA in 31 starts the previous season.
Gio Gonzalez, the only Nationals pitcher ever to start a WBC game, was coming off the best season of his career — 21 wins with a 2.89 ERA and league-best 2.82 FIP at 26 years old — when he threw 69 pitches over five scoreless innings against Puerto Rico in the second round. He regressed for the Nationals that year — his ERA inflated to 3.36 ERA in 32 starts — but a steady regression continued, perhaps signaling that 2012 was an aberration and the WBC’s effect wasn’t great.
A significant regression from Scherzer in 2017 would stifle the Nationals’ chances of repeating as National League East champions and finally breaking through in the postseason. They need their passionate ace to continue his dominance in the third year of a seven-year contract that will pay him $210 million. The risk in allowing him pitch in the World Baseball Classic is unknown, but the Nationals are confident Scherzer won’t falter after the tournament.
“Pitchers, you always have concerns, but I want to win this World Baseball Classic,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “If Jimmy Leyland wants Max Scherzer, and Max Scherzer wants to go, I don’t mind Max Scherzer being on the mound for Team USA. We need to win one of these classics.”