For a brief period last May, it looked like Max Scherzer was finally slowing down.
Scherzer, who reached Double-A in his first pro season and the Major Leagues the next year, was 1-4 with a 7.29 ERA after his first eight outings of the 2010 season.
"I really hit a skid there," he recently reflected.
But he would finish the campaign 12-11 with a 3.50 ERA (tied for 12th in the American League) and 184 strikeouts (11th in the AL). His turnaround began with a trip to Triple-A Toledo.
Scherzer is an extremely gifted athlete -- that much has been obvious since at least his college days -- but he was able to pull off this season's about-face by taking an analytical approach to his problem and committing to doing whatever work was necessary to make corrections.
Blowing by 'em
Selected 11th overall in the 2006 Draft by Arizona out of the University of Missouri, Scherzer and agent Scott Boras came to an impasse in contract negotiations with the D-backs, and Scherzer did not sign that summer.
Looking back now, Scherzer admitted he was eager to get onto the diamond and start throwing.
"It was a negotiation. That's the way business goes, and I understood that, but I was anxious to play ball," he said.
Boras knew what his client was capable of, but the Arizona front office wasn't exactly working with the biggest budget in baseball. Furthermore, the youngster had experienced biceps tendinitis prior to the Draft.
When media asked then-Arizona GM Josh Byrnes if drafting Scherzer was a risk based on what the small-market organization could afford, he replied: "I'd rather not answer that."
With a May 30 deadline looming in 2007, Scherzer inked a deal with an independent league team based in Fort Worth, Texas in mid-April. Over three starts, in which he allowed one earned run and struck out 25, he proved that the 2006 injury was no longer an issue. Still, the D-backs came close to losing the prospect, reportedly signing him just before midnight on deadline day.
"When I was able to sign and start playing," Scherzer said, "I was stoked, because that's all I wanted to do."
On June 7, he proved it, and five days after that, he erased any hint of buyer's remorse the D-backs may have had. In his first start with the Class A Advanced Visalia Oaks, he struck out eight and allowed a run on two hits over five frames. The next time out, he threw seven perfect innings, striking out 13 along the way. Facing a San Jose lineup that included Pablo Sandoval, Scherzer showed no mercy. He struck out the side in the seventh and said he would have finished the perfecto had he not been on a pitch limit.
"I think I would have gotten the perfect game if I had stayed in," he told MiLB.com at the time. "I was really competing out there, but certain things are out of my control. I just wanted to do the best job I could."
Doing the best job he could was enough to push Scherzer up to the Double-A Mobile BayBears by the end of the month.
The impressive results, though, aren't what Scherzer remembers most about coming through the Arizona system.
"It was learning pro ball. You just listen to your coaches and do what they say, because they're trying to make you a better pitcher," he said.
BayBears pitching coach Dan Carlson could tell the youngster's stay in the Southern League would be a short one.
"With his type of stuff, you could see it," Carlson said. "Very rarely can you see a guy with a fastball like his in the Minor Leagues for very long. That combination of velocity and location..."
Scherzer gave up five runs -- three earned -- over five innings in his first start at the new level, but he struck out 11 over six shutout innings of two-hit ball the next time out and finished the year with a 4-4 record and 3.91 ERA at Mobile.
"Good hitters hit good fastballs, but he had an extra notch on it," said Carlson. "With him, the low ball looks like it's 100 miles an hour, and the high ball looks like it's 110."
Minor League career breakdown
2007: Scherzer blazes through Class A Advanced Visalia, allowing one run and striking out 30 over 17 innings.|
2007: After a move to Double-A, Scherzer strikes out 76 in 73 2/3 innings pitched while posting a 3.91 ERA over 14 starts.|
2008: At Triple-A Tucson for his second pro season, Scherzer looks even sharper, fanning 79 and walking 22 and finishing the season in the Majors.|
2009: Scherzer sticks with the D-backs, pitching in just one Minor League game at the start of the year while ailing from shoulder inflammation.|
2010: After a trade to the Tigers, Scherzer struggles, then makes two stellar starts with Toledo before returning to the Majors with a 14-strikeout effort.|
Scherzer split the next season between the Majors and Triple-A Tucson. In his April 29 big league debut, he pitched 4 1/3 perfect innings of relief and struck out seven.
After one 2009 appearance in Class A Advanced Visalia -- he was recovering from offseason shoulder inflammation -- Scherzer seemed to have reached the Major Leagues for good. He tossed 170 1/3 innings for the D-backs that season, striking out a whopping 174 and walking 63.
Welcome to the Tigers
During the 2009-'10 offseason, Scherzer was a key component for the Tigers in the three-way deal that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees and Edwin Jackson to Arizona. His tenure in Detroit got off to a fine start as Scherzer allowed one hit over six shutout innings in the second game of the regular season.
It was his last scoreless appearance of the month, though, and he was lit up several times in the early going -- the Twins got to him for 16 runs over back-to-back starts that amounted to eight innings. After a May 14 outing that saw the Red Sox score six times in five frames, the pitcher who so easily zipped through the upper levels of the Minors was sent back down.
"Even before I hit the rough patch, I could see my velocity was down, and my arm felt great," said Scherzer. "When your arm feels great, everything should be working fine, so that could mean any number of things. I was watching a lot of video and trying to figure it out."
For Carlson, even watching Scherzer work on TV, it was clear that while he hadn't lost the ability to throw hard, there was something about his delivery that was making the fireballer easily hittable.
"The location of the fastball. ... If he's really starting out low or on the corner, then later in the count, he can come up high and in the middle [to strike batters out]. But if he starts out high and over the middle of the plate, there's nowhere for him to go."
Two days after that ugly start against Boston, Scherzer was optioned to the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens.
Welcome to Toledo
"It wasn't an earth-shattering, all-encompassing re-do," Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp explained. "We had a situation on our hands where we had two days off in about six days. It didn't make sense for Max to stay up and miss a couple starts so he could sort it out in bullpen sessions, when we could send him down there and have him make his start."
Still, Knapp admitted, "If he'd [stunk] in Toledo, he wouldn't have come back."
The Tigers were confident that wouldn't happen, though, because Scherzer and Knapp had already begun putting together an idea of the adjustments the hurler needed to make.
"You could see on video my arm slot was off," Scherzer said. "I was trying to make corrections with Knapp. [But] it's hard to change your arm slot. That's something that's natural to every pitcher -- you have a natural arm slot that feels right.
"So I said, 'There has to be something else that's affecting my arm slot,' and that's when we saw that I needed to shorten my arm action to get back into my slot."
Mud Hens pitching coach A.J. Sager agreed, and he knew everything would begin to fall back into place for Scherzer when the righty made that adjustment.
"Once he got the arm figured out, the location wasn't going to be an issue," he said.
If the mechanical hiccup sounds like an easy issue to resolve, Knapp and Sager both emphasized that Scherzer's attitude enabled him to effectively make the change.
"He went down with the right frame of mind," said Knapp.
"There are two ways of handling this: You can go down and mope around in Toledo, or you can go down and start working. So for me, I only had one option," Scherzer said.
Sager got the feeling that Scherzer's trip to the Minors may have been avoided had Knapp and Scherzer been able to detect the elongated arm movement just a little bit earlier, and he was impressed with the way Scherzer handled being shipped down.
"He didn't [seem frustrated] when I saw him," Sager said. "The frustration was just from the fact that he had figured out what was wrong just when he was sent down. It was, 'Why couldn't I have figured this out a week ago, and maybe then I wouldn't be sent down?' And I don't disagree."
"I understand why I got sent down," Scherzer said. "I wasn't performing. In the big leagues, if you don't perform, you're not going to stick around. So I respect that decision that the front office made. It was frustrating, though, to be [close to a solution] and then get sent to Triple-A."
During a few workouts, Sager functioned as "another pair of eyes" for Scherzer, carefully watching the righty throw and providing feedback on each delivery. Scherzer soon was able to feel the difference between his effective motion and the motion he'd recently fallen into.
"He knew, 'What I'm doing now isn't working. Here's what I need to do instead,' and was [focused on that]," Sager said.
By the time Scherzer started for the Mud Hens against the Durham Bulls on May 20, he was back to his old self.
It showed. From the first inning, the Toledo pitching coach noticed a change. Scherzer's delivery was consistently strong and short, and he had no trouble getting outs.
"You could see the confidence come right away. It was like he said, 'Yeah, OK. This is where I need to be.'"
The Bulls managed just one hit and one base on balls as Scherzer sent down 10 on strikes over eight shutout innings. Still, rather than asking the obvious question -- "When can I go back to Detroit?" -- he remained focused on doing his job the right way.
"You've got to have that feeling," Scherzer admitted. "But you don't get to make that decision, so you've got to put in the work wherever you are. Of course you want to go up and compete [in Detroit], but you're in Toledo, so you've got to commit to competing in Toledo."
He needed only one more start to prove he was through with his struggles, fanning seven Syracuse Chiefs and giving up one run on three hits and a walk over seven frames on May 25.
"He was a man playing with boys at our level," Sager said. Scherzer only made the second Triple-A start as "a matter of making sure he wasn't going to start getting long again."
Scherzer brought the refined delivery back to the Majors on May 30, putting American League hitters on notice with a dramatic return. After walking Oakland table-setter Rajai Davis, Scherzer settled in to toss 5 2/3 scoreless innings, racking up an astounding 14 strikeouts throughout the afternoon.
"I don't want to say, 'It was just another big league start,'" he said. "But in a way, it was just another big league start. I just wanted to go out there and help the team win."
"It was, 'Oh, yeah, this is great.' He struck out 14 guys and went 5 2/3. I wish he struck out 10 and went eight. When you strike out guys, you throw a lot of pitches -- that's the bottom line. But striking out all those guys shows ... the arm slot and action is a little bit quicker and cleaner."
"I was surprised he struck out 14, sure, because you never expect that," Sager said, "but it did not surprise me that he would go back up there and dominate right away. His stuff is as good as anybody's. He just needed to make an adjustment. Sometimes the Major Leagues are a hard place to make an adjustment."
Knapp sees Scherzer's slump and revival as evidence that even the best players are works in progress.
"There is no such thing as a finished product," he said. "There's no such thing as a guy who's so well wired that he's got his [stuff] together from now to the end of time.
"What I was hoping to get out of Max last year was exactly what we got. I wish we had ironed it out in March instead of in May, but I'm happy with the way it all worked out."
Scherzer, too, is glad to have worked through the arm slot issue and returned to form in the Majors. But the hurler who blazed into the big leagues in his second pro season knows the trip down was educational in another way too.
"There's a lesson to be learned here: Never take anything for granted."