Scherzer brings his 19-1 record to Fenway

Scherzer brings his 19-1 record to Fenway
September 3, 2013, 2:15 pm
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Max Scherzer has almost entirely forgotten what losing feels like, going 19-1 in his first 20 starts with Detroit in 2013.

(AP Images)

In the ongoing war between new and old school baseball stats, the Battle of Win/Loss Record has already been won by the newbies (a victory immortalized by Felix Hernandez’s 2010 Cy Young Award). At this point, even if there are a few stragglers, the majority of the baseball world has come to understand that there are far better ways to measure a pitcher’s performance than by merely glancing at his win total. There are too many other variables; too many things beyond the pitcher’s control.

In 2013, John Lackey is the W-L poster boy. With yesterday’s 3-0 loss to Detroit, Lackey’s now 8-12 on the season, which in a time gone by may have suggested that he was having a crappy year. But of course, he’s not. In fact, Lackey has been the best pitcher on the Sox staff. He’s 12th in the AL with a 3.21 ERA. He’s 11th with a 1.17 WHIP. Lackey’s pitched into the seventh inning in 14 of his last 15 starts, and in those 15 starts, he’s allowed more than three earned runs only three times.

The problem is that when Lackey’s on the mound, it’s as if John Farrell has replaced the Sox line-up with nine Craig Grebecks. The team can’t score. Of 40 qualifying American League pitchers, Lackey ranks 38th in run support (3.28). This season, the Sox have been shut out 11 times, and Lackey was the starting pitcher in six of them. He’s also lost eight games this season in which he’s allowed three or fewer earned runs, which leads the majors (h/t to @ESPNStatsInfo).

Now, let’s compare that with 2011, Lackey’s last full season, and also one of the worst statistical year’s in Red Sox history. Back then, despite only throwing 160 innings, Lackey led the majors with 114 earned runs allowed, and had the worst ERA (6.41) of any pitcher who threw more than 65 innings. He gave up at least three earned runs in 11 of his last 12 starts and pitched into the seventh inning in only four of them.

Lackey’s record in 2011? 12-8. (In related news, of the 44 pitchers to throw at least 160 innings, only Derek Holland and Ivan Nova got better run support than the 5.96 a game that the Sox provided for Big Jon.)

OK, so we all get it. In this era of advanced statistics, win/loss record is less significant than ever. That said . . .

Screw it.

I still love me some win/loss record.

Even though it might not mean all that much in the big picture, as a fan, it’s a statistic that I still enjoying following and rooting for. I don’t know, maybe it’s just nostalgia, or the fact that, at the end of the day, a win is a win, regardless of how you get there. Either way, I’m still into wins. I can still appreciate an impressive record. And in 2013, there’s not a record that comes close to matching that of the man who will take the mound tonight at Fenway.

I think I first started to take notice of Max Scherzer’s record when it hit 10-0 back in June, because that’s usually when the light goes on. My interest was piqued again in July when he became the first pitcher since Roger Clemens (1986) to start a season 13-0. Then again, last month, when he became the third* pitcher ever to win 19 of his first 20 decisions. (*The other two were Rube Marquard in 1912 and Roger Clemens in 2001.)

Today, Scherzer is 19-1. And you know what? He’s lucky to be there. First and foremost, Scherzer leads the majors in run support, at 5.96 a game. To put it in perspective, the Tigers have scored 161 runs in his 27 starts. The Sox have scored 82 runs in Lackey’s 25 starts. So obviously, Scherzer isn’t exactly playing on an even field. And there are also occasions like Scherzer’s last start, when he left after five innings in Oakland with the Tigers down 6-1, before his teammates scored four times in the ninth to earn their starter a no-decision.

But while Scherzer might not be as dominant as 19-1 suggests, the other numbers back up his place among the best two or three pitchers in the American League. On the season, he’s one of three guys with more than 200 strikeouts. He’s one of seven with a sub-3.00 ERA and the only one with a WHIP under 1.00. Only Chris Sale has a better WAR, and he’s playing for a last place team.

The Red Sox got up close and personal with Scherzer back on June 27, when he held them to two runs over seven innings in a 10-3 victory.

The point is that regardless of where you stand on the sabermetric spectrum, you’ve got to respect the season Scherzer’s had, and there’s an undeniable buzz surrounding him bringing that 19-1 record to Fenway.

By any new or old statistical measure, Max Scherzer is having a season that will go down in history. And right now, the Red Sox are hoping that they can eventually say the same.

As we head down the stretch, with only 23 games left, the Sox have worked themselves into a favorable position. They lead the Rays by 5.5 in the AL East, and considering the state of their starting rotation, look very poised to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. But looking beyond the regular season, one major question facing the Sox is whether they can perform in situations like tonight — against the best pitchers that the game has to offer.

 As Tim Britton writes this morning in the Providence Journal:

"The raw numbers: The best three starters on (Boston’s) four most likely American League postseason opponents -- Detroit, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Texas -- have a combined 3.11 ERA and 3.93 strikeout-to-walk ratio against the Red Sox this season while pitching an average of 6 1/3 innings per start. All other starters who have faced the Red Sox have a 5.52 ERA with a 2.04 strikeout-to-walk ratio while averaging fewer than 5 1/3 innings per start.”

Those numbers are jarring, and will no doubt become a focal point of the Sox conversation if they don’t turn things around soon.

They have another chance tonight in their rematch against Scherzer. And while it won’t be easy, there’s at least one reason to be optimistic about the Red Sox offense . . .

John Lackey doesn’t pitch again until Saturday.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine