Like a tightrope walker reaching the platform, Max Scherzer can exhale now. He made it across. Working without a net this season, on a one-year contract he chose over a six-year, $144-million offer in the spring, Scherzer has been flirting with grenades all season. A serious arm injury, a major surgery, and he might have always wondered “what if?”
Instead, Tigers fans soon may be wondering “what if?” because Scherzer, 30, is the juiciest apple in the upcoming free-agent basket, and there are a lot of rich and hungry teams out there. It would take a king’s ransom to keep him. The New York Yankees, Boston, St. Louis (his hometown team) all loom as possible new employers.
None of which Scherzer wants to talk about now during the playoffs. Rightly so. But he is no doubt thinking about it. And while he does, he should think about staying here, in Detroit, a city that loves baseball and is ready to love him.
Because winning here – and staying here – is how you build a legacy.
Sure, he can jump to the highest bidder, as many of his agent Scott Boras’ clients have done, including Alex Rodriguez, Prince Fielder and Barry Zito. But it’s no accident those players now are perceived as grossly overpaid and are shown tepid affection. Jumping for the money doesn’t win you fans.
Being identified with one team and one town does. Today, Scherzer opens the Tigers’ postseason as their No.1 soldier, their ace, with a chance, starting against Baltimore at 5:37 p.m., to put icing on an already rich cake, and further his Detroit story. Did you realize that Scherzer tied for the American League lead in victories this season? And was second in winning percentage? No? Why? Because he didn’t start 13-0 and isn’t a favorite for the Cy Young – both of which were part of his stellar 2013 season? Had you thought this was somehow a “down” year?
Hardly. Scherzer went 18-5, best record in the American League, third in the league in strikeouts. And, if you believe him, he is a better pitcher today than he was last season.
“You never stay the same in sports,” he said Tuesday in the Tigers’ clubhouse. “You either get better or you get worse. There’s no in-between….
“This year I said, ÃÂI want to come in here and have a better year than I did in 2013. I want to be a better pitcher than I was in 2013.'”
And are you?
On the rise
Scherzer, on the surface, doesn’t lack for confidence. Why should he? Ever since he started his Detroit career (he arrived via trade with Arizona in December 2009) he has been the human definition of “ascension.”
In 2010 he returned from a demotion to Triple A by striking out 14 Oakland A’s in 52/3 innings. That’s right, 14. He went on finish 12-11 with nearly 200 strikeouts, despite the minor-league interruption.
In 2011, he won 15 games.
In 2012, he won 16 and dropped his ERA to 3.74.
In 2013, he was off the charts, winning 21 games, the Cy Young Award, starting in the All-Star Game and posting an ERA of 2.90.
And this year, just three victories shy of last year’s total, he made the All-Star team and struck out more batters than ever (252) while claiming he’s upped his game.
“There are things I did in 2014 that show I’m a better pitcher,” he said. “I may not have the numbers and the 21-3 and the Cy Young – that was all because of my teammates getting me runs – but if you actually ask me, as far as executing pitches, am I a better pitcher in 2014? I can say yes.”
Scherzer has more confidence in his control now, and in the placement of his pitches – which is every bit as important as velocity, especially as he gets older.
“With all the other off-speed pitches,” he said, “I can put a curveball into the zone, and I can put a curveball just out of the zone as well. Those are things I wasn’t able to do in 2013.”
When I asked Scherzer whether he felt relieved to reach the playoffs with his health – and his excellence – intact, he straight-armed the question, bristling, as he always does, at any contract talk.
“I’ve taken the proper precautions for that incident,” he said, referencing the chance of him getting hurt, “and that’s all I gotta say.”
So he has an insurance policy. That’s good. But he should understand, he’s on the lip of being one as well. The Tigers’ insurance policy.
Because being the ace of the staff is a big deal. It’s even bigger in this Tigers rotation. When manager Brad Ausmus says Scherzer has been “our best pitcher,” Scherzer should take pride in that, given the company he’s in. If he can lead Detroit, finally, to a World Series title, after a 30-year city drought and with an 85-year-old owner desperate to see a winner, Scherzer will be immortalized here. Why leave that? In coming back, he’d have a chance to do it again. Remember, Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price are a Mt. Rushmore of pitching that no other team currently enjoys.
Three Cy Young winners, one rotation?
Why wouldn’t you want to stay chiseled like that?
“The reality of baseball is that teams change every year,” Scherzer said. “Turnover is every year, so you gotta win this year for this clubhouse.”
But the turnover doesn’t have to start with him. Yes, we know he has an agent who only gets sentimental over the dollar. Boras has proven he likes to compete in his world as much as Scherzer does in his.
You might remember Boras got the $126-million mega deal for Zito to leave Oakland for San Francisco; Zito never lived up to the money and was considered a bust. Boras also got Carlos Beltran seven years, $119 million to leave Houston for the Mets. He was a high-priced disappointment and has been on three other teams since. There was Fielder’s nine-year, $214-million deal that left a lot of sour taste in mouths from here to Texas. And you likely recall Rodriguez’s 10-year, $252-million deal with Texas; Rodriguez was shipped to the Yankees and remains the poster child for ridiculous contracts.
All these were Boras deals. Yes, the players ended up rich. But few can be happy with their legacy – or the way they are perceived by the general public.
Scherzer has a chance to be a Detroit legend. He has done a lot already. He’s in a spot to do it again. He starts a promising postseason today as the best bet for victory, and he could get wealthy in both bank account and appreciation, if he’s interested in staying here.
Who knows what he will choose? For now, he seems to enjoy being a Tiger. And barring an unforeseen postseason injury, he needs to be congratulated: He made the tightrope walk. He survived, and surviving means options. Max Scherzer, in one healthy piece, will have quite a few.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.