Sparked by a 10-game streak in which he tallied at least eight strikeouts in every appearance (no pitcher had produced a longer uninterrupted stretch since Pedro Martinez in 2002), Tigers hurler Max Scherzer finished his 2012 season with 11.08 strikeouts for every nine innings pitched. That value, the 12th highest in history (at the time) for a qualifying right-hander, was (in some circles) an indication that the fifth-year player had tapped into a new higher level of performance, and (for those who like to dream really big) a presentiment -- an underpainting of sorts -- for even greater displays down the pike.
In 2013, Scherzer's standing among the game's hurlers did indeed rise, albeit with a surprising decrease in strikeout rate, as he finished the year with 10.08 K's per nine. In almost every other category, however, the numbers improved and Scherzer enjoyed a season in which he started the All-Star Game, captured the American League Cy Young Award, and took home league crowns in wins, winning percentage and WHIP.
Against a more expansive gallery of pitching seasons, the campaign -- if not a masterpiece -- continues to hold a choice spot on the wall, deserving all of the illumination that can be directed toward it. And even though it's not the most illustrative feature to support how well Scherzer actually pitched, that .875 winning percentage does advance to the foreground. Since 1893, that figure had been matched or surpassed by only 14 other pitchers (most recently, by Cliff Lee in 2008), and for all pitchers to capture at least 20 wins in a season, Scherzer's .875 is the fifth-highest mark since 1893. But it's three other rate stats generously applied to Scherzer's 2013 canvas that really do make the season worth second and third glances.
Scherzer's Mighty Year
|Year(s)||W-L||W-L Pct.||ERA||ERA+||WHIP||H/9||K/9||K: BB|
If one takes a look at Scherzer's full 2013 palette and then selects his ERA+, WHIP and strikeout rate, rough baseline values near them reveal a portrait of a season that has few parallels in the game's history, and when those similar works of art are revealed, the artists behind them have some pretty noteworthy signatures. Let's tour.
The resultant lessons -- the ones that bubble up so often when lists of these kinds are revealed? That Sandy Koufax was reconceptualizing the art of pitching in the 1960s and that Martinez's peak reveals a genius in the midst of an historic output.
When Martinez put on his first one-man show in 1997, the rave reviews (which included the first of three AL Cy Young Awards) could have locked on to any number of interpretations, for that season and his work not only revealed an unprecedented (for him) display of skills and execution, but also made a large imprint on the game's timeline. It's not so much the wide array of leadership in the National League (he paced the league in ERA, WHIP, hits/9, K's/9, complete games and ERA+), but some of the numbers behind that pace setting.
At the time, here's what could have been said when comparing Martinez's 1997 magnum opus against the rest of the great works and artists since 1893:
• Martinez's 219 ERA+ was tied for the 13th highest and was the sixth highest for a pitcher in his age-25 or younger season.
• Martinez's 0.932 WHIP ranked 36th and came in seventh for pitchers as young as him (or younger).
• Martinez's 5.89 hits/9 tied for 17th lowest and ranked ninth for pitchers under 26 years of age.
• Martinez's 11.37 strikeouts per nine innings was the fifth-highest rate and behind only Dwight Gooden's mark from 1984 for pitchers under 26 years of age.
• Martinez joined Rube Waddell (1904), Walter Johnson (in '10 and '12), Sandy Koufax (in '63 and '66), Vida Blue ('71) and Steve Carlton ('72) as the only pitchers to collect at least 300 strikeouts while producing an ERA below 2.00
Monsters on the mound
In many ways, the brilliance of Martinez's 1997 season gains even more appreciation in retrospect, as it does serve as the first bold stroke in that unimaginable run from '97 through 2003. Five ERA titles (and five times leading in ERA+), three strikeout crowns, five times leading in WHIP, five times a leader in hits per nine, five times the best strikeout rate in the league, maybe the best single-season pitching performance in baseball history (1999 or 2000). These submissions speak of a maestro in his chosen medium. And it really all got started in 1997, when Martinez fully tapped into the stuff and approach that gave his every start the feeling of opening night for a fresh and scintillating exhibition.
The 2013 Tigers had any number of exemplars when it came to calling and demanding attention to the collective tapestry. For a long time, it actually seemed as if Miguel Cabrera just might make some history and become the first batter to ever claim consecutive Triple Crowns; outfielder Torii Hunter continued to confound expectations for a player of his age; Victor Martinez gained traction as the season went on and was among the candidates for AL Comeback Player of the Year. And then there were Scherzer's mates on the mound: ERA champ Anibal Sanchez and the always-engaging Justin Verlander, who not too long ago could make the claim as the best pitcher on the planet. But for all of these contributors, Scherzer's imprint felt extra fresh and inviting.
Scherzer flirted with a little bit of history (opening the season by winning his first 13 decisions -- tying for the fourth-best start to a season for a starter in the live-ball era), posted a team-leading 240 strikeouts in a season in which his Tigers staff set the all-time record for K's and had that particular set of rate stats that allowed his season to be hung next to ones by some of the more resonant pitchers in recent times. Like a compelling and engrossing canvas -- one marked by superior craftsmanship and hung in a prime spot welcoming all viewers -- Scherzer's 2013 season is now on permanent display, inviting all onlookers to take a moment to stand in place and appreciate its beauty and artistry.
Roger Schlueter is senior researcher for MLB Productions. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.