LAKELAND, Fla. -- Max Scherzer was nearly unbeatable in his breakout season in 2013. As the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner prepares for his followup campaign, he was left Monday to compete against imaginary opponents.
Scherzer needed some competition in his second bullpen session of the spring earlier this week. So as the righty prepared to throw to Bryan Holaday, while Victor Martinez and Alex Avila watched from the sidelines, Scherzer pretended as if he was facing them -- first Martinez, then Avila.
"Start him off with a fastball," Scherzer said, predicting Martinez would take the first pitch. "We'll set him up."
In came the fastball.
"Gone," Avila said, pretending to track a ball as it sailed out to right field.
Not in Scherzer's mind. And since this was Scherzer's session, the imaginary at-bat went on. Scherzer dropped in a curveball, then another one, setting up a high fastball. Then Scherzer delivered his knockout pitch.
"AH!!! Got him! No way he's hitting that," Scherzer exclaimed, pumping his fist.
On to the next hitter.
"Alex, first and second, two outs," Scherzer said as he stood on the back of the bullpen mound.
Scherzer proceeded with another game plan, mixing in breaking stuff with fastballs. At one point, he lost a heater up and inside.
"I'm out for the next three games after that one," Avila said.
"Don't kid yourself. You're jumping out of the way," Scherzer said.
That put the count to 3-1. After another pitch off the plate, Scherzer -- still with plenty of pitches before his limit -- hit the reset button.
"Let's do Alex all over again," Scherzer told Holaday.
"He's intimidated," Avila told his backup.
Another fastball, another disagreement.
"Game over," Avila said, hinting at a walkoff homer.
"Foul tip," Scherzer contended, arguing he'd be late on the swing.
By this point, the other pitchers had finished their sessions. Over on the next mound, Anibal Sanchez was long since done, but standing around watching this unfold, suggesting pitches. Manager Brad Ausmus let them have their fun. Martinez had gone back in.
As far as Scherzer's concerned, he finished his session by striking out Avila, and celebrated as such. Avila let him have his moment.
As much as Tigers fans don't want to consider the possibility, this could be an actual matchup next year if Scherzer hits free agency. For now, it's a fitting symbol of the challenge Scherzer faces this season. As much success as he enjoyed last year, his biggest competition might be himself.
Scherzer never measured his pitching by his 21-3 record. He fully realizes that he could pitch just as well this year and end up with double-digit losses for the first time since 2010. But he doesn't believe he can stay the same pitcher regardless.
"You never stay the same," Scherzer said, "as a pitcher, as an athlete. It doesn't matter what you do, you never stay the same. You either get better or you get worse. Those are the only two options. And so, my mindset going into this year is I'm going to get better.
"I'm going to find ways to be better than I was last year. I might not have the record or some of the numbers I was able to accomplish last year, but I can be a better pitcher than I was last year. That's my goal."
As much of an equalizer as his curveball proved to be against left-handed hitters who previously feasted on him, he sees room for improvement. With that in mind, it probably wasn't a coincidence that his first session against hitters Thursday morning was loaded with left-handed batters, giving him a chance to spot curves and gauge reactions.
Scherzer went to his curveball on 7.8 percent of all his pitches last season, according to STATS and Fangraphs.com. It wasn't a huge swing-and-miss pitch for him, with hitters whiffing on less than a quarter of them, but he gave up a mere .226 batting average when they put the curve in play.
The curveball was the driving force behind a massive drop in his batting average allowed to lefties, from a .292 rate in 2012 to a career-low .222 last year, and a 98-point drop in slugging percentage allowed.
A sharper curveball, a better mix of pitches, a few more swings and misses -- the process could lead to Scherzer being a better all-around pitcher. He knows better than to equate that to a better season.
"I don't know what my record's going to be. I can't dictate it," he said. "I mean, obviously I have to pitch well, but it also takes the guys at the plate to show up as well."
No need to bring it up. Scherzer knows the statistic that's coming next.
"I'm not naïve in how I won 21 games last year. I had great offensive support," Scherzer said. "There were many great pitchers that pitched last year that didn't quite have the run support that I had. They didn't win many games, but they pitched as well as I did."
And there it is, the reference to the league-best 6.8 runs of support Scherzer averaged in his 32 starts. He doesn't need a reminder.
Scherzer finished seventh in the Majors in Fielding Independent Pitching last season, but trailed only Clayton Kershaw in Wins Above Replacement. All of the six pitchers above him lost at least five games. Seattle's Felix Hernandez went 12-10. Marlins rookie phenom Jose Fernandez went 12-6.
Even Scherzer's teammate, AL ERA champion Sanchez, lost eight games.
So, yes, Scherzer gets it. He can't control what Tigers hitters do, except for this week, which brings us back to live batting practice Thursday.
"All right, baby, let's go," Avila said as he stepped into the cage. "Me and you, real life."
There wasn't much talk from Scherzer this time, just a handful of pitches that ended with a breaking ball for a swing and a miss.
"That was a good one," Avila called out.
"It was so-so," said Scherzer, still looking to improve, already competing with himself.