DETROIT -- The question has come up a couple times to Max Scherzer, whose American League Cy Young Award-winning season last year was downright dominant. And after he threw eight shutout innings and had a season-high 14 strikeouts on Thursday against the Pirates, the question came up again.
After going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA and 240 strikeouts last year, is Scherzer actually better this year?
"Coming off these last two starts and where I'm at, I'm a better pitcher than I was last year," Scherzer said. "That was my mindset coming into this year: I was going to be a better pitcher than I was last year. Take all the numbers, throw them out. I'm not referencing wins and losses or anything. If you look at how I'm pitching and what I'm able to execute, I'm executing all my pitches at a higher level right now.
"That's something I strive for, and really it's taken to the second half to kind of get everything in sync to be at that level. But I feel like I'm at a level where I'm better than I was last year. That's my goal, to keep getting better."
As Scherzer prepares to face the Rays on Tuesday at Tropicana Field, he is statistically pretty close to 2013. His Fielding Independent Pitching is nearly identical -- 2.76 this year, compared to 2.74 last season.
That, however, simply deals with the results. In terms of pure pitching, Scherzer has a better argument. The transition he made away from being a fastball-slider pitcher to a four-pitch pitcher has not only continued this year, but it has picked up momentum.
Scherzer's fastball, which comprised 60 percent of his pitches two years ago, was down to 53.5 percent entering this season, according to Fangraphs and STATS LLC. His slider usage has dropped from 15.2 percent to 14 percent.
Scherzer's curveball and changeup usage, in turn, have risen. The curveball, a pitch he didn't use in games until about two years ago, now comprises 11 percent of his pitches.
That mix was on display Thursday, though with a couple fewer curveballs than the season rates. According to data MLB.com's Gameday and brooksbaseball.net, Scherzer threw 60 fastballs among his 115 pitches.
Fifty-four of those were Scherzer's traditional power four-seamers, drawing nine swings-and-misses out of 23 total swings. The data, however, suggested six other fastballs were the two-seamer he has been honing this season and keeping in his pocket for certain situations.
Scherzer threw more changeups (24) than sliders (22), threw nearly all of each for strikes, and drew a dozen swings-and-misses between the two. The nine curveballs he threw were effective, including two whiffs.
"His fastball has generally always been good," manager Brad Ausmus said after the game. "His changeup was very good. But his curveball, he threw a couple curveballs harder than normal down and in on left-handed hitters, and he got a strikeout on one. Usually his curveball's more of an off-speed pitch on the outer half of the plate, and he's been working on it a little bit, throwing it harder on the inside part of the plate to lefties."
Scherzer said he's not throwing one or the other curveball different, he's just throwing them with a different amount of pressure.
For the season, data from STATS suggests those secondary pitches are better now. Scherzer is throwing his slider, curveball and changeup for a higher percentage of strikes, getting a higher percentage of swings-and-misses from the changeup and curveball, and getting hitters to chase the changeup out of the zone 40 percent of the time.
Scherzer's fastball and slider are both getting hit harder. His curveball is getting hit at a slightly higher rate. The changeup is a better pitch all around.
"The fastball maintains a finish through the zone," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "The two-seamer, four-seamer [and] breaking ball play extremely well against the right-handers. The changeup for the left-handers. He's a horse out there. The volume of pitches he can throw and maintain velocity and command is impressive."
When the Bucs put pitches in play Thursday, they tended to hit them well. Two of the three hits against Scherzer were doubles, the other a line-drive single. All three were off the four-seam fastball.
But the Pirates didn't make contact often enough Thursday. Scherzer has gone five starts without allowing a home run, one shy of his longest such string from around the same time last year. If he can keep the ball away from catwalks at Tropicana Field on Tuesday, he'll get it.
But there's plenty more to like about the way Scherzer is throwing right now -- and the way he's feeling about the team around him.
"I feel great," he said. "Arm's healthy, especially now. We're going to get a couple of off-days, which will kind of give me a chance to freshen up. We've got playoff baseball. These games are huge for the rest of the season. We're in a fight right now, but that doesn't change what I believe, that if we come to play we're going to win this.
"I completely respect the other teams in our division -- the Royals, Indians. It's just that I believe in everybody in this clubhouse. I believe we have the talent to get it done. We just need to go out there and do it. We just need to play our game, bring our best every single day, bring our 'A' game, and let's go win the American League Central."