Let’s look at two pitchers. They have thrown just about the same number of innings.
The record for Pitcher 1 — not that we care about won-loss records — is 165-87.
And the record for Pitcher 2 is, hey, what do you know, it’s 166-87.*
*Spoiler alert: I started this when they had the same record.
Pitcher 1 won three Cy Young Awards.
And, hey, what do you know, Pitcher 2 ALSO won three Cy Young Awards.
Pitcher 1 has a 132 ERA+, which is awfully good.
Pitcher 2 has a 131 ERA+, which is just about as good. Hmm.
Pitcher 1 has a significantly lower career ERA and FIP though it should be said that he did pitch in a time when runs were hard to come by.
Pitcher 2, meanwhile, has a lower WHIP, more strikeouts, many fewer walks, and (ergo) a dramatically better strikeout-to-walk ratio. He also has a higher bWAR and a higher fWAR.
Pitcher 1 threw a perfect game. Pitcher 2 came tantalizingly close to a perfect game. Twice.
Pitcher 1 was an icon.
Pitcher 2 is an icon too, though — that’s the point here. Pitcher 2 is icon. And we should appreciate him more.
So much of this comes down to time and place. Because (as I’m sure you guessed) pitcher 1 is Sandy Koufax, and he is one of the ten most beloved, esteemed, worshipped and idolized players in the history of baseball.
And Pitcher 2 is Max Scherzer, who, well, is well-liked and admired but I don’t think as much as he should be.
Time and place. When you talk about Koufax, you are talking about a time when pitching electrified baseball fans’ imaginations and a magical place where so many fans showed up every night (baseball had never SEEN such crowds on a nightly basis) with transistor radios attached to their ears, and they celebrated together what Los Angeles was becoming. Dodger Stadium was built for the 1962 season, and Koufax led the league in strikeouts. A year later, he went 25-5 with 11 shutouts, 300 strikeouts, and when the World Series came around, he pitched two dominant complete games, and the Dodgers swept the fading Yankees.
Two years later, Koufax went 26-8, set a record for strikeouts, rested on Yom Kippur and then willed the Dodgers to another World Series championship.
A year after that, 27-9, 300 strikeouts again, another World Series though this one a loss but, hey you can’t win them all.
And then he retired, age 30, his arm numb, but having accomplished so many things so quickly. In his five years since the building of Dodger Stadium — where the mound was built just a little bit closer to the sun — he went 111-34 with a 1.95 ERA, a .926 WHIP, two World Series MVPs and won a permanent place on baseball’s Mount Olympus.
Scherzer can’t match any of that time and place stuff. He has pitched mostly in the era of the home run and the whiff and the starter going six or seven innings. There’s less romance in all that. He has had the misfortune of playing for good but ultimately underachieving teams in Detroit and Washington. His last Tigers team in 2014 should have been one of the great teams of the decade with at least three in-their-prime Hall of Famers along with several other gems (as Updike wrote) of only slightly lesser water. They were swept in the first round of the playoffs.
Then he came to Washington with Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon and plenty more star power, and the team has twice reached the postseason and twice lost in heartbreaking playoff series. Scherzer’s teams have lost his last five postseason appearances.
He did not pitch badly in most of them.
But, he also did not pitch like Koufax in any of them.
And because of this, because he lacks the postseason heroics, because he has never played for a special team, because he isn’t allowed to complete games (you know he’d LOVE to complete 25 or 30 games a year), because Washington in the 2010s is not LA in the 1960s, it can be easy to miss that Scherzer in many ways IS Koufax, or anyway he should spark many of those same emotions.
The guy is legendary. He represents all those things we find awe-inspiring about great athletes. He’s relentless. He’s determined. He’s unbreakable. He does superhero things. The other day he pitched that game with the black eye and broken nose, and he went seven strong and finished off with 96, 97 and 98 mph fastballs.
He had not thrown that consistently hard in years.
It’s just what the night asked of him.
Then, Tuesday night he went out, the broken nose and black eye still apparent, and he overpowered an admittedly overwhelmed Miami team, eight innings, 10 strikeouts, 0 walks, one run, and again he was throwing high-90s heat because that’s what the situation demanded. He threw just 94 pitches; more than a third of them were either swinging or called strikes.
And now he’s very much in the race to win his fourth Cy Young, even though the Nationals have hardly been helping (until this month, he had ten quality starts and the team won ONE of them). He’s a threat to throw a perfect game every night. Max Scherzer is so completely awesome. He’s bigger than life. There are plenty of reasons why Sandy Koufax has his own place in baseball history, and that is exactly as it should be. But let’s set aside a place on Olympus for Scherzer too.