Only with the benefit of hindsight did Max Scherzer identify what went wrong last October. His team at the time, the Dodgers, looking out for their pitchers and their postseason plan, regulated pre-playoffs workloads. He and the others got extra days of rest and limited pitch counts.
But then, when the most stressful stretch of the season arrived, his body failed him — because, Scherzer came to believe, he had not pitched enough. He was not built up to maximum capacity. He said his arm was “overcooked” and he couldn’t take the ball in what wound up being Los Angeles’ last game of the year.
What does it mean, then, that because of a recent minor injury Scherzer is pitching even less this September?
“Concern is the wrong way to say it,” he said this week. “It’s just something you have to manage . . . There’s times where you can press and times you can’t. You gotta know yourself and know what you’re physically capable of. I’m just more dialed in to know what I’m physically capable of.”
Scherzer prides himself on that, and he thinks his experience last postseason will make him yet more informed on what he can do this postseason. He promises honesty with his manager and pitching coach about how he is feeling and how much he has left in the tank. Usually, those conversations come in the context of to pitch or not to pitch that one additional inning — like Monday against the Brewers, when he pleaded to keep going for the sake of pushing his pitch count in his first start back. At the end of last season, it was about whether he could pitch at all.
That was then, pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said, and that it happened once doesn’t mean it will happen again.
“It’s just where we are,” Hefner said. “You have to make the best decision you possibly can with the information that you have.”
Here is one layer of that information: In September 2021, Scherzer made six starts (four on extra rest) and averaged 6.56 innings and 94 pitches per start. He wishes he had done more.
In 2022, Scherzer is slated to make five starts (four on extra rest), including one in the minors, over the final month. He has averaged 4.89 innings and 65 pitches through the first three.
His decreased workload isn’t anybody’s fault; he missed about two weeks becuase of what the Mets called left side irritation. But that pause in his season required a subsequent step-by-step return to normal, which will continue Sunday when Scherzer takes the mound against the Athletics with a pitch limit of about 90, according to Hefner. (Then he’ll be good for 100 or so next weekend against Atlanta.)
Scherzer and Hefner said they don’t know what impact his lessened recent capacity will have come playoffs. But Scherzer did acknowledge he is “less likely to come out of the bullpen.” The rest of it they’ll have to figure out as it comes.
“Being in those series and pitching in relief and making starts, taking on a postseason workload [in the past], I’m much more dialed into what I can and can’t do,” he said. “Now when I tell Buck [Showalter] where my limit is and what I can and can’t do, I think they have even more belief in what I say this year than ever before.”
There is a related question about starting on short rest, which is not uncommon in the postseason. Scherzer said he has never done that but didn’t rule it out. MLB dumped the second off/travel day in the Division Series and Championship Series this year, which creates the potential for games on five consecutive days in the NLCS.
“Given how MLB has messed with the postseason schedule and eliminated two off days in there,” Scherzer said, “no matter who is in the playoffs . . . that decision will be in play more.”