In this year of the fragile pitching arm at Citi Field, it is tempting to say that today’s pitchers just break, and no one really knows anything. All of the emphasis on injury prevention, on carefully nurturing developing arms, but everyone still gets hurt.
Well, no. Not really. Look at Max Scherzer, the All-Star right-hander for the Washington Nationals who faces the Mets on Saturday. Scherzer, 31, has pitched nine major league seasons without a trip to the disabled list. He throws sizzling fastballs and vicious sliders and changeups, curveballs and cutters, too.
He does it start after start, year after year. Last season he faced more batters than any other National League pitcher. This season, he led the majors in strikeouts entering Friday’s games, and was tied for the lead in starts.
“Being on a throwing program and doing the innings limits — remember, I’m a product of that,” Scherzer said, on the Nationals’ bench before batting practice Friday. “I’m a product of the 110, 140, 170, 200. I did that. I don’t know, but it seems like it works. It’s worked for me.”
Facing Scherzer on Saturday will be Logan Verrett, who takes the place of Matt Harvey. The Mets lost Harvey for the season on Friday when he decided to have surgery to treat thoracic outlet syndrome.
Harvey has had Tommy John surgery, as has Stephen Strasburg, who faced the Mets on Friday. Yet before the game, Major League Baseball announced that Scherzer would replace Strasburg on the National League All-Star team. Strasburg recently missed 17 days with an upper-back strain, and could benefit from extra rest.
Strasburg, 11-0 with a 2.71 E.R.A. before Friday’s game, might have been a candidate to start in San Diego, his hometown. Now, perhaps, the honor could go to his opponent on Friday, the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard, who was 9-3 with a 2.41 E.R.A.
Ah, but remember: Syndergaard is pitching with a bone spur in his right elbow. If Strasburg is getting a rest during the All-Star break, why is Syndergaard staying on the active roster? The Mets already have two other pitchers, Bartolo Colon and Jeurys Familia, on the staff.
“Stephen Strasburg just came off the D.L.; I can certainly understand why they’re concerned about him pitching,” said Mets Manager Terry Collins, who will manage the N.L. team.
“In Noah’s case, it’s a little different. It’s not a muscular situation with Noah. It’s not going to damage him if he pitches in the All-Star Game. We’ll have a lot of time after the All-Star Game to certainly give him the proper rest if he does pitch in the All-Star Game.”
Just like that, though, Collins quickly dropped the qualifiers. He did not say if Syndergaard would start, but Collins said he would not deny him the spotlight.
“I think he deserves it,” Collins said. “I think the world needs to see him, those people who haven’t. One of the things I’m certainly going to do: you will see Noah Syndergaard on that mound.”
Harvey started the All-Star Game at Citi Field in July 2013, and the next month he tore his ulnar collateral ligament. He missed a season, then returned and helped the Mets to the World Series, pushing himself into the ninth inning of the final game against Kansas City. Harvey lobbied Collins for the opportunity, Collins relented and soon the Royals were celebrating a championship.
In that moment, Harvey most likely believed he could finish off his shutout and ride the surge of energy from the crowd, even though he had pitched many more innings than he expected to in 2015. Nobody can say for sure if that workload led to this season’s injury, but something has been wrong ever since.
Scherzer stands out as a pitcher, benefiting from uncommon youthful maturity. He pitched many big games for the Detroit Tigers, but never allowed his competitive drive to overrule warnings from his body. Scherzer cited that trait — as well as his innings program and work habits dating back to the University of Missouri — as reasons for his durability.
“I always feel like I know when I’m able to compete at the highest level; I know when I’m physically able to go out there and pitch my best,” he said. “And sometimes I can pitch my best after pitch 100. There are times where, hey, I am still good, I’m still strong. There’s definitely going to be days I tell you I’m good to go — and when I’m good to go, I want the ball.
“But I also have to have the rapport with the manager to also let him know there’s going to be times I’ve got a hiccup. Something on my body just doesn’t feel right, I’m battling through it, I’ll give you my work today but this is not a day I can be pushed. I feel like that’s an important dialogue where you can tell the manager, ‘No, don’t send me out there,’ or, ‘Yes, send me out there.’ I feel like if you say ‘no,’ it earns the trust to be able to say ‘yes.’”
Scherzer has also evolved by adding pitches and constantly seeking input and ideas to augment his power stuff; two years ago, at the baseball writers’ awards dinner, he eagerly chatted up Sandy Koufax about curveball philosophy.
But none of it would matter if Scherzer were not smart about his health. This is not to suggest that the Mets’ pitchers are reckless, or lack the relationship with Collins that Scherzer has had with his managers. But Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz (who has a more troublesome bone spur than Syndergaard) and the slowly recovering Zack Wheeler have all had Tommy John surgery. Another major injury could be catastrophic.
If they, along with Syndergaard, want to build endurance and know-how as they age — instead of burning out in their 20s — they would be wise to follow Scherzer’s example.