The Mets bet Max (the Knife)

Max Scherzer

Shown pitching against the Mets in New York in late August, Max the Knife is a Met now . . . and lucratively.

Lose a shot at bringing a solid pitcher back to the Mets? Lose a followup shot at luring a pitcher who resurrected himself in San Francisco? Go forth and sign a three-time Cy Young Award winner to what might well be his final major league deal—at a record average annual value for pitchers, future Hall of Famers or otherwise.

When you say it that way, it sounds so simple that a refugee from the Delta Quadrant could have done it, despite knowing about as much about baseball as a veterinarian knows about astrophysics. But this is baseball, these are the Mets, that’s Mets owner Steve Cohen, and this is Max Scherzer.

Never mind that Cohen first found an immediate way to atone for squandered time after his particular (and not yet detailed at this writing) rift with former Met Steven Matz’s agent dovetailed with Matz signing a nice four-year deal with the Cardinals.

Signing Starling Marte (center field with a big bat), Mark Canha (just about any outfield spot and an on-base machine), and Eduardo Escobar (solid third baseman who can play second, solid batter) turned Cohen almost overnight from a sad gag to a definite big-market player. Even if it means moving Brandon Nimmo to a corner outfield slot and saying goodbye to a Michael Conforto whose walk-year collapse didn’t look great for himself or the Mets.

Never mind, too, that Cohen and/or his designated hitter couldn’t quite close the deal with righthanded pitcher Kevin Gausman, who turned a career year with the Giants into a nice five-year deal with the Blue Jays—who lost Matz to free agency—that’s the second most lucrative in their franchise history. (George Springer’s five/$125 million beats Gausman’s five/$105 million.)

Signing Scherzer qualifies thus far as the largest, loudest splash on this off-season’s open market to date. Maybe even louder than the ten-year/$325 million the Rangers handed now-erstwhile Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager the day before. In two swell foops (as the lady once said on the radio) the Mets swept up both the single best center fielder available and the pitcher whose 5.9 wins above replacement-level player in 2021 led all free-agent pitchers this time around.

It may also be the least expected. Remember: Scherzer’s conditions for being traded from the Nationals to the Dodgers last July included that he go to either a west coast contender or those guys in his native St. Louis who just bagged Matz. New York was thought to be near the bottom of his baseball bucket list. The Yankees weren’t even a topic, really.

Remember when Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said he signed his first free agency deal with the Yankees because George Steinbrenner “hustled me like a broad?” Cohen and his minions must have hustled Scherzer like ten ladies and their ladies-in-waiting.

Landing Scherzer means the Mets bring aboard as respected a clubhouse figure as exists in today’s game, a guy who does his best to keep the dysfunction away and also serves as a kind-of de facto second pitching coach, sitting with younger arms while they review video of their past performances and helping them analyse and prepare.

It also means the Mets just landed the guy who led the entire 2021 Show with the lowest walks-per-nine innings rate (1.8), the lowest walks-and-hits-per-inning pitched (WHIP) rate (0.86), posted a better than splendid 2.97 fielding-independent pitching rate, and mostly looked better than his usual self after becoming a Dodger at the 2021 trade deadline.

Mostly.

Max the Knife isn’t quite a kid anymore. At 37, it’s very possible that he’s just signed the final big contract of his major league career; it could even be his final major league deal, period. He pitched mostly like his classic self until his final two starts of the regular season, when he got pried for five runs by the Rockies in Coors Field (23 September) and then for six runs (five earned) by the Padres at home (29 September).

Scherzer recovered from those to pitch well enough in the postseason until former Dodger Joc Pederson yanked a two-run homer off him in the fourth in Game Two of the National League Championship Series. With his shoulder and arm feeling exhausted, Scherzer would have been that set’s Game Seven starter—if the Braves hadn’t yanked four runs out of Game Six starter Walker Buehler while the Dodgers had no answer past two runs off Braves starter Ian Anderson and reliever Luke Jackson.

Nobody would have counted Scherzer out for the seventh game that never came. Just two years earlier, he shook away a terrible neck issue to start Game Seven of the World Series, keep the Astros in check enough despite having nothing left in the tank otherwise, and leave the Nationals room to win the Series with a record fourth road win in the set. He really has been one of those pitchers who can survive on will when the stuff deserts him.

The Mets must be hoping that Scherzer has enough left in the tank to help yank them back into the races to stay. Either that or that he still has that iron will to survive on the mound when the repertoire goes from Kind of Blue to Milli Vanilli.

Assuming both a healthy Scherzer and a healthy returning Jacob deGrom, the Mets in theory would have a 1-2 punch at the top of their starting rotation equal to none today but comparable to several of the past. Sandy Koufax/Don Drysdale. Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling. Heady and three-out-of-four Hall of Famer company to keep.

In theory, too, it could be enough to cause division-rival Nats general manager Mike Rizzo, now navigating a rebuild on the fly without even thinking about tanking, to rub his head with sandpaper (since he has no hair to tear out) and mutter loudly, “If I’d known he’d end up a Met, maybe I wouldn’t have traded Scherzer at all.”

But . . .

“Scherzer could outperform 95 percent of pitchers his age through MLB history and still underperform relative to the contract,” writes Smart Baseball author Keith Law at his usual stand for The Athletic.

Good for him for getting paid, but the idea in free agency is to pay for expected future production, not past production, and the base rate for pitchers his age is not promising. They either lose effectiveness, or they get hurt. Maybe Scherzer is an outlier, just like the race isn’t always to the swift or the battle to the strong. That’s just the way to bet.

The Mets are laying a $43.3 million a year average annual value bet. As Law points out, no pitcher 37 or older has had a 5-WAR season since Bartolo Colon at 39 for the 2013 Athletics; only three since World War II (Hall of Famers Johnson and Phil Niekro, plus Roger Clemens) have delivered 7-WAR seasons at 38+; and, only twelve times have 38-year-old-plus pitchers posted 5+ WAR seasons since the turn of the century.

They’re banking on Jenny Diver, Suki Tawdry, Miss Lotte Lenya, old Lucy Brown, and company forming that big line on the right now that Maxie’s coming to town. For every Met fan and observer wondering if their boy Cohen’s done something else rash, there may be ten counting on Scherzer to become the kind of outlier the Johnsons and Niekros were at his age.

They might even be banking on Scherzer spinning a third no-hitter, this time for them. He has two already, both in 2015, the second of the two against the Mets. When he nailed his 3,000th lifetime major league strikeout last August, bagging San Diego’s Eric Hosmer in the second, Scherzer also took a perfect game into the eighth—when Hosmer exacted revenge by breaking it up with a double to deep right.

Assuming next season won’t be compromised or delayed by any coming lockout, (and it sure feels as though enough of the owners are landing their free-agent signings in a big hurry and rash to secure themselves further before any lockout—a rash which also puts the big lie to any claims of financial ill health), there’s something else to consider.

The Mets are scheduled to open against the Nats. How delicious would it be to see their next manager have to decide whether to open with deGrominator or Max the Knife? Already the National League East would look many things with boring not even close to being one of them.

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