Tim Jamieson remembers the first time he saw Max Scherzer pitch.
“He was very violent, with a lot of body parts moving in different directions,” the Missouri coach said. “Pardon the pun, but he was a max-effort guy.”
Most college hitters remember their first look at Scherzer, too. Their memories aren’t as fond after facing a 6-foot-2 righthander whose fastball pushes the upper 90s and has such impressive command that he considers a walk the equivalent of a pitcher’s error.
Scherzer’s sensational sophomore season turned him into one of the nation’s elite pitchers and prospects. He limited opponents to a .163 average, which ranked second in the country among starters, and led the Big 12 Conference with 131 strikeouts in 106 innings. Scherzer finished the year 9-4, 1.86 and then watched the honors pile up: Big 12 pitcher of the year, second-team All-American, Team USA starter.
Scherzer opens 2006 with a shot to become the draft’s first overall pick, and seems a lock to become the first first-round draft pick in Missouri history.
“For me he’s a once in a lifetime type of guy,” Jamieson said. “You can’t think that you’ll ever coach another player like this.”
Jamieson lauds his ace for his maturity and intelligence as much as his physical gifts, marveling at how fast Scherzer responds to instruction. A 43rd-round pick of the Cardinals out of high school in Chesterfield, Mo., Scherzer embraced the new mechanics he learned during the fall of his freshman year (which emphasized body control and balance) in a span of two months. He earned 20 innings on a veteran staff before heading to the Northwoods League.
Pitching regularly as La Crosse’s closer helped Scherzer’s velocity, command and national profile all jump at once. His fastball climbed from topping out at 94 mph during the school year to 96, then 97, then 98. He started throwing more strikes with his fastball, generating more advantage counts. He paired that pitch with a slider in the low 80s to strike out 41 hitters in 26 innings to rate as the league’s No. 2 prospect, behind 2005 first-rounder Lance Broadway.
Scherzer’s intense demeanor led to success in the bullpen, but stamina questions hovered over his move to the rotation. As Missouri prepared to open its 2005 schedule, Jamieson still didn’t know if he was going to use Scherzer in relief or as a starter.
He got the ball for the season-opener against Winthrop and struck out eight batters in his first four innings, but he ran out of energy and reached his pitch limit in the fifth. He recorded only one more out and left after giving up four walks and five runs in a game Missouri lost 7-4.
Jamieson talked to Scherzer after that start, stressing efficiency. Then Scherzer transformed his style of pitching faster than his fastball reaches hitters, working smarter by his next start. He pitched at 92-94, threw strikes and could dial up a better fastball when the situation called for it. “I never had a guy who made those adjustments so fast,” Jamieson said. “We had a talk, and from next start on, he became who you saw last year.”
That season included Scherzer’s throwing the first seven innings of a combined no-hitter against Texas Tech and recording 14 strikeouts. He also beat league champion Nebraska 2-1 by throwing his first career complete game. Scherzer allowed four hits and two walks. He struck out five of the last six hitters he faced in that game, including College Player of the Year Alex Gordon, and buzzed 97 mph routinely in the ninth inning.
“I like being a closer because you can be as intense as you want. You can’t let a hitter get on,” Scherzer said. “Starting, there’s going to be runners on. They’re going to get hits. You’re going to walk people. The game’s going to happen, you have to be a lot more low key. You can’t blow it out in the first inning because the seventh inning really matters. I like it because it really feels like your game and you can give your team a chance to win a lot more.”
Scherzer found most of his success with just his fastball and slider as a sophomore, and he will incorporate more changeups this year. He experimented for years with different changeup grips before finally finding a comfortable one while throwing on flat ground last season. If that pitch becomes a third average offering, especially against lefthanders, his stuff will allow him to start as a pro. If not, his intensity and raw power should still make him a potentially dominant closer.
“The thing that amazes me, watching him in high school and his first year, in the back our of minds, here was a closer. Let it loose for six outs, and that’™s who you are,” Jamieson said. “He proved he can pitch 92-95 and when he needed to get an out in run-scoring situation, he became the closer again by reaching back for more. I’ve never seen another guy who can elevate himself to closer-type situations and then bring it back down to starter. So for me, he’s whatever you want, a closer or a starter.”