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Revisiting Max Scherzer’s greatness

A few years ago, I wrote that Tanner Houck would be better than Max Scherzer. Let’s revisit that claim.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Almost two years ago, I wrote a piece about recent Mizzou Tiger ace and current Boston Red Sox prospect Tanner Houck. At the time, Houck was coming off a stellar sophomore campaign and had positioned himself to be a First Round pick in the coming MLB Draft. He was blowing college baseball away and had been the best pitcher to don a Mizzou uniform in quite some time. From said article:

What if I told you there will be a pitcher even better than Scherzer to come out of Missouri? And that you still have one more year to see him pitch in Columbia?

Tanner Houck will be the best Missouri pitcher to enter Major League Baseball in the last 15-20 years. Possibly ever. I don’t have that much time to check.

It should also be mentioned that the subhead for that article was, “Yes, better than Max Scherzer and Aaron Crow.”

At the time, I was really smitten with Houck’s college numbers. At the time, he measured better than any of his recent peers in walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP), strikeout to walk ratio (K/BB) and was gearing up to pitch more innings than any of them their respective college careers; he ended up second on that list, one inning behind Crow.

But my reasoning wasn’t totally just based on Houck’s potential. At the time, Scherzer was in the midst of what would be his second Cy Young campaign - but he was also 31 years old. A standard baseball aging curve says players hit their prime in their late 20s, meaning they start a decline once they hit 30 and above. Granted, Scherzer had peaked late in his career, but I was fairly certain he was due to decline slowly as the years went on, leaving him with a good, not spectacular, career for Houck to aim for.

It may be time for me to reexamine my #take. Because since I staked my case for Houck, Scherzer has continued his torrid run of success, even putting his name into consideration as a future Hall of Famer.

The main reasons I looked at Houck as Scherzer’s heir apparent was the fact that I believed he had developed more as a pitcher at such a young age.

One of those reasons was his impeccable control. Houck’s first two seasons in Columbia saw him strike out more than five batters for every one he walked. Scherzer, on the other hand, was much less successful at the college level. Despite his 4.10 career K/BB in the MLB, Scherzer maintained only a 2.9 K/BB during his time in Columbia. With some big league coaching, I figured Houck would get a head start on Scherzer in terms of development.

However, Houck hasn’t maintained the elite control he once enjoyed in school. While he still had about a 4 K/BB in his tenuous junior year, Houck has become much wilder during his time in the Red Sox’ system. This year alone, Houck has only struck out 85 batters in 96 innings pitched, to go along with 55 walks. That’s a K/BB of only 1.54. His strikeout rate has dipped from 25.5 percent in his first minor league season to 19.9 percent this season. Conversely, his walk rate has ballooned, going from a respectable 8.2 percent to 13 percent this season. He may find that college-level control down the road - especially once he starts getting the hang of his developing pitch arsenal - but the advantage he once had over Scherzer has evaporated.

Another thing we’re starting to learn about Houck is how much his defense is impacting his performance. Once players enter major league systems, we’re able to get a FIP measurement for them. FIP stands for Fielding Independent Pitching, a statistic measured on the same spectrum as ERA that gives a better idea of a pitcher’s individual performance - independent of defense, as it were.

In his first season at Class A ball, Houck posted a FIP of 2.54, an excellent number that would put any pitcher in instant Cy Young contention at the highest level. It should be noted that Houck only pitched 22 innings, so we should put a Small Sample Size qualifier on that number. This season, though? Houck’s FIP has shot up wildly to 4.79, a number that FanGraphs Sabermetrics would label as “Poor.” It should also be noted here that Houck’s xFIP - a stat that calculates a pitcher’s expected performance by averaging out their home run to fly ball percentage - is a much lower 4.09, which still falls under “Below Average,” by FanGraphs’ standards.

As a final disclaimer, Tanner Houck is still very young and has a lot of time to develop. He’s pitching above his age level at Class A: Advanced, and is working on developing a more complex arsenal of pitches. This shows the Red Sox are willing to invest in him as a future starter. However, it also shows that Houck may not have been as developed as I believed a few years ago. At the very least, he wasn’t any more developed than Scherzer.

It’s not just about Houck though. In the time since I claimed Houck would become Mizzou’s GOAT, Scherzer has been flat out amazing.

When I wrote the article in 2016, Scherzer had amassed (not including that year’s total) 30.7 rWAR, the Baseball-Reference*. (authors note: if necessary, see below for explainer on Baseball Reference and FanGraphs differences). Since then, he’s not only won two more Cy Young awards - making him one of 10 pitchers to ever win three or more - he’s also tacked on 18.8 more rWAR, putting him in some elite company. According to Baseball Reference’s career pitching leaderboard in WAR, Scherzer has already surpassed more than 10 Hall of Famers pitchers in terms of career rWAR. And according to JAWS - an even more complicated and specific look at Hall of Fame worthiness - Scherzer is still well ahead of several Hall of Fame honorees in terms of career achievements.

The crazy thing? He may not be done. Scherzer is having another lights out season, one in which he recently started the annual MLB All Star Game for the National League. If the Nationals ace continues this year’s performance, he’s due for about 8.06 rWAR and 6.5 fWAR, both of which would be career-best years for him. This would not only put him in line for another Cy Young, but would also strengthen his Hall of Fame credentials by every available measurement. This isn’t even saying what he might do past 2018.

Last month, I wrote an article covering the MLB Draft and how some recent Mizzou draftees were performing. I wrote the following about Houck and Scherzer.

Let me start off by saying I’m not ready to give up on my bold Tanner Houck take from two years ago. But... I mean, it’s not looking good right now. Max Scherzer is on an unholy tear in his early 30’s and is starting to make a Hall of Fame case.

I think I might have spoken to soon, because it’s time for me to bite this specific bullet.

Don’t read this for what it isn’t: I’m still a big believer in Tanner Houck. I think he’s due to have a great MLB career, and will no doubt be a proud representative for Mizzou baseball in the near future.

But if he’s ever going to meet the expectations I had for him a few years ago, he’s going to need a lot of good luck. Because Max Scherzer is undoubtedly the greatest pitcher to ever come out of Columbia, Mo., and should continue to be so for the indefinite future.

*FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference use different types of “WAR” (Wins Above Replacement) to determine a player’s overall value. For pitchers, FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) uses Fielding Independent Performance (FIP) as a baseline measurement in determining WAR. By contrast Baseball-Reference WAR (rWAR or bWAR) takes the amount of runs a pitcher allows and measures it against the quality of defense his team had. In general, players will end up with a higher rWAR than they will fWAR.