Max Scherzer's unbelievable, impossible, unprecedented loss

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Friday, October 13, 2017

Max Scherzer didn't deserve the loss. This is often true of pitchers who get the loss, but this one goes in the Didn't Deserve The Loss Hall of Fame. I mean, mathematically speaking, he really didn't deserve the loss.

Just look at this:

After entering in the fifth and getting the first two batters he faced easily -- Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs' two best hitters -- Scherzer and the Washington Nationals' chances of winning were 71.5 percent, when:

Willson Contreras hits a ground ball toward shortstop.

Most likely scenario: Contreras grounds out. Just 25 percent of all ground balls Contreras has hit in his career have gone for hits. And, according to Statcast, only 15 percent of ground balls hit that hard were hits this year.

But knowing that shortstop Trea Turner fielded the ball, knowing it stayed in the infield, we could arguably go even lower than that: Only 11 percent of ground balls that Contreras hit this year went for infield hits.

If an out: Scherzer has the third out and is clear of the fifth inning untouched. Nationals are 72 percent likely to win.

Instead, Contreras beats it for an infield hit. Nationals' chances go down just a tick, to 69 percent, when:

Ben Zobrist hits a popup into shallow left field.

Most likely scenario: Actually, one way of looking at it, the most likely outcome was that it'd be a single. The ball was hit high (28 degree launch angle) and not hard (72 mph off the bat), but that puts it into what has become known among Statcast watchers as the Donut Hole. These are weak flies that are far more likely to become hits than harder-hit fly balls, because they aren't hit well enough to reach the outfielders. Zobrist hit a good pitch poorly, and a lot of times that works.

But by another way of looking at it, Scherzer got a fly ball that stayed in the park -- and fly balls that stay in the park are almost always outs. League wide, the batting average on fly balls that stayed in the park was just .090 this year. If all you knew was that Scherzer got Zobrist to hit a fly ball that stayed in the park, you'd estimate a 91 percent chance it was an out.

If an out: Scherzer has the first out of the top of the sixth inning, and the Nationals are 73 percent likely to win.

Instead, it drops in for a single. With two men on, Nationals' chances go down to 66 percent, when:

Addison Russell hits a hard grounder down the third-base line.

Most likely scenario: Narrowly, a hit. Balls hit that hard at that trajectory are hits 52 percent of the time, according to Statcast. Third baseman Anthony Rendon missed it by inches, but this coin flip went against Scherzer.

If an out: Scherzer has the second out of the sixth inning, and the Nationals are 76 percent likely to win.

Instead, two runs score, and the Nationals chances are down to 39 percent, when:

Jason Heyward steps in.

Most likely scenario: If they pitch to Heyward, an out. Scherzer has allowed a .248 OBP as a National. In any other situation Scherzer almost certainly pitches to Heyward, most likely gets him out, is out of the sixth inning, and the Nationals are 77 percent likely to win.

Instead, with a runner on second, he's ordered to intentionally walk him. We'll just note that only 37 pitchers in history (minimum 1,000 innings) have issued intentional walks less frequently than Scherzer.

So, with two on, the Nationals' chances are now 37 percent, when:

Javy Baez strikes out.

What are the chances a batter striking out will end up on base? Across the league this year, about one quarter of 1 percent of strikeouts led to a baserunner. Scherzer has struck out 2,149 batters in the regular season in his career, and only five reached base: About one in 400, consistent with the league-wide rates. So: 0.25 percent.

But! Those include wild pitches, and Scherzer didn't throw a wild pitch, so we can't very well assume he might have. Instead, at the moment the ball reached the catcher, a third strike and not a wild pitch, there was about a 999-in-1,000 chance that the out would be recorded. Only two baserunners in his career have reached base from that starting point: One on a passed ball, one on a catcher's throwing error. So: 0.0009 percent.

If he'd recorded the strikeout, he has the first out of the seventh. The Nationals are 76 percent to win.

Instead, Wieters misses the ball, then throws it wildly to first, and Baez reaches second. (We won't even get into the apparently wrong call by the umpire, which should have nullified the play.) The Cubs lead by two. The Nationals' chances are 24 percent, when:

Tommy La Stella swings at a 1-2 pitch and fouls the pitch off.

Most likely scenario: La Stella will eventually make an out. Batters hit .115, with a .164 OBP, against Scherzer after 1-2 counts this year. The chances of a catcher's interference, on the other hand, were minuscule: There were only 43 across all of major league baseball this year, in about 340,000 swings -- about one in 8,000 swings. The Nationals allowed only one all year, and that was with Jose Lobaton, not Matt Wieters, catching. Generously, we might say the odds were closer to 1-in-350, because La Stella has collected four catchers interference, in about 1,400 swings, in his career. He's kind of good at that.

If there's no catcher's interference and Scherzer gets him: He's got two out in the seventh, and -- even without assuming the two runs that the Nationals would actually score in the sixth -- an 80 percent chance of winning.

Instead, La Stella loads the bases, and the Nationals' chances are 22 percent, when:

Jon Jay is hit by a pitch.

That one is unlikely, but it's on Scherzer. He rarely hits left-handed batters -- about .5 percent of the ones he sees -- but Jay is one of the best in the game at getting plunked by right-handers. Scherzer can't blame it on anybody else. So even in the version of events that all go Scherzer's way, Jay reaches as the potential tying run with two outs in the seventh. The Nationals would be about 76 percent likely to win.

Instead, the darkest timeline, Jay pushes another run home, and Scherzer leaves having allowed four runs. He allowed more in only three starts all year. The Nationals are 15 percent likely to win.

They would not. Scherzer took the loss.

Now, it might seem unlikely that all of these events would go Scherzer's way, as I laid them out. And it is: By my math, there's only about a 1-in-4 chance that Scherzer would have all of those scenarios -- Contreras, Zobrist, Russell, Heyward, Baez, La Stella -- turn into outs. Just 1 in 4!

But the chances that they'd all go against him? I get 4.58055e-10. What's that, .000000000458? I might have missed by a zero. But 1 in 2,183,406,113. Those are the odds that they'd all go against Scherzer.

Maybe I'm just a softie. But that's a tough loss to give.

Related Video