Trading for Max Scherzer Was a Good Idea

Unless you're the team that did not trade for him.

SAN FRANCISCO—I went to Oracle Park to watch the Dodgers play three games this weekend in a battle for first place in the NL West but I missed the main event. So did every fan in that sold-out stadium on the San Francisco Bay. That’s because Max Scherzer didn’t take the ball until yesterday in St. Louis. Then, all he did was fire eight scoreless innings and strike out 13 as the Dodgers cruised to a 5-1 win over the Cardinals. I’m a big ole baseball nerd, so on one hand that pitching line gave me a burst of joy. On the other, it bummed out that the billed battle royale in SF wound up being more of a thumb war.

The two best teams in MLB were all set for a titanic romp made even more important by the fact that they don’t play each other again this season. Oracle Park was sold out and overrun by Dodger fans, who seemed to make up at least 40% of the crowd. Those fans were loud. Giants supporters were forced to get even louder to drown them out. The atmosphere was electric and righteous and deserving of Scherzer vs. Gausman, then Buehler vs. Webb, then Urias vs. DeSclafani. But because both teams have been throttled by injuries to starting pitchers, we got three bullpen games.

I don’t care how competitive teams can be in games where they use 11 pitchers, it’s just not the same. Had these three games taken place over the last weekend of the season it’s hard to imagine Corey Knebel, Jay Jackson, and Dominic Leone each getting the ball to start a game. And if that were to happen, I would need to pick a new sport. I love math and baseball and front office geeks, but these reliever games are killing me.

When the season is on the line, I want to see teams hand the baseball to a horse of a dude who will stay on the mound until his arm falls off. The Dodgers tried it with Walker Buehler on Sunday, and he turned in his worst start of the year. But even if he’d shoved, he still would have been up against the Giants bullpen, so it would have been a missed opportunity.

The Dodgers dropped two of three to the Giants in SF and left town down by one game. But after seeing the two teams play each other in person, I’m even more convinced the Dodgers are better and will win the division. They lost one game because of a weird disputed error in extra innings. They lost the other when Buehler laid one of the stinkiest eggs of his career, and they still nearly came back and won. Losing AJ Pollock to a hamstring injury hurts badly, especially because it means they will have to play a struggling Cody Bellinger every day, and he is legitimately one of the worst players in the league right now. It doesn’t matter. The Dodgers have 24 games left to make up a game to tie the Giants, and two games to win the NL West for the ninth straight year. They can and they will.

Max Scherzer is why. Since coming to the Dodgers at the trade deadline, the 37-year-old right hander has made seven starts. Los Angeles has won all seven of those games. In 43 innings, Scherzer has given up just five earned runs, for a 1.05 ERA. He has struck out 63 batters and walked five. If it seems like he pitched like the best player on the planet over the last month, that’s because he did. Scherzer (2.28) has now taken over the ERA lead from his teammate Buehler (2.31). He’s also only seven strikeouts behind NL leader Zach Wheeler (217), despite having thrown 34.2 fewer innings. If he continues this torrid pace through the month of September, he might walk away with his fourth Cy Young award, and his first since 2017.

Honestly? When the Dodgers traded for Scherzer at the deadline he felt like more of a luxury than a necessity. Now? He’s the difference between the Dodgers winning the NL West and getting to set up their rotation for a five game NLDS where they will have home field advantage and a wild card game where a broken bat base hit could send them into an early winter.

The Padres are currently 13.5 games behind the Dodgers. On the morning of the trade deadline they were only three back. Had San Diego landed Scherzer instead it might have altered the course of their entire season. Scherzer has not only won each of his seven starts for the Dodgers, he also gives most of the bullpen the night off. In a summer where injuries have forced the Dodgers to throw two bullpen games a week, off days are enormously valuable. If we take away the seven games Los Angeles has won with Scherzer on the hill and we give them to the Padres, LA would trail the Padres by a game. (I know that’s convenient math, but does anyone really think it’s that big of a stretch to think Scherzer would have helped stop the August bleeding in San Diego?)

If the season ended today, the Dodgers would play the Padres in the wild card game at Dodger Stadium for the right to play the Giants in the NLDS. The Dodgers and Giants have never faced each other in the playoffs, not once. I’ll have more on the Giants in my newsletter this week, including a new stadium food tour as well as a story on the looming concession workers’ strike. The atmosphere of last weekend’s series between the Giants and Dodgers could not have been better. Let’s just hope we get to see these two teams square off in October and that both will be able to put their best players onto the field.