When Max Scherzer decided not to play in the World Baseball Classic because of what he and the team called a "stress fracture in his right ring finger," something seemed odd. Scherzer is not one to be derailed by minor impediments such as a sore knuckle. Plus, he did not pitch like an injured man down the stretch of what became a Cy Young Award-winning season.
But official word from Scherzer and unofficial word from those familiar with the situation is that Scherzer did, indeed, feel the trouble midway through last season. As he said in the statement he released on Twitter, the trouble did not affect his pitching, so Scherzer continued to pitch. It did not go away, so he decided not to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, which might turn out well for the Nationals.
The WBC felt like a dangerous endeavor for Scherzer, who treasures big moments. Determination such as his is exactly what a team should want in an ace, but it is also the result of an unrelenting competitive spirit. If Scherzer found himself in a win-or-go-home game in an international competition, he would be unlikely to dial himself down with an eye toward the major league season.
"I've seen different games and videos where the fans are going crazy, especially for the Latin American countries," Scherzer said in December. "It seems like those fans are crazy out there. Seems like an environment that I want to pitch in."
But while Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo has reiterated his support of Team USA and his willingness to let his players participate, he must feel some relief that Scherzer will not. No one has thrown more innings in the past five seasons than Scherzer. No Nationals starter is guaranteed more money over the next five seasons than Scherzer. No starter is more crucial to the health of his rotation -- and perhaps his entire roster -- than Scherzer. His decisions to commit to the WBC, then pull out, casts a spotlight on an unheralded part of Scherzer's value to the Nationals: health risk management.
Often, a player's ability to stay healthy depends on toughness, luck or circumstances beyond a player's control. But Scherzer, though tough and certainly lucky of late, also has a profound awareness of the difference between being hurt and being injured. Scherzer dealt with a jammed finger early in the 2015 season, and had to push a start back because of it. Otherwise, he has avoided schedule-altering trouble beside fatigue.
But Scherzer has not been perfectly healthy throughout those two seasons, because no baseball player stays perfectly healthy through eight months of work. Like many players, Scherzer generally does not admit he pitched with a nick here or a bruise there. But he is meticulous and dogged in self-assessment. At one point last season, for example, Scherzer noticed the process of throwing his change-up was taking a little more out of him than usual, and that he was feeling strain in places he did not usually feel it. He checked the video, identified the problem, and worked to tweak his delivery with a near imperceptible shift in his arm path.
Scherzer has said he can often pitch through a nick here and there without concern of greater injury because he is aware of ways in which he might compensate and able to adjust around them. That does not mean his mechanics are garrisoned against occasional devolution. But he does know how to tinker. He will not have to tinker through the WBC now, or wrestle with his own competitiveness and self-preservation instincts at the same time.
Instead, he will rehab his ring finger (whatever that entails) and expects to be fully ready for spring training. Instead of being tempted to call on his full arsenal in February, Scherzer can ramp up slowly, his preferred approach to spring training. Instead of having to be cautious in navigating those high-energy environments that drew him to the WBC, Scherzer will begin his year with a similarly exciting bout of live batting practice or two.