ARLINGTON, Texas – Before last week, Max Scherzer had never faced Shohei Ohtani. The 16-year veteran, most often mentioned alongside either his certain eventual induction into the Hall of Fame or his snarling intensity emanating from the mound in the meantime, stared down 1,214 batters before baseball finally brought the better-than-the-Babe icon of a new era into the box against him.
Scherzer, naturally, relished the opportunity.
“I want to face the best guys in the league,” he said later. “It's fun to face guys like that. I mean, it's an absolute challenge. You’ve got to be on every single pitch. You’ve got to execute. If you make mistakes, it's frickin’ gone.”
Against the presumptive American League MVP — though because that’s awarded every year, it significantly undersells Ohtani’s singularly historic 2023 campaign — Scherzer did not make any mistakes.
In the top of the first inning of a game between the AL West rival Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels on Aug. 14, Scherzer struck out the side, getting Ohtani swinging on the sixth pitch of his at-bat. In the fifth, by then working with a five-run lead, Scherzer struck him out swinging again. And in the seventh, with the Rangers’ lead at 6-0, Scherzer got Ohtani to pop up on the first pitch of the at-bat.
“Third at-bat is always a tough battle. Now he's starting to see me. He’s seen every pitch now,” Scherzer said. “But we had the lead, so it allowed me to be way more aggressive toward him, instead of me trying to nibble around him, worrying about what he can do. No, like, we’re up: Be aggressive.”
Despite a rough outing in his most recent start, Scherzer’s ERA since he was traded to the Rangers at the deadline is 2.66, after he left New York with a 4.01 ERA. He wasn’t the best or worst part of a Mets team whose collapse will define this season as much as any other team’s success. But now he’s the top starter on a first-place club. Some of that is small sample size and a fresh start, but some of that is probably due to run support. Scherzer swapped the Mets’ -34 run differential for the Rangers’ AL-leading +185.
Does that make a difference in how he attacks top hitters now?
“Oh, my god, yes,” he said.
'This is what they mapped out'
From the vantage point of Opening Day, that the Mets were looking to shed talent in July would’ve been more shocking than that the Rangers approached the deadline looking to add aggressively. But the current context of the former makes the latter look more like an exception than the rule.
Two years ago, the Mets and Padres started the season with high hopes for a shiny, new era. Small-market San Diego and second fiddle in New York City, the two teams had started to splurge — along with other high-profile moves, both teams signed star shortstops to $300-plus million extensions just before the season — to be taken seriously as contenders. The projections approved, giving them each odds over 80% to make the 2021 postseason. Both ultimately fell short.
Meanwhile, expectations for the Rangers were too low to even really register. They had a new stadium — which hosted a neutral-site 2020 World Series before a single Rangers regular-season game — but preseason odds put their chances of making the playoffs under 1%. At the very least, they didn’t disappoint, losing 102 games in the first season during which former pitcher Chris Young served as general manager under president of baseball operations Jon Daniels. It was the team’s fifth straight season finishing under .500.
Since then, these three clubs have come to represent a heartening trend in ownership commitment — in which “commitment” mostly means “money.”
And from 2021 to 2023, the Mets and Padres doubled down. The Mets’ payroll jumped from third to a faraway first in MLB and the Padres’ from eighth to third. The Rangers had even more room to grow; in 2021 — just before they began heavily investing — they had the 20th-highest payroll in baseball. This year, it’s up to eighth.
Also this year, many headlines and much hand-wringing about San Diego and New York would have you believe that you can’t buy a contender. Sure, winter spending sprees are good for selling season tickets, you might think, but that’s no way to build a sustainable winner.
The 2023 Rangers are providing reason to think otherwise. In some ways, their “merely” top-10 payroll actually belies just how active they’ve been in the market the past two offseasons — the team ranks first and sixth the past two winters in dollars spent on free agents. And here they are: Not yet two years removed from 100 losses, they lead the AL West as we near the end of August.
Sure, part of that has been the success of young hitters such as Jonah Heim, Josh Jung and Ezequiel Duran, but the swanky Texas clubhouse is home to plenty of expensive stars as well.
“When I talked to C.Y. during free agency, this was kind of his vision. This is what they mapped out for me,” Marcus Semien said recently, referencing Young and the seemingly overnight success the team is enjoying this year.
Semien was signed before the 2022 season as part of a two-pronged shortstop splurge that also netted Corey Seager for a combined 17 years and half a billion dollars. “Our class was a hitter’s class,” he said. “Last offseason was a pitcher’s class. So it's just a really smart way to attack it.”
Unfortunately, that approach meant suffering through another rough season last year to get to the prime pitcher market. With the team en route to 94 losses, even with tempered expectations, the Rangers fired manager Chris Woodward and longtime team president Daniels in a span of two days in August 2022. It signaled some level of disappointment from ownership, but overall, the Rangers stayed the course.
Now in charge of baseball operations, Young inked an entirely new rotation last winter to supplement the lineup. Then he traveled to Nashville to entice a revered, three-time World Series winner to come out of retirement.
“I said if I got back in, it had to be the right fit,” said Bruce Bochy, who managed 12 seasons with the Padres, including Young’s first year pitching for San Diego, and 13 with the Giants, including their three-ring dynasty.
He and Young spoke for seven hours at his home.
“I think his wife was ready to kick me out, and Boch and I didn't realize it had been that long,” Young said. “I told him my expectation was that we could and would compete. We still have work to do. But I felt like our team last year was better than our record. We had a very solid foundation. We needed to improve some things. But my expectation was that we could and would compete for a playoff spot this year.”
“He's passionate,” Bochy said of his former-player-turned-boss. “He is so passionate about trying to bring winning baseball back to Texas.”
'The foundation of that starts with the right people'
Now in his third season as a member of the Rangers’ rotation, 28-year-old Dane Dunning is the longest-tenured member of the starting staff. He says the biggest difference this year has been the camaraderie in the clubhouse.
“From what I've seen — and I was a little bit of a part of it, from last year or the year before — it’s like when you get a losing team, people don’t want to spend time here. You lose a game, you want to go home immediately,” he said.
It used to be that before a game, guys would keep to themselves, saying they were trying to get focused but defaulting to scrolling on their phones. This year, one side of the clubhouse hosts an animated ping-pong game, while on the other, players gather around a table playing poker.
“Now, win or lose, we’ll hang out after the game. We’ll talk, we'll just hang out, do things together. Even on off-days, same thing,” Dunning said. “And it just makes the atmosphere so much more fun.”
“Everybody plays this game to win, and the more you win, the more you have fun and the more you show up on a daily basis in a good mood,” Young said when asked whether the success created the cohesion or the cohesion is a necessary component of the current Rangers’ success.
“But I subscribe that the foundation of that starts with the right people,” he added. “Choosing the right people who embody winning characteristics helps create that environment.”
To that point, the focus on fun — away from the part of the clubhouse accessible to the media is a literal game room — is paired with an unsparing level of accountability. Granted, every team preaches the importance of culture and praises the character of its players, which can make it difficult to pinpoint whether and when that’s truly a factor in on-field performance. But Bochy doesn’t need to be here. He doesn’t need to make nice or bother flattering anyone.
“I can tell you, when C.Y. looks at a player, he wants to acquire a player he thinks fits here – right type of player, right type of makeup, personality. Guys that play the game right,” Bochy said. “He looks at all those variables when he goes to sign a player. That’s always brought up when he talks about signing a player. If he doesn't know him that well, he wants all the help he can get to find out about that player. That's very important to him.
“As it should be. Because he played. He understands that part of it.”
That is the conceit of writing about the Rangers now: By valuing experience — in Young and Bochy and pitching coach Mike Maddux — it seems they were able to sidestep some of the perils of importing a lot of disparate talent and hoping it turns into a team. That might not be the only difference between the Rangers and other clubs assembled through pricy free-agent spending, but it’s certainly a key difference.
“I think that's honestly one of the most valuable things,” Dunning said of Young’s experience as a player. “We have all these names. He’s able to make everything work 'cause he knows the game of baseball.”
Semien, for his part, does not slack off. Ten years into his career, he’s known as much for playing every single day as he is for the numbers he posts while doing so. He doesn’t seem like someone who would ever need a wakeup call.
Yet it’s Semien who said that Young’s time spent in a big-league clubhouse was most apparent to him when the GM addressed the team following Woodward’s firing last season and laid out a new set of no-nonsense expectations.
“‘This is why we're doing this’ and ‘This is how we need to work to get to where we’re headed.’ We had to make a ton of adjustments in here,” Semien said. He admitted that the comforts the team prioritizes for players had made him a little complacent.
“You forget about what we need to do to win,” he said. “He's definitely got us on board.”
'We're still trusting the humans first'
Of course, Young is far more than a motivator. And the Rangers’ advantage is born of far more than game-earned baseball acumen. The narrative construct that pits analytics against experience — or presents them as mutually exclusive — is outdated. Young is Princeton-educated, and he came to the Rangers after a post-playing stint in the commissioner’s office. If anything, his recent on-field career gave him an acute appreciation for the cutting-edge tools available to the modern player — especially close at hand for those in his organization.
Deep within the cavernous baseball temple that is the new Rangers ballpark is the kind of so-called biomechanical “lab” that organizations have increasingly built at their spring training complexes.
“I would have killed for that when I played,” Young said of the lab, located across the hall from the Rangers’ clubhouse. (Bochy, for his part, has not been in there.) “I felt like I was always searching for my mechanics or ways to improve, and now we can quantify so much of it. I think it's a great resource for players. I think it's awesome.”
Even the best and the presumed old-school, such as Scherzer and Bochy, can benefit from the insights captured by the latest innovations. Over the past decade, front offices have sought to bridge the gap between the ideal of that information and the practical of what players can enact. It takes buy-in, which Bochy engenders. And in Young, Rangers players have a champion who will push them toward that potential with empathy.
“This is the first time I played for a GM that's a former player,” Scherzer said. “I love it. I love it because the game has gotten so analytical, making every decision because of a number.”
Some baseball executives, he said, “they just look at it as a math equation.”
Scherzer has been with Texas for only a few weeks — he has barely gotten to know Bochy — but he believes that with different personnel comes a different approach. “This organization is like, ‘No, we're still trusting the humans first,’” he said.
Even before the deal with the Mets was done, Scherzer knew the Rangers were interested. He was in communication with his former teammate Jacob deGrom — a bold and risky offseason signing who will miss most of this season after a second Tommy John surgery — and Maddux, who was Scherzer’s pitching coach when he won two Cy Young awards in D.C. They were able to assure him of the team’s ambitions and — along with Ian Kinsler, the longtime Ranger who played with Scherzer in Detroit and now serves as a special assistant to Young — speak to some of his other considerations.
“Really, how they’re treating the families,” Scherzer, a father of four, said. “That’s such an important decision.”
Prioritizing that part of an organization requires ownership support. (Remember, that means money.) Even so, it’s a point of pride for Young.
“I know how much it meant to my family to be comfortable and to have the resources and support,” he said. “There's a lot of stress that goes into these jobs for players, and the more we can support them, the more we can make them comfortable, the more we can provide for them and their families to alleviate those stresses, the better they're going to be. The more prepared they're going to be, and their focus is going to be on playing baseball, wanting to win. I think that's real. I certainly experienced that as a player.”
That’s not the only reason Scherzer waived his no-trade clause to come to Texas. He and his wife, Erica, also considered proximity to their home in Florida and the team’s chances of winning — this year and next.
“When you do your homework,” Scherzer said, “you feel like they're coming into their window.”