Anyone Can Strike Out Nine Batters in a Row

Since he was drafted in the second round in 2015, Tigers left-hander Tyler Alexander barely needs two hands to count the number of times he’s struck out nine batters in a game. There was the first time, on April 23, 2016, when he was in High-A. There were two other nine-strikeout performances in 2017, and two more in the minors in 2019, along with one occasion in the majors in just his third big league appearance. That’s six instances of at least nine strikeouts in 126 career appearances as a pro, each one coming in a game he started.

On Sunday, Alexander struck out nine batters in a row. Not over the course of six or seven innings — just one right after another. Entering as a reliever in the third inning of the first game of Detroit’s doubleheader against the Reds, Alexander set the record for consecutive strikeouts in a relief appearance, and tied the American League record for consecutive strikeouts by any pitcher. And a two-strike fastball that drilled Mike Moustakas on his left arm is all that stopped Alexander from tying Tom Seaver for MLB’s all-time record. Actually, because he struck out Eugenio Suárez immediately after plunking Moustakas, that stray heater is all that stopped Alexander from having the longest strikeout streak in baseball history.

By any definition, it will go down as one of the most dominant relief appearances of the season. Of the 55 pitches Alexander threw on Sunday, 16 were called strikes, while 22 induced swings. Of those 22 swings, 11 were whiffs, and none resulted in a ball put in play. For 3.2 innings, Alexander was untouchable. That’s unquestionably a great day for him, and to a lesser extent, it’s also a good day for every other pitcher in baseball, because Alexander’s performance shows this is probably something any pitcher in baseball could achieve.

This isn’t to take anything away from Alexander. Every pitcher on earth would love to simply strike out every hitter he faces without ever allowing the ball to be put in play — that doesn’t mean anyone ever actually accomplishes it. It’s one thing to try to strike out nine guys in a row, and another to actually do it. In order to close that gap, one would think a pitcher would need to be working with some truly elite, lights-out stuff.

But Alexander doesn’t have lights-out stuff. In 53.2 major league innings last year, he finished in just the 26th percentile in strikeout rate, and the fourth percentile in whiff rate. That extremely low swinging strike rate didn’t come as a surprise. Among other things, pitchers obtain whiffs by throwing at a high velocity or generating a ton of spin on their pitches — Alexander does neither. His fastball velocity was in just the 18th percentile last season, his fastball spin was in the 47th percentile, and his curveball spin was in the 41st percentile. Now, because I said previously that Alexander has always been a starter before this year, you might be wondering if his stuff is simply playing up out of the bullpen, but on the surface, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In an admittedly small sample of relief outings this year, his velocity is almost exactly where it was when he was starting games a year ago, while his spin rates have actually gone down.

None of that was any help to Reds hitters on Sunday. Alexander entered after starter Rony García had given up his second homer of the afternoon to Nick Castellanos, leaving him with three runs allowed in just two innings of work. Alexander’s first batter was the lefty Moustakas, and he fell behind 2-0 before coming back to get him swinging on a slider away:

This is a pretty straightforward strikeout. Left-handed hitters know to expect breaking stuff down and away from southpaws when there are two strikes, and yet they still whiff like this pretty often. Here’s the second strikeout:

Here, he gets a little help. This pitch came after Alexander perfectly located the first two pitches of the at-bat at the knees. Suárez took both of those just like he took this one, the catcher did a nice job of framing it, and umpires tend to punish hitters who stand up there and take three straight on the corners. On to the next:

This was another three-pitch strikeout, but instead of three takes, all three pitches to Jesse Winker got whiffs. The first was a pitch just like this one, and the next was a slider up in the zone, and the third was another breaker down and away, just like the one to Moustakas. Alexander continued to be aggressive with Nick Senzel in the next inning, starting him with two strikes, offering a pitch in the dirt, then getting a whiff at a two-seam fastball above the zone:

Next was Josh VanMeter, who fouled off the first two pitches he saw before taking this sinker at the knees:

Then came Freddy Galvis, who actually battled for eight pitches before getting a well-located curveball at the bottom of the zone that he couldn’t make contact with:

Now we’re into Alexander’s third inning of work, which he started by freezing another Reds hitter with a two-strike pitch at the bottom of the zone. This time it was Tucker Barnhart, watching a sinker:

Another pitch he gets a bit of help with, but not an unforgivable strike call. That’s where Alexander’s been throwing the ball for 30 pitches now, and it’s where the umpire has been calling the zone. Barnhart, another lefty, watches the pitch come out of the pitcher’s hand and waits for it to duck off the plate. It never does. In the next at-bat, Shogo Akiyama meets the same fate, this time on a fastball that stayed right down the middle:

Finally, there’s Castellanos, who homered in his first two at-bats of the game. He jumps ahead 2-0, but Alexander never gives in with a fastball, sticking with secondary pitches to battle back. Three pitches later, Castellanos is put away with a curveball:

Just in these nine pitches, we can see a few different forces at play. The umpire is calling a wide zone, and Reds hitters are taking a lot of strikes. Both of those things work in favor of Alexander, who displayed some exceptional command. Here’s the layout of all 55 pitches he threw, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

Those clusters on the low corners are exactly what you want from any pitcher, especially one who isn’t throwing particularly hard. Pounding the zone with 90 mph fastballs and a variety of off-speed pitches is a good way to get outs, but those outs are usually the result of weak contact in play, not strikeouts. Alexander knows this himself. From MLive: “I wasn’t trying to strike everyone out, really, but the slider I’ve been working on a lot, it was pretty good today.”

Alexander pitched very well on Sunday, but nothing about what he threw or how he threw it would make you believe he was specifically capable of engineering nine strikeouts in a row. That’s the way these kinds of gaudy performances sometimes go in baseball. As much as we love to cite statistics in an effort to analyze and predict what kind of success someone will have over a long period of time, we know that on a game-by-game basis, they can mean very little. We’ve all seen those games when a .200 hitter picks up four or five hits, or read a headline about someone homering three times in a game and thought, “Wait, who?” It wouldn’t be fair to say those players simply got lucky, because even great players owe at least a small portion of a big game to luck — the umpire’s strike zone that day, the positioning of the fielders, or the pitcher’s finger slipping on a breaking ball can all play into a hitter’s favor before he’s even a swung the bat. No matter how good a card player you are, it always helps to start off with a good hand.

We have years of evidence that says Alexander is not a strikeout pitcher. And yet, he set a strikeout record on Sunday. That place in history is his until someone comes and takes it from him. I bet we never see them coming.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Bryson Brown
3 years ago

Man pitches game of his life and gets first Fangraphs article written about him saying anyone could do it. LMAO 😂

3 years ago
Reply to  Bryson Brown

Not just the game of his life, one of the best RP performances in history. Not anyone can do it. Not nearly.

3 years ago
Reply to  Bryson Brown

Anybody could do it. Why, I myself could do it if I were 8 inches taller, 30 pounds lighter, 25 years younger, and much, much, much, much more talented.

Oh, and it would probably help if I was less lazy too.

The Guru
3 years ago
Reply to  Bryson Brown

i couldn’t believe what i was reading