Building a Record-Breaking Strikeout Rotation

A few weeks ago, I ventured into the topic of whether the 2016 Cleveland Indians’ starting rotation had a chance at breaking the league-adjusted team strikeout rate record held by the 1990 Mets. Those Mets (comprising a front four of Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Frank Viola, and Sid Fernandez) struck out 47% more batters than a 1990 league-average rotation. That was ridiculously good in 1990, and today, it’d be even more incredible were a team able to do it, given the increase in strikeouts league-wide and the expectation that there probably is a ceiling to the strikeout trend. (Because there has to be, right?)

The reason we focused on Cleveland was simple: they almost reached the level of those Mets for a few months in the beginning of the 2015 season. In April and May, they were striking out around 27% of the batters they faced, a mark which nearly approximated the sort of video-game numbers required to match the league-adjusted total of the 1990 Mets. Though they finished first in baseball by striking out 24.2% of batters (which was also the highest strikeout rate for a starting rotation in baseball history), they finished only 41st-best in terms of yearly league-adjusted K rate. Ho-hum. The conclusion of that previous article was, unsurprisingly, that Cleveland would have to outperform their expectations by a sizeable amount to have a chance at the 1990 Mets.

But one of you astute, noble readers was not entirely satisfied with that rational answer. Instead, phoenix2042 challenged us by putting forth a question: what would a starting rotation that could beat that record look like in the modern game? Which 2016 personnel would a team require in order to best a strikeout rate that’s 47% better than the league average? Well, phoenix2042 — and the rest of you wondering readers — this piece aims to answer that question. We will build rotations worthy of a video game, and they will best the 1990 Mets.

First, as before, let’s look at what rotation-wide strikeout rates would be required to break the record in this coming season. I’ve taken the average yearly increase in rotation strikeout rate for each league: over the past 30 years, strikeout rates for starting rotations have increased by about 0.2% per year, on average, and at a slightly higher rate in the past 10 years. Averaging this trend, I calculated the so-called “holy grail” strikeout rate of just over the 1990 Mets (i.e. >47% above league average):

Team Strikeout Rates Needed to Beat 1990 Mets (Est.)
2016 Projected League Average (Est.) “Holy Grail” Team Strikeout Rate (Est.) K%+
American League 19.5% 28.8% 148
National League 20.3% 30.0% 148
SOURCE: FanGraphs

We could use projected league ZiPS strikeout rates — instead of adding an expected strikeout rate increase based on those from years past — but we don’t have the rate stats in our projection leaderboards, only K/9. We can do a fast conversion (as you might expect, K/9 and K% correlate very well), but it turns out that the ZiPS rates are forecast to be a fair bit lower than the yearly average increase (which makes sense, given the model regresses players toward the mean). I calculated both ways, and ZiPS was about two percentage points lower for both leagues. While I find that an unrealistic posture for likely strikeout rates in 2016, it’s a good thing to keep in mind. Most importantly, however, it also adds continuity with the individual projected strikeout rates below, which are based on ZiPS. Here are the league-average ZiPS rates, for reference:

Team Strikeout Rates Needed to Beat 1990 Mets (ZiPS)
2016 Projected League Average (ZiPS) “Holy Grail” Team Strikeout Rate (ZiPS) K%+
American League 17.5% 25.9% 148
National League 18.2% 26.9% 148

So, with our target team strikeout rates set, now for the fun part: constructing a team to beat it. In the previous article, we saw that Cleveland starters are projected for a 25.8% cumulative strikeout rate in 2016 — almost three points less than what we need if we use the estimated rate instead of ZiPS — and their rotation had three of the top 12 starters by strikeout rate in 2015. We have some work to do, so let’s run through some options. One final note before we begin: rotation strikeout rates are a weighted average by number of batters faced.

Option #1: Cleveland’s Rotation + Clayton Kershaw & Chris Sale

Let’s imagine for a moment that the Dodgers have some wild crisis of self in the next few days and decide, hey, we need to trade Clayton Kershaw. Cleveland, being the strikeout-greedy franchise they already are, bets the whole farm on him. Kersh is looking for a new house on Lake Erie! How exciting. What a rotation that would be: Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Trevor Bauer. Well yes, it would be, but even that’s not enough if we go by our estimated league rates — with Cleveland projected to record a strikeout rate of only 27.0%, given fifth starter Trevor Bauer’s paltry mark of 22.7%. But wait! The rift between the White Sox and Chris Sale turns out to be real, and they ship him 350 miles down I-90 to Cleveland right before the season starts. What fortune! What does the rotation look like now?

An Absolutely Plausible, Hypothetical Cleveland Rotation
Player IP TBF K%
Clayton Kershaw 215 842 31.5%
Chris Sale 195.7 793 30.4%
Corey Kluber 202 827 26.2%
Carlos Carrasco 172.3 703 27.5%
Danny Salazar 178 738 26.4%
Total 28.5%
SOURCE: ZiPS/FanGraphs

Still not good enough for the more likely league rate (28.8%), but definitely good enough for ZiPS (25.9%). Even so, a few more innings pitched by Sale, somebody tweaks a pitch to get even more whiffs, the league strikes out at clip closer to what the model projects, and bam — by October, the estimated record is broken. Cleveland has the good fortune of being in the American League and having a slightly lower bar for the league-adjusted strikeout record, and they go down in infamy as the team that had one of the best rotations in baseball history, broke a cool record, and somehow still didn’t make the playoffs.

Option #2: The Dodgers Go All, All In

The second scenario in which we can look, and for some crazy reason the more believable of the two, is the Dodgers throwing every last prospect and swimming pool full of gold coins they have at the teams with the best arms. Max Scherzer isn’t a free agent until after 2021? Here are a few prospects and a billion dollars in cash considerations, Washington. Chris Archer costs how much? We have the check book right here, Tampa. Let’s say they get the three best strikeout pitchers from 2015 after Kershaw, and they somehow manage to tack on Noah Syndergaard for good measure. Here’s what that looks like:

A Totally Plausible Dodgers Rotation
Player IP TBF K%
Clayton Kershaw 215 842 31.5%
Chris Sale 195.7 793 30.4%
Max Scherzer 212.3 864 28.8%
Carlos Carrasco 172.3 703 27.5%
Noah Syndergaard 172 706 27.5%
Total 29.2%
SOURCE: ZiPS/FanGraphs

The Dodgers have the unfortunate reality of being in the National League, so the bar for them to clear when compared to league average is that much higher. Even a rotation of the absolute best starting pitchers in the game by strikeouts aren’t projected to beat the estimated record, but they blast past ZiPS. On paper, this rotation not breaking a team strikeout record would seem insane, but that might also be the era in which we live.

On a final note, if you’re wondering how much a rotation like that would cost, you’re not alone. If we use the current salaries of each of those pitchers, and assume that LA would be on the hook for the entirety of each of those contracts (including options), the rotation would come out to around $238 million. They’d have control of only one guy (Archer) past 2020, one of those guys isn’t even arbitration eligible yet, and it doesn’t even begin to take into account the cost of acquiring those players.

ZiPS projections are going to inherently be a little conservative. Maybe a super All-Star Dodgers rotation with the same personnel as the one above could break the record held by the 1990 Mets, even if we used ZiPS for the player projections and used the estimated the increase in league strikeout rate. In general, I tend to take the view that team and individual greatness should be largely based on how those players performed in relation to those playing in the same era, but expecting a modern team to beat what the ’90 Mets accomplished might simply be unreasonable.

Whether we’re in a strikeout bubble is something that can be debated; the realities of it cannot, and those realities make it a lot harder to post better-than-average strikeout numbers over a team from 25 years ago. Maybe it’s simply not a record to be broken in this era. Then again, few teams have had the sort of resources that the Dodgers currently have. Maybe we just need them to go all, all in. Somehow, $238 million doesn’t seem that bad for that rotation.

We hoped you liked reading Building a Record-Breaking Strikeout Rotation by Owen Watson!

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Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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A completely likely 2050 Dodgers Rotation: 5 Clayton Kershaw clones