Max Scherzer and the Coming Wave of 3,000-Strikeout Pitchers

Last Saturday in the Bronx, Max Scherzer showed off the dominant form that has earned him three Cy Young awards and seven All-Star selections. Admittedly, he wasn’t exactly facing Murderer’s Row, but against a Yankees team that had recently righted itself with a 7-1 tear, he struck out 10 out of the first 14 batters he faced, finishing with 14 strikeout in 7.1 innings, that while allowing just two hits, one walk, and one run.

The Nationals wound up losing that game in 11 innings, but nonetheless, the outing was the latest example of the 36-year-old righty in vintage form. The 14 strikeouts was the most by a visitor in the new Yankee Stadium, which opened in 2009, and the most by any opponent in any iteration of Yankee Stadium since Pedro Martinez’s ultra-dominant one-hit performance against the defending champions in 1999:

Most Strikeout Against the Yankees in the Bronx
Pitcher Tm Date IP H R ER BB SO
Pedro Martinez Red Sox 9/10/1999 9.0 1 1 1 0 17
Mike Moore Mariners 8/19/1988 (2) 9.0 5 1 1 2 16
Max Scherzer Nationals 5/8/2021 7.1 2 1 1 1 14
Mark Langston Mariners 8/19/1986 9.0 5 3 3 2 14
Sam McDowell Cleveland 5/6/1968 9.0 7 2 2 3 14
Hal Newhouser Tigers 5/27/1943 9.0 4 2 2 2 14
Matthew Boyd Tigers 4/3/2019 6.1 5 1 1 3 13
Jason Schmidt Giants 6/8/2002 8.0 2 3 3 4 13
Bartolo Colon Cleveland 9/18/2000 9.0 1 0 0 1 13
Tom Gordon Royals 4/20/1991 7.0 4 0 0 4 13
Roger Clemens Red Sox 9/30/1987 9.0 10 0 0 1 13
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Since allowing four solo home runs in six innings on the team’s COVID-19-delayed Opening Day on April 6, Scherzer has allowed zero or one runs in five of six starts while pitching to a 1.97 ERA and 2.48 FIP. While his overall 2.33 ERA is merely ninth in the NL, and his 3.30 FIP 16th, his 35.5% strikeout rate ranks third behind Jacob deGrom and Freddy Peralta and his 31.4% strikeout-to-walk differential second only to deGrom, though those rankings owe something to Corbin Burnes‘ trip to the Injured List for a positive COVID test, which stalled the Brewers righty at 29.1 innings, too few to qualify (he’ll return to action on Thursday).

For Scherzer, it’s the beginning of a promising rebound from a 2020 season in which he was hit for a 3.74 ERA and 3.46 FIP, respectable marks for just about any pitcher but nonetheless his highest since 2011, before he started collecting hardware and accolades. Relative to last year, he’s cut his walk rate nearly in half (from 7.8% to 4.1), and while he’s giving up more hard contact and more homers than in 2020, his current 9.8% barrel rate and 1.55 homers per nine are inflated by the four barrels and four homers he allowed in that season-opening outing.

The strong start increases the likelihood that Scherzer will reach the 3,000 strikeout milestone this year. He entered 2021 needing 216 strikeouts to reach the mark, and with 61 so far, he’s at 2,845. Some quick back-of-the-envelope math suggests that at his current rates of 11.85 strikeouts per nine and 6.59 innings per start, he’ll need another 118 innings over 18 starts, which puts his date with destiny sometime in early to mid-August (calling my shot: August 10 at Citi Field). But whether it’s that date or another, Scherzer will become the 19th pitcher to reach the milestone, and the third in the past three seasons, after CC Sabathia (April 30, 2019) and Justin Verlander (September 28, 2019).

As for who’s next, Zack Greinke appears to be on track for late next season, and Clayton Kershaw for 2023. And then? Beyond that Hall of Fame-bound trio, it’s unclear. Inspired by a comment from reader @ajnrules on Twitter — that the 25th pitcher to reach 3,000 strikeouts is probably already active, even if we don’t know who he is — I asked Dan Szymborski to provide some ZiPS-driven odds. Here’s the leaderboard for the highest odds among active pitchers:

ZiPS Odds of Reaching 3,000 Strikeouts
Pitcher Age SO ZiPS ROS SO Chance of 3,000
Max Scherzer 36 2845 189 98%
Clayton Kershaw 33 2572 136 91%
Zack Greinke 37 2724 131 88%
Gerrit Cole 30 1508 211 66%
Jacob deGrom 33 1424 190 51%
Chris Sale 32 2007 79 49%
Trevor Bauer 30 1346 176 46%
Aaron Nola 28 975 174 44%
Shane Bieber 26 576 201 41%
Lucas Giolito 26 538 196 39%
Stephen Strasburg 32 1708 108 38%
Cole Hamels 36 2560 86 37%
Jack Flaherty 25 524 166 36%
Germán Márquez 26 680 157 34%
Yu Darvish 34 1449 150 33%
Madison Bumgarner 31 1864 116 28%
David Price 35 1992 64 26%
Félix Hernández 35 2524 11%
Jon Lester 37 2403 83 1%
ZiPS ROS SO = rest-of-season projected strikeouts

The ZiPS odds suggest we can write off some hurlers who are closer to 3,000 but don’t figure to make much progress this year, such as the unsigned Hernández and the still-active Lester and Price, both of whom are slowing down. I’m surprised that Hamels’ odds are so high given that he was limited to one appearance last year due to injuries and is unsigned at the moment, but his career was in better shape heading into 2020 than Hernández’s by a wide margin, and it’s not hard to imagine a midseason opportunity being available to him if he’s willing and able. That said, two weeks ago former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., now an NBC Sports Philadelphia analyst, tweeted that Hamels “isn’t physically ready to pitch yet,” which doesn’t bode tremendously well. I’ll take the under on his odds.

In looking at the active leaderboard before receiving these odds from Dan, my gut feeling was that Cole — as in the Yankees’ ace, who passed the halfway point on Wednesday night with a stifling 12-strikeout performance agains the Rays — would be a better bet to reach 3,000 than several of the pitchers closer to the milestone given his age, health, and consistency. That’s borne out here, even with respect to Sale, who’s 499 strikeouts ahead but rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and deGrom, who’s already had one TJ and who’s throwing so hard that I openly worry about him needing another. Both of those pitchers appear to have a coin-toss chance, and Bauer is approaching that territory as well.

What’s interesting beyond that is the group in the 25-28 range who aren’t even to their first thousand strikeouts but project so well in the long-term that they outdo even Strasburg, who’s dealing with health issues yet again. If I’m trying to pin down the order, per @ajnrules’ tweet, I’d guess Sale would be the 22nd pitcher to 3,000 strikeouts, Cole and deGrom the 23rd and 24th in some order, and Strasburg, Bauer, or Darvish — three pitchers of different ages, risk levels, and other variables — for the 25th.

While all of these pitchers are benefiting from (as well as contributing to) this high strikeout era, it nonetheless takes extraordinary staying power to get to 3,000, and it’s worth noting that we can index a player’s strikeout rate to his league average to facilitate cross-era comparisons. Scherzer’s 142 K%+ — meaning, a strikeout rate 42% above league average — ranks 17th among all pitchers with at least 2,000 innings since 1901, and once he crosses the 2,500 inning threshold this year, he’ll move up to 13th at the higher cutoff.

This won’t be the last milestone Scherzer breezes past as he puts the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame career. I asked Dan to provide a ZiPS projection for his remaining years, which happens to be particularly relevant because he’ll be a free agent this winter, once his seven-year, $210 million contract expires. That contract has to rate among the most successful free agent deals of its scale; Scherzer has produced 35.5 fWAR and 37.3 bWAR and counting for the Nationals while making five All-Star teams, winning two Cy Youngs, and helping the franchise to its first championship. That’ll play.

Anyway, onto the projection:

ZiPS Projections – Max Scherzer
Rest of 2021 36 11 5 3.32 23 23 140.0 189 136 3.6
2022 37 12 6 3.39 27 27 164.7 217 133 4.0
2023 38 10 6 3.59 24 24 145.3 183 125 3.2
2024 39 10 7 3.87 24 24 142.0 171 117 2.8
2025 40 9 6 3.82 22 22 132.0 159 118 2.6
Ages 36-40 52 31 3.59 120 120 724.0 920 126 16.2
Career to date 177 95 3.19 384 375 2403.7 2845 132 61.3
Totals 229 126 3.29 504 495 3127.7 3765 130 77.5

If you peek back at the three-year ZiPS projection on Scherzer’s player page, you can see that he’s already gained an extra WAR over that span thanks to the impact this year’s starts have upon his future forecasts, and likewise, some additional strikeouts, including 250 this year, up from a projection of 219 in the spring. Peering into the future, the ZiPS crystal ball has Scherzer reaching 200 wins at the end of next season, which also projects to be his 10th with at least 200 strikeouts. That would tie Tom Seaver’s total, and trail only those of Roger Clemens (12), Randy Johnson (13) and Nolan Ryan (15). Likewise, the above strikeout total would push Scherzer to fifth all-time, past Bert Blyleven (3,701) and behind only Ryan, Johnson, Clemens, and Steve Carlton, the four pitchers with at least 4,000 strikeouts, a milestone Scherzer figures to have some kind of shot at if he pitches beyond age 40.

Scherzer’s projected 77.5 career pitching WAR (plus another 1.6 on the offensive side) and 48.0 peak WAR would push him to a JAWS of 63.6, two points above the standard and in a virtual tie with Mike Mussina for 29th all-time. By that point, Verlander (60.9 JAWS), Greinke (60.3), and/or Kershaw (60.3) could be crowding that ranking, but there will be room enough for all four in Cooperstown.

And jeez, with a projection for 12.6 WAR for his age 37-40 seasons, Scherzer ought to command a pretty solid deal this winter, whether it’s in the form of an extension to remain with the Nationals or another trip through free agency. Before we get there, I do wonder what July will hold. With the Nationals off to a 13-19 start, this doesn’t look like their year, fresh memories of their 2019 recovery from a 19-31 start notwithstanding. Would they trade Scherzer? Would he want to go? Given that he has 10-and-5 rights as well as a contract that pays him $15 million in deferred money annually from 2022-28, such a move would be complicated to sort out, even if it is what the pitcher wants.

Still, contemplating Scherzer’s next move isn’t as much fun as simply watching him pitch, and right now, even with his fastball down a tick relative to last year (93.8 mph vs. 94.7, according to Statcast), he’s mowing hitters down like a man who still wants your Cy Young vote. Catch him while you can.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

From the linked Chart: Nolan Ryan K%+ 183 (#2) BB%+ 146 (#3). I don’t even know what to say about that other than he was one of the most unique pitchers of all time (and one of the most fun to watch). I know as a little leaguer, I would always try to throw his circle change, to poor effect I might add.

Cave Dameron
2 years ago
Reply to  srpst23

Nolan was a textbook example of being effectively wild. I know he’s the all time leader in Hits/9 innings, I wonder where he would rank on a Hits%+ type of stat.

Smiling Politely
2 years ago
Reply to  Cave Dameron

I really wonder whether his “effective wildness” is how/why he developed the ability to throw 150 pitches/game without his arm falling off or whether he knew he had the stamina, so he just figured, screw it, every AB happens on my terms. Chicken/egg?

Lunch Anglemember
2 years ago
Reply to  srpst23

Nolan Ryan threw a changeup?

2 years ago
Reply to  Lunch Angle

I’m assuming he did, I had a Nolan Ryan pitching book (the Nolan Ryan’s Pitchers Bible) when I was little that had pictures of all of his grips for his pitches (and how he tried to throw them). I wasn’t allowed to throw any breaking stuff at the time, so I tried to emulate his fastball/change-up grips. I was really too young to be able to tell the difference between a fastball/changeup on tv back then (especially since we didn’t get a bunch of Astros games back then in NW Pennsylvania.

2 years ago
Reply to  srpst23

According to SABR, he learned a changeup in 1981 and he threw it occasionally, but the the circle change came from Red Murff a little later.

2 years ago
Reply to  srpst23

I still can’t see the difference between a fastball and change-up without looking at the pitch speed unless the batter swings too early or too late.

2 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

changeups fade (a gentle kind of break) to the pitcher’s arm side and often drop. For a lot of pitchers, it’s pretty distinctive movement, best illustrated by strasburg imo:

2 years ago
Reply to  srpst23

I don’t know what prime Ryan would do in today’s game. I am convinced he is the hardest throwing pitcher ever, but they’d never let him go 8-9 innings and toss 150 pitches a game. So in my alternative world, Ryan still sets the MLB record for K’s in a season, but does it in 190 innings, while shattering the K/9 record.

2 years ago
Reply to  RobM

Good, durable pitchers can still pitch over 200 innings in some seasons in today’s game. There’s no reason someone like Ryan would max out at 190 innings even if he’s only throwing 100-110 pitches per start.

2 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

But I doubt he’d be able to play through the aches and pains he invariably had.

2 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Which is why I’d take the over on projected ip for Scherzer. Sure anyone can get hurt at anytime, but a lot of it is survivor bias. Guys who make it this late in career tend to have the gift of staying healthy.