In a season that had already seen strikeout rates and totals reach unprecedented highs, Justin Verlander helped himself to not one but two impressive, K-related milestones on Saturday night against the Angels in Anaheim. With his fourth-inning strikeout of Kole Calhoun, he became the 18th pitcher to reach 3,000 for his career, and the second this season after CC Sabathia. Two innings later, he whiffed Calhoun again for his 300th (and final) strikeout of the season. The two milestones — which had been paired in a single game once before, by the Diamondbacks’ Randy Johnson on September 10, 2000 against the Marlins — added a couple more bullet points to his case for a second AL Cy Young award, but they also served to remind us what a silly season it’s been for swings and misses.
After leading the AL for the fifth time last year with a career-high 290 strikeouts, Verlander began this season 294 short of 3,000, a distance that suggested that the 36-year-old righty would need until early in the 2020 season to reach the milestone. That still appeared to be the case when I checked in on him on May 1, in the context of Sabathia joining the 3,000 club; on June 24, when I wrote about Verlander dominating despite so many home runs surrendered; and on August 16, when I checked in on the progress of several stars who had enhanced their Hall of Fame cases this year. At that last juncture, Verlander was averaging 12.0 strikeouts per nine and needed 77 to reach 3,000. Figuring six innings and thus eight strikeouts per start, times eight starts — either actual or their equivalent via shorter late-season outings as the playoffs approached — my back-of-the-envelope math suggested he’d fall short.
The night that last piece was published, Verlander whiffed 11 A’s in seven innings, though he wound up on the losing end of a 3-2 game. It was his sixth straight game with at least 10 strikeouts, already a personal best, and he pushed the streak to seven games with an 11-strikeout complete game against Detroit on August 21 — yet another loss, however, as the two hits he surrendered to the Tigers, both solo homers, were enough to topple him. Two starts later, he punched out 14 Blue Jays while notching his third career no-hitter, and despite generally drawing down his pitch counts over his last four starts — 106 pitches on September 12 versus the A’s, 87 on September 17 versus the Rangers, 92 on September 22 against the Angels, and then just 80 on Saturday night — he had two more starts with double-digit K’s and totaled 36 over his final 23 innings. Where my estimate from mid-August to the end of the season was for 48 innings and 64 strikeouts, he instead threw 60.1 innings with 83 strikeouts. His rate per plate appearance rose from 34.5% (with a 5.4% walk rate) prior to August 16, to 38.7% (with a 3.7% walk rate) from that point onward. While the Tigers and Rangers both finished among the majors’ top five in batter strikeout rates, the A’s and Angels were in the bottom seven, so it’s not like Verlander had a particular advantage down the stretch. His was an impressive rally.
As for the moments themselves… the funny thing about Verlander’s 3,000th strikeout was that things went slightly awry. On the 3,000th strikeout, his low-and-inside slider hit the dirt and then bounced off catcher Robinson Chirinos‘ shin guard, caroming away and allowing Calhoun to reach first base. While Verlander’s teammates and the Anaheim crowd paused to acknowledge the feat and the pitcher reciprocated by doffing his cap, two pitches later, Andrelton Simmons hit a two-run homer. It was the 36th Verlander allowed this year (tied for second in the AL) but just the eighth with men on base.
The homer put Verlander in a 3-0 hole, but after allowing a single to Kevan Smith, he reeled off a string of five straight strikeouts, finishing the inning with whiffs of Jared Walsh and Taylor Ward, then striking out Kaleb Cowart, David Fletcher, and Brian Goodwin in order on a total of 16 pitches in the fifth. The Astros bailed Verlander out by tallying five runs in the top of the sixth, and after Albert Pujols lined out to lead off the bottom half of the frame, Calhoun came to the plate again. This time, Verlander got a clean ‘K’ on a 95 mph fastball upstairs:
Verlander joined Gerrit Cole (316 at the time, with another 10 on Sunday) as just the second pair of teammates to notch 300 strikeouts in the same season, after Johnson (334) and his Diamondbacks teammate Curt Schilling (316) in 2002. Since that season, only three other pitchers have reached 300, namely Clayton Kershaw in 2015 (301), Chris Sale in 2017 (308), and Max Scherzer last year (300). The recent frequency of the milestone, of course, owes plenty to the rising tide of strikeouts within the game. In 2019, the combined total of strikeouts in the majors increased for the 14th straight season — the last time they decreased was 2004-05 — and broke a record for the 12th straight season:
Rate-wise, hitters struck out 23.0% of the time this year, up from 22.3% last year, and again, the 14th year in a row with an increase and the 12th with a record. Reprising a graph I made for the Sabathia piece, you can see that rates have risen dramatically over the past two decades:
That trend, of course, owes something both to the reduced stigma of the strikeout for hitters (since strikeouts tend to correlate positively with power, and oh, by the way, this year featured a record 6,776 homers, 671 more than the previous record set in 2017) and the parade of relievers pitching with maximum effort for one inning at high velocity, while collectively occupying a larger footprint in terms of innings relative to starers. This development isn’t without its costs, including a reduced number of balls in play, an increased risk of injury for pitchers, and a slowing of the pace of play, but those are problems for another day.
The trend does mean that it’s worth applying some context to its high achievers for historical purposes. We can easily do that using adjusted rates via our Plus stats, which index a player or team performance to that of the league, with 100 being average, 120 being 20% above average, and 80 being 20% below average. The catch here is that (for now, at least) these stats aren’t park-adjusted, just league-adjusted, but for the ability to compare pitcher strikeout rates across seasons, with the aforementioned ups and downs in mind, park doesn’t make much difference.
Verlander’s 35.4% strikeout rate equates to a 156 K%+, which means that it’s 56% above league average (here it’s worth noting that “league” makes the AL/NL distinction, which matters due to pitchers batting). Coincidentally, that figure matches Verlander’s 2009 (when he actually struck out “just” 27.4%) and Cole’s 2018 (34.5%), and it’s two points below Verlander’s showing last year (158 on a raw rate of 34.8%). Dating back to the 1994-95 strike, that 158 ranks a modest 49th among ERA title qualifiers, while this year’s mark is 56th. The upper reaches of the leaderboard are dominated by two Hall of Famers:
|1||Pedro Martinez||Red Sox||1999||213.1||313||13.20||37.5%||239|
|3||Pedro Martinez||Red Sox||2000||217.0||284||11.78||34.8%||220|
|8||Randy Johnson||– – –||1998||244.1||329||12.12||32.5%||194|
|10||Pedro Martinez||Red Sox||2002||199.1||239||10.79||30.4%||189|
|20||Pedro Martinez||Red Sox||2003||186.2||206||9.93||27.5%||175|
While Verlander is nowhere near the top 20, Cole actually cracks it, and his season is in fact the only one since 2007 that does so; relative to the league, it’s 20 percent better than Verlander. Cole struck out 26 more hitters while facing 30 fewer than his teammate (817 to 847) in 10.2 fewer innings (212.1 to 223). As Craig Edwards showed, there are a lot more hairs to split if you care to do so regarding the AL Cy Young voting, but the superior strikeout rate is a pretty big point in Cole’s favor.
We can — and I already have — build a table of the 3,000 strikeout club with adjusted rates as well. The default ranking here is by strikeout total, but the table is sortable, so you can play around:
|Nolan Ryan||1966, ’68–93||5714||5386.0||7/4/80||25.3%||183||90||83|
|John Smoltz||1988–1999, 2001–2009||3084||3473.0||4/22/08||21.6%||130||81||78|
Verlander’s 127 K%+ is 12th among that group, sandwiched between Smoltz and Jenkins, both Hall of Famers; in fact, everybody on that board save for Clemens, Schilling, and the two active pitchers is enshrined, yet another sign that Verlander is Cooperstown-bound.
He’ll have company in the 3,000 strikeout club pretty soon, though not necessarily next year. Scherzer needs just 308, which means he’s in a very similar spot to Verlander this season — a long shot, but not inconceivable:
Greinke, who struck out 187 this year after 197 last year, is probably two healthy seasons away, and Kershaw probably three, given that he’s reached 200 strikeouts just once in the past four years. I’m skeptical that Hernández will make it given the decline in his performance, and likewise Lester, but wouldn’t be surprised if Hamels persists, as he’s still effective. This expansion of the club, of course, is the long-term consequence of the league-wide trend, just as those late-1960s and early ’70s rates helped drive the eight pitchers from That Seventies Group into the club during the 1978-86 period.
While commissioner Rob Manfred recently told Forbes that a group of scientists will undertake another investigation of the ball that’s driving these soaring home run rates — something Verlander no doubt will applaud — the strikeout trend doesn’t appear to have any similar impediment heading its way. While Verlander has benefitted from this high-K era, that he’s thrived to this extent in this high-homer and high-scoring environment makes his achievements worth savoring.
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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.