I was eight years old the first time I saw Pedro Martinez pitch at Fenway Park. Back then, Tom Gordon was the Red Sox’s closer and Mo Vaughn was the starting first baseman. Gordon’s son Dee led the NL in batting average last season. Yeah, times have changed.
What I loved about Pedro, besides that I could relate to him because he was a little guy like me, was his fearlessness. That day in August of 1998, he was facing a Texas roster that featured MVP winners Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez. That didn’t faze him in the slightest. Pedro allowed just one run over 8 2/3 innings to earn his 16th win of the season. He finished the afternoon with 10 strikeouts, one of eight times he reached double-digit Ks in 1998.
Pedro was capable of throwing high 90s heat, but it was his changeup that made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer. On the strength of that changeup, he led the American League in strikeouts three times in a span of four seasons. One of those years was 1999, when Pedro famously struck out Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire to lead off the All-Star Game. Pedro in his prime is still the greatest pitcher I’ve ever seen and whenever I think of strikeouts, he’s the first name that pops in my head. Now that I got that nostalgia out of my system, let’s look at some strikeout projections for this year.
Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays
*Composite Projection: 210
Archer swapped labels in 2015—he went from a “future ace” to a current one. The 27-year-old took his game to another level last season, finishing the year with a team-record 252 strikeouts. His 10.7 K/9 was fourth-highest in the league behind Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Max Scherzer. Two of those guys are Cy Young winners and the other is a four-time All-Star. So yeah, Archer’s in pretty good company.
Archer’s K/9 has improved every season since joining the Rays’ on a full-time basis in 2013 (he had a few late season cameos in 2012). It’s true Archer tailed off in the second half—his ERA rose from 2.74 to 3.89 after the All-Star break while his K/9 fell from 10.87 to 10.46. That drop-off is consistent with his career splits, as Archer has made a habit of losing steam in the second half (3.62 ERA and 8.8 K/9 versus 3.08 and 9.1 in the first half). Moderation isn’t his strong suit yet but that’s something Archer will learn later in his career.
So how did Tampa Bay’s crazy-haired, high-sock-wearing stud go from 173 Ks in 2014 to 252 last season? His velocity increased (95.2 mph average fastball), he started throwing more sliders (39.2 percent of his pitches) and most importantly, the Rays let him pitch deeper into games. Archer threw 101.4 pitches per outing last season, well above his previous career-high of 98.8. He logged seven-plus innings in 13 of 34 starts, an improvement from a year earlier when Archer only lasted that long nine times in 32 outings. Last season, Archer gave us both quantity and quality. 2016 should be more of the same. Prediction: Over
Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians
You wouldn’t know it by their underwhelming record (81-80), but the Indians had a pretty terrifying rotation last year. Carrasco, Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar were part of a three-headed monster that produced 656 strikeouts over 590 2/3 innings. Only the Cubs recorded more strikeouts than Cleveland in 2015.
Last year was kind of a baptism by fire for Carrasco, who had never surpassed 134 innings in any of his previous seasons. Carrasco actually managed a pretty solid 9.4 K/9 in 2014, though he obviously went above and beyond that in 2015 (10.58). The key to Carrasco’s success last year was deception. Hitters swung at 52.1 percent of Carrasco’s pitches, the third-highest percentage in MLB. Carrasco also got batters to swing at 40.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. That led the league by a pretty comfortable margin while his swinging strike percentage (14.0) was fifth-highest.
While history tells us players fare almost universally better at home, Carrasco’s splits paint a much different picture. Carrasco was just 5-8 with a 5.03 ERA at home last season but he flipped the script by going 9-4 with a 2.49 ERA in 15 starts away from Progressive Field. Carrasco also bucked the trend of collapsing in the second half. He registered a mediocre 4.07 ERA before the All-Star break but improved with a 2.99 ERA and an 11.23 K/9 in the season’s second act. Something clicked for Carrasco last year and I think it will carry over into 2016. Add another one to the over pile. Prediction: Over
Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
Sale, who is basically a giraffe who happens to throw 97 mph fastballs, led the American League with 274 strikeouts last year while posting MLB’s highest K/9 since 2013 (11.82). That’s a lot of good things to cram into a normal-sized sentence. Of course, Sale’s strikeout parade wasn’t all hugs and high-fives. Sale endured a dismal second half, losing seven of 14 starts while posting a hard-to-look-at 4.33 ERA. His efficiency also went down the tubes. Sale averaged almost 16 pitches per inning, perhaps a sign that he was trying to get hitters to swing and miss instead of looking for the easy out.
Even when Sale was in the midst of his second-half spiral last year, his strikeout numbers remained strong. His K/9 was essentially the same in both halves—11.84 before the All-Star break compared to 11.79 after it. Though left-handers hit for a higher average against Sale (.250 compared to .230 versus right-handers), they struck out in almost 40 percent of their at-bats (49 Ks in 128 plate visits). Sale’s 2015 was a strikeout extravaganza of the highest magnitude.
But we’re not talking about 2015. That’s over and done with. Fantasy owners need to know, can Sale match his strikeout total from a year ago, or at least come close enough to beat his projection? I think not. White Sox manager Robin Ventura wants Sale to be more efficient, which means pitching to contact instead of painting the corners and risking a high pitch count. Sale set career-highs in both pitches (3,323) and starts (31) last year, which means fatigue could be a factor. Sale is still going to be a strikeout machine but I don’t think 249 is in the budget. Prediction: Under
James Shields, San Diego Padres
Big Game James has quietly been a model of consistency in the strikeout department. He hasn’t finished with fewer than 180 since 2009. Neither of the reigning Cy Young winners had gone over 180 until last year so there’s something to be said for Shields’ under-the-radar awesomeness.
Want to know the secret to Shields’ surprisingly high strikeout numbers? It’s innings. We like to throw around the term “innings eater,” but really, Shields is more of an innings glutton. He eats innings for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Shields has logged 200-plus frames in nine straight seasons while making at least 33 starts every year since 2008. The guy is indestructible.
Now you’re probably wondering how in the world Shields, at the tender age of 33, managed his strikeout total since 2012. Simple—he moved to the National League. Substituting a DH with a pitcher is always a nice way to pad your Ks. No. 9 hitters (aka mostly pitchers) struck out 36.6 percent of the time against Shields in 2015, hence his career-best 9.61 K/9. Shields doesn’t hit 95 on the gun anymore but he doesn’t have to. He can just keep hitters guessing with his fastball (used on 41.8 percent of his throws), cutter (18.5), changeup (21.0) and curveball (18.7). Forrest Gump would probably say he’s like a box of chocolates. I think Shields keeps living the dream with another year of 200-plus Ks in 2016. Prediction: Over
Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
Bust isn’t the right word for Strasburg but he certainly hasn’t lived up to the massive hype that surrounded him coming out of San Diego State. Back then, Strasburg was universally lauded as a once-in-a-generation, can’t miss, all-time-great starting pitcher. Talent isn’t the issue. Strasburg’s Achilles’ heel (a body part that will probably land him on the disabled list at some point) has always been his availability, or lack thereof. Strasburg has reached the 200-inning threshold once in his career. That was in 2014 when he tied Johnny Cueto for the league-lead with 242 strikeouts.
But because Strasburg’s career has mostly been a series of cruel jokes, he paid the price for his big workload by throwing just 127 1/3 innings last season. He also put up a career-worst 3.46 ERA, which, all things considered, is still pretty respectable. And if you’re looking for a silver lining (we know Scott Boras will be with Strasburg slated to hit free agency next winter), Strasburg was downright spectacular at the end of last year. After pitching to a 5.16 ERA in the first half, Strasburg buckled down after the break with six wins and a robust 1.90 ERA over his final 10 starts. Strasburg’s K/9 surged to 12.48 after the All-Star break while his overmatched opponents hit a mere .179 over 235 second-half at-bats. That's like playing dizzy bat at a Buffalo Bills game.
Another reason for optimism is that Strasburg pitched deeper into games as the season went on. Strasburg’s injury history has afforded him a notoriously short leash (88.8 pitches per start last season) but after the All-Star break, he went six innings or more in nine of his 10 outings. He reached double-digit strikeouts five times in that span while allowing one run or fewer in four of his last five starts.
We know Strasburg can pile on the punchouts. The San Diegan has registered a K/9 north of 10 in three of his last four seasons. The question then becomes how many innings can Strasburg realistically be expected to pitch? If his career 10.44 K/9 holds steady, Strasburg would have to throw 173 1/3 innings to reach his projected strikeout total. Is that asking too much? I think it is. Projection: Under
*Compiled by FantasyPros