WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer may be baseball’s final entrant into the 3,000-strikeout club.
Sounds weird to say. The mark is a vaunted one and previously a measuring stick for Hall-of-Fame candidacy. That was before a shift to fewer innings by starters from the time they are young.
Friday night, Scherzer climbed into 27th on the all-time list. He passed legacy names Warren Spahn and Bob Feller thanks to another 10-strikeout outing.
“Sweet,” Scherzer said when informed of the movement. “Let’s keep going.”Scherzer is 35 years old, in his 12th season and has 2,585 strikeouts. He’s on pace for 297 total this season -- if he makes his typical 33 starts. Hitting that mark would put him at 2,756 at the end of the year. He would be 24th all-time at that stage and a standard season away from cracking 3,000. Justin Verlander will beat Scherzer to the mark, making Scherzer the 19th pitcher all-time to strikeout 3,000 or more should he get there. CC Sabathia surpassed 3,000 in late May. Sabathia, Verlander and Scherzer could cap the group for the rest of history.
The club’s exclusivity is often overlooked. Twenty-seven players have hit 500 or more home runs. Twenty-three players have 300 or more wins (speaking of marks which are unlikely to be reached again; Scherzer has 164, and, yes, wins are wins).
Among active players with 2,000 or more strikeouts, Clayton Kershaw is the youngest. He’s 31 years old and has struck out 2,342. Recent injuries have derailed what was a clear express path to 3,000. He becomes a free agent in 2022. And Kershaw is a good example of how usage is changing the chances to strike out 3,000.
He has not pitched more than seven innings this season. Part of that is to protect him following his back problems. Another portion is seven innings is the norm. Less is also common. Entering the eighth or ninth is almost unheard of. Only two pitchers have thrown two complete games this season. Twenty pitchers have one or more complete games this season. Last year, no pitcher finished with more than two complete games. Only 13 pitchers threw 200 or more innings.
Yet, strikeout rates are at an all-time high while innings pitched by starters dips. So, let’s look at extrapolation for a younger pitcher, like Trevor Bauer, who is operating in this new era and will do so going forward.
Bauer is 28 years old. He’s struck out 1,035 batters. A decade more of 200 strikeouts per season gets him there -- narrowly. But, the problem for Bauer, like others alluded to above, is he rarely pitches into the eighth inning. Two of his 15 starts this season have gone a full eight innings. Only three have lasted more than seven. Three others have lasted less than six. Most often he pitches six to seven innings. He’s never thrown more than 190 innings in a season.
Let’s call it a 6 ⅔ innings for his average outing going forward. He strikes out 1.1 batters per inning this year. He’s never made more than 31 starts in the season. So, give him 28 starts per year for the next 10 years. That gives Bauer 205 strikeouts per season, on average, and discounts any future regression (which is likely). Together, Bauer could crack 3,000 strikeouts in his age-38 season. Any steps back -- a season of 21 starts because of injury, a reduction in innings on average, his strikeout totals reducing in the typical fashion of a pitcher in his mid-30s -- would cost him his slim chance.
In between Kershaw and Bauer are a variety of 30-something pitchers on the downside of their careers. Jon Lester is 35. He has 2,259 strikeouts. Cole Hamels is also 35. He’s at 2,498. Felix Hernandez has struck out 2,501. He’s 35 years old and left a rehabilitation start for Triple-A Tacoma early on Friday because of fatigue. Zack Greinke is 35. His 2,520 strikeouts give him an outside shot, as does his ability to pitch well despite an ongoing reduction in velocity.
Pitchers of that ilk often found career-extending deals in the past. Now, teams are more likely to pay a younger starter much less instead of being on the hook for $10 million or more for a veteran winding down. Or, if they are signed, it’s only a one- or two-year deal. One guy who has a chance: 30-year-old Stephen Strasburg. His strikeout rate has held during his career -- and into this season. The question, as always, is health. It took Strasburg nine-plus seasons just to hit the midway point (1,554 coming into Saturday’s start).
Scherzer’s path is not in doubt. He will need around 240 strikeouts next season to hit it. Which means be prepared sometime in late August when Scherzer will be checking off another milestone, one which will be a challenge to hit again.
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