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Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, and the chase for 300

Chris Sale and Max Scherzer seem poised to join some remarkable company.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As we’ve now passed the fake halfway point of the real 2017 season, there are a lot of potential second-half storylines being bandied about. To me, all fall short of the chase for 300 strikeouts. There just isn’t a cumulative, single-season achievement for pitchers that can compare. It marks a level of unparalleled domination. Think about some of the other rare achievements in baseball history. There have been 23 perfect games, and 27 members of the 50+ home run club. Only 15 pitchers have struck out 300+ batters in one season of work. If even one pitcher achieved the feat, it would be remarkable, but here’s the kicker: two pitchers have a shot to do it this season.

That seems weird, right? We reside in a baseball era defined by robust bullpens and deep rotations. Pitchers don’t have to make more than 35 starts a season anymore, like some of the greats of past generations. Take 2007-2016, for example. Over this 10-season period, only three pitchers tossed over 250 innings in one season — CC Sabathia (253 IP in 2008), Roy Halladay (250.2 IP in 2010), and Justin Verlander (251 IP in 2011). Rewind the clock back 40 years, to the decade of 1967-1976, and you’d see that none of those three pitchers would even crack the top-240 on the single-season innings pitched leaderboard. You can easily do the same thing for games started.

I’m not going to go on some tangent about how the game was back then, or how pitchers aren’t the same, or some other “get off my lawn”-style cliché. However, it is important that we put into perspective just how incredible it is that we are even having this discussion in 2017.

In 1986, Mike Scott made 37 starts and struck out 306 batters, and he marked a turning point in pitching history. Before him came 20 of the 34 times a pitcher has crossed the 300-strikeout threshold in one season, all of which featured at least 36 starts or 40 appearances. By contrast, we have seen just three pitchers in this millennium make more than 35 starts; Roy Halladay and Greg Maddux did it in 2003, and Tom Glavine in 2002. Mike Scott was also the first pitcher in the club not to record double-digit complete games — a feat only eight pitchers have done.

A lot goes into striking out 300 batters, beyond just the actual striking out of batters. Most of it relies on timing. As with any other counting statistic, reps and opportunities matter. There are two basic paths to 300 Ks: have a ton of starts/innings, or strikeout the entire planet. As I described in the previous paragraph, the former just ain’t going to happen in this era. To make it into this club now, the balance of power has shifted towards the latter.

The same could be said for all of baseball, really. Incredible strikeout artists have overtaken the game, and hitters are fine with striking out. If we see another surge in 300-strikeout seasons like we did in the 1970’s, it will come from this. Strikeouts themselves are on the rise, and pitchers are learning to compact more strikeouts into less opportunities.

It’s exciting, because strikeouts are fun, and this is where the current strikeout gods Max Scherzer and Chris Sale enter the picture.

Scherzer has always been a pitcher known for strikeout dominance. In 2011, he struck out 231 batters, the first time in his career he had ever crossed the 200 K threshold. From there, he has improved every season. Health is surely a factor, no doubt; you can’t make 32+ starts for five consecutive years without some luck on the health side. But every year he has creeped closer to the 300 mark. Last season he ended with 284 strikeouts in 34 starts. This year, though, he has kicked it up a notch. His current 12.13 K/9 rate bests his previous season-high (11.19 in 2016) by almost a full strikeout, and he has struck out just over 35 percent of the batters he has faced. Make no mistake, Scherzer is on an absolute tear.

Sale, on the other hand, saw a noticeable dip in his strikeout rate in 2016, from a 32.1 percent strikeout rate to a 25.7 percent strikeout rate. In terms of K/9, the drop off was over 2.5 strikeouts per nine innings. But there was a good reason behind the dip—the White Sox wanted him to pitch to contact. The goal was to limit his pitch count to allow him to go deeper into games, and one of the ways this was done was to cut his changeup usage almost in half. The very same changeup that is one of the best out-pitches in the game, and a whiff and strikeout machine. But when Sale came to Boston, all that went out the window. He is now throwing his changeup a tonmore, and has even combined it with an elevated usage of his devastating slider.

To this point in the season, Scherzer has 173 strikeouts and Sale has 178. Both have made 18 starts, and are, at the moment, the clear Cy Young choice for their respective league. But let’s ask the more important question: will either strike out 300 batters?

The natural place to start this guessing game would be the various projection systems publicly available to us:

Chris Sale RoS projections

Projection System GS K/9 K K/GS
Projection System GS K/9 K K/GS
ZiPS 14 11.00 114 8.14
Steamer 14 11.04 120 8.57
Depth Charts 15 11.02 122 8.13
PECOTA 90th percentile 13 10.68 123 9.46
PECOTA 50th percentile 13 10.68 108 8.31
PECOTA 10th percentile 13 10.71 94 7.23

Max Scherzer RoS projections

Projection System GS K/9 K K/GS
Projection System GS K/9 K K/GS
ZiPS 14 11.35 123 8.79
Steamer 14 11.58 122 8.71
Depth Charts 14 11.46 121 8.64
PECOTA 90th percentile 13 11.32 125 9.62
PECOTA 50th percentile 13 11.37 110 8.46
PECOTA 10th percentile 13 11.34 95 7.31

If Sale needs 122 strikeouts and Scherzer needs 127, only two projections are favorable, and they both belong to Sale. FanGraphs’ depth charts and PECOTA’s 90th percentile projections both peg Sale to finish either at or above 300. PECOTA pegs both pitchers to get 13 more starts, while the other projection systems say 14.

Projections are a good place to start. With the way both Sale and Scherzer are pitching, any projection system will take the under when guessing if they’ll continue their torrid pace. And rightly so! Based on past data, this is far and away the best season either pitcher has ever had. So, the interesting thing to glean isn’t just that each pitcher is close. The thing I takeaway is that, should each pitcher return to something closer to the normal talent level they have displayed for their respective careers, they’d still cut it incredibly close to finish the season.

It’s a good start, but let’s say those projections (ZiPS, Steamer, Depth Charts, and PECOTA’s 50th percentile) represent the floor of what Sale and Scherzer will do strikeout-wise in the second half.

But what if Scherzer and Sale didn’t immediately (or at all) regress? What if they kept pitching at-or-around the same level they have been all season. To find this answer, there is a simple enough solution — strikeouts per start. Strikeouts are a counting stat, which means more opportunities can lead to higher totals. Strikeout rate and K/9 are great indicators of how dominant a pitcher is (the former more-so than the latter), but where they don’t do a great job is projecting out actual rest-of-the-season strikeout totals.

Because of this, finding how many strikeouts each pitcher has had on a “per start” basis greatly lowers the amount of opportunities we have to account for. Using strikeout rate, we know how many batters it would take for each pitcher to reach the 300 mark. It’s harder to nail down how many batters or how many innings a pitcher will throw the rest of the season. However, it’s a lot easier to figure out their remaining number of starts. In a way, using a rate stat based on starts also gives us a definite comparative baseline. With 300 strikeouts as the end-goal, we know what a pitcher’s average strikeout total per start must be in depending on how many opportunities (starts) each pitcher could get.

At the same time, we know that both pitchers have started 18 games. The guessing game there is simple. To start the second half, the Washington Nationals have 74 games left to play. The Boston Red Sox have 73. Since both teams operate on a five-man rotation, theoretically both pitchers should have 15 starts left. If that was the case, both pitchers would easily reach 300 strikeouts. But 15 starts still feels like a bit of the stretch. Scherzer’s squad sits atop the NL East with a nearly double-digit lead on second place. Should that lead continue, or even grow, maybe Dusty Baker rests his ace toward the end of September. What if Sale or Scherzer get injured, even if not seriously, and are forced to miss one or two starts?

Somewhere between 13-15 remaining starts feels about where both would land if they’re able to stay mostly healthy down the stretch, so that’ll be our baseline. Based on the assumption that Sale and Scherzer will finish with 31-33 starts, would their current strikeout rate per start be enough?

The answer? Yeah. The rate at which both pitchers have struck out batters each start is well above the rate required for 300 strikeouts in 32 or 33 starts. Sale looks to be the more noticeable lock, and is just below the rate required to do it in a mere 30 starts. If the projection systems are the floor, the K/GS rate required for 30 starts is the ceiling. Suddenly, we have some rather interesting parameters.

In laying them out, we’ll use the K/GS required for 33 starts, because that is likely the most opportunities either pitcher will have. It represents the lowest each pitchers’ rate can drop to while remaining in line to potentially punch out 300 batters. Additionally, setting the parameters against how each pitchers K/GS rate has changed this season will give you a better idea of whether they’ve been able to maintain a consistent level. We’ll start with Chris Sale:

And now Max Scherzer:

So, will either pitcher strike out 300 batters or more this season? It appears so. Scherzer seems to be toeing the line, while Sale appears to be doing flips off the ceiling for fun. While Scherzer’s floor is higher, I explained earlier how Sale’s 2016 campaign is likely dragging down his projections. To me, Sale is the safer bet because he has room to give, whereas Scherzer could be helped by a few more double-digit strikeout games to solidify himself. If he maintains this pace for another month or two, however, you’d have to like his chances down the stretch. Assuming the rotation stays the same as it is today and there are no rainouts, Scherzer is slotted to face only three above .500 teams to start the second-half — the Milwaukee Brewers (2x), Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Houston Astros. Chris Sale isn’t so lucky.

Clayton Kershaw was the last player to achieve this feat. He did so in 2015, and it felt sort of like it snuck up on us at the end. This time, Max Scherzer and Chris Sale’s chase is rather obvious. Is there the potential for an injury? Sure, as there always is and forever will be with pitchers. In that same breath, you could also say there’s a chance both could fall back closer to their career rates. But there is little evidence to lead anyone to the conclusion that those outcomes are likely.

We haven’t seen two players strike out 300 batters in one season since 2002 when Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson did it (in the same rotation, no less!). Schilling was also the last right-handed pitcher to do it, so Max Scherzer would be the first righty in 15 years. We also haven’t seen two players from different leagues do it since 1999, when Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson combined to strikeout 677 batters. In fact, only seven times in baseball history has there ever been a season with two individual pitchers striking out 300+ batters a piece.

I probably sound like a broken-record at this point, but I want to convey just how rare it is to have two pitchers performing at this incredible of a level. Do I know for sure that they’ll accomplish it? Of course not. What I do know is that it sure looks like they’re rapidly heading in that direction, and that’ll be a ton of fun to watch them chase the milestone down.

. . .

Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score, producer of In Play, Pod(cast), and pitcher recovering from Tommy John at Howard Payne University. He is a Senior double majoring in Business Management and Computer Information Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody or email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com