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Can Josh Hader lead the National League in strikeouts?

Hader is a strikeout anomaly even in an era filled with them.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Minnesota Twins Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Life in the spotlight is fleeting for relievers. In many ways, they are the most replaceable and forgettable of baseball players. Believe it or not, nearly 400 different relievers have already trotted in from major league bullpens this season. How many of them can you name? Probably no more than 15-20%, and that’s if you really pay attention.

But every now and then, a certain reliever emerges from anonymity. He pitches so brilliantly that we can’t help but notice. 2018’s breakout bullpen superstar is unquestionably the Milwaukee BrewersJosh Hader. Through Sunday, he’s allowed only 5 runs and 14 men to reach base in 27.1 IP. Those numbers are impressive indeed, but they’re not what make him stand out from the crowd.

On Saturday, he struck out 6 of the 8 Minnesota Twins he faced. That boosted his season total to 56, good for eleventh in the National League. That’s not eleventh among relievers, it’s eleventh among all pitchers!

Hader’s K-rate is a ridiculous 59%. Only two qualified relievers ever exceeded 50%: Aroldis Chapman (52.5% in 2014) and Craig Kimbrel (50.2% in 2012). He’s setting a new bar of unhittability (unhittableness? unhittabilitation? Whatever—no one hits the dude). His insane strikeout levels let us consider an unfathomable question. Can a reliever lead the league in strikeouts?

Counting K’s

To answer this question, we need to know how many strikeouts the league leader usual has. Obviously, the frequency of strikeouts has changed dramatically over time, as has pitcher usage. Because of this, we can’t look too far back in time if we want relevant data, so we’ll just look at the league leaders of the last ten years.

Yearly Strikeout Leaders, 2008-2017

Year NL Strikeouts AL Strikeouts
Year NL Strikeouts AL Strikeouts
2017 Max Scherzer (WSN) 268 Chris Sale* (BOS) 308
2016 Max Scherzer (WSN) 284 Justin Verlander (DET) 254
2015 Clayton Kershaw* (LAD) 301 Chris Sale* (CHW) 274
2014 2 tied 242 David Price* (2TM) 271
2013 Clayton Kershaw* (LAD) 232 Yu Darvish (TEX) 277
2012 R.A. Dickey (NYM) 230 Justin Verlander (DET) 239
2011 Clayton Kershaw* (LAD) 248 Justin Verlander (DET) 250
2010 Tim Lincecum (SFG) 231 Jered Weaver (LAA) 233
2009 Tim Lincecum (SFG) 261 Justin Verlander (DET) 269
2008 Tim Lincecum (SFG) 265 A.J. Burnett (TOR) 231

These 20 league leaders averaged 258.4 strikeouts. Hader will need to fan 203 more batters to surpass the average league leader. The lowest number was 230 by R. A. Dickey in 2012, so this is our functional minimum for a modern strikeout leader. Hader needs at least 174 more strikeouts to match Dickey’s total and even have a chance at leading the league.

However, Hader has a six-foot-three, 215-pound obstacle named Max Scherzer. The Nationals ace has collected the last two Cy Young Awards and is making an excellent case for another in 2018. More prudently, he’s striking out even more batters this year than he ever has before. His 104 strikeouts leads all of baseball and his 40.9% K rate is tops among starting pitchers. In fact, it would break Pedro Martinez’ record of 37.5% by a starting pitcher set in 1999. (It’s worth noting that Houston’s Gerrit Cole currently stands at 40.8%. What a time to be alive.)

Scherzer has been the best pitcher in baseball since 2013 (sorry Clayton Kershaw). He averaged 864.2 batters faced per season during that stretch. With that number of batters faced at his current K-rate, he’s on pace for 354 strikeouts this year. That would be the 6th best single season total in the last 100 years and well beyond the reach of any reliever.

However, it’s unfair to expect Scherzer to maintain that blistering pace. His average K-rate from 2013-17 was 30.6%. If he slows down to that level for the rest of the season, he’ll finish with 290, which is a much more realistic expectation.

The Hader Pace

Through Sunday’s action, Josh Hader has struck out 56 of the 95 batters he’s faced this season. For comparison, last year’s leader in batters faced was Michael Lorenzen, who saw 361 batters and struck out 80 of them. Hader’s on pace to face 327 batters this season with 193 strikeouts. Clearly, that’s not going to cut it if he’s going to lead the league. He can step up his game in one of two ways:

  1. Pitch more often
  2. Strike out a higher percentage

Considering that he’s already having a historic season, neither of these are fair requests. Nevertheless, we’re going to do it anyway!

He needs at least 230 strikeouts to have any chance of leading the league, as Dickey did in 2012. That will require 174 more from now through the end of the season. If he faces 327 batters, his K rate will have to improve to 75%. If he merely maintains a 59% K-rate, he needs to face 295 more batters.

To match the average league leaders, the demands are even higher. He needs 203 more strikeouts to reach 259. To do this, he’ll have to strikeout 87.5% of all remaining batters this season, or increase his workload to 345 more batters.

Of course, if Scherzer stays healthy he’s the man to beat. To top Scherzer’s projected 290 strikeouts, Hader needs 235 more. To reach that number, all he has to do is whiff 101.2% of his remaining hitters, or face 399 more batters.

All three of these scenarios are beyond the realm of possibility. It looks like the game will need to go through a few more evolutions before a reliever can lead the league in strikeouts.

However, there could be a pretty sweet consolation prize. The record for strikeouts in a season by a reliever is 181, set by Dick Radatz in 1964. He needed 157 IP and 635 BF (all in relief) to set that mark.

Hader is already on pace to break Radatz’s record. To achieve 182 strikeouts, he needs to compile 126 more this season. If he faced 327 batters, he needs to strikeout “only” 54.3% more of them. That’s still a higher K-rate than any reliever has ever had, but a tick below his current pace. If he keeps demolishing opposing hitters, we could have a fun record watch this September.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983