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SportHistoric strikeout games on the decline as innings, pitch limits become norm

23:05  15 may  2019
23:05  15 may  2019 Source:   sportingnews.com

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Historic strikeout games on the decline as innings, pitch limits become norm © Provided by Perform Media Channels Limited

After a slow start to the 2019 season, Chris Sale has found his strikeout mojo. In his three May starts, the Boston lefty has struck out 41 batters in 21 innings, walked just one and allowed only nine hits. It’s brilliant stuff, folks, a joy to watch an artist perfecting his craft.

And it got us thinking about strikeouts and pitchers and milestones and baseball in 2019.

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Strikeouts, as you know, are up. Way up. They’re not just at historic levels — they’ve busted through all previously established ceilings and are soaring into the stratosphere. In fact, while I wrote this sentence, six more batters walked back to the dugout on strikes, and it’s 10:15 a.m. on a Wednesday.

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Historic individual strikeout games, though, are not on the rise. There have been 32 games in MLB history with at least 18 strikeouts by a single pitcher. Of those 32, only two have happened in the past 10 years — Max Scherzer’s 20 in 2016 and Corey Kluber’s 18 in 2015.

Feels a bit surprising, right? We’ll take a look at why that’s the case today.

First, let’s start with a look at how strikeouts have become a much more prevalent part of today’s game, using a couple of numbers to illustrate the trend. First, strikeout percentage for hitters, which is, simply, the percentage of plate appearances that end with a strikeout.

2019: 23.2 percent

2009: 18.0 percent

1999: 16.4 percent

1989: 14.8 percent

1979: 12.5 percent

The 2019 number is an all-time high. Last season, when batters struck out a record 41,207 times, the strikeout percentage was 22.3 percent, and this is another record pace.

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From a pitcher’s perspective, let’s look at strikeouts per nine innings. You won’t be surprised at the direction of the trend, but the numbers are still pretty eye-opening.

2019: 8.91

2009: 6.99

1999: 6.48

1989: 5.64

1979: 4.81

Yeah. Wow. In 2019, the average MLB pitcher is averaging nearly a strikeout per inning. Here’s a bit of perspective. In 1979, 259 pitchers threw at least 50 innings. Of those 259 pitchers — starters and relievers — only four averaged better than 8.91 strikeouts per nine innings. FOUR! Two of those guys wound up in Cooperstown — Nolan Ryan (9.01) and Bruce Sutter (9.77) — and the other two were pretty darn good, too — J.R. Richard (9.64) and Bill Caudill (10.40) — before non-baseball issues derailed their careers.

On the other end of that spectrum, in 2019, 193 pitchers have thrown at least 20 innings so far, and only four have a K/9 of lower than 4.81 — the average K/9 in 1979. Those four: Brian Shaw (4.68), Clay Buchholz (4.38), Marco Estrada (4.18) and Matt Koch (3.92). It’s a completely different game, isn’t it?

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It’s not just a completely different game because of all of the strikeouts. The way pitchers are used has changed, too, as you know. For starters, the hooks are quicker, and we’re not just talking about “openers” of the past year or so. Complete games have gone the way of the Ozark hellbender; they still exist, but you have to be in the right place at right time to actually see that magic in person.

In 2018, there were only 42 complete games thrown in the bigs, an average of one every 115.8 games started. In 1998, there were 302 complete games, one every 16.1 games. In 1978, big-league pitchers completed 1,034 of their 4,204 starts, an average of one every 4.1 games. But you’ve probably heard that stat. Thing is, it’s not just complete games disappearing.

The seven-inning start isn’t very common these days, either, and the drop has been quick and precipitous. In 2011, big-league starters lasted at least seven full innings 1,643 times. In 2018, that number fell to just 874. We’ve seen only 33 starts of eight innings or more in 2019, and there have been only eight nine-inning efforts this year. Zach Elfin is the only pitcher with two complete games, and he’s also the only one to finish nine innings in a game that didn’t end in a shutout.

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Which brings us back to the dearth of historic individual strikeout games.

The math makes it difficult to get to 18 or 19 or 20 when pitch counts are a factor. There are only three outs available each inning (barring a hitter reaching first safely after a swing-and-miss on Strike 3 that gets away from the catcher, of course). Pitchers nowadays can’t just be dominant to reach huge strikeout numbers; they have to be efficient, too.

Scherzer struck out his 20 in 2016 on 119 pitches. Kluber needed 113 pitches to strike out 18 Cardinals in 2015, and he did that in eight innings, one of only two of the 32 pitchers to strike out at least 18 to not throw a pitch in the ninth inning. Randy Johnson was the other; he struck out 18 in eight innings, then was done with his pitch count at 160 in 1992.

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Drop the strikeout count just a tiny bit, though, and you see the number of games jump quickly. Since the start of the 2015 season, we’ve seen 36 games with at least 14 strikeouts by a starting pitcher, nine with at least 15 strikeouts and seven with at least 16. In those 52 games, only one pitcher threw more than 121 pitches — Clayton Kershaw, with 132 in a 15-strikeout game in 2015.

In fact, since the start of the 2015 season, we’ve only see five games in which a pitcher threw at least 130 pitches, and the aforementioned Kershaw start is the only one that didn’t involve a potential no-hitter. Mike Fiers topped that number in his two no-nos (131 and 134), Matt Moore finished at 133 when his attempt was broken up with two outs in the ninth inning, and Sean Newcomb’s day ended at 134 pitches last season when he suffered the same so-close fate as Moore.

So let’s go back to the strikeouts. Sale was at 108 pitches through seven innings when he was pulled with 17 strikeouts Tuesday. The Red Sox are being very careful with his innings this year, hoping he’s fresher down the stretch, so manager Alex Cora pulled him from the game. Sale didn’t complain.

It’s worth noting, though, that Sale is the only pitcher in MLB history to finish a game with 17 strikeouts in seven innings pitched. Of the five 20-strikeout games, only Roger Clemens — in his second 20K game, in 1996 — was at 17 strikeouts through seven innings. Clemens was at 16 through seven in his first historic game, and the other three — Scherzer, Randy Johnson and Kerry Wood — all had 15 strikeouts through seven innings.

And that’s a typical thought process in today’s game. Teams are protective of their highly paid pitchers and of their prized young arms and of, well, pretty much every hurler on their roster. Big-picture concerns are put in front of individual milestones. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a big reason that, in an era with more strikeouts than ever, individual pitchers aren’t carving their names into the record books.

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