Sunday, August 26, 2012

Putting Max Scherzer's strikeouts in Perspective

When Tigers right hander Max Scherzer struck out nine batters in today's 5-2 win over the Angels, it was the 11th time this year he had nine or more strikeouts in a game.  How good is that?  One clue is that Tigers ace Justin Verlander has done it only five times this year and nine times in his 2011 MVP campaign.  Scherzer is no Verlander, of course, but he sure does rack up a lot of strikeouts.  In fact, he leads the majors with 195 whiffs and is a hair ahead of Nationals fire baller Stephen Strasburg with 11.35 strikeouts per nine innings.

If Scherzer keeps up his pace for the remainder of the season, it would be the 13th highest strikeout rate for qualifying starters (162 or more innings) since 1901.  It would also be the highest rate ever for a Tiger.  Table 1 below shows that the amazing Randy Johnson is the king of high K rates with a remarkable 13.4 strikeouts per nine innings for Arizona in 2001.  The Big Unit also had five other seasons with 11.6 or more strikeouts per nine innings.

Table 1: All-Time Seasonal SO/ 9 Innings Leaders

Pitcher
Year
Team
IP
SO
SO/ 9 IP
Randy Johnson
2001
ARI
249.2
372
13.4
Pedro Martinez
1999
BOS
213.1
313
13.2
Kerry Wood
1998
CHN
166.2
233
12.6
Randy Johnson
2000
ARI
248.2
347
12.6
Randy Johnson
1995
SEA
214.1
294
12.3
Randy Johnson
1997
SEA
213.0
291
12.3
Randy Johnson
1999
ARI
271.2
364
12.1
Pedro Martinez
2000
BOS
217.0
284
11.8
Randy Johnson
2002
ARI
260.0
334
11.6
Nolan Ryan
1987
HOU
211.2
270
11.5
Dwight Gooden
1984
NYN
218.0
276
11.4
Pedro Martinez
1997
MON
241.1
305
11.4
Max Scherzer
2012
DET
154.2
195
11.3
Kerry Wood
2003
CHN
211.0
266
11.3
Nolan Ryan
1989
TEX
239.1
301
11.3
Curt Schilling
1997
PHI
254.1
319
11.3
Data Source: Baseball-Databank.org

Notice that all the pitchers in Table 1 pitched in 1984 or later.  As you can see in Figure 1 below, there has been a great deal of variation in strikeout rates throughout baseball history.  Rates range from 2.7 in 1924 to an all-time high of 7.5 in 2011.  Some credit has to go to modern pitchers, who have more pitches and more information about opposing batters than ever before.  However, much of the variation is likely due to the way batters approach the game.  In earlier decades, batters were more interested on making contact, whereas today there is more focus on swinging for the fences.


 Data Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Regardless of the reasons for the wildly different strikeout rates, it is a challenge to compare pitchers from different eras.  For example, when Tommy Bridges struck out 138 batters in 245 innings for the Tigers in 1937, his 5.1 K9 was fifth best in the American League.  That was an impressive rate in a league where pitchers averaged only 3.7 strikeouts per game.  Conversely, Rick Porcello punched out batters at the same rate in 2011, but it was a rather low  total in a league with a 7.1 average.

Fortunately, Raphy at High Heat Stats has come up with a way to make it easier to compare strikeout rates of pitchers from different eras.  He normalized strikeout totals for all seasons of pitchers with 1,000 or more innings pitched using a measure similar to ERA+.  The difference is that it's for strikeouts rather than ERA.  I will call this measure relative strikeout rate (or K9+) and apply it to single seasons.

To calculate K9+, simply divide a pitcher's K/ 9 IP by the league K/9 IP and then multiply by 100.  The strikeout rate for the AL only in 2012 is 7.3, so Scherzer's K9+ = 11.3/ 7.3 x 100 = 155.  In words, that means Scherzer's K rate is 55% higher than the league average.

Table 2 shows that the Scherzer is nowhere close to the all-time relative strikeout rate leaders.  Dazzy Vance had a K9+ of  276 pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1924. His raw K rate was only 7.6, but that was much higher than the league rate of 2.8.  Mr Vance regularly had K9+ of greater than 200 and occupies five of the top seven positions on the list.  So, by this measure, Vance would be considered the most dominant strikeout pitcher relative to his league in the history of baseball.  The leading Tiger was Hal Newhouser with 199 in 1946.  

Table 2: All-Time Seasonal Relative K Rate Leaders

Pitcher
Year
Team
IP
K
K/9 IP
Lg K/ 9 IP
k9+
Dazzy Vance
1924
BRO
308.1
262
7.6
2.8
276
Dazzy Vance
1926
BRO
169.0
140
7.5
2.8
270
Rube Waddell
1902
PHA
276.1
210
6.8
2.5
270
Dazzy Vance
1925
BRO
265.1
221
7.5
2.8
268
Lefty Grove
1926
PHA
258.0
194
6.8
2.8
238
Dazzy Vance
1928
BRO
280.1
200
6.4
2.8
232
Dazzy Vance
1923
BRO
280.1
197
6.3
2.8
229
Johnny Vander Meer
1941
CIN
226.1
202
8.0
3.6
225
Nolan Ryan
1978
CAL
234.2
260
10.0
4.5
220
Herb Score
1955
CLE
227.1
245
9.7
4.4
220
Data Source: Baseball-Databank.org

Unlike Table 1, Table 2 is dominated by pitchers who pitchers who pitched in early decades.  Since it is sometimes unfair to compare players from different decades even on relative rates, I'll include one more table. Table 2 looks at K9+ for pitchers since 2000.   Randy Johnson heads the list with a 192 K9+ in 2001.  Scherzer's 155 in 2012 is not in the top 10.  In fact, he would need to boost his K 9/ IP to 11.9 to make the cut.  

Table 2: Seasonal Relative K Rate Leaders Since 2000
Pitcher
Year
Team
IP
K
K/9 IP
Lg K/ 9 IP
K9+
Randy Johnson
2001
ARI
249.7
372
13.4
7.0
192
Pedro Martinez
2000
BOS
217.0
284
11.8
6.3
188
Randy Johnson
2000
ARI
248.7
347
12.6
6.7
186
Pedro Martinez
2002
BOS
199.3
239
10.8
6.3
172
Randy Johnson
2002
ARI
260.0
334
11.6
6.8
171
Kerry Wood
2003
CHN
211.0
266
11.3
6.6
171
Erik Bedard
2007
BAL
182.0
221
10.9
6.6
165
Oliver Perez
2004
PIT
196.0
239
11.0
6.7
163
Pedro Martinez
2003
BOS
186.7
206
9.9
6.1
162
Johan Santana
2004
MIN
228.0
265
10.5
6.4
162
Data Source: Baseball-Databank.org

So, Scherzer's strikeout rate is not as historic as the raw numbers suggest.  The bigger story is probably the incredible MLB record rate this year.  Still, Scherzer's propensity for strikeouts is remarkable by 2012 standards. 

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