Pitchers Who Could Challenge MLB's 20-Strikeout Game Record

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor IMay 6, 2014

Pitchers Who Could Challenge MLB's 20-Strikeout Game Record

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    If you are a fan of power pitching and strikeout artists, it's never been a better time to watch the game of baseball evolve. Heading into play on May 5, 26 starting pitchers were averaging at least one strikeout per inning. In 2005, only three—Mark Prior, Johan Santana and Jake Peavy—reached that mark.

    As the anniversaries of the most recent 20-strikeout performancesKerry Wood in 1998 and Randy Johnson in 2001—arrive this week, an interesting question arises: Which starter will be the next to join the 20-strikeout club?

    The following list singles out 10 dominant arms capable of registering double-digit strikeouts every single time they toe the rubber, but why stop there? Power arms are on the rise, making a list like this open to interpretation and addition, not subtraction. 

    Last season, teams averaged 1,224 strikeouts, per ESPN. To put that in perspective, Johnson's 2001 feat came during a time when the average team struck out just 1,080 times. Strikeouts have never been easier to achieve in the history of baseball.

    Sooner that later, a 20-strikeout performance will occur, perhaps during the 2014 season.

    When it does, remember these names. 

    Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted, and are valid through the start of play on May 5. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.

Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    New York Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka isn't just an early-season Cy Young candidate and potential Rookie of the Year award winner, he's a dominant strikeout artist capable of putting his stamp on Major League Baseball with a 20-strikeout effort.

    Through his first 42.2 innings pitched this season, Tanaka has averaged 10.76 SO/9. That mark is good for fifth among all qualified starting pitchers. More impressively, it's occurred during his first six outings in a new league and with a bigger baseball.

    Over the next few months, hitters and teams will adjust to Tanaka's offerings. While that may potentially derail his bid for a 20-strikeout performance this season, there's still time before every team and every hitter has seen his seven-pitch arsenal. 

Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Since the start of the 2012 season, 103 separate outings of 12-plus strikeouts have been recorded by major league pitchers. Detroit Tigers star Max Scherzer owns four of them, including a 15-strikeout performance in May of 2012.

    The reigning AL Cy Young winner isn't just a good bet to reach double-digit strikeouts again in the near future, he's almost a lock to eventually put together a game that merits a 20-strikeout watch by the fifth or sixth inning.

    In fact, it's probably time to start making comparisons between the career arcs of Scherzer and Randy Johnson.

    Since arriving to the big leagues as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2008, Scherzer owns a SO/9 of 9.5 across 1,058 innings pitched. Through Johnson's first 1,073.1 innings, the Big Unit posted a 9.4 SO/9 mark. Over the course of Scherzer's next two outings, his SO/9 and age (29) through the same exact innings juncture could match the great Johnson.

Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins

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    john bazemore/Associated Press

    When Jose Fernandez takes the mound, dominance follows. Over the last calender year, the 21-year-old superstar owns the best ERA (1.80) in all of baseball. That mark is better than Clayton Kershaw (1.86) and a full run better than perennial AL Cy Young contender Chris Sale (2.81). 

    Over that span, no National League starter has topped Fernandez's 10.55 SO/9 mark. Despite the fact that the 2013 Rookie of the Year didn't debut until last season, Fernandez owns two of the most prolific strikeout performances since 2012, including a 14-strikeout performance last month against the Atlanta Braves. 

    Not sold yet? Miami's NL East opponents—New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington—have been strikeout fodder for the great young righty. The Phillies (9.0 SO/9) have made the most contact against Fernandez, with the Mets (11.0 SO/9), Braves (10.9) and Nationals (10.4) all whiffing in the double-digits during head-to-head battles.

Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

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    Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

    Stephen Strasburg's brilliant young career is flying under the radar in Washington. As crazy as that may sound considering the hype around his arrival in 2010, the now 25-year-old ace is frequently left out of discussions about baseball's best pitchers. 

    Over the next few months, a 20-strikeout performance could certainly reignite the hype machine around the former No. 1 overall pick. 

    First, let's dispel the notion that Strasburg hasn't been excellent for the Nationals. Since his highly-anticipated debut in 2010, the Nationals ace owns a 2.77 FIP (fielding independent pitching) mark. That's good for third in all of baseball among starters with at least 450 IP, behind only Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required). 

    In terms of strikeouts, Strasburg has been just as prolific. Over that span, he's the only qualified starter that has averaged double-digit strikeouts per nine innings pitched. With a 10.66 SO/9, Strasburg has led all of baseball. Thus far this season, his 13.05 SO/9 mark tops the sport. 

Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Yu Darvish's career and attack on the record books began at the perfect time. The Japanese strikeout king arrived to the Texas Rangers in 2012 as strikeout numbers were soaring. When combining Darvish's arsenal and a league of hitters more apt to strikeout than ever before, special numbers follow.

    On April 6, Darvish became the fastest pitcher to ever record 500 career strikeouts. As Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram pointed out on Twitter, the Rangers righty achieved the feat in just 401.2 innings pitched. That number was buoyed by 13 separate games of at least 11 strikeouts since the 2012 season began.

    Of all the names on this list, Darvish's ability to rack up double-digit games gives him an enhanced shot at a 20-strikeout game. While some of the other strikeout kings have double-digit strikeout potential every time they take the mound, the 27-year-old Rangers ace constantly knocks on the door of history. 

Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Felix Hernandez is a confounding pitcher to watch. Over the years, the face of the Mariners franchise has watched his average fastball velocity decline from 95.8 mph as a rookie in 2005 to 91.9 as a 27-year-old in 2013, per FanGraphs. Despite the dip in speed, Hernandez's ability to miss bats hasn't waned. 

    In fact, it's actually increased. From 2005-2012, Hernandez's average fastball velocity never dipped under 92.1 mph over the course of a full season. Yet, despite an overwhelming pitch that could be thrown past hitters, Hernandez averaged only 8.3 SO/9.

    Over the last two years—with a dip in fastball velocity evident for the baseball world to see—Hernandez's SO/9 rate has spiked to 9.7. In 250.2 innings pitched since the start of the 2013 season, the Mariners righty has racked up 269 strikeouts, good for third in all of baseball.

    A lack of overwhelming velocity hasn't stopped Hernandez's path to Cooperstown. Along the way, he just might rack up a 20-strikeout game.

Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

    Philadelphia Phillies lefty Cliff Lee is known more for his command, control and strikeout-to-walk ratio than raw, unfiltered strikeout ability. Yet, specifically when considering his career 3.92 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the ability to miss bats is part of the equation.

    Lee will never be considered an all-time great strikeout king, but don't let that fool you into thinking that the 35-year-old can't rack up a 20-strikeout game before decline inevitably sets in. Since the start of the 2012 season, Lee has posted three separate games of at least 13 strikeouts, per Baseball-Reference.

    Furthermore, his ability to rack up starts and innings gives him a chance every fifth day. Unlike Strasburg, Darvish or other young, power arms, Lee rarely spends time on the disabled list. Since re-signing with the Phillies prior to the 2011 season, Lee has made 100 starts and pitched over 700 innings.

    Don't be surprised if Lee soon takes a complete game bid into the ninth inning with 17 strikeouts already in tow. A special night for a special pitcher could commence due to command, control and the ability to miss bats.

Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

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    Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

    The comparisons between Chris Sale and former tall, lanky lefty Randy Johnson would be present even if the White Sox ace wasn't a strikeout artist. Yet, due to a nasty slider and career mark of 9.5 SO/9, it's not crazy to watch Sale and think of the last man to register a 20-strikeout performance.

    While it's easy for fans and fantasy baseball addicts to dream on special players and performances, one of Sale's teammates recently admitted to doing the same. First baseman Paul Konerko has seen plenty of phenoms over the course of an 18-year career, but few with the potential of Sale, per Christina Karl of ESPN.

    "There's some nights when he gets going when he gets 10 strikeouts among 12 outs and you start thinking 25 [strikeouts] or something. A no-hitter? With some guys, you let yourself think it more than others. It's fun to watch, because you don't have as much to do, it's great."

Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Through 47 innings in 2014, Justin Verlander has "only" struck out 38 batters. That's good for a 7.7 SO/9 rate, roughly average considering the landscape of baseball right now. 

    Despite the pedestrian numbers for the former AL MVP, Verlander belongs on this list. You can point out younger starting pitchers—including Cleveland's Corey Kluber, Toronto's Drew Hutchison and Oakland's Jesse Chavezwith bigger and better strikeout totals early in the 2014 season, but none have proven capable of domination over full seasons.

    It's likely that Verlander's days of averaging double-digit strikeouts per nine innings are over, but don't count out one or two more special games along the way. Since 2012, the future Cooperstown-bound arm owns 13 and 14-strikeout games.

    Against the right lineup, Verlander is capable of a signature performance.

Anibal Sanchez, Detroit Tigers

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Anibal Sanchez isn't a great pitcher, but he is capable of greatness. That distinction is necessary when putting together this list. Since arriving to the majors in 2006, the Tigers righty owns a 62-61 record, 3.54 ERA and has never qualified for an all-star team.

    Yet, only three pitchers have posted a 17-strikeout game since 2006: Johan Santana, Brandon Morrow and Sanchez. With Santana and Morrow battling arm issues, Sanchez is the only man standing from the 17-strikeout brigade.

    The performance—17 SO, 1 BB over 8 IP—against the Atlanta Braves in April of 2013 is remarkable when considering that Sanchez didn't take the mound in the ninth inning. At 121 pitches, it's easy to understand why Tigers manager Jim Leyland didn't send Sanchez out with the chance to make history. But now we can wonder if he would have racked up three more strikeouts in that ninth inning.

    Assuming health, four or five excellent seasons could be left in Sanchez's right arm. Over that span, another dance with history could commence.

    Agree? Disagree? Who will be the next pitcher to strikeout 20 batters in a game?

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