MLB Pitchers Ready for a Big Strikeout Surge This Season
There's no ignoring the recent craze, so let's go ahead and say it: Strikeouts make the pitching world go 'round.
Who's ready for more in 2017?
Well, I know you are, Mr./Mrs. Baseball Fan. The real question is which pitchers are ready for more strikeouts this season, which brings us to a list with eight names on it.
What these eight pitchers have in common is that they've never recorded over 200 strikeouts in a season and now appear ready to do so in 2017. They're going to do that both by staying healthy and by striking batters out at a higher rate than they have in the past.
How can this be known? Let's just say there are signs in the tea leaves. We shall make sense of these starting...
Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs
It'll be tough for Kyle Hendricks to have a better overall season than the one he had in 2016. Unless you're Clayton Kershaw, a 2.13 ERA is the kind of mark that's hard to reach twice.
Regardless, Hendricks should at least find more strikeouts in 2017.
Striking dudes out is something the Chicago Cubs ace is already underrated at. He's struck out over eight batters per nine innings in each of the last two seasons. He also quietly had the 19th-lowest contact rate among starting pitchers in 2016.
That ability only got more pronounced in the second half. Hendricks, 27, placed ninth in Contact%, sandwiched in between noted strikeout artists Yu Darvish and Carlos Carrasco. His K/9 jumped from 7.8 to 8.3 in the process.
Good stuff for a guy whose fastball velocity sits in the high 80s. That goes to show what a pitcher with excellent command can do once he decides to start toying with hitters.
Hendricks accomplished that by becoming less predictable with his pitch selection, going from a sinker-heavy attack to one with more four-seamers, curveballs and changeups. That last one, in particular, is a legit swing-and-miss weapon.
Hendricks indicated to Tony Andracki of CSN Chicago that he doesn't want to "tinker too much with his arsenal" going into 2017. If that means picking up where he left off, he ought to keep missing bats.
Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays
By all rights, Marcus Stroman should already be a good strikeout artist.
The young Toronto Blue Jays right-hander throws his fastball in the low-to-mid 90s with a deep arsenal of pitches that, as FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan noted in 2015, all compare favorably to some of the best pitches in the game. It's like he came out of a video game's "Create a Player" mode.
So, call it a disappointment that Stroman managed just a 7.3 K/9 in his first full season in 2016. He spent most of the year chasing ground balls. While he got more of those than anyone, his 4.37 ERA proves ground balls are only so useful.
Which could explain why he pulled a Hendricks in the second half of the year. The 25-year-old cut way back on sinkers and threw everything else he had. Four-seamers. Cutters. Curveballs. Sliders. The kitchen sink. You name it.
One would anticipate Stroman would abandon this adjustment if it didn't improve his bottom line. But it did, as he went from a 4.89 ERA before the break to a 3.68 ERA after the break.
That's a good excuse for him to keep it up. With his talent, what he did down the stretch last year may have just scratched the surface.
Matt Moore, San Francisco Giants
Given up on Matt Moore?
That's understandable. The former top prospect looked like he was going to be a good one when he broke through in 2011. Since then, he's missed time with Tommy John surgery and has been up and down when he's been healthy. And for a guy with an arm like his, his career 8.3 K/9 fails to impress.
But leave it to the San Francisco Giants to stumble upon Moore's missing link.
The 27-year-old posted a 4.08 ERA in 12 starts with the Giants last summer, the same as his ERA had been in 21 starts for the Tampa Bay Rays. But his strikeout rate spiked bigly, going from 7.5 per nine innings to 9.1 per nine innings.
The key was a new pitch, as Moore added a cutter to go with his four-seamer, curveball and changeup.
"It's another pitch they have to think about, and he's got a good one," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said in August after Moore's near-no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers, per Matt Kawahara of the Sacramento Bee.
Since it didn't actually do much good on its own, it's more accurate to say Moore's new cutter isn't a bad one. But there is something to be said about its being another pitch for hitters to think about. Having it in his arsenal did wonders for the whiff rates of his curveball and changeup.
In short: That cutter is a keeper. If Moore keeps featuring it, the strikeouts should keep coming.
Kevin Gausman, Baltimore Orioles
Kevin Gausman was known for two things when the Baltimore Orioles drafted him at No. 4 in 2012: being a doughnut fiend and throwing heat.
Well, he still throws heat. Gausman's fastball velocity has sat in the mid-90s his entire major league career, most recently at 94.7 mph in his first full year as a starter in 2016. But with heat like that, it's a shame the 26-year-old has only struck out 8.2 batters per nine innings.
However, this is already starting to change. Gausman finished with an 8.7 K/9 last year and struck more batters out in the second half (8.9 K/9) than he did in the first (8.5 K/9).
The big key was how much he fell in love with his split-change. One benefit of throwing more of those was that it helped him change hitters' eye levels more frequently. More to the point, the split-change is a pitch Gausman should be throwing more because of how nasty it is.
It's easily among baseball's most GIF-able pitches and also among the most unhittable. It technically qualifies as a splitter and has the highest whiffs-per-swing rate ever recorded among splitters thrown by starters.
Gausman could have run into more strikeouts if he'd started featuring his split-change earlier. But hey, you know what they say about late being better than never.
James Paxton, Seattle Mariners
James Paxton has in some ways been a left-handed Gausman.
He's pitched in parts of four seasons with the Seattle Mariners and has thrown hard in every one of them. His average fastball has been 95.4 mph. Yet he's struck out just 8.0 batters per nine innings in his career. He's had trouble staying healthy, to boot.
Paxton may have found the solution to both problems when he changed his mechanics last year. He went from an overhand delivery to more of a sidearm delivery, in part because it felt right.
"It just feels natural coming out from that slot," the 28-year-old told Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle.
A more natural arm slot will hopefully allow Paxton to avoid further trouble with his arm and shoulder. But while that's the primary benefit, the secondary benefit is no joke.
Paxton's fastball velocity skyrocketed after he made the big change, sitting at 96.8 mph for the rest of the year. That helped him strike out 8.7 batters per nine innings, a big jump by his standards.
An even bigger jump in 2017 will be in order if Paxton picks up where he left off with his pitch mix. Last September, he scrapped his cutter and threw his curveball more often. He struck out 35 batters in 29.1 innings, a rate of 10.7 per nine innings.
It was a process, all right. But it looks like Paxton finally has things figured out.
Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals
Carlos Martinez more than earned his $51 million contract. He's put up a 3.02 ERA over the last two seasons, with a solid 8.6 K/9 to boot.
And yet I propose: Perhaps he hasn't peaked yet.
The St. Louis Cardinals right-hander is only going into his age-25 season, and he already owns some of the best stuff in the game. He throws in the mid-to-high 90s with movement, with a slider and changeup that fall toward the "unhittable" end of the spectrum.
But partially because his stuff has so much life, Martinez's struggle has been with his control and command. That looks to be changing after what he did in the final two months of 2016.
Although Martinez walked batters at roughly the same rate after August (3.3 BB/9) as he did before August (3.2 BB/9), he was actually more aggressive throwing strikes. Both his first-pitch strike rate (63.5) and overall zone rate (48.7) were out of character for him—in a good way, of course.
A lower arm slot may be to thank here too. Martinez's had been dropping throughout the year before stabilizing in August and September. Whether that was on purpose is unclear, but it worked.
At any rate, the improved control combined with Martinez's sizzling stuff led to a rate of 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings in the final two months. Impressive even by his standards, and something to carry into 2017.
Carlos Rodon, Chicago White Sox
Carlos Rodon looked like a future strikeout artist when the Chicago White Sox picked him at No. 3 in the 2014 draft. Sure enough, that's what he's become with a 9.1 K/9 in his major league career.
It's everything else that Rodon has struggled with. Control and contact management, in particular. Such are his penalties for being a one-dimensional pitcher.
He's working on changing that.
Rodon, 24, already has a fastball that sits at 93.4 mph and one of the best swing-and-miss sliders thrown by any left-hander. Now he has a pretty good changeup, to boot. He threw it more as 2016 went along, and it turned into a solid swing-and-miss pitch in its own right.
That's partially how Rodon upped his K/9 from 8.9 to 9.5 from one half to the next in 2016. More of that in 2017 would be good enough.
But Rodon also made strides as a strike-thrower last year, going from a 3.1 BB/9 before the break to a 2.7 BB/9 after the break. Whereas lower arm slots worked for Paxton and Martinez, a higher arm slot worked for Rodon. Yet another thing he should take into 2017.
If so, more strikeouts will only be one part of a better overall performance from the young lefty.
Jon Gray, Colorado Rockies
OK, I have to admit. This one might be asking too much.
Jon Gray is coming off a season in which he whiffed 9.9 batters per nine innings. That's a lot of nines in any context and perhaps too many for a guy who was often dealing with the thin air of Coors Field.
But one thing that plays well anywhere is velocity. Gray, the No. 3 pick in 2013, has lots of that. His heater climbed from an average of 94.4 mph in 2015 to 95.1 mph in 2016. With 2017 set to be his age-25 season, another climb is possible.
Regardless, Gray will have more than velocity working for him last year. He owns one of the best swing-and-miss sliders in the league and had also turned his curveball into a pretty good swing-and-miss pitch by the end of the year. That helped him finish with a 10.2 K/9 in the second half.
Now he's working on another weapon: a changeup.
The thin air will continue to do Gray no favors in 2017. But with high-velocity heat and three strong secondaries in his arsenal, that may not matter.