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  • Red Sox starter Chris Sale became the first American League pitcher to strike out 300 hitters since 1999. The accomplishment is as impressive as it sounds.
By Jay Jaffe
September 21, 2017

On Wednesday night, Red Sox ace Chris Sale made a bit of history, becoming the first American League pitcher to tally 300 strikeouts since the turn of the millennium, and just the fourth since the adoption of the designated hitter in 1973. While the 28-year-old southpaw's case for the AL Cy Young isn't as strong as it was a couple months ago, he's joined some elite company.

At Camden Yards, Sale spun eight shutout innings against the Orioles, allowing just four hits without a walk and matching his season high of 13 strikeouts. The last of those came on his 111th and final pitch of the night, a slider that caught Ryan Flaherty looking. The whiff was his 300 for the season, making him the first AL pitcher to reach the mark since the Red Sox's Pedro Martinez in 1999. Since then, the only pitchers to strike out 300 have hailed from the NL, where pitchers bat: the Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson (four times, annually from 1999–2002) and Curt Schlling (2002) and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw (2015).

As with other single-season milestones such as 20 wins and 250 innings, the disappearance of the 300-strikeout season owes plenty to the reduced workloads of starters via the industry-wide adoption of five-man rotations, increased reliance upon bullpens at the expense of complete games, and the use of pitch counts and (for younger pitchers) innings caps as a crude attempt to prevent injuries. In the 18 seasons since Martinez struck out 313 hitters (in just 213 1/3 innings), only nine times has a pitcher thrown at least 250 innings, and only three times has one made more than 35 starts.

MLB
Watch: Chris Sale Becomes First AL Pitcher With 300 K's Since Pedro Martinez in 1999

While pitcher workloads have decreased during this millennium, strikeouts have been on the rise continuously since 2006, as I pointed out in connection with this year's record number of home runs. This will be the 12th consecutive season that MLB sets a new record for total strikeouts, with the figure topping 40,000 for the first time. The analytic revolution has reduced the stigma against the K, finding that in most cases, for hitters the strikeout is just another out. It’s preferable to grounding into a double play, and generally correlated with greater power at the plate. For pitchers, K’s have far more value, and with the reduction of the starters' workloads has come a parade of relievers pitching with maximum effort for one inning at high velocity, further boosting strikeout rates.

Thus, it's worth putting Sale's accomplishment into context, at least among the other 300-strikeout seasons. A total of 16 pitchers have reached the plateau 35 times since 1901, just five of which came prior to the majors' first-wave of expansion in 1961-62. As with ERA+ and OPS+, we can index a pitcher's strikeout rate to the league rate (both expressed in terms of strikeouts per plate appearance), with 100 being league average, and every increment in each direction representing a one percent difference. That means 120 and 80 would respectively indicate pitchers striking out hitters 20% more or less frequently than the league average. Unlike ERA and OPS, I'm foregoing park effects for the sake of simplicity here, but this at least puts the leagues on the same footing, whether or not they have the DH. Call the stat K+, one I've begged the folks at Baseball-Reference for, again and again.

Sale has whiffed 36.3% of all batters faced in a league where 21.3% is average, for a 171 K+. Of the 35 300-K seasons, that's actually at the lower end, but the company is still quite impressive:

Pitcher Team K K% Lg K% K+
Mickey Lolich 1971 Tigers 308 20.0% 14.3% 140
Steve Carlton 1972 Phillies 310 22.9% 14.9% 154
Curt Schilling 1998 Phillies 300 27.5% 17.4% 158
Sandy Koufax 1963 Dodgers 306 25.3% 15.7% 161
Clayton Kershaw 2015 Dodgers 301 33.8% 20.9% 162
Sandy Koufax 1966 Dodgers 317 24.9% 15.2% 164
Sam McDowell 1970 Indians 304 24.2% 14.8% 164
Chris Sale 2017 Red Sox 300 36.3% 21.3% 171
Vida Blue 1971 A's 301 24.9% 14.3% 175
Curt Schilling 2002 Diamondbacks 316 31.1% 17.3% 180

Here's what the top 10 looks like:

Player Team K K% Lg K% K+
Pedro Martinez 1999 Red Sox 313 37.5% 15.8% 237
Nolan Ryan 1976 Angels 327 27.3% 11.8% 231
Rube Waddell 1903 A's 302 23.4% 10.2% 229
Nolan Ryan 1989 Rangers 301 30.5% 14.3% 214
Nolan Ryan 1973 Angels 383 28.3% 13.2% 214
Rube Waddell 1904 A's 349 23.3% 11.0% 212
Bob Feller 1946 Indians 348 23.0% 11.0% 209
Randy Johnson 2001 Diamondbacks 372 37.4% 18.0% 208
Nolan Ryan 1977 Angels 341 26.8% 13.0% 207
Nolan Ryan 1974 Angels 367 26.4% 12.9% 205

In 1999, Martinez struck out hitters at more than twice the league rate, whereas Sale is not quite to doubling it. Still, the latter’s season outranks three of those by Hall of Famers, namely Koufax and Carlton; someday, both Kershaw and Schilling will be enshrined as well. All of the top 10 seasons were produced by Hall of Famers, as were the majority of the 15 that land in the middle of those two tables: five more by Randy Johnson, two by Walter Johnson, and one apiece by Koufax, Martinez and Ryan.

So Sale's season isn't as impressive as Martinez's by this measure, but then the latter's season is one of the greatest in any context; his 243 ERA+ that year ranks eighth since 1901. In 2000, when Martinez set a record via a 291 ERA+ (1.74  in a league where 4.91 was average), he also produced a 221 K+ (284 strikeouts, a 34.8% rate in a league where 15.7% was average). As that season illustrates, it's possible to have an impressively high K+ without reaching 300 strikeouts. Indeed, the top two pitchers of all time in terms of strikeout rate (K/PA) dominate the top 10 for the wild card era (1995 onward) among ERA qualifiers (one inning pitched per team game scheduled):

Player Year K% Lg K% K+
Pedro Martinez 1999 Red Sox 37.5% 15.8% 237
Randy Johnson 1995 Mariners 33.9% 15.4% 221
Pedro Martinez 2000 Red Sox 34.8% 15.7% 221
Randy Johnson 2001 Diamondbacks 37.4% 18.0% 208
Randy Johnson 1997 Mariners 34.2% 16.6% 207
Randy Johnson 2000 Diamondbacks 34.7% 17.1% 202
Randy Johnson 1999 Diamondbacks 33.7% 16.9% 199
Randy Johnson 1998 Mariners/Astros 32.4% 16.7% 194
Kerry Wood 1998 Cubs 33.3% 17.4% 191
Randy Johnson 2002 Diamondbacks 32.3% 17.3% 187

Johnson's 1998 season is weighted by the number of batters faced in both leagues (he was traded from the Mariners to the Astros at the deadline). That season bumps Martinez's 186 K+ from 2002 out of the top 10. Sale's 171 ranks 23rd during the wild card era, but it's second since 2006, the beginning of the period during which K rates have continuously risen. He’s not the only representative from this season:

Pitcher Team K% Lg K% K+
Erik Bedard 2007 Orioles 30.2% 16.8% 180
Chris Sale 2017 Red Sox 36.3% 21.3% 171
Yu Darvish 2013 Rangers 32.9% 19.8% 167
Johan Santana 2006 Twins 26.5% 16.2% 164
Corey Kluber 2017 Indians 34.6% 21.3% 163
Clayton Kershaw 2015 Dodgers 33.8% 20.9% 162
Chris Sale 2015 White Sox 32.1% 19.9% 161
Scott Kazmir 2007 Devil Rays 26.9% 16.8% 161
Jose Fernandez 2016 Marlins 34.3% 21.5% 160
Johan Santana 2007 Twins 26.8% 16.8% 159
Tim Lincecum 2008 Giants 28.6% 18.0% 158
Tim Lincecum 2009 Giants 28.8% 18.4% 157
Justin Verlander 2009 Tigers 27.4% 17.5% 157
Max Scherzer 2017 Nationals 33.9% 21.9% 155
Jake Peavy 2007 Padres 26.7% 17.3% 154
Chris Sale 2014 White Sox 30.4% 19.8% 153
Jon Lester 2009 Red Sox 26.7% 17.5% 153
Clayton Kershaw 2014 Dodgers 31.9% 20.9% 152
Max Scherzer 2012 Tigers 29.4% 19.3% 152
A.J. Burnett 2007 Blue Jays 25.5% 16.8% 152
Robbie Ray 2017 Diamondbacks 33.2% 21.9% 151

Sale's top rival for AL Cy Young honors, Corey Kluber, cracks the top five; the Klubot has racked up 252 K's this year in 191 2/3 innings, and might have reached 300 if not for a four-week absence in May due to a lower back strain.

Of course, there's more to winning a Cy Young award than just strikeout rate, and via a mini-slump—a 3.69 ERA and 2.94 FIP since August 1, compared to 2.37 and 1.92 prior—Sale now trails Kluber in ERA (2.35 to 2.75) and ERA+ (195 to 164), though he leads in FIP (2.22 to 2.49). The two pitchers are tied for the league lead with 17 wins. Via Baseball-Reference's version of WAR, which is driven by runs allowed, Kluber leads Sale, 7.6 to 6.2, but via FanGraphs' version, which is driven by FIP (an ERA estimator based solely on strikeout, walk, hit-by-pitch and home run rates, all of which are defense-independent), Sale leads 8.2 to 6.9. I tend to strongly favor bWAR for pitchers because the past decade and a half. Since Voros McCracken's Defense Independent Pitching Stats theory was introduced, that metric has taught us plenty about the value of sequencing and pitchers' differing ability in producing weak contact, but from here, either pitcher appears to be a reasonable Cy Young choice.

With both Sale and Kluber looking to the postseason now that their teams have clinched playoff berths, we may not get much in the way of further separation, so the voting could be a tossup. But whether or not he brings home the hardware, Sale has had a season for the ages.

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