Who Will be Baseball’s New Strikeout King?

Yesterday, I wrote on the legendarily hard to strike out Joe Sewell. Sewell once made the claim that any hitter who struck out over 100 times in a season must be blind. If striking out 100 times makes you blind, I have no idea what striking out 200 times makes you.

Major League Baseball did not have a hitter reach the 200-strikeout plateau until 2008. Since then, those ranks have swollen every single year to include five more single seasons in which a batter struck out more than 200 times. Mark Reynolds was absolutely whiff-tacular from 2008 to 2010, striking out 204, 223, and 211 times. He came up just a golden sombrero shy of reaching 200 again in 2011.

If you look at the 200-strikeout club, Reynolds name appears three times. His 223 punchouts in 2009 are the single season record, but not for much longer. This season, there are by my count, six players who have Reynolds in their sight. Reynolds, surprisingly enough, is not one of them. He has actually turned out the lights on his own strikeout party, and has ONLY struck out 122 times per season the past two years.

So, who are the lucky few who appear ready to bring down the wrath of Joe Sewell?

My top candidates to surpass the lofty total of 223 empty trips back to the dugout are in no particular order, Steven Souza, Chris Davis, Chris Carter, Giancarlo Stanton, Jorge Soler, and my dark horse candidate, Joc Pederson. This group of players has already struck out 294 times this season. Strikeouts have accounted for 35.2% of these hitters plate appearances. Even in his most breezy season, Reynolds only struck out 33.7% of the time.

Despite the strikeouts, these guys have not been totally worthless at the plate — OK, maybe you could call Chris Carter’s .150/.267/.292 line worthless. All together, these hitters have 40 home runs. Joc Pederson has ten, mostly out of the leadoff spot, and has drawn 28 walks. Stanton leads the league in runs batted in.

Souza and Carter are the only two in the bunch who could be considered to be struggling. Souza, however, can be forgiven, as this is his rookie season. Souza was labeled a high-level prospect following the 2014 season in which he batted .345 and hit 18 home runs in only 100 games in the Nationals’ system. Souza has a great blend of speed (158 stolen bases in eight minor league seasons) and power, but it is important to keep in mind that he spent the first five seasons of his minor league career batting well below .250.

Carter, on the other hand, has a career .217 batting average and already has a 212-strikeout season under his belt. That was acceptable when the Astros were losing 100-plus games a season. Now that the team is actually good, Carter’s black hole in the lineup is not as easy a pill to swallow. Jon Singleton, who struck out in 37.0% of his plate appearances in 95 games with the Astros last season is breathing down Carter’s neck from Triple-A.

So, who do I actually think has the best chance to breeze past Reynolds?

I am scratching Carter off the list, because I do not think he will be in the Astros starting lineup the remainder of the season. If he does, watch out, Mark Reynolds. Jon Singleton and Carter combined, will easily surpass 223 strikeouts if Singleton steals Carter’s spot at first base before the season ends. I also think there is an above average chance that Steven Souza could be sent down for at least a portion of the remainder of the season. Souza has only spent one full season at Triple-A in his minor league career, and even at 26 years old, it may not hurt for the Rays to allow him to rebuild some confidence in the minors. Souza’s batting average is hovering around .250 this season. If it begins a significant nosedive, look for the Rays to send him to the minors and eliminate him from the Mark Reynolds chase.

That leaves me with Soler, Davis, Stanton, and the dark horse, Joc Pederson.

Soler is another rookie. His strikeout numbers this season are significantly higher than they were during the brief 24-game stint he had with the Cubs late last season. At his current pace, Soler is projected for 238 strikeouts this season. That gives him a little wiggle room when it comes to passing Reynolds. However, after striking out in 36.2% of his plate appearances in April, Soler has cut that to 30.3% through 14 May games. Soler’s high strikeout April appears to be some slight growing pains as he began his first full season as a starter. If that strikeout percentage begins creeping back towards the 24.7% rate it was last season, Soler will come in under 223 this season. There’s not a lot of data for me to look at on Soler so far this season, but his whiff percentage on breaking pitches has dropped significantly from 30% in April to 25% in May.

Giancarlo Stanton is striking out at a rate 4.0% higher than his career average of 28.3%. Over the course of a full season, that is worth roughly 26 strikeouts, based on 650 plate appearances. Stanton’s current pace puts him right at 222 strikeouts this season. I would not expect Stanton’s strikeout pace to increase this season. Stanton has been slumping this May, and is batting only .191 with 20 strikeouts in 47 May at-bats. He is simply in a slump, and the numbers will right themselves over the rest of the season. Count Stanton out of the strikeout race.

That leaves Chris Davis and Joc Pederson to contend for the strikeout crown. Pederson is a real dark horse candidate, because he leads off. That means he will get the most plate appearances of the bunch. Since taking control of the leadoff duties, Pederson has struck out 22 times in 14 games and 65 plate appearances — 33.8% K-rate. Despite all of the strikeouts, Pederson is actually a decent leadoff hitter thanks to his 28 walks which rank third in the league. Pederson is batting only .180 in the month of May, with 21 strikeouts. Right now, he is projected for 205 strikeouts. To have any chance of reaching the mythical 223 mark, he must stay in the leadoff spot.

Davis has been my personal whipping boy as a Baltimore Orioles fan. Davis struck out 199 times in his near-MVP season in 2013. Last season, Davis struck out 173 times in only 127 games. He had 525 plate appearances, so if projected out to 650, you get 214. He’s already in the ballpark of 223. The strikeouts have picked up for Davis this season. His strikeout rate is up to a whopping 39.1%. He has three four-strikeout games already this season. More troubling, Davis has seen his walk rate drop to a career-low 7.8%. Davis has truly devolved into a two outcome hitter. Extra base hits and strikeouts account for exactly half of his plate appearances this season.

Davis is projected for a whopping 253 strikeouts this season. He has given me no reason to believe that number is not attainable. There have been only six games this season in which Davis did not register at least one strikeout. On the other side of the coin, Davis has struck out multiple times in 15 games. Unlike Carter and the Astros, the Orioles have no better option at first base, and Davis has not been as bad as Carter. He will continue to get his at-bats and inch ever closer to Mark Reynolds.

Mark Reynolds can continue to enjoy his status as baseball’s single season strikeout king, but Chris Davis should be given the crown as heir to the throne. Only injuries can derail his inevitable march to 223. Davis will set the bar out of reach for a few seasons, or at least until Javier Baez reaches the big leagues.

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