On Tuesday in 2001, Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks struck out 20 Cincinnati Reds.
Johnson’s scintillating performance may have not tied the record set by Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox twice (1986 and 1998) and rookie Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs (1998) because the D-Backs and Reds decided the game in extra innings, but 20 strikeouts is 20 strikeouts.
Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals became the fourth starting pitcher, and technically the third to tie the record, to punch out 20 batters in a game on May 11, 2016, against the Detroit Tigers at Nationals Park.
Baseball fans — some more than others — will remember these performances for the rest of their life, and they are among the greatest moments in the history of America’s Pastime.
Some records in baseball are seemingly unapproachable. For example, nobody should even come close to breaking the highest single season batting average of .424 set by Nap Lajoie in 1901. It is hard to imagine anybody stealing more bases in their career than Rickey Henderson‘s 1,406.
But if recent trends continue — and they will — then seeing another pitcher fan 20 in a game feels like a foregone conclusion. Beginning in 2008, batters have set a new league record for strikeouts in every season, according to year-by-year totals provided by Baseball Reference. Last season, 40,104 strikeouts were recorded, and strikeouts per game have also increased every season during the same span, from 6.77 in 2008 to 8.25 last season.
One month and seven full days into the new season, and batters are well on their way to breaking their own record again, having struck out 8.74 times per game.
A number of factors have contributed to the rise in strikeouts. Pitchers are throwing harder with the intent of trying to miss barrels, starters are not going as deep into games, allowing them to empty the tank sooner and batters are obsessed with launch angle, home runs, and line drives, instead of trying to put the ball in play when the situation would seem to dictate it.Like the Max Scherzer, Randy Johnson, and Roger Clemens performances of the past, some MLB pitchers have a shot to fan 20 batters in a game. But whom?Click To Tweet
Before someone ties the record again or sets a new mark, here are the starting pitchers, based on current season performance, who are most likely to accomplish the feat before 2018 ends.
I do not mean to point out the obvious, but he has done it before and might have the best fastball in the game.
Scherzer currently ranks second in K/9 among starting pitchers in baseball, and he already has a 15 strikeout performance to his name, which came against the Philadelphia Phillies in his last start on Sunday.
In the last three full seasons, nobody has struck out more batters per nine innings than Scherzer’s 11.33. The 33-year-old right-hander might be getting harder to hit as he ages. He is throwing his fastball about 51 percent of the time this season, three percentage points higher than last year, and opposing batters have whiffed eight percent more against the pitch.
Don’t be surprised if Scherzer adds a second 20 strikeout performance to his three Cy Young Awards and two no-hitters.
Cole leads the American League with 77 strikeouts, and only Scherzer has more in all of baseball. Cole’s stuff has been unhittable this season.
In addition, his 1.42 ERA and 0.69 WHIP suggests he limits base runners, which should give him a chance to get to 20 strikeouts.
Cole has never been this good for a whole season. So, he still has a lot to prove. But whether it is pitching in Houston or something else, he has evolved into a second ace for a Houston Astros team that won the World Series last season without him.
Frankly, I am surprised that Cole’s Astros teammate has not reached the 20 strikeout plateau.
He has done just about everything else. Verlander has won a Cy Young Award, an AL Most Valuable Player Award and a World Series title, to go along with two no hitters.
Verlander has led the AL in strikeouts four times, including in 2016. Verlander only ranks ninth among starters in strikeouts over the last few seasons, but his stuff can strikeout batters at a rate that few can when right.
There might not be a more intimidating starting pitcher from the left side in the game right now.
Sale ranks sixth in all of baseball in K/9 (11.86), and only Scherzer has struck out more batters per nine innings than Sale among starting pitchers over the last three seasons.
Paxton has arguably been one of the most dominant pitchers in the game this season.
He followed up a 16-strikeout performance by throwing a no-hitter in his native Canada in his last start. The lefty currently is third among major league starters in K/9 (12.65) and has two 10-strikeout games to his name as well.
The next 20-strikeout game is approaching, whether we know it or not. Whichever one of these elite arms can reach the rare, fabled mark will go down in history, much like the Randy Johnsons and Kerry Woods before them.