Chris Sale and Max Scherzer Are Making History This Season
A long homer, vicious dunk or stunning golazo -- most of the best highlights in sports revolve around someone making a great play.
A strikeout differs from those in that it's the result of one guy preventing another from making a play. Most people don't tune in to baseball games to watch whiffs; they want dingers and runs.
But I'd argue that watching a locked-in pitcher mow through a lineup -- racking up strikeouts and forcing ugly swings -- is one of the more awe-inducing things sports offers. Seeing 98-mile-per-hour ched followed up by a sharp, fall-off-the-table slider revs my engine. So, it shouldn't be shocking that I find great joy in watching guys like Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, Max Scherzer and Chris Sale pitch.
And when it comes to collecting strikeouts, very few in the history of baseball have done it better than Scherzer and Sale have this season.
These two flamethrowers have always been stupid-good at baseball, and they've been among the league leaders in strikeouts since arriving in the bigs. After all, they can do this to guys.
Sale and Scherzer, though, have each taken their whiff-inducing ways to new heights in 2017. Not only do they pace the bigs in strikeout rate this year, they're putting together two of the best strikeout campaigns of all time.
Scherzer's 35.3% strikeout rate this season leads baseball, and it's the third-best clip in FanGraphs' statistical database, which has strikeout rate data for the past 101 seasons, beginning with 1916. This is on pace to be the best strikeout rate since 2001, when Randy Johnson fanned 37.4% of the hitters he faced.
The Washington Nationals' right-hander is having an all-time great strikeout season, but despite that, he's barely clinging to the strikeout crown for 2017. Sale is right on his heels with a 35.1% strikeout rate, which checks in fourth all time.
First thing's first, all praise be to the Big Unit, who accounts for 40% of the 10 best strikeout seasons of all time. Johnson actually has his name on campaigns which rank 11th, 14th and 15th, as well, so he's the owner of 7 of the top 15 strikeout seasons over the past 101 years -- decent.
As for Sale and Scherzer, though, both are in cheat-code form and putting together strikeouts like they never have before.
For Sale, 2017 has been a lot different than 2016, when his strikeout rate dipped to 25.7%, his worst mark since 2012, which was his first season with 100-plus innings. (Side note: imagine having a 25.7% strikeout rate and it being a down year.) Last season's drop in whiffs wasn't from a lack of talent; actually, it was intentional. In an effort to pitch deeper into games last year with the Chicago White Sox, Sale focused less on strikeouts. Yes, he actively made himself a worse pitcher, and he succeeded in accomplishing his goal as he posted a career-worst 3.43 SIERA.
This year, he's gotten back to being the Chris Sale we know and love.
|Season||Innings||Strikeout Rate||Swinging-Strike Rate||Walk Rate||SIERA|
Whew, talk about a bad man. Not only has Sale upped his strikeout rate and swinging-strike rate to new levels, he owns a career-best walk rate, too. The guy is ridiculous right now.
As for Scherzer, since coming to the Nationals in 2015, he has been a monster. Over that time, he ranks second in strikeout rate (31.9%), has the 10th-lowest walk rate (5.2%) and boasts the second-best SIERA (2.81). Over the past two-plus seasons, Mad Max has been the best pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw, and yet he has somehow managed to raise the bar in 2017.
Here's a blind comparison of three truly outstanding seasons.
|Season||Strikeout Rate||Swinging-Strike Rate||Walk Rate||SIERA|
Season A (2013) and Season B (2016) are Scherzer's numbers from the years in which he captured his two Cy Young awards. Season C is his 2017 line. This year's strikeout rate and swinging-strike rate are both on pace to be career-high clips while his walk rate would be the second-best mark on his résumé.
Scherzer and Sale have some ground to make up to catch Pedro Martinez's record strikeout rate of 37.5%, but it's within their sight. Scherzer may be the better bet to flirt with history, as he's trending up.
While Sale's strikeout rate has fallen each month -- 37.4%, 35.6% and 31.6%, respectively, across April, May and June -- Scherzer's has risen. He started the season with a 30.3% clip in April, posted a 36.1% mark in May and currently has a 39.8% strikeout rate in June. In terms of single starts, he has put up at least a 37.0% strikeout rate in four of his last six outings, amassing a single-game swinging-strike rate of more than 16.0% four times in that span.
We still have more than half of the season left, but the fact that Scherzer and Sale are in a position to possibly make history is pretty darn amazing. Time will tell if they can pass Pedro or the Big Unit, but barring a second-half slide, Scherzer and Sale will finish 2017 with two of the best strikeout seasons in the history of baseball.
And don't forget, last winter Sale and Scherzer reportedly came close to being teammates. National League hitters are very lucky that didn't happen.