Jake’s Takes: Deconstructing Another Rare MLB Feat

July 21, 2023

Jake’s Takes: Deconstructing Another Rare MLB Feat

We’re back with a new edition of “Jake’s Takes,” and this week we’re tackling another rare MLB feat! In this history of baseball, only four pitchers have struck out 20 batters in 9 innings pitched or fewer. One of them actually managed this incredibly rare feat on two separate occasions! We’re going to delve into those individual pitching performances, then talk about the pitcher that our models show has the best chance of striking out 20+ batters this season… and which team he’d be most likely to accomplish that feat against!

A 20 strikeout game is one of the rarest feats in all of baseball. In the past two articles, we talked about a perfect game (accomplished 24 times in MLB history) and batting .400 (accomplished 35 times). But only five times has a hurler struck out 20 batters while throwing no more than 9 innings. Tom Cheney, who famously struck out 21 batters in 1962, did it in 16 innings. 

Roger Clemens (twice), Randy Johnson, Kerry Wood and Max Scherzer are the entirety of the list. 

Clemons was actually the first pitcher to record 20 strikeouts in 9 innings, and he did so twice (once in 1986, once in 1996). In the first instance, he struck out 20/30 batters he faced against the Seattle Mariners. A decade later, he threw 151 pitches en route to striking out 20 Detroit Tigers batters. 

Two years later, Kerry Wood faced 29 Houston Astros batters and struck out 20 of them, allowing only 1 hit. Wood’s achievement is all the more impressive when you consider that the Astros lineup featured future Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. 

Randy Johnson’s 20Ks game came three years after Kerry Wood. The imposing 6’10” lefty struck out 20/29 Cincinnati Reds batters in 2001. He ended the season with the third most single-season strikeouts in MLB history, with 372. 

It took 15 more years before another pitcher reached the 20Ks department, when Max Scherzer struck out 20 batters in a dominant showing against his former team. With only 119 pitches thrown, Scherzer struck out 20 Detroit Tigers.

It’s been eight years since the last 20 strikeout game by a pitcher, and we’re itching to see which MLB pitcher is next up to join the exclusive hurler’s club. No-hitters can be thrown by journeymen - there’s an element to certain no-hitters that feels almost fluky. Heck, Matt Manning + Jason Foley + Alex Lange just combined for a no-hitter a few weeks ago, and the Detroit Tigers are 42-52. The five 20-strikeout games have come from four pitchers with a total of 26 All-Star appearances and 13 Cy Young awards. The pitcher most likely to join the club was a first-time All-Star in 2023, but we see a Cy Young Award in his near future.

The pitcher with this highest strikeout rate this season is Spencer Strider of the Atlanta Braves. Strider leads the MLB with 176 strikeouts in only 110 innings pitched. He averages 14.3 K’s per 9 innings pitched. Meanwhile, the team that strikes out the most this season is the Minnesota Twins. 96 games into the season, the Twins have struck out an astounding 975 times, 60 more than the next closest team. 

Using Huddle’s model, out of 200,000 simulations, Strider struck out 20+ people on 11 different occasions. However, if he was forced to pitch 9 full innings, Strider would strike out 20+ batters 260 times out of 200,000. It’s worth noting that Strider would need to get all 27 outs, but that’s a decent estimate for the rate at which he would achieve 20+ Ks. He strikes out opposing batters at better rates than Atlanta’s relievers, but naturally if Strider needed to get all 27 outs, the model takes into account that he would get worse (or more tired) each successive time he passed through the Twins order.

Right now, Strider is on track to record the third-highest K% of any qualified starter in baseball history (38.9%). His K/9 rate, in the 14 range, has never been accomplished by a starter over a full season. If he hits 200 innings pitched this season, Strider might also join the 300 Ks club. Perhaps Strider can be the transcendent pitcher we’ve been waiting for… a young star ready to join one of the most elite clubs in all of baseball history.