For Modern Pitchers, 3,000 Is The New 300
When Max Scherzer punched out Eric Hosmer on Sept. 13 to notch his 3,000th career strikeout, he joined one of the most exclusive clubs in baseball. Exclusive for now at least.
Scherzer is the 19th pitcher ever to reach 3,000 strikeouts.
Eighteen of the 19 pitchers to reach the milestone have done so in the past 50 years, meaning that a full 95% of 3,000-strikeout pitchers have worked since the dawn of the Expansion Era, and after the game fully integrated.
That rate is much higher than the other major milestone clubs. Here are four other major milestones and the percentage of members who reached those milestones in the 1960s or later. Drawing the line there indicates that players spent all or most of their careers in the Integration Era.
95% 3,000 strikeouts (18 of 19 members)
89% 500 home runs (25 of 28)
75% 3,000 hits (24 of 32)
50% 300 wins (12 of 24)
This data is a simple distillation of the inexorable pull of power throughout baseball history. Strikeouts and home runs have become more prominent over time.
In fact, for the first century of baseball history, only Walter Johnson topped 3,000 strikeouts. He reached the summit in 1923, in his 17th big league season. More than 50 years passed before The Big Train was joined by Bob Gibson in 1974, Gaylord Perry in 1978 and then a wave of seven pitchers in the 1980s.
Nine more 3,000-strikeout pitchers have followed since the end of the ’80s, the most recent members being Scherzer this season and both CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander in 2019.
Looking ahead, Zack Greinke is about 200 strikeouts away from 3,000, and Clayton Kershaw is about 350 shy.
The trio of Scherzer, Sabathia and Verlander epitomize the power aesthetic of the game today. All three have won a Cy Young Award. All three have World Series rings. And all three are future Hall of Famers—even with win totals that fall well short of 300 and might have been dismissed as unworthy just 10 years ago.
Hall of Fame voters are already adjusting to the new realities of what makes a starting pitcher historically great. Pedro Martinez (class of 2015) and Roy Halladay (2019) have two of the lowest innings and wins totals in Cooperstown among the 26 post-integration starting pitchers elected by the writers.
Martinez and Halladay were simply too dominant at their peaks, even with win totals in the low 200s, for Hall of Fame voters to ignore. The HOF electorate will keep making adjustments to what constitutes greatness in the years to come.
Baseball has moved to a starting pitcher usage model that favors quality over quantity. More short-burst dominance is expected at the expense of longer outings.
Teams have found a way to make the quality-over-quantity starting pitcher model work in both the regular season and postseason. The key has been deploying a fleet of hard-throwing relievers—about 80% of whom entered pro ball as starters—with outstanding second pitches, if spotty command.
The rate of strikeout growth (quality) and endurance loss (quantity) by starting pitchers has accelerated over the past 10 years. The table below displays three-year averages for strikeout rate, batters faced per start and decisions per 30 starts for MLB starting pitchers at 10-year intervals since the dawn of expansion.
Three-Year Averages for Starting Pitchers
|Season||SO%||BF/GS||W+L per 30 GS|
Compared with 2011, the strikeout rate for starting pitchers today is up more than 5 percentage points, while the average starter faces four fewer batters per game and receives roughly three fewer decisions per 30 starts.
Compared with 1981, when Baseball America launched and a year that is a rough starting point for the universal five-man rotation, the strikeout rate for starting pitchers is up 10 percentage points. The average starter faces five fewer batters per game and factors in about four fewer decisions per 30 starts.
Compared with 40 years ago, a starting pitcher today averages roughly 60 fewer decisions over a 15-year period that could be viewed as his peak. Compared with even 10 years ago, a starter today averages about 45 fewer decisions over a 15-year span. This obviously affects fringe starters more than aces, but the overall point holds.
Wins should not be viewed as a benchmark for greatness when comparing pitchers from today with pitchers from yesterday.
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As baseball has moved toward starting pitchers making shorter outings—effectively trading batters faced for strikeouts—and receiving fewer decisions, it’s only natural that the Hall of Fame calculus moves in tandem.
Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson—all pitchers whose careers began in the 1980s—are the last to reach 300 wins. No active pitcher has more wins than Verlander’s 226, and among pitchers who debuted after the 1994 strike, only Andy Pettitte and Sabathia have topped 250. But just barely.
What this means is that as the number of future 300-game winners moves toward zero, less weight should be placed on wins as a measuring stick for all-time greatness. And that weight is already being diminished by fans, analysts and Hall of Fame voters.
The new shorthand for career greatness is strikeouts, with 3,000 becoming the new milestone rule of thumb that neatly summarizes peak and career value.
Scherzer said as much during post-game comments after he recorded his 3,000th strikeout.
"You know I love strikeouts, and to me this is a testament to durability," Scherzer said. "Making my 30-plus starts a year, year in, year out. Everybody can have the ability to do this, but few have the durability to do this."
The 3,000-strikeout standard should not be applied at the exclusion of all other factors, but it should carry much more weight than win totals as a guide to Hall of Fame worthiness in the 21st century.
Scherzer, Sabathia and Verlander meet the 3,000 standard. Greinke and Kershaw project to get there. A young active pitcher or three—their identities unknown to us now—will reach 3,000 strikeouts.
Not one of the pitchers cited above will come particularly close to 300 wins. Reaching 250 wins could be a stretch.
That’s just the new reality. For modern starting pitchers, 3,000 is the new 300.
Kyle Glaser contributed additional reporting.