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Let’s Get Bold: Predicting a 20 Strikeout Game by a Houston Astros Pitcher

Strikeout rates continue to rise, and we just passed the 20th anniversary of Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout performance against the....who it came against doesn’t matter. Could we see a 20 strikeout game from a Houston hurler in 2018?

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

With the season about to begin,

Ok, so this isn’t the time for bold predictions, but the last week or so sure has me thinking of just one thing: strikeouts. The anniversary of Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout game was 20 years ago on Sunday, and today is the two year anniversary of Max Scherzer matching that feat against the Detroit Tigers.

Only three people in the history of baseball have struck out 20 batters in a single game, including the two aforementioned players, and Roger Clemens—twice. Randy Johnson struck out 20 in nine innings back in 2001, but that game went to extras, which is a crappy way to not have your name listed in the official record books.

You’re four times more likely to see a perfect game than a pitcher punch out 20. It’s a rare occurrence, but for some reason it just feels like there is one coming with three true outcomes becoming the norm at the dish.

Last season, baseball’s strikeout rate was 21.6% over the course of the year and in 2018, that rate has reached 22.7%. Two years ago when Scherzer matched the record, the league-wide strikeout rate was 21.1%. For Wood in 1998, batters struck out 16.9% of the time. Clemens had strikeout rates of 16.5% (1996) and 15.4% (1986) to work with.

This year’s 22.7% rate is no joke either. On Cinco de Mayo, Oakland’s Trevor Cahill of all people struck out 12 Baltimore Orioles, a new career high and well above his career K/9 rate of 6.7. On May 2 James Paxton struck out 16 A’s over seven frames. He’s more of a traditional strikeout pitcher, K’ing 10.3 per nine last year and 12.65 per nine so far in 2018. He also threw a no-hitter on Tuesday, so he’s pretty decent.

Three times this season a team has been struck out 20 times by the opposing pitchers, including the bullpen. The A’s struck out 20 Orioles in that Cahill start. The Dodgers did it to the Padres (of course) in an Alex Wood start on April 17, and the (squints) Miami Marlins (wait, wtf?) did it to the Chicago Cubs on March 30. The rub is, all three of those games went into extras, and lasted until at least the 12th, or in the Marlins case, the 17th. Ok, that strikeout barrage by the fish makes a whole lot more sense now.

If I were to bet on one Astros pitcher to make a serious run at the record, or perhaps even break it, I’d have to put my money on Gerrit Cole. Thus far he has strikeout totals of 11, 11, 14, 5, 8, 12, 16 and 9, good for a K/9 rate of 13.66.

While striking out the opposition at a high rate is important, for this particular task, so is keeping the pitch count within reason. This can be tricky if you’re needing at least three pitches per at-bat and you’re working towards at least 20 of those at-bats ending in a strikeout. More realistically you’re probably looking at five pitches per AB, which leaves you right at 100 pitches. That would mean the other seven batters would have to be fairly quick outs and any more than a couple of hits would likely see the pitch count rise a bit too far out of the comfort level of the manager. Over his career, Cole has topped out at 115 pitches in a start once and 114 twice, including his 16 strikeout performance against the Diamondbacks on May 4.

Gerrit Cole has a first strike percentage of 66.4%, highest of any Astros starter. That first pitch not only gets Cole ahead in the count early and often, but it also gets him one step closer to a strikeout two-thirds of the time. With that first pitch, it’s easier to attack the opposition and stay away from hitter’s counts, where you’re more likely to be pitching to contact.

The other factor that Cole has working for him is his 1.91 BB/9 rate, which ranks 16th among qualified starters. Zach Greinke is the only pitcher with a lower walk rate (1.30 per nine) than Cole that also has a K/9 rate in the double digits (10.15). Well, him and Justin Verlander (11.74, 1.84).

In looking at opposing team’s current strikeout rate and walk rates (that are also still remaining on the schedule), there are a few squads that could present the best opportunities for history. For this exercise, not only does a team have to strike out at a high rate and walk at a low rate, but a low OBP is also beneficial. A game that’ll be played at Minute Maid Park is also preferred, giving the Astros’ starter a guaranteed nine innings of work.

First up are the Texas Rangers, who have a strikeout rate as a team of 26.3%, second-highest in baseball, and a walk rate of 8.1%, 19th in the game. Joey Gallo (33.1 K%) would be an obvious target for at least a couple of strikeouts, but if the Rangers are hitting him 5th, as they have in 86 of his 141 ABs this season, that one fewer potential plate appearance could be a real difference-maker. However, if the Rangers bat him second, which has happened for 38 of his ABs this year, then we could be looking at a golden sombrero instead of a hat trick.

With just two home series left against Texas (including one this weekend in which Cole is not scheduled to pitch), that limits the number of opportunities at home, although there are still two road series in which Cole could get a crack at the lineup. In an odd twist, the Astros play their final games against Texas at the end of July, so we won’t have to wait terribly long to see if Cole can make history against the Silver Boot rivals. The Astros as a team struck out 17 Rangers on April 13 of this year, a game in which the Cole train started. Texas also fanned 17 times against the Red Sox on May 5.

Next up are the Chicago White Sox, who have a team strikeout rate of 24.7% (8th) and a team walk rate of 7.3% (tied for last). The Astros open up a four-game set against Chicago at the beginning of July, just before the All Star break, and while it’s not a certainty that Cole will get a start in the series since it’s so far out, the odds are that he’ll start one of the four contests.

Chicago’s two best regular hitters according to wRC+, Matt Davidson (149) and Yoan Moncada (136) are also the team’s two biggest strikeout victims at 31.8% and 37.0%. Davidson has been more of a four or five hole hitter, but Moncada has spent the majority of the year atop the White Sox lineup, when healthy. The one caveat with this team is that Moncada, their reigning strikeout king, is likely going to see that strikeout rate dip at some point as he continues to develop as a player, and with a month and a half of honing his skills, he may be a tougher out by the time the Astros see him.

Finally, there’s the San Francisco Giants. They’re partially on this list because of my A’s fandom (therefore my Giant displeasure), but they’re more so on here because of what the rates say: A team strikeout rate of 24.8% (7th), combined with a team walk rate of 8.0% (22nd) leads to an interesting mix. Add in that they’re a team filled with aging veterans and Gerrit Cole may be able to mix speeds and drop the hook to keep these guys guessing early and often.

Facing the Giants also presents another interesting opportunity in that they’re going to be seeing the new and improved version of him for the first time. Andrew McCutchen was Cole’s teammate for the past five seasons, but he may not have as much insight into the current version of the Astros’ starter. The Giants as a team have only faced him once in the past two seasons.

In their four-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies this week, the Giants struck out a lot. One might even refer to it as a crap-ton. In game one, they K’d nine times against starter Zach Eflin, who now has a K/9 rate over nine through two starts. Eflin held a K/9 rate of 4.90 last season over a sample of 64 13 innings, compared to the 12 23 he’s tossed this season, so that’s likely closer to the pitcher that he actually is. The nine strikeouts on Monday also set a career high for Eflin.

Game two starter, Aaron Nola, compiled 12 strikeouts in 7 innings. Even with the impressive outing, Nola’s strikeout rate this season still sits below one an inning at 8.03 per nine. It was just the third time Nola has reached double-digit strikeouts in his career, and yes, it also marked a career high. Game three had Nick Pivetta struck out 7 in five innings, while the series finale saw former Astro prospect Vincent Velasquez K 12 over six frames.

The Giants struck out 18 times as a team on April 7 against the Dodgers, and 17 times as a team in that game against Nola earlier this week. They’ll be coming to town for two games on May 22 and 23, and if the rotation holds, Gerrit Cole will be starting the first game of that series.

Get your tickets now, because there is a slight possibility that you may see history.

Note: In researching this piece I came across an article by Sam Miller of ESPN on the same topic, but the direction of his is more about the history of the record and getting players those precious few extra pitches to achieve greatness. It’s a great piece and can be found here.