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Next step for this ace? How about 300 K's

@_dadler
March 7, 2020

For 12 years between 2002 and 2015, after a flurry of dominance from turn-of-the-millennium aces Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, not one pitcher reached baseball's most overpowering single-season milestone: the 300-strikeout club. But the strikeout artist is rising again. In the last five seasons, five new pitchers have

For 12 years between 2002 and 2015, after a flurry of dominance from turn-of-the-millennium aces Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, not one pitcher reached baseball's most overpowering single-season milestone: the 300-strikeout club.

But the strikeout artist is rising again. In the last five seasons, five new pitchers have joined the club. They're a new breed for a new game, mowing down record numbers of batters in fewer innings than ever before with nastier stuff than ever before.

New 300-strikeout pitchers in the last 5 years
Gerrit Cole: 326 strikeouts in 2019 (HOU)
Justin Verlander: 300 strikeouts in 2019 (HOU)
Max Scherzer: 300 strikeouts in 2018 (WSH)
Chris Sale: 308 strikeouts in 2017 (BOS)
Clayton Kershaw: 301 strikeouts in 2015 (LAD)

With a new decade in baseball beginning, there's room for one more in the 300-strikeout club. There's room for Jacob deGrom.

No one is better positioned to make the next push into strikeout history. The Mets ace has already cemented his place among the franchise greats, and the elite pitchers of this generation, by winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards. But there's a new pinnacle for him to reach.

Tom Seaver still holds the Mets record for single-season strikeouts, with 289 in 1971. deGrom's 269 in 2018 and NL-leading 255 in '19 rank fourth and sixth on the franchise list, interspersed among Seaver and Dwight Gooden's best years.

This is why deGrom can push past even The Franchise and Dr. K to become the first Met ever in the 300-strikeout club. Of all the pitchers in baseball, deGrom's key numbers most closely resemble that group of five modern-day aces in their 300-K seasons.

Here's what a 300-strikeout pitcher looks like in this day and age -- or, a five-step plan for deGrom based on what the new generation of the 300-strikeout club has in common.

1) Throw over 200 innings

To even have a chance at 300 strikeouts, you have to be a 200-inning workhorse. In practice, you really need to go well over that.

Just do the math. At 200 innings pitched, to get to 300 K's, you'd need to strike out a batter and a half per inning. That's a 13.5 K/9. Only three 300-strikeout pitchers got to that mark while averaging over 13 strikeouts per nine innings: Cole last year (13.8), Randy Johnson in 2001 (13.4) and Pedro Martinez in 1999 (13.2).

More innings volume gives you more wiggle room -- 300 strikeouts is a counting stat after all. Here's how the five recent 300-strikeout club members look compared to deGrom.

300-K pitchers -- innings pitched
2019 Cole: 212 1/3 IP ... 300th K at 198 1/3
2019 Verlander: 223 IP … 300th K at 222 2/3
2018 Scherzer: 220 2/3 IP … 300th K at 220 1/3
2017 Sale: 214 1/3 IP … 300th K at 209 1/3
2015 Kershaw: 232 2/3 IP … 300th K at 232

deGrom's innings
3-year average, 2017-19: 207 IP
Peak season: 217 IP (2018)

deGrom is in the right innings range. He's one of only four pitchers to break the 200-inning threshold each of the last three seasons. The others are two 300-K club members, Cole and Verlander, and Zack Greinke.

The older generations of 300-strikeout pitchers would frequently eclipse 250 or even 300 innings on their way to the milestone. But those days are gone. Even Kershaw's 230-plus innings in 2015 is a rarity. No pitcher has reached that mark in the last three seasons.

You can get 300 strikeouts with fewer innings, but the fewer innings you throw, the more untouchable you have to be. Luckily, deGrom is untouchable.

2) Miss over 30% of bats

To say you need swing-and-miss stuff is an understatement. You need beyond swing-and-miss stuff.

300-K pitchers -- whiff rate
Whiff rate = misses / swings
2019 Cole: 37.3%
2019 Verlander: 33.7%
2018 Scherzer: 33.2%
2017 Sale: 31.8%
2015 Kershaw: 32.7%

All five 300-strikeout pitchers since 2015 have gotten hitters to whiff on over 30% of the swings against them. A whiff rate over 30% will always put you among the league leaders. Now check out what deGrom's doing.

deGrom's whiff rate
3-year average: 30.9%
Peak: 31.5% (2018 and '19)

He's right there. deGrom's gotten 1,534 swinging strikes over the last three years, behind only Scherzer and Verlander, and his total has increased each season, from 461 in 2017 to 524 in '18 to 549 in '19. Only Cole and Verlander got more whiffs than deGrom last year.

So the only pitchers ahead of deGrom are the ones striking out 300 guys. All those missed bats mean deGrom's got the strikeout stuff to make a run at 300.

3A) Get ahead the majority of the time

You have to put yourself in position to get the strikeout. That means you have to get ahead in the count. Once you get Strike 1, you can worry about getting Strike 2 and Strike 3 … and then repeating the process 300 times.

The five new 300-strikeout club members all started off the majority of batters they faced with Strike 1. (As in, they got to an 0-1 count -- first-pitch balls in play count as a "strike" in the stat sheet, but they're no good for high strikeout totals.)

300-K pitchers -- getting Strike 1
% of PA starting with 0-1 count
2019 Cole: 56.8%
2019 Verlander: 55.1%
2018 Scherzer: 56.8%
2017 Sale: 56.4%
2015 Kershaw: 54.8%

deGrom getting Strike 1
3-year average: 53.8%
Peak: 56.0% (2018)

deGrom parallels all five of the others when it comes to getting ahead. He can do it with any pitch type -- it helps when you're throwing 99 mph fastballs, 93 mph sliders, 90 mph changeups and 85 mph curveballs -- so even the best hitters can't avoid getting into a hole against him.

One in every three pitches deGrom has thrown since 2017 has been in a pitcher's count. Sale, Scherzer, Verlander and Kershaw work ahead at near-identical clips.

3B) Turn over half your total pitches into strikes

Following on 3A ... to get ahead, stay ahead, get the K and do it all over again, you need strikes, strikes, strikes. Being a 300-strikeout club member means you got 900 strikes in at-bats without a fourth ball or a ball in play ruining everything.

A 300-strikeout season is likely going to be made up of over 50% strikes. At least that's the case with Cole, Verlander, Scherzer, Sale and Kershaw. These are strikes that can go toward a K (or at least keep the opportunity alive) -- called strikes, swinging strikes, even foul balls -- not the "strikes" that are tallied on balls in play.

300-K pitchers -- strike %
Called + swinging + foul
2019 Cole: 54.0%
2019 Verlander: 54.0%
2018 Scherzer: 54.5%
2017 Sale: 54.0%
2015 Kershaw: 51.9%

deGrom's strike %
3-year average: 51.9%
Peak: 52.9% (2018)

Realistically, there's a limit on how many batters a pitcher can face and how many outs he can get over his 30-plus starts in a season. Every ball in play, every walk, every bad pitch makes getting to 300 strikeouts that much more unlikely. There's a reason so few pitchers have done it. You can see how deGrom and his five 300-K club contemporaries squeeze every last drop of dominance out of the pitches they throw.

4) Put away a quarter of your strikeout opportunities

To reach 300 strikeouts, you need both the opportunities and the ability to convert them. That's where "putaway rate" comes in.

A pitcher's putaway rate is just the percent of his two-strike pitches that actually get the strikeout. It's a stat that captures the art of getting from Strike 2 to Strike 3.

300-K pitchers -- putaway rate
% of 2-strike pitches that get a K
2019 Cole: 28.6%
2019 Verlander: 25.2%
2018 Scherzer: 25.1%
2017 Sale: 25.9%
2015 Kershaw: 28.4%

deGrom's putaway rate
3-year average: 24.2%
Peak: 26.2% (2018)

deGrom gets a ton of strikeout chances. Last year he got to two strikes on almost two of every three batters he faced, one of the highest frequencies among starters. And once he gets the hitter into that hole, they don't get out. deGrom's putaway rate is excellent, and his peak 26.2% from 2018 is right in line with what it takes to strike out 300.

All of deGrom's pitches are putaway pitches. Since 2017, no matter what pitch he's thrown with two strikes -- four-seamer, slider, changeup or curveball -- his putaway rate has been in the 25% range. You don't become the league leader in strikeouts for nothing.

5) Strike out one of every three batters you face

Here's where deGrom has to make the leap to reach strikeout glory. His strikeout rate is elite. He needs to push it to the elite among the elite.

300-K pitchers -- strikeout rate
2019 Cole: 39.9% (MLB record)
2019 Verlander: 35.4%
2018 Scherzer: 34.6%
2017 Sale: 36.2%
2015 Kershaw: 33.8%

deGrom's strikeout rate
3-year average: 30.9%
Peak: 32.2% (2018)

deGrom approached the 300-strikeout club member territory in his first Cy Young season, when he punched out 269 of the 835 batters he faced. But look at the group he's chasing.

The last five 300-K club members all struck out over a third of their batters faced. The last 11 of them, going back to Pedro's 1999 season, had strikeout rates over 30%. The most recent 300-strikeout pitchers below that threshold -- Curt Schilling in 1998 and Randy Johnson in 1993 -- pitched upwards of 250 innings.

Almost certainly nobody, deGrom or otherwise, is doing that in 2020. That's why it's a good sign deGrom is already pitching at the 30% strikeout level, and why it's a key for him to take it even higher to get to 300 strikeouts and join one of pitching's most exclusive clubs.

deGrom is close. He's dominant enough. He needs to push it just a little farther. He can do it.

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.