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20 years after Clemens' 3,000th K, who's next?

Sabathia, Verlander, Scherzer, Sale could all join 'Rocket' in select group
July 5, 2018

When the scoreboard ticked to 0-2, a crowd of 31,000 rose as one.It was 20 years ago today that a SkyDome crowd in Toronto roared in appreciation as then-Blue Jays ace Roger Clemens whiffed Randy Winn to join one of baseball's most exclusive clubs. With that pitch, Clemens became just

When the scoreboard ticked to 0-2, a crowd of 31,000 rose as one.
It was 20 years ago today that a SkyDome crowd in Toronto roared in appreciation as then-Blue Jays ace Roger Clemens whiffed Randy Winn to join one of baseball's most exclusive clubs. With that pitch, Clemens became just the 11th pitcher to strike out 3,000 batters, and only five men have joined him since. In fact, the 3,000-strikeout club contains fewer members than the 3,000-hit club (32), the 500-home run club (27) and the 300-win club (24).
But with the average Major League pitcher striking out nearly 6 percent more batters than he did when Clemens notched No. 3,000, the environment is right for that group to grow. With the Rocket's anniversary in mind, here's a look at the candidates who could join legends like Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan on one of baseball's most select pitching lists. All totals are through Wedneday's games.
On the doorstep

Carsten Sabathia (2,917 strikeouts)
Sabathia may not top out at 96-97 mph like he did when he first joined the Yankees in 2009, but count him out at your own risk. The big lefty is one of the best recent examples of a pitcher redefining his game in his later years, employing a mix of arm angles and secondary pitches to get the job done. Sabathia will enter the free-agent market again this offseason at age 38, but performances like last Friday's start against the Red Sox (seven innings, one run, five strikeouts) proved he's likely to get at least one more season -- if not more -- to rack up the necessary punchouts.

Justin Verlander (2,560)
A 35-year-old power pitcher with more than 2,500 innings on his odometer might initially create some doubt, but few pitchers have enjoyed a late-career resurgence quite like what we're seeing from Verlander. Armed with his still-blazing fastball and a wealth of information from the Astros' analytics department, Verlander is a front-runner for his second career American League Cy Young Award while posting a 31.2 percent strikeout rate that has him in range for his fourth career season with 250 punchouts. Even if Verlander slows down a smidge in the next couple seasons, 4,000 strikeouts doesn't seem like an impossible notion for the right-hander.
Needs one more push

Bartolo Colon (2,510)
The ageless wonder was out of a job until late March this year, and yet here he is taking the ball every fifth day for the Rangers. Still, an uphill climb remains for the 45-year-old Colon, who at this point ranks near the bottom of the league in strikeout rate and swinging-strike rate. Colon may need to hang around until his 50th birthday to get the job done, but he's certainly defied expectations before.
Zack Greinke (2,348)
Spring Training worries over Greinke's velocity have become an annual rite of passage, and yet he continues to chug along year after year. The 2018 campaign could very well mark Greinke's fourth 200-strikeout season after his 30th birthday, and the D-backs have Greinke under contract through 2021. That means this cerebral righty should have ample time to craft his way toward 3,000.

Cole Hamels (2,331)
Hamels' march to 3,000 took a hit when he struck out a career-low 17.1 percent of batters last year, but he's upped that rate back to a healthy 23.6 percent so far in 2018. With more than 600 punchouts to go, the big question for Hamels is how long he'll continue to pitch. The 34-year-old has one team-option year left on his high-priced contract for 2019, and the Rangers could deal him to a contender at the upcoming Trade Deadline.
Felix Hernandez (2,427)
Like Hamels, Hernandez's declining velocity and strikeout rates mean he'd need either a significant uptick or some impressive longevity to climb over the 3-K hump. King Felix has about as many innings (2,602 2/3) on his arm as a 32-year-old could possibly have, but perhaps there's potential for him to go the Sabathia route and find new ways to keep hitters guessing. That process is already underway in 2018 for Hernandez, who has switched his repertoire to a heavier offspeed mix.
Right on track

Max Scherzer (2,314)
Is there any reason to bet against Scherzer here? With his 34th birthday approaching this month, Washington's ace is challenging Pedro Martinez's single-season strikeout-rate record of 37.5 percent and could notch his first 300-punchout campaign. Scherzer is about as competitive as anyone in the sport, and he probably has a larger number than 3,000 in mind.

Clayton Kershaw (2,185)
Any projection for Kershaw these days has to begin with a disclaimer on his chronic back pain, but, like Scherzer, one might have to pry the ball out of Kershaw's hands before he calls it quits. Even with a 91-mph fastball, Kershaw remains capable of a double-digit strikeout day as his All-World assortment of sliders and curves takes the lead. He also has youth on his side at just 30 years of age.
Chris Sale (1,716)
Let Sale's 11-strikeout gem in the Bronx last Friday be the latest reminder that he is firmly within range of the 3,000 club. Boston's ace is arguably at his strikeout peak right now, on track for his second consecutive 300-punchout season while showing full mastery of his high-90s fastball, sweeping slider and devastating changeup. Sale would likely need to average just 200 strikeouts in the next six seasons, a pace that seems perfectly realistic, assuming he stays healthy.

Long shots

Jonathan Lester (2,115)
Lester (11-2, 2.25 ERA) remains as menacing as ever to opponents, but his age (34) and a slight downtick in his strikeout rate could hold him back from our stated goal here. The southpaw is under contract through 2020 with a team option for '21.
James Shields (2,156)
At 36, Shields would need a near-unprecedented turnaround in performance to make it the rest of the way. The right-hander hasn't posted a sub-4.00 ERA since 2015, and his current strikeout rate is well below league average.
Young guns to watch

Trevor Bauer (861)
We may look back at 2018 as the year when Bauer made "the leap" to a premier front-line starter, and that includes his strikeouts. The 27-year-old righty is striking out nearly a third of the batters he's facing, and his development of a new dynamite slider this past offseason shows a willingness to tinker -- one that could serve him well should his velocity decline further down the road.

Carlos Martinez (763)
Durability might be a concern for Martinez, but he has the tools to rack up K's in a hurry. Few starters in baseball maintain their velocity into the later innings better than St. Louis' ace, and Martinez also owns one of the game's best sliders.
Robbie Ray (632)
Better health and consistency will be crucial for Ray's chances at 3,000, but there's no disputing his ability to pile up strikeouts. Ray got hitters to miss on 34.5 percent of their swings last year, the highest single-season recorded by any qualified starter since pitch-tracking data launched in 2008.
Noah Syndergaard (494)
How many 30-start seasons will Syndergaard be able to compile? Will he be able to adapt his approach should his fastball velocity eventually drop off? There are admittedly way more questions than answers in Thor's candidacy for 3,000, but he still merits inclusion just out of the sheer nastiness of his stuff. Same goes for teammate Jacob deGrom, who at age 30 carries similar durability concerns despite the stellar 2018 season he's putting together.

Dylan Bundy (364)
Three-thousand strikeouts likely aren't on Bundy's immediate list of goals, but he started young and has taken a step forward in missing bats this season. Bundy is essentially the only reliable pitching piece moving forward for the Orioles, so he'll have time to further improve a fastball-slider combo that's already beginning to give hitters fits.
Jose Berrios (302)
Our longest-term projection is still harnessing one of the most dynamic arsenals between his explosive mid-90s fastball and frisbee-like breaking ball, and it's reasonable to expect Berrios' best swing-and-miss years are still in the offing. Berrios will anchor the Twins' rotation for years to come, ostensibly giving him plenty of time to reach his max potential. The righty already has a head start on several 3,000-club members, including Bob Gibson, Gaylord Perry and Curt Schilling through their age-24 seasons.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.