MLB Predictions: 2013 Pitching Strikeout Leaders
by Alan Matthews - 3/26/2013
When determining which pitcher will lead Major League Baseball in strikeouts, you might be inclined to lean toward a National League hurler. After all, they get an easy strikeout or two when the opposing pitcher bats. But no NL pitcher has led baseball since 2008 when Tim Lincecum did it with 265.
There are a few reasons why this could be. For one, NL pitchers are more subject to injury because they have to bat and run the bases. I don’t give that much credence. What I do believe in is that American League pitchers are allowed to pitch longer into games because they don’t have to be subbed out for a pinch-hitter. I also think in general that AL hitters, especially guys like Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds, swing more for the fences than their NL counterparts. Or you could just simply define the AL’s recent strikeout dominance: Justin Verlander.
The Tigers’ superstar led baseball with 239 last year, 250 in 2011 and 269 four years ago. The only interloper in that stretch is the Angels’ Jered Weaver with 233 in 2010. Verlander is this decade’s Randy Johnson, although Verlander will never approach 300 punchouts like the Big Unit simply due to workload.
BetOnline offers a few strikeout props. For one, you can wager on what the leader will finish with in 2013: 242, with the “over” at -130 and the “under” at even. That number has been surpassed in three of the past five years, but by just Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Lincecum and CC Sabathia. Those latter two are not what they used to be, so rule them out now.
It’s not all that easy for a starting pitcher to average more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings (closers can do it fairly easily). Last year, Detroit’s Max Scherzer (11.07) and Rangers rookie Yu Darvish (10.39) were the only qualified starters over 10. The record is 13.4 by the Big Unit in 2001.
Thus, for any pitcher to reach 242 strikeouts, he’s going to probably need at least around 230 innings. Verlander led the majors with 238.1 last year. Scherzer finished just eight behind him in only 187.2 innings pitched. The two times Verlander has surpassed 242, he has pitched at least 240.1. Lincecum never topped 227.0 innings the two times in his career has surpassed 242 but that’s when he was simply filthy in 2008-09.
I lean toward the under here, because guys like Verlander and Kershaw will be free agents soon and might pitch a few less innings to prevent injury. To no surprise, those two are the favorites to lead the majors in strikeouts at +500, followed by Darvish (+550), Stephen Strasburg (+600), Felix Hernandez (+800) and Cole Hamels (+900).
Strasburg’s strikeouts-per-nine innings last year was a stellar 11.1, but he only pitched 159.1 innings because of the controversial shutdown yet still finished with 197. If he can add even 50 innings, Strasburg could easily lead the majors and go well over the 242 total. I just believe he still will be on a limit of around 190 and will rarely go seven innings in a game. I would take Scherzer at +1100 as the best value. He’s only 28, and opposing hitters will tell you that his stuff is nastier than Verlander’s. I see no reason why Scherzer can’t hit 210 innings if he can keep his pitch counts down, which has been a problem with occasional wildness. Both his average fastball velocity and his strikeout-to-walk ratio have improved in each of the past two seasons. He also led the league in overall strikeout rate (29.4 percent of total batters faced) in 2012. Scherzer was totally dominant in the second half of last season – all his arrows appear pointing up and toward a career year.
The site also offers a few strikeout matchups. Here are my top four.
Verlander -2.5 (-115) vs. Kershaw (-115): I do worry a bit about Kershaw’s hip problem, although the Dodgers say everything is fine. Verlander, meanwhile, has been a picture of health. He’s the guy.
Hernandez -5.5 (-115) vs. Scherzer +5.5 (-115): I clearly like Scherzer more here since I think he leads the league. Plus, remember the Mariners were concerned enough about King Felix’s elbow that it delayed the signing of his big new extension? Hernandez hasn’t had a K/9 over 8.65 in his career, although that’s partly because he pitches so many innings. Take Scherzer.
Strasburg -37.5 (-110) vs. R.A. Dickey +37.5 (-120): You know Dickey will pitch a ton of innings because he puts no wear on his arm by throwing that knuckler. But I believe last year was a monster fluke with the Mets in winning the NL Cy Young. He struck out 230, nearly 100 more than his previous high, with a K/9 mark of 8.86 way, way over his career norm. He will get raked around in the AL East with the Blue Jays. Jump big on Strasburg.
David Price -8.5 (-125) vs. Chris Sale +8.5 (-105): Sale was one of baseball’s top surprises last year in becoming the White Sox’s ace. But Sale threw 192 innings (striking out 192) after totaling 94 in two years as a reliever. He had to be skipped a few times in the rotation (and taken out of it briefly) to conserve his arm and struggled a bit in the second half of the season. Sale’s still going to be a good pitcher, but Price might be the best there is and is a lock for at least 200 strikeouts barring injury. He’s the choice.
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