There’s nothing ordinary about striking out 20 guys in a single game, and Max Scherzer doesn’t really need any help shining up the diamond he gave us last night, but this performance stands out as unusual even amongst its peers.
According to Baseball Reference, Scherzer’s game score from last night was 87. That’s 10 points behind the mark Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson reached in their 20-strikeout games (Clemens’s game score was 97 both times he did it), and 18 points behind the 105 Kerry Wood put up when he fanned 20 Astros in 1998.
It’s rare to see a pitcher strike out that many guys and come away with a game score below 90, and so Scherzer’s start lands among various historical oddities, performances from a time before the phrase “pitch count” was ever uttered in a major-league dugout. There’s Bob Feller, who struck out 18 and walked seven in nine innings of work in 1938; there’s Randy Johnson, who struck out 19 in nine innings while throwing 142 pitches and surrendering 11 hits in 1997; and now there’s Max Scherzer, who joined one of the most exclusive clubs in baseball while getting touched up for six hits and two home runs.
This isn’t to say that Scherzer’s 20-strikeout game is meaningfully worse than the others, though; in its own way, it may actually be more impressive. Roger Clemens was allowed to throw 151 pitches when he gilded his lily in 1996, and only 66 percent of those pitches were strikes. Wood and Johnson needed just 122 and 124 pitches, respectively, but both of their strike rates were below 75 percent. But Scherzer attacked the zone with a Maddux-esque fervor last night, somehow throwing just 23 balls. This puts him in rare territory not just among pitchers who have struck out 20 in a game, but among pitchers in general:
The whole point of pounding the strike zone is to sacrifice some strikeouts for the sake of efficiency. Scherzer had the zone profile of a guy who wanted to get 15 grounders and bounce out of there with a few strikeouts and an easy win, and somehow he ended up doing something only three other guys have ever done before.
He got away with this off the strength of his fastball, which was absurdly difficult to hit last night. Scherzer threw 62 four-seamers at an average velocity of 96 mph, and he got batters to whiff on 18 of those. 11 of Scherzer’s 20 strikeouts came via the fastball, because he was throwing filthy ones like this all night:
That’s hardest pitch Scherzer has thrown all season, and it came in the ninth inning.
Before last night, it was hard to imagine any pitcher in today’s game racking up 20 punch-outs in nine innings. That’s not because there aren’t pitchers with the talent, but because of how carefully games and pitchers are managed these days. No manager is going to let their ace go out there and fire 150 pitches across the plate anymore, which means that a pitcher who wants to go for 20 is going to have to do it with a ridiculous combination of command and stuff. Max Scherzer wasn’t nibbling around the edges and coaxing hitters into strikeouts last night; he was coming right at them with his best stuff and asking them to do something about it. They answered him with two solo homers, which is normal. He responded with 20 goddamn strikeouts, which is not.