(Photo Courtesy of ESPN)
Strikeouts as the key to success
To start the MLB season, there will be the likely veteran candidates to win the National League Cy Young Award in Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and Cole Hamels. All of these pitchers have sustained success because of their abilities to strike out batters at a rate of at least one per inning they pitch in just about every season. There is a group of lesser known pitchers in the National League this season, that are rising towards the top on their way to becoming elite pitchers because of this same ability to strike out batters at a high rate. Jose Fernandez of the Marlins would usually be in this conversation, but with his return from injury scheduled to shorten his 2015 season, he probably will not be a factor this season. Three big right handed pitchers in particular, stand out this season as having a chance to make a run at the National League Cy Young Award. Twenty-six year old Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals, 26 year old Matt Harvey of the New York Mets and 24 year old Gerrit Cole of the Pittsburgh Pirates. These three pitchers have plenty in common as players who are approaching their prime years in Major League Baseball, and as pitchers with big frames, as each stands at 6’4″ while weighing 220 pounds or more. With high velocity fastballs and significant strikeout rates, these pitchers have created a strong track record that when analyzed, can show why they are very strong candidates to take home the National League Cy Young Award in 2015.
This former first overall pick in 2009, announced his arrival in the big leagues with 14 strikeouts over seven strong innings in his MLB debut in 2010. Strasburg had his spectacular rookie season interrupted with a torn UCL that required him to have Tommy John surgery in order to repair it. His return from Tommy John surgery was highlighted in 24 innings of work at the end of the 2011 season, in which he was able to strike out 24 batters. Since then, Strasburg has gone on to strike out more than a batter per inning in each of the past three seasons, with 242 strikeouts over a career high 215 innings of work in 2014 . Even though Strasburg has yet to post a 20 win season, he has never struggled throughout his brilliant young career as his career high in earned runs average for a season currently stands at 3.16. Stephen Strasburg will have his work cut out for him in 2015 if he hopes to outdo Clayton Kershaw, but if he is able to once again strike out 10 or more batters for every nine innings he pitches, he will be in great position to put up a career best season. For Strasburg, he will be looking to post an earned runs average below three for the first time in any season where he pitched more than 100 innings, and a breakout season for him would be one where he passes his career high of 15 wins in a single season. With a career walks plus hits per inning pitched rate of 1.09, the indications are strong that all this is possible for Strasburg in the coming season.
While Matt Harvey was not a first overall pick as a first round pick of the Mets in 2010, he did announce his arrival in the big leagues with a 11 strikeout performance over five and two-thirds innings pitched in 2012. Harvey went on to strike out 70 batters in 59 and a third innings pitched throughout a brilliant rookie campaign with the Mets . Like Strasburg, Harvey suffered a torn UCL in 2013 that ended his season early and kept him out for all of 2014. Harvey has put all that talent on display again this spring in his return from surgery, proving that he is ready to pick up right where he left off after his brilliant 2012 and 2013 showings at the MLB level. Matt Harvey’s upper 90s fastball complemented by his above average curveball, change up and slider, allow him to dominate hitters on a regular basis. This spring he has put all of that on display once again as he makes his return from Tommy John surgery, with the intent to maintain the 2.39 earned runs average he has established over 237 and two-thirds innings in his career. Harvey posted an impressive walks plus hits per inning pitched rate of 1.15 in his rookie season, but he improved on that in his second season with a 0.93 WHIP that was largely supported by his 9.6 strikeout per nine innings pitched rate that season. This type of performance may have been good enough to earn Harvey the Cy Young Award in his second season, if not for Clayton Kershaw putting up numbers that there was very little precedent for.
At age 24 he is the youngest of this trio of talented pitchers. Cole like Strasburg was also a first overall pick, but he was selected in 2011 by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Gerrit Cole did not announce his arrival with high strikeout totals as he only recorded two strikeouts in his debut, but he did announce his arrival by earning victories against two Cy Young Award winners in his first two big league starts. Throughout his first two seasons in the big leagues, Gerrit Cole has leaned heavily enough on his fastball that its usage limited his strikeout rates at times. To finish up each of the 2013 and 2014 seasons, he had a break through in his command of off-speed pitches that allowed him to increase his strikeout rate by the end of each season. In 2013 Cole ended up with 100 strikeouts in 117 and a third innings of work, while in 2014 he backed off on his fastball velocity some to finish with exactly one strikeout per inning . Gerrit Cole’s 60 strikeouts in his final 51 innings of work in 2014 show that this young pitcher with a very high velocity fastball, finally gets the art of pitching. Cole’s 1.17 and 1.21 walks plus hits per inning pitched rate throughout his first two seasons, make him a strong candidate to contend for a Cy Young Award in the near future. If he is able to carry over his latest breakthrough from his final 51 innings of 2014, even at just 24 years old, Gerrit Cole could make a significant run at the Cy Young Award in his third season.
What sets these three apart from other young pitchers with high strikeout rates?
There are plenty of pitchers in Major League Baseball who strike out batters at a high rate, but not all of them have the impressive walk rates of Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey and Gerrit Cole. Matt Harvey walked 3.9 batters per nine innings in his rookie season, but he improved that number to 1.6 walks per nine in his second season. Stephen Strasburg’s career high in walks per nine innings came in 2013, when he walked 2.8 batters for every nine innings he pitched. Gerrit Cole also has posted impressive walk rates, with 2.1 walks per nine innings in his rookie season and 2.6 walks per nine innings in his second MLB season. By controlling the things that pitchers have the most control over, these pitchers set themselves apart in that category that has them among the best in baseball. MLB pitchers do not have the ability to control whether or not a ball put in play against them gets hit at a defender for an out, or if it finds a hole for a base hit. These pitchers leave less up to chance by limiting the free passes, making the pitches to generate soft contact and executing their pitch in two strike counts to generate a swing and miss for the strikeout. By continuing to put this ability on display, these three pitchers have put themselves in the conversation for the National League Cy Young Award as they head into a season where they have yet to play in the prime years of their career.