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Max Scherzer’s 20-Strikeout Game Was Weirder Than Any Other

On Wednesday night, Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals mowed down the Detroit Tigers’ lineup for 20 strikeouts. It was just the sixth time any pitcher had struck out that many batters in a game since 1913. (Or the fifth time if you only count 9-inning games — sorry, Tom Cheney.) Scherzer’s accomplishment was historic — and historically weird, too.

Scherzer also gave up two home runs in the game. That means that his performance would be considered good, but not necessarily great, by single-game starting-pitcher metrics like Bill James’s game score, or the custom variant we use in our own Elo rating algorithm. Our ratings even adjust for the quality of competition a pitcher faces, and they still rank Scherzer’s gem 119th among the 212 9-inning games with 15 or more strikeouts since 1913.

RK PITCHER DATE TEAM OPP IP R H SO BB HR GAME SCORE
1 Kerry Wood 5/6/98 CHC HOU 9 0 1 20 0 0 110.4
2 Pedro Martinez 5/12/00 BOS BAL 9 0 2 15 0 0 105.4
3 Erik Bedard 7/7/07 BAL TEX 9 0 2 15 0 0 104.6
4 Pedro Martinez 9/10/99 BOS NYY 9 1 1 17 0 1 103.2
5 Max Scherzer 10/3/15 WSN NYM 9 0 0 17 0 0 103.0
117 Nolan Ryan 8/12/74 CAL BOS 9 2 7 19 2 0 81.4
118 Jason Schmidt 6/6/06 SFG FLA 9 1 7 16 1 1 81.2
119 Max Scherzer 5/11/16 WSN DET 9 2 6 20 0 2 81.1
120 Dwight Gooden 9/17/84 NYM PHI 8 2 7 16 0 0 80.8
121 Roger Clemens 9/21/98 TOR BAL 8 1 7 15 3 0 80.5
15+ strikeout games ranked by FiveThirtyEight game score

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

(As measured by game score, Scherzer’s no-hitter over the Mets last October — his second no-hitter of 2015 alone — was a far more impressive accomplishment.)

Scherzer also threw his 20 Ks in an era when strikeouts are more common. So far this season, Tiger batters have struck out in nearly a quarter of their plate appearances, fourth-most in MLB. Based on that number and the fact that Scherzer faced 33 Tigers Wednesday, we’d have expected an average pitcher to sit down 8.2 Tigers on strikes, meaning Scherzer struck out 11.8 more batters than expected. Among historical 15+ K games, that number also ranks surprisingly low, checking in at No. 39 since 1913:

PLAYER DATE TEAM OPP IP SO OPP. SO% EXP. SO DIFF.
1 Kerry Wood 5/6/98 CHC HOU 9 20 17.4% 5.0 +15.0
2 Randy Johnson 5/8/01 ARI CIN 9 20 18.8 5.5 +14.5
3 Roger Clemens 4/29/86 BOS SEA 9 20 18.6 5.6 +14.4
4 Ron Guidry 6/17/78 NYY CAL 9 18 11.0 3.6 +14.4
5 Nolan Ryan 8/12/74 CAL BOS 9 19 13.1 4.7 +14.3
37 Johan Santana 8/19/07 MIN TEX 8 17 19.7 5.1 +11.9
38 Dazzy Vance 5/2/23 BRO NYG 10 15 6.7 3.1 +11.9
39 Max Scherzer 5/11/16 WSN DET 9 20 24.7 8.2 +11.8
40 Nolan Ryan 8/18/76 CAL DET 10 17 12.1 5.2 +11.8
41 Van Mungo 9/29/35 BRO PHI 9 15 11.1 3.2 +11.8
Strikeouts above expectation, ranked

15+ strikeout games only, 1913-2016

Source: Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs

However, for all the ways in which Scherzer’s 20-K game was strange and perhaps less impressive than it seemed at first glance, his command of the strike zone was impeccable. He didn’t walk a batter, and although he gave up six hits and two home runs, Deadspin’s Tom Ley makes the great point that those blemishes were a product of aggressive pitching. Scherzer threw a ton of strikes — only 23 of his 119 pitches failed to find the zone — and that’s the game plan of somebody who’s challenging batters to hit his stuff. Some of them did, but most were sent back to the dugout shaking their heads.

It had been a long time since the last 20-K game, and the game has changed a lot since Randy Johnson struck out 20 Cincinnati Reds in 2001. Modern pitch-counting managers won’t let today’s versions of Roger Clemens stick around for 151 pitches, for instance. So maybe Scherzer’s combative plan is the new path to huge strikeout games — even if that means they aren’t as statistically impressive as similar outings from the past.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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