Friday, August 2, 2019

Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, and a History of 3000 Strikeout Teammates

If you’ve seen any of Justin Verlander’s starts this year, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen him making some bit of strikeout history or other; he’s been climbing up the leaderboard since joining Houston, passing famous aces and various milestones almost nightly. When he came to Houston back in September 2017, JV stood at 2373 Ks, in 46th place all-time. Now, just under two years later, he’s climbed all the way to 18th, and at 2902, he should pass the historic 3000 mark sometime in early 2020.

But now, he’s not alone on the team in that regard. With the acquisition of Zack Greinke at the deadline, the Astros now have both the second- and fourth-highest active strikeout totals in their rotation (and, given that this is CC Sabathia’s final year, they’ll of course automatically take over first and third next season). And both are under contract through the 2021 season, meaning this duo should be here for a while.

Greinke is one year Verlander’s junior (well, eight months, but they fall on opposite sides of the June 30th line that’s usually used to determine a the season-age for a player), and at 2570, is even closer to 3000 strikeouts than Verlander was when he arrived back in 2017. Get ready to see a lot of the same names Justin passed coming up again (in the coming weeks, you can look forward to Bob Feller at 2581, Warren Spahn at 2583, Tom Glavine at 2607, and Chuck Finley at 2610). But it also raised a few interesting questions for me: how soon could Greinke reach 3000 strikeouts? And how often are there two 3000 strikeout pitchers on the same team?


Let’s tackle those in order. First, I don’t feel it’s too presumptuous to say that Greinke will get to 3000 strikeouts, and the only active pitchers who I think have a better chance to make it right now are the two ahead of him, Verlander and Max Scherzer (who’s currently at 2638). Greinke is basically a guarantee to reach 2600 this season, and is under contract for at least two more full years to get him even closer.

Basically, as long as you can stay productive or get close enough to 3000 that you can crawl over the line in a season or two while your arm doesn’t fall off, you can keep finding opportunities to get the rest of the way there. There’s a reason that nobody has retired with a strikeout total in the 2900s (something that isn’t true for any other hundreds before it), or that the largest gap between any two consecutive retired players on the all-time list (outside of the top five) is Jim Bunning (2855) and John Smoltz (3084). People generally want to get the rest of the way once they’re that close

And even below the 2900 range, outside of Mike Mussina, the only players who have retired in even the 2600-2900 range are the ones who saw their strikeout ability drop substantially in their final years. Sometimes it was due to injuries limiting their innings, sometimes it was their K/9 rate dropping rapidly, sometimes it was both, but neither seems to apply to Zack yet. I suppose that Greinke could finish in that range and decide to walk away like Mussina did, but I’d want to hear that from him before calling it at all likely.

As for when it will happen, just going by some back of the envelope calculations, there’s a decent chance he pulls it off before his current contract ends. As mentioned, he currently sits at 2570, and has 135 on the year. If he can pull out 60 more (just to use round numbers), that would put him more or less in line with his 2018 total (199) and leave him at 2630. At that point, he would just need to average 185 for the next two seasons, which is very much something Zack can manage. It’s looking like 2019 will be his third straight season topping that total, and perhaps even more impressively, 2019 will mark the tenth time in the last twelve years where he would top 180 strikeouts. We’ll have to see how he fares in Houston, of course (maybe Brent Strom can even help him kick things up yet another notch), but reaching 3000 by the end of 2021 looks at least doable, although it will likely come down to the wire and definitely depend a little on luck.

And of course, by the time that he reaches it, Verlander will have crossed it about a year and a half earlier, which will put the Astros in rare company. In the course of Major League history, only 17 different pitchers have reached the 3000 K plateau, which means teams with multiple 3000 strikeout guys are even rarer. You can probably think of a few examples; Greg Maddux and John Smoltz on the ‘90s Braves, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling on the Diamondbacks, and so on. But not all of them had 3000 strikeouts yet when pitching in those duos, which would be the case if Greinke reaches it by 2021. How often has that happened?

I decided to chart out every 3000 K club member (plus likely next three in Verlander, Scherzer, and Greinke) by team over the years, as well as when they finally crossed the mark, to answer that question. Here’s as much trivia on 3000 strikeout teammates as I could find:


-The first member of the 3000 club was Walter Johnson, who debuted way back in 1907 and finally reached the mark in 1923. The club was pretty lonely for a long time, with the eventual second member Bob Gibson debuting in 1959 and finally joining the ranks in 1974.


-Despite that, it didn’t take that much longer to see the first team with two eventual members. Steve Carlton became just the fifth member to debut on April 12, 1965, where he was teammates on the Cardinals with Gibson. The pair lasted until 1972, when Carlton was dealt to the Phillies.


-The first member of the Astros in the club was of course Nolan Ryan, who reached 3000 in 1980, his first year on the team. Ryan was also teammates with Tom Seaver on the Mets from 1968 to 1971, making them the second such duo ever.


-The longest-lived duo is of course Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, which lasted from 1993 to 2003. Gibson-Seaver is next, then Ryan-Seaver is tied with Johnson and Schilling on the 2000 to 2003 Diamondbacks. No other pair has lasted more than two seasons.


-The first team to feature two 3000 strikeout pitchers who had actually reached the mark was the 1986 White Sox; however, the two pitchers were never on the team concurrently. Tom Seaver started the year on the team, but was dealt to Boston at the end of June. In August, they signed Carlton, who had already been released that year from the Phillies and Giants. Neither pitcher lasted even 100 innings in Chicago, and both were rapidly approaching the ends of their careers.


-In April of 1987, Carlton signed with the Indians. 48-year-old Phil Niekro was entering his second season with the team, making this the first true team-up of pitchers who had already reached 3000 strikeouts. Both carried ERAs over 5.00 on the season, and neither finished the year with the Indians. Niekro was traded to the Blue Jays, who cut him after 12 even worse innings. The Braves would then sign him to make one final start with them, for old time’s sake.


-Carlton, however, would be dealt to the Twins, where he would partner with Bert Blyleven. Blyleven had reached 3000 strikeouts the year before, making this the second and most recent true instance of teammates with 3000 whiffs. Neither pitcher looked like their old self, but the Twins shocked everyone and won the World Series that year anyway, making Carlton one of just a handful of players with titles for three different franchises. Both would return to start the 1988 season, but Carlton would be cut after four abysmal starts and never pitch in the majors again.


-There were also two other even earlier instances where this almost happened. In 1980, the Rangers featured both Gaylord Perry and Fergie Jenkins. Perry had reached 3000 back in 1978, and Jenkins was close, but ultimately took two more years to make it, by which point both had left Texas. In 1981, the Astros acquired Don Sutton to compliment Nolan Ryan. Sutton was similarly close to 3000, but was dealt to the Brewers the next year. He would reach the milestone in Milwaukee the year after that.


-In total, there have been twelve different times 3000 strikeout club members at any point in their career have pitched on the same team (albeit never more than two at a time). In order:


Pitcher 1 Pitcher 2 Team Years
Bob Gibson Steve Carlton Cardinals 1965-1971
Nolan Ryan Tom Seaver Mets 1968-1971
Gaylord Perry Fergie Jenkins Rangers 1975, 1980
Gaylord Perry Bert Blyleven Rangers 1976-1977
Don Sutton Nolan Ryan Astros 1981-1982
Steve Carlton Tom Seaver White Sox 1986
Tom Seaver Roger Clemens Red Sox 1986
Phil Niekro Steve Carlton Indians 1987
Steve Carlton Bert Blyleven Twins 1987-1988
Greg Maddux John Smoltz Braves 1993-2003
Curt Schilling Randy Johnson Diamondbacks 2000-2003
Curt Schilling Pedro Martinez Red Sox 2004



-Additionally, if all of Verlander, Scherzer, and Greinke reach 3000, we can add the 2010-2014 Tigers and 2019- Astros to this list. There’s also still a lot of potential for this to grow even further in the near future, depending on how other active pitchers’ careers progress (see, for example, Clayton Kershaw and Greinke’s years as teammates on the Dodgers).


(To see the full timeline of 3000 strikeout pitchers, you can follow this link. Some notes: Yellow denotes the year the pitcher reached 3000 strikeouts; Boxed years indicate a pair of teammates; Midseason trades are indicated by double rows; Astros players bolded; Pitchers projected to reach 3000 Ks are italicized.)



If both Verlander and Greinke can keep up their recent mid-30s success, they could be historic. Few teams have ever had two pitchers of their caliber, or with their track record; nobody has ever had a duo with both at the same time. Obviously, this is interesting primarily because of how much it helps the Astros down the 2019 playoff stretch and into next year, but appreciating just how rare it is historically is fascinating in its own way.

1 comment:

  1. very cool! Hopefully they can both reach that milestone in Houston and help them win the 2019 and 2020 World Series!!!

    ReplyDelete