By: Matt Watkins
MLB Strikeout Leader Odds: Who Will be the Whiff King?
So, I had this whole thing about Zane Smith to tell you guys, but I figured you’d just scroll by, so I hit the old delete key. The Spark Notes version goes like this: Zane Smith was a good, not great pitcher. He was never a dominant strikeout guy, but could get them from time-to-time, 12 once in a complete game in fact. The next year he had five CG where he totaled 11.
The point of that whole bit being that strikeouts are fickle and most starters, who will be the guys that log enough innings to put up impressive totals, don’t consistently whiff enough batters to get glimpse at leading the league. During a 162-game season, it all evens out. In 60 games, not so much.
Add in that pitchers are usually slower to get into form than hitters and there is potential for more uncertainty. Are the pitchers who traditionally start out of the gate well gong to fare better? Personally speaking, I think so. However, it’s not like guys have just been sitting around doing nothing, so maybe those who need more time to find their groove will be just fine. And then there are starters who stretch, long toss for five minutes, and throw nine innings, fanning 14. Speaking of whom…
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The MLB Strikeout Leaders Odds Favorites
Gerrit Cole (+225) – Cole was an all-star for Pittsburgh and then only got better in Houston. Trash can banging aside (that was for the hitters), Cole didn’t really benefit beyond run support… not that he needed much of that help either. Don’t believe me. Here are his stats for two seasons: 35-10, 2.68 ERA, 602 strikeouts in 412.2 innings. I’ll save you the math; that’s 13.13 K/9IP.
The dude can deal and now he gets to play for the team he wanted to since he was a kid. He’s the best pitcher in the game in the prime of his career and has shown he can handle the moment (see his postseason numbers). Assuming six innings per start and 12 starts, he’ll throw 72 innings this year, which is a conservative estimate. Even dropping his strikeout total to 12/9IP, he would still push 100 and will likely be the only pitcher who can eclipse that number.
Recommendation: Double down
Max Scherzer (+550) – There are maybe two pitchers who will challenge Cole for the strikeout title and Scherzer will be one of them. Consider that in his five seasons in Washington—all of them at age 30 or above—he has struck out 290 more batters in 1050.2 innings than he did in seven seasons with Arizona and Detroit (1013.0 innings). My biggest concern here is his back. Last year he missed six starts due to back trouble and there is always a game or two lost per season. While one game is a ton of time this year, think about two-three weeks? That is six starts, or half the season.
Recommendation: Check your injury report, but if you’re good with it, make a modest bet
Justin Verlander (+900) – I used to set my schedule around watching him pitch. I mean literally, I would choose days to work based around pitching probables if the Tigers had a day game. Last August 11, I drove from Philly to Baltimore just to watch him labor through 109 pitches in five innings because I thought it might be the last chance I’d have to see him pitch live.
Know how many he whiffed in the five innings? 11. He’s been part of our consciousness for so long and we keep waiting for him to slow down, but the fact is, even when he’s not Justin Verlander, he’s Justin Verlander. He set career highs in strikeouts in his last two seasons at ages 35 and 36 (290 and 300 for those who are keeping score at home.) He’ll rack up the numbers.
Recommendation: Buy. If anyone is going to beat Cole in this category, it’s Verlander, if for no other reason than being more consistent at his craft than anyone else in the game.
Jacob deGrom (+1000) – He might win a third straight NL Cy Young Award and he may get the fastball into the upper 90’s with a hard slider and a Bugs Bunny changeup, but strikeout king? Probably not. The fact is, he just doesn’t go deep enough into games on a consistent basis to get the extra 2-3 punchouts a couple times a year needed to pick up this honor.
The Longer Shots for the MLB Strikeout Leader Odds Race
Trevor Bauer (+1500) – He’s outspoken. He’s always fired up, and now he’s pitching in a ballpark where he has to keep the ball down in Cincinnati. His pitches move like they shouldn’t. He’s dominant out of the gate. This is your mid-level money line to take a chance on.
Shane Bieber (+1600) – Ohio’s other entry on this list, I think he is a year away from being a dominant force in the strikeout category.
Lucas Giolito (+1600) – The White Sox are going to be fun to watch this year. They may lose a bunch of games 10-8, but they will be fun to watch. When Giolito is on the mound, however, it is their best shot to win and rack up the strikeouts.
Wait… Their MLB Strikeout Leader Odds are WHAT?
Clayton Kershaw (+6000) – I get it. He is not the pitcher he was when he was 25. His K/9IP went up to 9.52 last season from 8.64 because he learned how to pitch with the arsenal he now has. In a shortened season where he does not have to worry about managing innings to get through a year, he could be an intriguing bet.
Robbie Ray (+4000) – He has teased us before, making an all-star team while going 15-5 with a 2.89 ERA in 2017, only to see the numbers trend the wrong way in 2018 and 2019. But the strikeouts have always been there as evidenced by his 12.13 K/9IP last year and 11.09 in his career.
He is in a contract year, which, given the current financial state of the sport, may mean even more when there will be theoretically less money to go around and fewer major deals to be seen. If he can put together a prime season in 2020, he could be one of the few to cash in come November.