How does a pitcher tie the major league record for most strikeouts in nine innings? When Max Scherzer struck out Miguel Cabrera swinging on a 1-2 fastball in the ninth inning on his 111th pitch of the game Wednesday, the pitch was clocked at 97.4 mph (98.1 mph on StatCast), and it was moving off the plate like a Frisbee.
It was the fastest pitch he'd thrown all season.
The other day, I speculated on why we hadn't seen another 20-strikeout game since Randy Johnson in 2001. One thing I pointed out is that the previous 20-strikeout games had all come in advantageous conditions: The Reds had an extremely weak lineup that night against Johnson; Kerry Wood's 20 strikeouts came on a dark, overcast afternoon at Wrigley; both of Roger Clemens' 20-strikeout games came against teams in the midst of team-wide strikeout slumps.
There weren't those potential indicators heading into Wednesday's game. It was a clear night in Washington, although the Tigers had struck out 14 times two nights before in a game Stephen Strasburg started. Plus, Scherzer was coming off a four-homer game and he'd been struggling with his fastball command. Nationals fans were just hoping for a solid performance, let alone a legendary one.
How does Scherzer's performance compare to those other 20-strikeout games? Well, because he gave up two home runs, his game score is easily the worst of the five. Here's a chart listing all the pitchers with 19 or 20 strikeouts in nine innings, with the MLB-wide strikeouts per nine innings rate for that season, the opposing team's strikeout rate per game (which would be slightly lower than its K's per nine after including extra-inning games), the number of times the opponent struck out 12 or more times that season, the opponent's wRC+ (the strength of the team's offense where 100 is average) and, finally, the difference between the pitcher's strikeout total and the team's strikeout rate.
As you can see, in this era of high strikeouts, Scherzer's performance comes across as a little less impressive, in part because the Tigers do strike out a lot -- already at least times 12 in five games. Of the 11 instances, nine came against teams that exceeded the leaguewide strikeout rate and one had the same rate. Only Johnson's 1997 performance against the White Sox came against a team that struck out less than the league average.
That game was especially impressive because the White Sox fanned 12 times only two other times that season -- 13 in a 14-6 blowout over the Reds and 12 in a game where Orioles relievers fanned seven batters.
Likewise, Nolan Ryan's 19 strikeouts against the Red Sox in 1974 came against a team that averaged just five K's per game, in a much more contact-oriented era. The Red Sox had just five games of 12 or more strikeouts that season -- but three came against Ryan. He fanned 19 (and a reliever fanned another) in this memorable duel against Luis Tiant, in which Ryan pitched 13 innings and also walked 10 batters. He also fanned 15 and walked seven and gave up six runs in a complete game win in April. Imagine how many pitches he must have thrown in those games.
There have been 12 other games where a pitcher recorded 18 strikeouts in nine innings or fewer. One of those came from Bill Gullickson, whose franchise record Scherzer broke. With the Expos in 1980, Gullickson fanned 18 Cubs on Sept. 10. The MLB strikeout rate that year was just 4.8 per nine innings, although the Cubs averaged 5.6 K's per game. Gullickson was a rookie and threw pretty hard, but must have lost his velocity fairly early in his career because he was never a big strikeout guy and, in fact, recorded just seven games of 10 or more strikeouts in his career.
Maybe the most impressive high-strikeout game relative to his league came courtesy of 19-year-old Bob Feller in 1938. He fanned 18 Tigers in a year in which the average K rate was just 3.8 per nine.
Of course, it was also the final day of the season and the first game of a doubleheader with nothing on the line. And Charlie Gehringer, who struck out just 21 times in 152 games that year, wasn't in the lineup. And the Tigers won anyway, 4-1.
So, to answer the question in the headline: I still go with Wood's game against a strong Astros lineup. His game score of 105 remains the highest ever in nine innings.
The second highest? That's Scherzer at 104, for his 17-strikeout no-hitter last October.