It has been a mere seven years since Chris Sale struck out 274 batters, breaking Ed Walsh’s White Sox record of 269 that had stood since 1908.
Sale’s record might be outside Dylan Cease’s reach. Sale pitched 2082⁄3 innings in 2015. Cease’s top total was 1652⁄3 last season, and he’s on a pace for just more than 170 in 2022.
Per nine innings, however, Cease is on a pace to shatter his own Sox record. With 226 strikeouts last season, he averaged 12.28 per nine innings, besting Lucas Giolito’s 12.07 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season and Sale’s 11.82 in 2015.
With 67 strikeouts in 432⁄3 innings so far in 2022, Cease is one-upping himself with 13.81 per nine innings to top the majors.
Strikeouts aside, Cease has been brilliant — and perhaps even better than his 4-1 record and 3.09 ERA. Fangraphs lists him in a sixth-place tie with a 1.4 pitching WAR, and a calculation of normal results on balls in play against him lead to a 2.23 expected ERA.
Statcast data at baseballsavant.mlb.com indicate Cease’s opponents’ batting average of .209 and slugging percentage of .325 are higher than the expected .182 and .314.
That’s in contrast to the major-league trends. The major-league batting average of .236 is lower than the .253 expected batting average and the .380 slugging percentage is much lower than the .435 expected slugging percentage. The combination might suggest the ball isn’t carrying as far, whether because of weather, winds, a deadened ball, ballpark humidors or early-season chance.
If Cease stays at 13.81 strikeouts per nine innings, it would rank third in history behind Shane Bieber’s 14.20 in 2020 and Gerrit Cole’s 13.82 in 2019.
There have been 30 pitcher seasons of ERA title qualifiers striking out 12 or more batters per nine innings. Only six were before 2000, all in the 1990s.
Kerry Wood’s Cubs record of 12.6 in 1998 is in that group, along with Pedro Martinez at 13.2 in 1999 and Randy Johnson four times (12.3 in 1995 and 1997 and 12.1 in 1998 and 1999).
Two pitchers, both White Sox, are on track to join the list this season: Cease and Giolito, who is at 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 312⁄3 innings.
By contrast, total strikeout leaders are spread through baseball history. Since the two-league era began in 1901, there have been 38 seasons of 300 or more strikeouts, from Rube Waddell’s 302 in 1903 to Cole’s 326 and Justin Verlander’s 300 in 2019.
Nolan Ryan is No. 1 at 383 in 1973, and the 1970s have the most 300-strikeout seasons with 11.
Cease and other modern pitchers are short on innings to build such lofty totals. The fewest innings in a 300-strikeout season were Cole’s 212 1⁄3 in 2019. In 2021, only four pitchers threw 200-plus innings and only Zack Wheeler (2131⁄3) exceeded Cole’s 2019 total.
Cease’s pace toward 170 innings would require 15.88 strikeouts per nine innings to reach 300 — two more strikeouts per game than his major-league-leading pace.
For his era, Cease is carrying a normal workload. Sox fans can be happy he’s bringing far better than normal results.