Felix Hernandez has passed some monumental milestones over the last few seasons: 2,000 innings, a perfect game, a Cy Young award. Now, with weeks left before pitchers and catchers report for spring training, he's on the verge of another big accomplishment: his 2,000th career strikeout.
There are currently 72 pitchers who have struck out at least 2,000 batters in MLB history. Nolan Ryan stands alone at the head of the group, with 5,714 strikeouts; in second place, Randy Johnson leaves his legacy as the most dominant major league southpaw, with 4,875. Of the 72 hurlers in this club, just five are active today: southpaw C.C. Sabathia and right-handers A.J. Burnett, Bartolo Colon, Jake Peavy, and Tim Hudson.
Three of these five -- Colon, Peavy, and Hudson -- reached 2,000 whiffs in 2014. Before them, A.J. Burnett hit the 2,000-mark in 2013, while Sabathia continued building on the record he established in 2011. Two more inductees may follow in 2015, and they would be some of the youngest to join the group.
Barring an early apocalypse, Felix will reach his 2,000th strikeout in 2015 at 29 years old (unless, of course, he pitches two 25-strikeout performances against the Angels before his birthday on April 8). His 1,951 whiffs are the most by an active player under 30 years old, and the closest to 2,000 by over 100 strikeouts. While Matt Cain and Clayton Kershaw are Felix's peers, they are nowhere close to reaching 2,000 strikeouts -- Cain has tallied 1,506 whiffs, and Kershaw, 1,445. The only other contenders for the 2,000-strikeout club are Marlins' RHP Dan Haren and Tigers' RHP Justin Verlander. Haren is currently sitting on 1,881 strikeouts, and his performances over the last few seasons indicate that he he is more than capable of knocking out the 119 batters he needs to reach his next milestone. Rumor has it, however, that the 34-year-old may retire after leaving his home in Los Angeles.
Although Verlander only needs 170 whiffs to reach 2,000, he had something of an off year in 2014, establishing a pattern that may not bode well for the coming season. He saw his strikeout rate plummet from nine strikeouts per nine innings pitched to just under seven. His 104 earned runs were the most given up in the league, and he missed an All-Star bid and Cy Young slot with a 1.1 bWAR, down from 4.6 in 2013. It was also the only season the 31-year-old failed to record at least 200 strikeouts, a tradition he's maintained every year since he hit his stride with the Tigers in 2009. While there's no question that Verlander will cap 2,000 strikeouts sometime during his career, it's not certain that he'll be able to get there in 2015.
Felix's position in this statistical field is unique, not only because of his young age, but because of the speed with which he would accumulate 2,000 strikeouts, since 2015 will mark his eleventh season in the major leagues. This would put him in an even more select group, as only 20 pitchers have reached 2,000 strikeouts in 11 or fewer seasons, and just seven of those have done so by age 29.
Here's a full list of the pitchers who meet this criteria, from those who qualified the fastest to those who took the longest to reach 2,000 K's:
|Name||R/L||Age||Year||# of seasons|
If Hernandez tops 2,000 strikeouts in 2015, he'll be the youngest pitcher to do so since a 28-year-old Bert Blyleven reached 2,000 in 1979 after 10 years in MLB. He'll also be the fourth pitcher to do it in 11 seasons since the turn of the century.
Perhaps even more notable is the significance of this milestone for the Mariners. Felix's addition to this group would make him just the second pitcher to rack up 2,000 strikeouts in 11 seasons under the Mariners' umbrella. Randy Johnson was the first to do so in 1997; despite minor contributions to the 1988-1989 Expos, 1,949 of his first 2,000 whiffs were recorded in a Seattle uniform.
Johnson added a bit of flair to his 2,000th strikeout. It came just one day shy of the end of the 1997 season, on a night when the 6-foot, 10-inch hurler was also crowned the first 20-game winner in Mariners' history. At the time, Johnson was still reeling from a micro endoscopic discectomy that had kept him out of contention only two weeks prior. He entered the game to relieve right-hander Omar Olivares, who exited after four innings and a two-run, one-walk, two-strikeout performance. Randy Johnson's final strikeout of the game -- a four-pitch effort to Athletics' right fielder Ben Grieve in the sixth -- was also his last of the season, the magic #2,000.
Felix may not get the dramatic finish Johnson did when his moment comes, but I'm sure he'll find his own special twist to put on it. No matter how he reaches 2,000 strikeouts, he'll be in some of the best company in baseball.