Even in an era of inflated strikeout numbers, Corbin Burnes of the Milwaukee Brewers and Cleveland’s Shane Bieber are putting up absolutely ridiculous numbers.
On Sunday, Bieber matched a record of Nolan Ryan’s that has stood since 1978 by striking out 48 batters in his first four starts. On Tuesday, Burnes set a record for starting pitchers by reaching 40 strikeouts without a walk to start the season.
“You know, I’ve heard it from everyone in the clubhouse, so it’s kind of hard to escape it right now: ‘Hey, you set a record tonight,’” Burnes said after Tuesday’s masterpiece, which came in a 6-0 win over the San Diego Padres.
While Kenley Jansen, a reliever for the Los Angeles Dodgers, began the 2017 season with 51 strikeouts and no walks, Burnes is already second on the overall list before his next start, which is scheduled for Monday against the Miami Marlins. Burnes’s 40 strikeouts with no walks in a span of just four games is a feat without precedent in the modern game — Jansen’s streak came over the course of 31 appearances.
“I know. I know,” Burnes said of the record. “Thanks, and let’s move on.”
So far, the 2021 season has continued the trend of rising strikeouts, with an average of 9.4 per nine innings. That rate has increased in nearly every season since 1992, when it was stood at just 5.6.
The competition to lead the majors in strikeouts could be fierce. Bieber, who struck out 259 batters in the 2019 season for an average of 10.9 per nine innings, has increased his strikeout rate in each season since. He is leading the A.L. with 14.7 per nine innings thus far in 2021. Burnes, who had an 8.82 earned-run average in 2019, has rebuilt himself into a powerhouse and is striking out 14.8 per nine innings, which trails Jacob deGrom of the Mets (15.8) and Milwaukee’s Freddy Peralta (15.5) in the N.L.
In terms of total strikeouts, Bieber (48) and Burnes (40) are the major league leaders, and the leaderboard is filled out by Gerrit Cole of the Yankees (39) and Joe Musgrove of the San Diego Padres (37), who has kept up his strong finish to the 2020 season and recently threw the first no-hitter in San Diego’s 53-season history.
Bieber, the American League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner, is scheduled to start against the Yankees on Saturday. He would need 11 strikeouts to keep pace with the start to Ryan’s 1978 season. Ryan finished that season with 260 strikeouts — a total that would be eye-popping for most but was just the eighth highest of his career.