A friend of mine remarked recently:

So the Rays’ pitchers just set the record for most K’s in a season by an AL team with 1,246. The 2003 Cubs hold the MLB record with 1,404. The Nats currently have 1,237 K’s on the season. What are the odds that the Nats’ pitchers break the Cubs’ mark in the next 3 years? I say even money.

This is one of those things that sneaks up on you. As much as I follow the Nats’ pitching staff, I had not really been keeping track of their cumulative strikeout figures. Currently, the Nats are third in the league, behind the Phillies (1290) and the Brewers (1299), although I have to believe the Brewers’ strikeout totals are somewhat inflated from having to face the Astros and the Pirates (who are, respectively first and second in strike-outs while batting) so often.

Let’s get one obvious thing out of the way. The Nats pitching staff posts a collective 8.18 K/9. There are about 90 innings left in the year. Assuming nothing changes radically, we’d expect around 82 more strikeouts through the end of this year, bringing the total to something like 1,328 or so. So, no way the 2012 Nats come close to the 2003 Cubs’ unbelievable strikeout totals.

Could the Nats equal such a mark?

We can try to make an extremely crude projection. Let’s assume an unlimited, 200-inning Stephen Strasburg. Let’s further assume that Edwin Jackson re-signs with the organization, and that Ross Detwiler remains in the rotation. That gives us a five-man rotation of Strasburg, Gio, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, and Ross Detwiler. So let’s start by looking at how they’d do.

Looking at totals since 2008, here’s what the K/9 rates look like:

Strasburg: 11.21

Gonzalez: 8.79

Zimmermmann: 7.41

Jackson: 6.92

Detwiler: 5.48

Assuming all of them pitch 190 innings (I know, very very crude here), this is what it looks like:

Strasburg: 236 strikeouts

Gonzalez: 186 strikeouts

Zimmermann: 156 strikeouts

Jackson: 146 strikeouts

Detwiler: 116 strikeouts.

That gives us a starting pitching rotation total of 840 strikeouts. So far, in 2012, those same five have recorded 800 strikeouts. This seems plausible. So the 840 strikeouts from the starting rotation would need an additional 564 strikeouts from relievers to equal the 2003 Cubs. 2012 Nats relievers put up 433 strikeouts, all together.

What if we don’t bother with all this tiresome averaging over the past several years, and assume the Nats pitch at the same level they’ve done in 2012? Well, assuming 190 innings for everybody:

Strasburg: 11.13 K/9; 235 K’s

Gonzalez: 9.36 K/9; 198 K

Zimmermann: 6.95 K/9; 147 K

Jackson: 8.03 K/9; 170 K

Detwiler: 5.68 K/9; 120 K

For a staff total of 870 strikeouts.

But let’s look back at those 2003 Cubs K/9 rates:

Kerry Wood: 11.35 K/9; 211 IP; 266 K

Mark Prior: 10.43 K/9; 211.1 IP; 245 K

Matt Clement: 7.63 K/9; 201.2 IP; 171 K

Carlos Zambrano 7.07 K/9: 214 IP; 168 K

Shawn Estes: 6.11 K/9; 151.2 IP; 103 K

*Wow*. Strasburg today has nothing on Wood and Prior in 2003. They got more strikeouts, more often, over far more innings than we now think prudent. The forgotten man here was Shawn Estes, who racked up 103 strikeouts in 28 starts for the 2003 Cubs.

If the Nats are going to challenge the 2003 Cubs for the most strikeouts by a pitching staff in a single season, they’re going to have to hope that several of the following happen in the same year:

- Stephen Strasburg pitches over 200 innings
- Jordan Zimmermann pitches over 200 innings
- Gio Gonzalez pitches over 200 innings
- Ross Detwiler discovers some way to get 2 more strikeouts per 9 innings
- The bullpen gets more strikeouts