DEEP DIVES: Nate Cornejo's ridiculously low strikeout rate in 2003

Updated: May 10, 2021


In 2003, Nate Cornejo had one of the lowest strikeout rates ever, and no one has had a lower one since. Photo Credit: Detroit Tigers

In this day and age, a pitcher can strike out five batters or more with their eyes closed. It's something that has changed as the game has become more of a strikeout and home run game. The lowest strikeout rate of 2020 was by Rockies pitcher Antonio Senzatela, who had a 5.03 K/9 mark by seasons' end. In the last full season in 2019, the lowest was 4.6 by Brett Anderson. In 2021, as of May 8, Dallas Keuchel owns the lowest K/9 mark at 4.03 with only one more pitcher (Carlos Martinez) sitting below 6.


Back in the early 2000s, baseball was a bit different as there weren't as many power pitchers who generated a lot of strikeouts. The art of pitching has evolved since then which allowed a season like this to happen. In 2003, the Detroit Tigers had one of the worst seasons ever, dropping 119 games. Their pitching staff was ranked dead last in ERA in the majors, pitching to a 5.30 clip over the season. Four of their five starting pitchers had ERAs above 5.50 and the team recorded 27 saves in total, not needing a closer when they won just 43 games.


NATE CORNEJO HATES THE LETTER K


The one starting pitcher to record a sub-5 ERA, Nate Cornejo, had the lowest ERA in the starting staff at 4.67 (can you believe that?) in his first full season in the majors. He pitched 194.2 innings, the most on the staff, and was one of three pitchers on the staff to start more than 30 games.


We can spend all day discussing how bad the 2003 Tigers were, but I guarantee about 75-percent of the people who read this have never heard of Nate Cornejo or barely remember him on the Tigers as 2003 was his lone full season and he was the "ace" of that pitiful 2003 staff.


Cornejo's father, Mardie, spent a single season in the major leagues with the Mets in 1978, pitching to a 2.45 ERA in 25 games (and having a 4.1 K/9 rate to boot!) out of the bullpen.


Cornejo had a bizarre season. Two things occurred during this season that contributed to that. First, he walked more batters than he struck out. You may be thinking, "How did they let him start that many games if he did that?" or "How did he have a 4.67 ERA when he walked more than he struck out?" Well, that brings up the second bullet point. In 194.2 innings, Cornejo fanned just 46 batters, recording the lowest strikeout rate (2.13) since 1954 and no pitcher has gone lower since.


Cornejo struck out one batter in his first start but only lasted 1.1 innings. He recorded five strikeouts over his next two starts before going two starts without a strikeout. After he struck out Angel Berroa looking in the bottom of the seventh on April 18, he went 59 batters and two starts before getting Brook Fordyce swinging. He went two starts without a strikeout two more times during the season.


Over the entire season, Cornejo struck out four batters in a game once, July 24 at Cleveland. He also featured five three-strikeout efforts. Had Cornejo pitched in 2021, this probably never would have occurred. In 81-percent of his starts, he struck out two batters or less, and in 16 of his starts, it was one batter or less. He walked 58 batters to go with his 46 strikeouts on the season, which is wild. His most strikeouts in a three-start span were 9, which he recorded in his three starts on July 10, July 19 and July 24. For good measure, in his last six starts of the season, he fanned 13 batters, 28-percent of his strikeouts all season long. Imagine if he didn't strike out those batters, he would have finished with a 1.5 K/9 mark. Another crazy stat is that he averaged above 4 K/9 in his other three seasons in the big leagues.


His 2.13 strikeout rate over the full season was the lowest since 1954 when All-Star Sandy Consuegra struck out 31 in 154 innings for the White Sox, good for a 1.8 mark.


The lowest three K/9 from 1954-2003 were the following:

  • Bob Shaw, 1960 Chicago White Sox, 46 K in 192.2 IP, 2.15 K/9

  • Nate Cornejo, 2003 Detroit Tigers, 46 K in 194.2 IP, 2.13 K/9

  • Sandy Consuegra, 1954 Chicago White Sox, 31 K in 154 IP, 1.8 K/9

Lowest five K/9 from 2003-present:

  • Aaron Cook, 2007 Colorado Rockies, 61 K in 166 IP, 3.31 K/9

  • Danny Graves, 2003 Cincinnati Reds, 60 K in 169 IP, 3.20 K/9

  • Chien-Ming Wang, 2006 New York Yankees, 76 K in 218 IP, 3.14 K/9

  • Kirk Rueter, 2004 San Francisco Giants, 56 K in 190.1 IP, 2.65 K/9

  • Nate Cornejo, 2003 Detroit Tigers, 46 K in 194.2 IP, 2.13 K/9

It's pretty crazy that Cornejo just didn't strike out batters in that season. After Rueter's 2.65 mark in 2004, no pitcher has been below 3.0 K/9 in a full season, which is just how the game has changed. Today, the lowest K rates are routinely 4.0 or more. The only pitcher to go below 4 since 2010 was Henderson Alvarez III in 2012, who had a 3.8 mark.


Nate Cornejo's season in a microcosm was pretty incredible, and I'm glad I could take this deep statistical dive to bring this knowledge to you.


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