June 20, 2001
Doctoring The Numbers
The Windy City
I think we all owe Oscar Acosta an apology.
You might recall that back in spring training, Acosta created a huge stir in the Cubs' spring training camp by questioning the manhood of some of the Cubs' young pitchers, particularly Will Ohman and Carlos Zambrano. At the time, we all thought Acosta was nuts. It appeared for all the world that Acosta was going to make men out of his young charges by working their arms like a galleymaster.
Appearances can be deceiving. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see now that Acosta's problems with Ohman had nothing to do with the fact that Ohman 's arm hurt. Acosta does not equate manhood with pitching through pain. No, when Acosta talks about whether a pitcher is man enough to be on his staff, he's referring to just one thing.
Strikeouts, like the 120 that Kerry Wood has in just 85 innings. That works out to 12.71 per 9 innings, a rate achieved by just one other starting pitcher in history:
Name Year K IP K/9 IP
As the list shows, though, Kerry Wood is no stranger to strikeouts. Wood could strike out a man an inning with Oscar the Grouch as his pitching coach.
But Kyle Farnsworth, the young fireballer who the Cubs have been all a-twitter about ever since he started hitting 98 on the radar gun consistently, came into the season with just 144 strikeouts in 207 major-league innings (and a 5.57 career ERA), and had never struck out a man an inning at any pro level. All Farnsworth has done this year is strike out 54 men in 33 innings, or 14.73 per nine innings. Among relievers with 50 or more innings, only two men have ever had a higher strikeout rate.
Name Year K IP K/9 IP
But hey, Farnsworth throws really, really hard; it was only a matter of time before the strikeouts came. How about Tom Gordon, who has struck out 29 men in 17 1/3 innings? Gordon's rate of 15.06 whiffs per nine innings is higher than Farnsworth's. It's higher than those of Benitez and Wagner. In fact, Gordon's strikeout rate is the highest in baseball history among pitchers with more than 10 innings.
Well sure, but Tom Gordon is an established pitcher with a great curveball and...um...OK, he just came back from Tommy John surgery. He hadn't pitched since May, 1999, and wasn't even ready to start the season. Yet now that he' s back, he's striking batters out at a historic pace.
Then there's Todd Van Poppel, the mother of all pitching flops, who had a 5.88 career ERA and hadn't struck out a man an inning since 1991 (in one appearance). He has 40 Ks in 28 2/3 innings, or 12.56 per game.
There's also Courtney Duncan, a 26-year-old rookie who was closing games in Double-A a year ago. He has 37 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings (10.86 per game).
Let's not forget the amazing Jeff Fassero, who has 35 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings (9.95 per game), at age 38, after never striking out a man an inning in any of his 10 previous major-league seasons.
That's five different Cub pitchers who have averaged more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings, and Fassero misses qualifying by a whisker. Here are the teams in major-league history with the most 10/10 pitchers (10 Ks per nine innings, 10 innings pitched) on their staff:
Team Year 10/10 Pitchers
Only three other teams have had even four 10/10 pitchers; the Cubs have five, and that's without the luxury of having the Big Unit leading the staff.
Almost as impressive as the Cubs' cavalcade of power pitchers has been the performances of a starting rotation that, aside from Wood, relies on command and guile more than pure heat.
Jason Bere, who was once a flame-thrower before numerous arm problems derailed his career, has 60 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings, a rate of 8.1 per game. From 1997 through 2000, his rate was just 6.75 per game.
Kevin Tapani has 54 strikeouts in 65 2/3 innings, or 7.4 per game. Much like Fassero, Tapani is recording the best strikeout rate of his career at age 37; he'd never struck out even seven men a game before this year.
Julian Tavarez looked like a future star after he went 10-2, 2.44 with the Indians as a 22-year-old rookie in 1995. After that season, in which Tavarez struck out 68 batters in 85 innings, Tavarez's performance headed south, and he was only able to carve a career for himself in middle relief, never posting an ERA under 3.80 and never striking out even 5.5 batters per nine innings. His career rate is 5.18 strikeouts per nine; last year, he struck out just 62 batters in 120 innings, or 4.65 per nine.
This season, Tavarez has 57 strikeouts in 79 2/3 innings, or 6.44 per nine. He also has a 3.39 ERA.
Only Jon Lieber, with a piddling 70 strikeouts in 100 2/3 innings (6.26 K/9), after striking out 192 batters in 251 innings last season (6.88 K/9), has seen his strikeout rate drop. Of course, Lieber has a career-best 3.32 ERA and has allowed barely a baserunner per inning, so Acosta hasn't exactly dropped the ball with his ace.
The Cubs have used nine pitchers for at least 25 innings this season. Six of them are posting the highest strikeout rates (in a season with at least 25 innings pitched) of their career. Two of the three others (Tavarez and Bere) had a higher strikeout rate just once, in their rookie seasons: 1995 for Tavarez, and 1992 for Bere.
Add it up, and the Cubs have struck out 594 men in 591 2/3 innings.
Let me repeat that: the Cubs have struck out 594 men. They've thrown 591 2/3 innings. They have more strikeouts than innings pitched.
The Cubs have struck out 9.04 men per nine innings. No team in major-league history has come particularly close to that mark:
Team Year K IP K/9 IP
With 594 strikeouts in 66 games, they're on pace to whiff 1,458 batters this season. That would shatter the old record by more than 200 strikeouts:
Team Year K
As amazing as the Cubs' strikeout numbers are, they're not alone. The Dodgers (553 strikeouts in 612 innings), the Yankees (555 Ks in 608 IP), and the Red Sox (542 Ks in 611 IP) are all on pace to break the Braves' record for strikeouts in a season. What in the name of Richie Sexson is going on here?
Well, strikeouts have been going up around baseball for years, and that increase has only accelerated since the strike ended. Of the top 25 strikeout totals recorded by pitching staffs in history, 22 of them have occurred since 1996.
Strikeouts originally peaked during the high-mound, big-strike-zone era of the mid-1960s. In 1967, the American League struck out an average of 6.14 times per game, a record that would stand until 1994, when the National League struck out 6.31 times per game. Since then, a new record has been set almost every year by the National League (on account of having pitchers bat instead of the DH). The highest league-wide strikeout rates ever:
National League American League
The climb in strikeout rates over the last six or seven years cannot be traced to any rule change, but rather to the sabermetric revolution that has begun to take hold in baseball. In short: players and teams are beginning to realize that strikeouts aren't significantly worse than any other kind of out, and if swinging for the fences all the time leads to more whiffs, so be it.
This season, though, there is a rule change that has directly led to more strikeouts. With the aid of the taller strike zone, strikeout rates have increased roughly 4% from last season's totals in each league. AL pitchers have fanned 6.43 batters per game, near their all-time record totals in 1997, and in the NL, pitchers have bumped up their strikeout rate to 6.96 batters per game, which would easily be an all-time record.
How times have changed. Between 1893--when the pitching rubber was moved to its current distance--and 1945, only seven pitchers ever struck out more batters per nine innings than the average NL pitcher has this season: Rube Waddell (five times), Bob Feller (four times), Dazzy Vance (three times), Walter Johnson (twice), Joe Wood, Rube Marquard, Dutch Leonard, and Johnny Vander Meer (once each).
So yes, there are some extenuating circumstances behind the Cubs' assault on the all-time strikeout record. But so what? Did Mark McGwire hit 70 homers in the dead-ball era? Did Ed Walsh win 41 games while pitching in a five-man rotation?
The fact is this: Oscar Acosta has taken a staff of boys and turned them into men. He has turned a pitching staff that struck out 1,143 men last season (fourth in the NL), and posted a 5.25 ERA (15th in the NL), into the most overpowering collection of flamethrowing, gas-cooking, cheese-chucking, deuce-bending, bat-sawing fireballers the world has ever seen.
And as any Cubs fan will no doubt tell you, the fact that they're on pace to strike out more than 1,400 men isn't the most impressive thing about the pitching staff. No, that would be the fact that the Cubs--the Chicago Cubs, who have to overcome the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field and the unfriendly tradition of 93 years without a championship--are leading the National League in ERA.
The last time that happened? 1945. Yes, that 1945.
Denizens of Hell, brace yourselves: the forecast is calling for a cold front to come through in about four months.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus.