Strikeouts are up this season, and this quartet of untouchable closers is driving the trend.
The evolution of pitching in the 21st century has trended toward increased specialization, to the point of eight-man bullpens and strict pitch counts for starters. The complete game has all but vanished from the baseball lexicon, and most pitching staffs are now structured with the goal of getting through six innings with a lead before handing the ball to the bullpen. Frequent pitching changes have been unkind to the hardcore fan base, slowing the pace of the game when the drama is at its peak, but the stats reflect the advantages that are gained through the tireless recycling of arms.
Major League Baseball has witnessed a historic trend toward increasing strikeouts, with 2012's league-wide K rate of 19.7 percent (through Wednesday) representing the highest figure of all time. The 1.1-point jump in strikeout percentage from 2011 is the largest season-to-season gain in 25 years. Interestingly, we are not in the middle of some historic home run binge, and the 300-K starter has gone the way of the dodo in the span of about 10 years. Mere memories remain of the exploits of Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, while 2011 strikeout kings Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw hit the ceiling at 250 strikeouts, a level that no pitcher is likely to crack this season. The 300-K starter has been replaced by the 100-K reliever.
Kenley Jansen isn't the first player to pitch with a heart condition, as Bill Veeck reminds us.
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen hasn’t pitched since August 27th, when he suffered a recurrence of the irregular heartbeat that put him in the hospital last season. Jansen is taking blood thinners, though he may undergo a procedure called cardiac ablation over the offseason, which would allow him to go without the medication. He hopes to pitch again this month.
Sam checks in on several of his articles from earlier this season to see whether what he wrote made sense.
July 18 is as good a time as any to go back and read old pieces to see whether they make a lick of sense in hindsight. It is as good a time as any because there is, from the writer’s perspective, no good time to do this without wondering why that thing was written in the first place. Baseball is really just a lifelong project to break down any sense of certainty you might have about cause and effect.
Nonetheless, let’s review a few of the conclusions I made in March, April, and May to see what new information tells us.
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Bryce Harper, at 19, has faced four of the best strikeout pitchers in history. Here's how he has done.
I was lying on the floor Saturday, throwing a pen up in the air and catching it, and wondering when Bryce Harper would face Clayton Kershaw so I could watch it. Typical Saturday stuff. And it occurred to me: Kershaw? Who cares about Kershaw? He’s the best pitcher in the National League, sure, but Kershaw over seven innings isn’t nearly as dominant as the most dominant relievers are in just one inning. Even without facing Kershaw, Bryce Harper has faced almost-impossible pitching in the majors. The five pitchers Harper has faced with the highest strikeout rates this year:
Is Kenley Jansen ready to close? Sam analyzes his incipient save celebration's suitability for the ninth inning.
Kenley Jansen pitched his first game on July 30, 2009. He worked a scoreless fourth inning for Inland Empire, struck out one batter, and that was it. Kenley Jansen, whom we had described as “the system’s best hope at catcher” just six months earlier, was a pitcher. Three days later, he allowed two runs in his second outing. Three days after that, he allowed three runs in his third outing, and his ERA was 22.50. Pitching is not supposed to be a simple thing. Experience matters. Making adjustments matters. Kenley Jansen has made a lot of adjustments, and he is a thrilling pitcher, and after I watch him I want to hop in a car and drive really fast and make sharp turns. But closing games isn't just about throwing strikes and getting outs and converting saves. There's the matter of the post-save ritual.
There are all sorts of post-save rituals, and not every closer dodges Matrix bullets like Jose Valverde. Last summer, Jeff Sullivan classified all 30 major-league closers' victory celebrations and grouped them into seven categories: the indifferent; the acknowledgers; the glove punchers; the fist pumpers; the adorable tiny hoppers; the showstoppers; and the other, which included only one closer, whom we might say is in a League of his own. Because he's Brandon League. That's why we capitalized League and said it like that.
The Cardinals try to get through spring training with both aces intact despite Chris Carpenter's bulging disc, Kenley Jansen listens to his heartbeat and doesn't like what he hears, and Giancarlo Stanton and Nolan Reimold lose battles with balls.
Chris Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals (Bulging disc in neck)
Carpenter has been dealing with stiffness and pain in his neck for about a week and was sent for further tests that revealed a bulging disc. That wasn’t the worst diagnosis in the world, but it could have been better.
There are multiple ways in which a bulging disc can cause pain. The muscles and tissues around the neck can become painful as they strain to stabilize the area and take pressure off the injured disc, and the bulge can be so big that it puts pressure either on the nerves exiting the spinal cord or on the spinal cord itself. By all reports, Carpenter does not have a disc that is bulging to the point where it presses on the nerves. In cases like this, physical therapy focuses on decreasing pain and inflammation as well as strengthening the area. An epidural injection may also be considered to relieve the inflammation, but that does not appear to be in the works quite yet.