“Who?”, you say. If somehow you have never heard of Jeremy Sowers (or don’t remember him), he was a bottom-of-the-rotation guy for the Indians in the last decade. Got off to a real nice start in a half-year rookie campaign in 2006. In 14 starts, Sowers went 7-4 with 126 ERA+ and a couple of shutouts. He wasn’t striking out many (3.6 SO/9) but made up for it with unusually good control for a young pitcher (2.0 BB/9).
Unfortunately, the promise of that first season was not fulfilled, as Sowers’ control started to fail him. Not horrendously, but it’s a fine line between success and failure when you’re not striking out many. The result was ERA+ scores for his next three seasons all on the wrong side of the century mark (actually, not even close to that mark). Sowers hasn’t pitched in the majors since losing to Dice-K and the Red Sox in the season-ending series of the 2009 season.
No doubt, there will always be pitchers who start impressively and then fizzle. So, what breed might Sowers be the last of? I’ll tell you more after the jump.
To side-track just for a moment – I mentioned that Sowers had two shutouts in his rookie season (which tied him for the AL lead, Sowers’ only black ink). In fact, those shutouts came in consecutive starts, blanking the Twins and Mariners on a combined 9 hits, 7 strikeouts and just 2 walks. The man was razor sharp – he threw just 42 pitches for balls in those 18 innings of work.
Of the hundreds of pitchers to throw shutouts in consecutive starts since 1916, Sowers is among only a handful (okay, a couple of handfuls) never to throw another whitewash. Here are the career lines for those hurlers.
In fact, most of those lines look a lot like Sowers’, and the ones in red, like Sowers, had their shutouts in their rookie seasons. So, maybe a topic there for a future post, but back to the topic of this one.
In Sowers’ final game in 2009, he issued a 2-out walk to Kevin Youkilis in what would be his last inning of work. That ran Sowers’ season walk total to 52 while his strikeouts stood at 51. Since then, no pitcher has allowed more walks than strikeouts in a season of 100 IP or more.
Maybe you’re saying “So what?”. However, 3 seasons in a row without any such pitchers is unprecedented. In fact, with a single exception, there has been at least one such pitcher in every prior season back to 1901. And, many more than one such pitcher in many of those years. Here’s what those data look like.
In fact, pitchers with more walks than strikeouts were not uncommon at all until the early 1950s, and even constituted a majority of 100 IP pitchers in the peak years. The change through the 1950s, though, was as dramatic as it was rapid. From 58 pitchers in 1949, the slide went all the way down to a just a single such pitcher 14 years later, in 1963.
The rule changes and further expansion started a spike up in 1969 that continued into the 1980s. However, the last season in double-digits was 12 in 1983 and, since 1991, there has been only one season (2003) with more than 5 such pitchers.
Obviously, with strikeout totals climbing every year and batters continuing to swing for the fences with abandon, it’s no surprise pitchers like Sowers have all but disappeared. It’s interesting to speculate, though, on what happened in the 1950s that seems to have started this change, as indicated by the chart below.
So, not surprisingly, strikeouts and walks were indeed pretty close to each other most of the time until the beginning of the 1950s. Then strikeouts started shooting up very rapidly, increasing by almost 50% (highlighted area) in just 10 years (1953 to 1963), a rate considerably faster than recently or at any other time. Why was that?
My hypothesis is that it had to do with a couple of young talents, one from Oklahoma and the other from Alabama. Both debuted as the 1950s got started, manning center field in ballparks on opposite banks of the Harlem River. Preceding their debut by a few years was another young talent, a Californian who also manned center field on a New York team. This trio, of course, was Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider.
These players, with their success and the the attractiveness of their brand of baseball, began to challenge the idea that striking out was baseball’s greatest sin, whether at a healthy clip (Mays), a whole lot (Snider), or even more than that (Mantle). Others tried this more aggressive style of hitting and many of them succeeded with it as well. The results of this change in batting approach are evident in the chart below showing trends in big-ball and small-ball results.
What did these changes look like on the diamond? Let’s look first at the pitchers. The table below shows statistics for all pitchers logging 500+ IP during the indicated periods.
[table id=93 /]
Obviously, some pretty dramatic changes. In the 1946-52 period, less than half of these pitchers had a SO/9 better than 4. That more than doubled to over 80% of pitchers in the 1953-63 period. Similarly, the ultra-low strikeouts group below 3 SO/9 had virtually vanished for the 1953-63 period after comprising almost one-sixth of pitchers in the immediate post-war period. Also worth noting are the 30 pitchers represented in both periods. Though strikeout totals normally decline as pitchers age, 17 of these 30 pitchers saw their SO/9 rates increase, by an average of over half a strikeout.
For the hitters, below are statistics for the high and low strikeout rate hitters with 2000+ PAs during the indicated periods.
[table id=94 /]
The ratio between the high-strikeout hitters (more than 8% of PAs) and the low-strikeout hitters (less than 6% of PAs) underwent a sea change in the two periods, from about a 2:1 ratio immediately after the war to almost 6:1 in the later period. The profile of the high and low strikeout groups also changed. Players striking out more than 10% of the time comprised less than half the high-strikeout group in 1946-52 period but over two-thirds of this group in the 1953-60 period. The reverse change happened in the low strikeout group where hitters striking out less than 5% of the time reduced from almost two-thirds of the group to less than half.
To finish off and pay tribute to a breed of pitcher we’re not likely to see again, here are a few lists. First, the longest careers for pitchers yielding more walks than the strikeouts they make.
|2||Sad Sam Jones||3883.0||0.88||1914||1935||21-42||647||487||250||36||229||217||.513||1396||1223||3.84||104||151||CLE-BOS-NYY-SLB-WSH-CHW|
And, the lowest career SO/BB ratios (min. 2000 IP).
And, the pitchers who couldn’t get above a career 1.0 SO/BB ratio (min. 1000 IP), even with a reasonable strikeout rate (at least, for the time).
Lastly, the ultra-low SO/BB pitchers (the ones who couldn’t strike you out). These guys had careers allowing more than 2 walks for each strikeout they made (not surprisingly, none reached 1000 IP).