“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.

Rk Player SHO From To Age G GS CG W L W-L% SV IP BB SO ERA ERA+ HR Tm
1 Jeremy Sowers 2 2006 2009 23-26 72 71 2 18 30 .375 0 400.0 132 174 5.17 84 49 CLE
2 Rolando Arrojo 2 1998 2002 29-33 158 105 4 40 42 .488 6 700.0 255 512 4.55 108 83 TBD-TOT-BOS
3 Greg Harris 2 1988 1995 24-31 243 109 10 45 64 .413 16 909.1 303 605 3.98 102 103 SDP-TOT-COL-MIN
4 Dave Righetti 2 1979 1995 20-36 718 89 13 82 79 .509 252 1403.2 591 1112 3.46 114 95 NYY-SFG-TOT-CHW
5 Kurt Kepshire 2 1984 1986 24-26 51 46 2 16 15 .516 0 270.1 119 144 4.16 85 25 STL
6 Jim Hughes 2 1974 1977 22-25 78 62 16 25 30 .455 0 441.1 205 226 4.30 88 36 MIN
7 Don Rudolph 2 1957 1964 25-32 124 57 10 18 32 .360 3 450.1 102 182 4.00 97 54 CHW-TOT-WSA
8 Curt Barclay 2 1957 1959 25-27 44 29 5 10 9 .526 0 199.1 55 73 3.48 113 24 NYG-SFG
9 Dick Weik 2 1948 1954 20-26 76 26 3 6 22 .214 1 213.2 237 123 5.90 73 15 WSH-TOT-DET
10 Ed Klieman 2 1943 1950 25-32 222 32 10 26 28 .481 33 542.0 239 130 3.49 101 17 CLE-TOT-PHA
11 Clem Hausmann 2 1944 1949 24-29 64 25 7 9 14 .391 4 263.0 131 73 4.21 82 11 BOS-PHA
12 Ray Prim 2 1933 1946 26-39 116 34 10 22 21 .512 4 351.0 72 161 3.56 107 21 WSH-PHI-CHC
13 Bill Weir 2 1936 1939 25-28 29 11 4 6 4 .600 0 106.1 50 42 3.55 105 4 BSN
14 Roxie Lawson 2 1930 1940 24-34 208 83 34 47 39 .547 11 851.2 512 258 5.37 89 70 CLE-DET-TOT-SLB
15 Cy Moore 2 1929 1934 24-29 147 39 13 16 26 .381 3 466.1 168 181 4.86 86 29 BRO-PHI
16 Spades Wood 2 1930 1931 21-22 24 17 6 6 9 .400 0 122.0 78 56 5.61 78 6 PIT
17 Al Grabowski 2 1929 1930 27-28 39 14 5 9 6 .600 1 157.0 57 65 4.07 123 7 STL
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/30/2013.

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.

More Walks than Strikeouts

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.

Strikeout and Walk Levels

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.

Post-War Batting Trends

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.

1946-521953-63
500+ IP Count110179
SO/9 > 61.8%17.9%
SO/9 > 513.6%47.5%
SO/9 > 440.0%83.2%
SO/9 < 315.5%1.1%

 

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.

2000+ PAs1946-521953-60
SO/PA > 8% Count5495
SO/PA > 10%46.3%67.4%
SO/PA > 12%24.1%45.3%
SO/PA > 15%5.6%12.6%
SO/PA < 6% Count2917
SO/PA < 5%62.1%47.1%
SO/PA < 4%37.9%23.5%

 

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.

Rk Player IP SO/BB From To Age G GS CG SHO W L W-L% BB SO ERA ERA+ HR Tm
1 Ted Lyons 4161.0 0.96 1923 1946 22-45 594 484 356 27 260 230 .531 1121 1073 3.67 118 222 CHW
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
3 Earl Whitehill 3564.2 0.94 1923 1939 24-40 541 473 226 16 218 185 .541 1431 1350 4.36 100 192 DET-WSH-CLE-CHC
4 Tom Zachary 3126.1 0.79 1918 1936 22-40 533 408 186 24 186 191 .493 914 720 3.73 107 118 PHA-WSH-SLB-TOT-NYY-BSN-BRO
5 Bucky Walters 3104.2 0.99 1934 1950 25-41 428 398 242 42 198 160 .553 1121 1107 3.30 116 155 PHI-TOT-CIN-BSN
6 Bump Hadley 2945.2 0.91 1926 1941 21-36 528 355 135 14 161 165 .494 1442 1318 4.24 105 167 WSH-TOT-SLB-NYY
7 Howard Ehmke 2820.2 0.99 1915 1930 21-36 427 338 199 20 166 166 .500 1042 1030 3.75 104 103 BUF-DET-BOS-TOT-PHA
8 Guy Bush 2722.0 0.99 1923 1945 21-43 542 308 151 16 176 136 .564 859 850 3.86 104 151 CHC-PIT-TOT-BSN-STL-CIN
9 Danny MacFayden 2706.0 0.91 1926 1943 21-38 465 334 158 18 132 159 .454 872 797 3.96 101 112 BOS-TOT-NYY-BSN-PIT-WSH
10 Wes Ferrell 2623.0 0.95 1927 1941 19-33 374 323 227 17 193 128 .601 1040 985 4.04 116 132 CLE-BOS-TOT-NYY-BRO-BSN
11 Willis Hudlin 2613.1 0.80 1926 1944 20-38 491 328 155 11 158 156 .503 846 677 4.41 102 118 CLE-TOT-SLB
12 Eddie Rommel 2556.1 0.83 1920 1932 22-34 500 249 147 18 171 119 .590 724 599 3.54 121 138 PHA
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/31/2013.

And, the lowest career SO/BB ratios (min. 2000 IP).

Rk Player SO/BB IP From To Age G GS CG SHO W L W-L% BB SO ERA ERA+ HR Tm
1 Vern Kennedy 0.66 2025.2 1934 1945 27-38 344 263 126 7 104 132 .441 1049 691 4.67 95 130 CHW-DET-TOT-SLB-CLE
2 Jack Russell 0.73 2050.2 1926 1940 20-34 557 182 71 3 85 141 .376 571 418 4.46 97 83 BOS-TOT-WSH-DET-CHC-STL
3 Bill Dietrich 0.74 2003.2 1933 1948 23-38 366 253 92 17 108 128 .458 890 660 4.48 92 129 PHA-TOT-CHW
4 Milt Gaston 0.74 2105.0 1924 1934 28-38 355 269 127 10 97 164 .372 836 615 4.55 96 114 NYY-SLB-WSH-BOS-CHW
5 Tom Zachary 0.79 3126.1 1918 1936 22-40 533 408 186 24 186 191 .493 914 720 3.73 107 118 PHA-WSH-SLB-TOT-NYY-BSN-BRO
6 Willis Hudlin 0.80 2613.1 1926 1944 20-38 491 328 155 11 158 156 .503 846 677 4.41 102 118 CLE-TOT-SLB
7 Eddie Rommel 0.83 2556.1 1920 1932 22-34 500 249 147 18 171 119 .590 724 599 3.54 121 138 PHA
8 Bob Harmon 0.83 2054.0 1909 1918 21-30 321 240 143 15 107 133 .446 762 634 3.33 90 44 STL-PIT
9 Rip Sewell 0.85 2119.1 1932 1949 25-42 390 243 137 20 143 97 .596 748 636 3.48 108 116 DET-PIT
10 Clarence Mitchell 0.87 2217.0 1911 1932 20-41 390 278 145 12 125 139 .473 624 543 4.12 95 116 DET-CIN-BRO-PHI-TOT-STL-NYG
11 Jimmy Ring 0.87 2357.1 1917 1928 22-33 389 294 154 9 118 149 .442 953 833 4.13 96 105 CIN-PHI-NYG-STL
12 Sid Hudson 0.88 2181.0 1940 1954 25-39 380 279 123 11 104 152 .406 835 734 4.28 95 136 WSH-TOT-BOS
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/31/2013.

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).

Rk Player SO/9 SO/BB IP From To Age G GS CG SHO GF W L W-L% BB SO ERA ERA+ HR Tm
1 Mickey McDermott 5.17 0.90 1316.2 1948 1961 19-32 291 156 54 11 86 69 69 .500 838 757 3.91 106 86 BOS-WSH-NYY-KCA-DET-TOT
2 Tommy Byrne 5.06 0.74 1362.0 1943 1957 23-37 281 170 65 12 72 85 69 .552 1037 766 4.11 97 98 NYY-TOT-SLB
3 Turk Lown 5.01 0.97 1032.0 1951 1962 27-38 504 49 10 1 255 55 61 .474 590 574 4.12 97 105 CHC-TOT-CHW
4 Jack Wilson 4.69 0.98 1131.2 1934 1942 22-30 281 121 50 5 98 68 72 .486 601 590 4.59 103 73 PHA-BOS-TOT
5 Ken Chase 4.50 0.84 1165.0 1936 1943 22-29 188 160 62 4 18 53 84 .387 694 582 4.27 96 55 WSH-BOS-TOT
6 Kirby Higbe 4.48 0.99 1952.1 1937 1950 22-35 418 238 98 11 104 118 101 .539 979 971 3.69 102 116 CHC-TOT-PHI-BRO-PIT-NYG
7 Walt Masterson 4.45 0.92 1649.2 1939 1956 19-36 399 184 70 15 115 78 100 .438 886 815 4.15 97 101 WSH-TOT-BOS-DET
8 Monte Pearson 4.43 0.95 1429.2 1932 1941 23-32 224 191 94 5 24 100 61 .621 740 703 4.00 112 82 CLE-NYY-CIN
9 Doc Scanlan 4.20 0.96 1252.0 1903 1911 22-30 181 149 102 15 26 65 71 .478 608 584 3.00 93 15 PIT-TOT-BRO
10 Roy Parmelee 4.13 0.97 1120.1 1929 1939 22-32 206 145 55 5 41 59 55 .518 531 514 4.27 89 68 NYG-STL-CHC-PHA
11 Bump Hadley 4.03 0.91 2945.2 1926 1941 21-36 528 355 135 14 108 161 165 .494 1442 1318 4.24 105 167 WSH-TOT-SLB-NYY
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/31/2013.

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).

Rk Player IP SO/BB From To Age G GS CG SHO W L W-L% BB SO ERA ERA+ HR Tm
1 Sugar Cain 987.1 0.49 1932 1938 25-31 178 137 58 2 53 60 .469 569 279 4.83 96 67 PHA-TOT-CHW
2 Claude Willoughby 841.1 0.43 1925 1931 26-32 219 102 33 4 38 58 .396 406 175 5.84 81 56 PHI-PIT
3 Les Sweetland 740.2 0.44 1927 1931 25-29 161 96 38 3 33 58 .363 358 159 6.10 77 68 PHI-CHC
4 Ernie Wingard 688.1 0.32 1924 1927 23-26 145 77 36 0 29 43 .403 317 101 4.64 96 32 SLB
5 Ted Wingfield 553.1 0.38 1923 1927 23-27 113 58 31 3 24 44 .353 181 68 4.18 103 24 WSH-TOT-BOS
6 Bob Kline 441.2 0.45 1930 1934 20-24 148 37 8 1 30 28 .517 195 87 5.05 87 24 BOS-TOT
7 Curt Fullerton 423.0 0.49 1921 1933 22-34 115 43 18 0 10 37 .213 211 104 5.11 83 20 BOS
8 Curly Ogden 377.2 0.47 1922 1926 21-25 93 38 19 4 18 19 .486 186 88 3.79 108 13 PHA-TOT-WSH
9 George Grant 347.1 0.49 1923 1931 20-28 114 23 8 1 15 20 .429 182 89 5.65 75 16 SLB-CLE-PIT
10 Skinny Graham 278.0 0.49 1924 1929 24-29 67 37 9 0 11 22 .333 125 61 5.02 80 11 BSN-DET
11 Joe Giard 277.2 0.41 1925 1927 26-28 68 36 11 4 13 15 .464 173 71 5.96 75 21 SLB-NYY
12 Boots Poffenberger 267.1 0.44 1937 1939 21-23 57 32 13 1 16 12 .571 149 65 4.75 103 17 DET-BRO
13 Bobby Reis 242.2 0.36 1935 1938 26-29 69 9 5 0 10 13 .435 144 52 4.27 88 12 BRO-BSN
14 Don Songer 202.1 0.45 1924 1927 25-28 71 17 5 1 10 14 .417 98 44 3.38 117 9 PIT-TOT
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/31/2013.

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