Power pitchers: no longer the elite?
The true power pitcher has long been the province of the celebrated elite of the pitching fraternity. In its most elemental form, baseball is a competition between the batter and the pitcher, with every pitch a renewal of that contest. Long celebrated are those few pitchers who can, when most needed, blow the ball past the hitter to secure the key out. But those days may now be past.
In today’s baseball of K marks littering the scorecards of most ballgames, what once was a rare pitching skill is now just a commodity. Most every pitcher is now expected to be able to retire at least a handful or more of batters each game without aid of his defense.
After the jump, more on the demise of power pitching as an elite skill.
Let’s start by considering pitchers who can strikeout every 4th batter faced. Sustained over a season, that rate of strikeout efficiency is a huge aid to a defense. So, who was the first pitcher to reach this season mark? Dazzy Vance? Dizzy Dean? Bob Feller? Hal Newhouser?
In fact, it was none of those celebrated pitchers. Like the breaking of the four minute mile, smashing the 1 in 4 strikeout barrier fell to an unknown, a raw rookie who, when not blowing it by the hitters, had a tough time finding his catcher’s mitt (which makes the feat that much more impressive). Did anyone guess Herb Score? Herb, in fact, exceeded the 25% strikeout rate in both of his first two seasons before his career was tragically derailed by injury early in his third campaign.
Since Score, there have been 118 other such seasons by 50 different pitchers, 71 of them (60%) since 1997. In fact, the 29 pitchers to reach this standard for the first time since 1997 are significantly more than the 21 pitchers to do so prior to that year. Here’s the list of qualifying seasons with strikeouts exceeding 25% of batters faced.
|2012||4||Yu Darvish / Gio Gonzalez / Clayton Kershaw / Max Scherzer|
|2011||5||Zack Greinke / Clayton Kershaw / Cliff Lee / Brandon Morrow / Justin Verlander|
|2010||5||Mat Latos / Jon Lester / Tim Lincecum / Jonathan Sanchez / Jered Weaver|
|2009||7||Yovani Gallardo / Zack Greinke / Clayton Kershaw / Jon Lester / Tim Lincecum / Javier Vazquez / Justin Verlander|
|2007||5||Erik Bedard / A.J. Burnett / Scott Kazmir / Jake Peavy / Johan Santana|
|2006||2||Jake Peavy / Johan Santana|
|2005||3||Jake Peavy / Mark Prior / Johan Santana|
|2004||6||Randy Johnson / Pedro Martinez / Oliver Perez / Johan Santana / Jason Schmidt / Ben Sheets|
|2003||6||Pedro Martinez / Mark Prior / Curt Schilling / Jason Schmidt / Javier Vazquez / Kerry Wood|
|2002||5||Matt Clement / Randy Johnson / Pedro Martinez / Curt Schilling / Jason Schmidt|
|2001||4||Randy Johnson / Hideo Nomo / Curt Schilling / Kerry Wood|
|2000||4||Rick Ankiel / Bartolo Colon / Randy Johnson / Pedro Martinez|
|1999||2||Randy Johnson / Pedro Martinez|
|1998||6||Roger Clemens / Randy Johnson / Pedro Martinez / Curt Schilling / John Smoltz / Kerry Wood|
|1997||6||Roger Clemens / David Cone / Randy Johnson / Pedro Martinez / Hideo Nomo / Curt Schilling|
|1996||2||Hideo Nomo / John Smoltz|
|1995||2||Randy Johnson / Hideo Nomo|
|1994||2||Andy Benes / Randy Johnson|
|1991||2||Randy Johnson / Nolan Ryan|
|1990||2||David Cone / Nolan Ryan|
|1988||2||Roger Clemens / Sid Fernandez|
|1986||2||Nolan Ryan / Mike Scott|
|1985||2||Sid Fernandez / Dwight Gooden|
|1984||2||Dwight Gooden / Nolan Ryan|
|1978||2||J.R. Richard / Nolan Ryan|
|1968||2||Sam McDowell / Luis Tiant|
|1966||2||Dave Boswell / Sam McDowell|
|1965||3||Sandy Koufax / Sam McDowell / Sonny Siebert|
|1963||2||Sandy Koufax / Jim Maloney|
So, there have been at least 3 pitchers to do this in all but 3 of the past 16 seasons, whereas 3 pitchers reaching this standard happened in only one prior season, way back in 1965. Looking at just the past 6 seasons, the 25% threshold has been exceeded 27 times, including 18 times by pitchers reaching this mark for the first time. The range in quality, from Jonathan Sanchez to Justin Verlander is also rather stunning.
So, quite a number of pitchers have done this once or twice. But, who are the true elite to reach this standard with regularity.
|1||Randy Johnson||12||1991||2004||27-40||Ind. Seasons|
|2||Nolan Ryan||12||1972||1991||25-44||Ind. Seasons|
|3||Pedro Martinez||7||1997||2004||25-32||Ind. Seasons|
|4||Sandy Koufax||6||1960||1965||24-29||Ind. Seasons|
|5||Curt Schilling||5||1997||2003||30-36||Ind. Seasons|
|6||Johan Santana||4||2004||2007||25-28||Ind. Seasons|
|7||Hideo Nomo||4||1995||2001||26-32||Ind. Seasons|
|8||Clayton Kershaw||3||2009||2012||21-24||Ind. Seasons|
|9||Tim Lincecum||3||2008||2010||24-26||Ind. Seasons|
|10||Jake Peavy||3||2005||2007||24-26||Ind. Seasons|
|11||Jason Schmidt||3||2002||2004||29-31||Ind. Seasons|
|12||Kerry Wood||3||1998||2003||21-26||Ind. Seasons|
|13||Roger Clemens||3||1988||1998||25-35||Ind. Seasons|
|14||Sam McDowell||3||1965||1968||22-25||Ind. Seasons|
Overall, a much better quality of pitcher, as would be expected. But, some surprises, too. Quick – who guessed that Hideo Nomo had more seasons like this than Rocket Roger or Sudden Sam? Randy Johnson’s 12 seasons in 14 years, all the way into his forties speaks for itself. With better control when his strikeouts started to drop from stratospheric levels, Nolan Ryan would likely have registered more than the 12 years shown here, including, incredibly, his age 42, 43 and 44 seasons.
Let’s raise the bar a notch. Instead of striking out one batter in four, how about one in three. Has anyone done that over a season?
Okay, now we have some separation. Just 8 seasons, including 5 by Randy Johnson. But, you notice that the most recent of these seasons is back in 2001, more than a decade ago. Yet, in that time, strikeouts have continued to soar, with almost every season exceeding the last in setting a new high water mark. So, who have been the most elite power pitchers of the past decade?
Since Randy Johnson last struck out one of every three batters, that mark has been exceeded no less than 45 times (min. 50 IP) since 2002 by 34 different relievers, with these 10 turning the trick more than once.
|1||Eric Gagne||3||2002||2004||26-28||Ind. Seasons|
|2||Craig Kimbrel||2||2011||2012||23-24||Ind. Seasons|
|3||Kenley Jansen||2||2011||2012||23-24||Ind. Seasons|
|4||Aroldis Chapman||2||2011||2012||23-24||Ind. Seasons|
|5||Jonathan Papelbon||2||2007||2011||26-30||Ind. Seasons|
|6||Carlos Marmol||2||2007||2010||24-27||Ind. Seasons|
|7||Takashi Saito||2||2006||2007||36-37||Ind. Seasons|
|8||Joe Nathan||2||2005||2006||30-31||Ind. Seasons|
|9||B.J. Ryan||2||2004||2005||28-29||Ind. Seasons|
|10||Brad Lidge||2||2004||2005||27-28||Ind. Seasons|
Thus, it would seem that the new elite level in power pitching requires such exertion, it can’t possibly be sustained for the length of a start. Nor, judging by the 24 relievers to strike out one in three just once, can it be sustained for very long in a career.
So, what is the new threshold for elite power pitching? In fact, it was passed just in 2010 and has been matched in each of the following seasons. It is the rather improbable mark of 15 SO/9 (min. 50 IP), compiled only by these flame-throwers.
Will be interesting to watch how long this level of performance can be maintained.
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