A Brief History of the Strikeout

The Twins failed to do a lot of things in 2011: stay healthy, hit well, climb out of last place. To that list, you can add “strike batters out.” Twins pitchers put away just 940 opposing hitters last year. That total would be pretty impressive back before 1960 or so, but it is not a happy number in the modern era.

According to this box score by Retrosheet, the first batter ever to strike out in a Major League game was Art Allison of the Cleveland Forest Citys (the fact that his team could not spell “Cities” correctly adds insult to the injury of that strikeout) on May 4, 1981. Mr. Allison whiffed against Bobby Mathews, the ace and in fact only pitcher on the roster of the Fort Wayne Kekiongas (I swear I am not making these team names up). Fortunately for Allison, Kekionga catcher Bill Lennon dropped the third strike, and Allison reached safely. Undaunted, Mathews came back to strike out the next batter, Elmer White, and four more hitters in the game, giving him the first six strikeouts in MLB history. His mound opponent, Al Pratt, failed to strike out a single Kekionga that day, but he actually went on to lead the league in strikeouts in that first season with a grand total of 34. He also led the league with a whopping 1.362 strikeouts per nine innings.

Though the strikeout was not a big feature of the game in the first years, Dead Ball Era pitchers evidently learned their craft pretty quickly. The National League was founded in 1876, and NL pitchers struck out just 1.1 per nine innings, but that jumped to 2.0 the next year and 2.9 in 1888. League averages hovered around 3.0 K/9 for most of the rest of the century. The first American League strikeout champ was Denton True Young, better known by his nickname, “Cy,” with 158 in 1901. Young had also led the NL in 1896 with 140. He is arguably the most legendary pitcher of all time, and he pitched 22 seasons (often racking up 400 or more innings pitched per year), but he reached 200 strikeouts in a season just twice, or once more than Francisco Liriano.

Francisco Liriano: Almost as good as Walter Johnson. Photo by Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

The new century brought one of the game’s first genuine strikeout artists: Walter Johnson. Johnson, who pitched his entire career for the Washington Senators long before they moved to Minnesota, is still the Twins’ franchise strikeout leader. His 3,509 K total is about 1,500 ahead of Bert Blyleven. Still, pitchers as a whole did not strike out too many batters. Rates stayed below 3.0 K/9 through the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. In fact, for many of those seasons, pitchers actually walked more batters than they struck out. In 1929, for example, they averaged 2.9 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9, and by 1950 it was 3.9 K/9 and a hefty 4.1 BB/9.

Things started to change in the late 50s. Walk rates dropped and strikeout rates climbed. The rise of relief pitching might be partly responsible; a fresh pitcher in the late innings has an advantage over a hitter. Whatever the reason, the 1960s were a decade of pitcher supremacy. By 1968, the famous “Year of the Pitcher,” the K/9 was almost up to 6.0. Then they lowered the mound, and the AL introduced the DH, and strikeouts stopped being so popular.

The modern era of the strikeout began in the mid 90s. Power pitchers like Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens emerged just as hitters were starting to swing for the fences. Performance enhancing drugs almost certainly played a part as well; not only did they add a few mph to a good fastball, but they also encouraged hitters to take more chances on home run cuts. But even after baseball cleaned up PEDs, the strikeouts remained. 2009 was the first year baseball averaged 7.0 K/9.

The Twins, meanwhile, seem to be stuck back in the early 90s with their K rates. They were dead last in the AL last year with 6.0 strikeouts per nine. All four AL playoff teams (the Yankees, Tigers, Rays, and Rangers) averaged 7.0 K/9 or above. This is not a coincidence.

In the modern game of baseball, teams need to be able to come up with strikeouts in key situations in order to win. If a pitcher cannot strike batters out, he has to rely on his defense. At the best of times, that is a game of chance. At the worst of times, i.e. when the fielders are the 2011 Twins, it’s a great way to give up a lot of hits.

Hopefully, Liriano and Scott Baker can stay on the mound this year, because they are the only Twins starters who can be above average strikeout pitchers. And it would be nice if the team could find a pitcher or two in the bullpen who could average more than a strikeout per inning. It’s time to catch up with the times, Twins!

 

Topics: Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Walter Johnson

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