Consider if you will a paradox. This is a baseball paradox, a meeting of the new school and the old. On one hand, you have the ever-increasing strikeout rate. Batters are swinging and missing more than they ever have. The strikeout rate is ascending toward the heavens or descending in the other direction, depending on your personal preference. At the same time, we're witnessing the death of the 300-strikeout pitcher. There are more strikeouts. There are fewer strikeout pitchers.
This is the easily explainable conundrum zone.
So, like, pitchers are striking out more batters, but they're pitching far fewer innings. Which means 300-strikeout pitchers are less likely to exist.
Thanks for working through that with me. Now that we've figured that out, we'll move on to the next conundrum. Will we ever see a 300-strikeout pitcher again? It's been a while, with the last two 300-strikeout seasons coming in 2002, from teammates Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, who struck out a combined 650 batters, or five more than all 12 Twins starting pitchers combined for last year. After two pitchers did it in the same season, it's been 13 years since the last 300-strikeout pitcher.
Johnson and Nolan Ryan each struck out 300 or more in six different seasons. Sandy Koufax and Schilling both did it three times. Walter Johnson, Rube Waddell, Pedro Martinez, J.R. Richard, and Sam McDowell did it twice. There were a few frequent fliers, but just 14 pitchers have struck out 300 in a season out of the roughly 8,135 who have ever thrown a pitch. There have been just 33 seasons with 300 or more strikeouts. Still, with the ever-increasing strikeout rate, it seems like a milestone that's likely to be reached again, right?
It hasn't been easy lately.
|Number of 300-strikeout seasons|
The death of the 300-strikeout pitcher doesn't correlate perfectly with the death of the 300-inning pitcher, though. The last pitcher to throw 300 innings was Steve Carlton in 1980, and there have been 13 seasons with 300 or more strikeouts since then. It might correlate with the death of the 225-inning pitcher, though.
The increased strikeout rate isn't a lot of help if pitchers aren't racking up 225 innings. There are five-man rotations and the pitch-count panopticon to worry about, putting would-be contenders at a disadvantage. The 225-inning pitcher still exists, though. There were six last year, three the year before that, and 98 total since the last time Johnson and Schilling each had more than 300. How many strikeouts would a 225-inning pitcher need to average to get to 300?
13.3. Edit: This is wrong. The correct answer is 12. Which doesn't invalidate the thesis. It just makes me look retroactively dumb.
And how many pitchers have struck out 12 batters over a full season as a starter, with 200 innings or more?
Two. Randy Johnson up there, whose picture stays in after the edit because I like it, did it six times. Pedro Martinez did it once. It's freakishly rare for a pitcher to throw more than 200 innings and strikeout close to 12 batters per nine innings.
So we're left with four possibilities.
The innings go up
Here we are, possibly under the influence of misguided and unfortunate Mad Men nostalgia, watching pitchers chuck more innings. Maybe the biomechanics test came back from the lab, and everything's okay to chuck. Maybe the four-man rotation is back in vogue. It's hard to imagine this one, save a bizarre hyper-Maddux who finishes every complete game under 100 pitches.
Do you know what Randy Johnson was? He was a 6'10" lefty who slung his arm across his body and threw in the upper-90s, with an all-time slide. He developed above-average command in his 30s, striking out the world in the process.
In other words, he's a freak. A total anomaly. He's a Rhodes Scholar who boxed at Oxford before becoming a helicopter pilot in the Army who eventually landed a helicopter on Johnny Cash's front yard to give him demo tapes before dating Barbara Streisand and acting in a Steven Seagal movie. As in, don't expect the exact combination of Kris Kristofferson or Randy Johnson again. The universe burped, and it smelled like simmering garlic. Don't get used to it.
You can still hope for a superfreak, though. That would be Pedro Martinez, thin and reedy, with the command and changeup of the gods. It would be Greg Maddux, with the ability to put the ball there when the hitter was expecting the ball not there.
Possible Rule Changes
Possible Rule Changes
Hitters strike out more and more
Goodness this would be awful. In this world, Mark Reynolds is shaking his head ruefully at the kids who can't even make contact. The 200-strikeout barrier for a hitter isn't even a big deal, here. Whiff whiff whiff.
Look, I don't mind the high-strikeout rate nearly as much as my former cohort, but it's not hard to see that we're at something of an aesthetic tipping point. A murder of relievers striking out 18 batters for every 27 innings pitched -- and still allowing enough runs to blow the occasional save -- would be awful. It would be a three-point contest without anything else that makes the game great.
It's also hard to see the pendulum swinging that far into the abyss. It'll come back. Patience.
It's an unreachable milestone
No one throws 300 innings anymore. No one will ever challenge Cy Young's 511 wins until the nanobots take over and help exterminate us and no one will ever strike out 300 again.
Clayton Kershaw is about the best in the world at what he does. He was worked as hard as any other ace in baseball, and he was awesome enough last season to win the MVP. He still didn't come close to the innings pitched or strikeouts-per-nine marks we need for 300 strikeouts. He'd need to increase the strikeouts dramatically or throw dozens more innings in a season. Neither one is particularly likely, even for a wizard like Kershaw.
It might be unreachable.
The correct answer is probably a mixture of the first three. There will be a superfreak who gets to throw more innings than the typical modern ace, and he'll do it in an era of increased strikeouts. There will be a future Hall of Famer -- or, at least, a future force of nature, however brief -- that captures the imagination and stays healthy long enough to break the 300-strikeout barrier again.
It's not a given, which is bizarre. There are more batters striking out than ever before. Yet we're in the middle of a great 300-strikeout extinction. Something will correct itself. The next step is waiting to see what that something is.