After my piece on Monday the two Chicago Cubs who were selected to the All Star game, a reader of this site named Paul asked a question about who was the Chicago pitcher who just tied the record for the most consecutive games with 10 strikeouts or more. That would be left-hander Chris Sale, who pitches for the White Sox, also known as "the other Chicago team."
Sale's streak ended Monday night, so the record remains jointly held with Pedro Martinez of the Boston Red Sox who in 1999 accomplished the feat for eight games in a row.
It's an impressive achievement, make no mistake, but I'm not as taken with Sale's streak as some have been. The way baseball is played has changed over the years to the extent that striking out today doesn't have remotely the same "stigma" for batters as in the past --.even in fairly recent times but most especially 60 years ago and more. As recently as the 1990s, the era when Pedro Martinez set his record, it was an embarrassment for most batters to strike out 125 times a year. Through most of that decade, only the biggest free-swingers -- batters with big power, though low batting averages -- would exceed that, with league leaders in strikeouts reaching around 150 whiffs a season.
For historical perspective, Babe Ruth -- who swung for the fences so prodigiously that in 1920 he actually hit more home runs by himself than every other team in the American League! -- only averaged about 121 strikeouts a year.
Today, with contracts so massive, all the while rewarding home runs hitters more than ever before, figures above that, striking out 150-175 times a year (or beyond) is not only accepted, but almost becoming the norm for a lot of players.
There was an extremely funny, very popular TV ad for Nike in 1998 when eventual Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux was being ignored by the beautiful women pining for home run slugger Mark McGwire and wistfully said to fellow soon-to-be Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine, "Chicks dig the long ball."
So, too, do team owners doling out huge contracts. And that became eminently clear to batters as contracts grew into the stratosphere. And not coincidentally, what also grew into the stratosphere were strikeouts. It just didn't matter if you struck out, as long has you also hit a lot of home runs.
Okay, we're going to be diving into geek stat stuff now, but such is the minutiae of baseball.
Consider centerfielder Mike Trout, who many call the best all-around player in baseball today In fact, he was last year's Most Valuable Player in the American League. And that same year, as the MVP in the entire league, he struck out 184 times. By contrast to an earlier era, the most times that another acclaimed centerfielder, Joe DiMaggio, ever struck out in any season was just 39 -- and that was his rookie year, 1936, when he was adjusting to major league pitchers. (Even in his final season, 1951, when his skills had diminished enough that he retired from baseball the next year, he only struck out 36 times.) In fact, during his entire 13-year career -- the math might seem off, but that's because of three years missed for WWII military service -- Joe DiMaggio only struck out 369 times, total. In Mike Trout's career, which at this point has only been under four seasons, he has already struck out 571 times. (Extrapolate that out over the same time frame as DiMaggio played, and it works out to 2,427 strikeouts for Trout's career. Hank Aaron -- as great a power hitter as baseball has ever had -- only struck out half that -- 1,383 times...and it took him 23 seasons!)
This isn't to single out Mike Trout for striking out. He's a great player. Just to note that today, the great players have no qualms about striking out. And the free-est swingers today strike out even far more. The year before Trout led the American League in striking out, Chris Carter led the league with 212 strikeouts. And the year before that, Adam Dunn led the AL with 222 K's. Mark Reynolds has struck out over 200 times in a year three times in the past seven years! (He holds the season record with 223.) For his career, Joe DiMaggio averaged only 28 strikeouts a year. Hank Aaron averaged 62 a year.
Okay, so maybe you want a comparison closer to the current era? Fine. Only 15 years ago, power-hitter Matt Williams led the National League in home runs with 43. Yet he only struck out 87 times. Compare that to Chris Carter's 212 strikeouts just 13 years later.
Or even more recent than that. Barry Bonds holds the record for most home runs in the history of baseball. He only retired in 2007, just eight years ago. Bonds averaged only 83 strikeouts a year. That's 101 fewer than Mike Trout in his MVP year.
That's how big and quickly the change has been.
Fun stat: one of my all-time favorite players is Hall of Fame second baseman Nellie Fox of the Chicago White Sox. (No, not the Cubs, believe it or not, but the White Sox...) To be clear, by no stretch of the imagination was he a free-swinging home run hitter. He was a slap hitter who used a thick barrel-bat for contact and only managed 35 home runs his entire 19-year career. But in that career, which ended in 1965, he only struck out a paltry 216 times in 10,351 at bats. Three years ago, Adam Dunn struck out 222 times in just 649 at bats. Yes, Dunn had more home runs that one year than Fox did in his full career, but we're looking at strikeouts here. And it's pretty clear that the times they are a-changing..
Which brings us back to the record of Pedro Martinez that Chris Sale just tied, for the sake of direct comparison. Even in the 1999 season when Martinez set his record -- just a mere 16 years ago and strikeouts had already begun to rise -- the two batters who led their respective leagues in whiffs that year each had 171. And that pales compared to Adam Dunn's 222 by 51 strikeouts fewer. Time was when that 51 strikeouts alone was a lot for a season.
(It would have taken Joe DiMaggio two full years just to make up that 51-strikeout difference...!)
So, eight games pitched in a row with 10 or more strikeouts is a notable achievement -- no one has done more, even in this era of free swingers. But perspective is needed to recognize its place in baseball achievements.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
Feedspot Badge of Honor