Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 8, 2010
BASEBALL: Strasmas Eve
It's unlikely that Strasburg will be as revolutionary from the outset as Bob Feller. Between the dawn of the 4-ball-3-strike era in 1889 and 1935, only six pitchers struck out at least 8 batters per 9 innings in a season of 25 or more innings. Three of those six (28-year-old Norwegian-born Jimmy Wiggs with 37 K and 29 BB in 41.1 IP in 1905, 22-year-old Marty O'Toole with 34 K and 20 BB in 38 IP in 1911, and 25-year-old Roy Parmalee with 23 K and 14 BB in 25.1 IP in 1932) were essentially short-season flukes by wild pitchers who were never able to duplicate those strikeout rates over anything like a full season of innings. One was 26-year-old "won't you come home" Bill Bailey, whose career 4.2 K/9 rate more than doubled to 9.16 in 128.2 IP in the Federal League's inaugural 1914 season, but dropped to 4.9 the next year and never topped 3.1 again. The other two, at 8.39 and 8.20, were the peak seasons of baseball's true strikeout master to that point, Rube Waddell, at the peak of his powers at age 26-27.
Feller, age 17, struck out 76 batters in 62 innings in the American League, over 11 men per 9 innings. While allowing just one home run. His ERA was 3.34, although he walked 6.8 men per 9. His numbers after joining the rotation August 23 were even more staggering: 8 starts, a 2.67 ERA, 41 hits allowed, 70 K (11.67 per 9). This, in a league where the average pitcher struck out 3.3 men per 9, walked 4, had a 5.04 ERA and the average hitter batted .289/.363/.421. Feller made the cover of Time Magazine in April of the next year, before an Opening Day start in which he fanned 11 men in 6 innings (Feller made just two more appearances, in relief, before joining the rotation on July 4; he had to finish high school first). In his second season, in 148.2 IP, Feller struck out 150 men at age 18, becoming as a teen the only man after 1889 outside the Federal League to clear a strikeout per inning for more than 100 innings. In those first two seasons, he was a strikeout-inducing force such as the game had not seen. Feller's K rate settled down a bit after that, but in 1891.2 innings between age 17 and 27 (interrupted by joining the Navy for World War II, where he saw combat as a gun captain on the USS Alabama, and punctuated by a 1946 barnstorming tour facing a Satchel Paige-led Negro League team a year before the color line broke), he struck out 1640 batters and allowed just 71 home runs, posting a 2.96 ERA. Feller's 7.8 K/9 over that 11-year span dominated the majors; only two other pitchers with 1000 innings pitched over those years struck out more than 5.71 per 9 (Hal Newhouser at 6.26, Johnny Vander Meer at 6.06, and Newhouser racked up some of his biggest K numbers during the war). Feller, a physical marvel at 17, was the starting pitcher in the Cooperstown Classic old-timers game last year at 90, and plans to pitch again this year at 91.
It's also unlikely that Strasburg will be as dominant a phenom as Dwight Gooden. Gooden's then-record 11.39 K/9 as a 19-year-old in 1984 was just a warmup; his 1.53 ERA in 1985's 24-4 season was, relative to the league (ERA+ of 229), the 7th-best ERA to that point in a season of 200+ innings (it's 11th now, with the addition of two better seasons apiece by Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez), and is still the only ERA+ of 200 or better in a 200-inning season by a pitcher under age 22. And in raw terms, as I noted last week, if you include unearned runs he had the 4th fewest runs allowed per inning of all time, at 1.66 runs/9. At his peak, over 50 starts stretching from August 11, 1984 through May 6, 1986, Gooden was 37-5 with a 1.38 ERA (1.51 if you count unearned runs), completed half his starts and threw shutouts in almost a quarter, averaged 8.1 innings per start, 9.2 K per 9, 2.0 BB, and 0.38 HR.
Since 1900, the ten winningest pitchers through age 21, ERA+ of 120 or better (Feller & Gooden are still comfortably 1-2 if you include guys with lesser ERAs; Amos Rusie and Kid Nichols join if you go back to 1890):
1. Bob Feller: 82-41 (.667), 3.19 ERA (140 ERA+), 973 K (7.92 per 9)
Pretty good company, if you can reach it. But Strasburg doesn't need to be as revolutionary as Feller or as dominant as Gooden or as great over as long a career as Paige or Walter Johnson to deliver on enough of the hype to satisfy. There's still plenty of room in between to dream.