Thursday night my phone started chiming with “Score Alerts” notifying me Yu Darvish was striking out a whole lot of Diamondbacks batters in the Rangers’ eventual 7-1 victory in Arlington. The Japanese righty had racked up 12 strikeouts in the first five innings. By the sixth he had 14. Quick math: Darvish needed six strikeouts over the final nine outs to tie the single-game, nine-inning mark held by Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood at 20.
After noticing the alerts, the first thing I instinctively looked at was, yep, the pitch count. After the sixth Darvish was already at 98 pitches. 100 pitches seems to be the magic number where a pitcher’s arm turns into a pumpkin, or a manager begins to get heat for leaving somebody in too long. Darvish, Washington and pitch counts is a topic often discussed.
Granted, Thursday this never evolved into a potential debate. The Rangers were up comfortably. During the seventh Darvish gave up a couple hits and didn’t fan a batter and left after 111 pitches. He finished with his fourth 14-strikeout game of the season. In an era where players are striking out more than they ever had, Darvish is the clear ‘King of the K.’
This all got me thinking: what if Darvish recorded two strikeouts in the seventh to get to 16. Would Washington have left him in? The argument is worth considering. On one hand, why waste your ace for another 30+ pitches in a game that you’ve got in the bag? By the same token, isn’t part of what makes sports fun in the first place is when players chase or attempt to set new records? (Yes, I know this is not a popular viewpoint to admit in a public forum nowadays. Fun and history tend to be beaten down by cold, hard analytics.)
Darvish is a bit of a pitching freak. According to stats compiled by ESPN Dallas, he threw more than 130 pitches in seven of his 28 starts in 2011 — his final season in Japan. Granted, with a scheduled off-day every week in Japan there’s more time for a pitcher to recoup between starts. If a current Major League pitcher is going to make a run at 20 strikeouts in a game, it’s probably Darvish thanks to his stamina and variety of pitches.
Earlier this year Anibal Sanchez posted a 17-strikeout game vs. the Braves, but he was pulled after eight innings and 122 pitches. Again, this was another blowout, with the Tigers ahead 10-0 at the time. No sense wasting the proverbial bullets in a pitchers arm in April.
Still, with managers and front office personnel so caught up in pitch counts, you have to wonder if the 20-strikeout game will end up as one of baseball’s unbreakable records as we move forward?
For some comparison, Baseball-Reference doesn’t list a pitch count on Clemens’ 20-strikeout game vs. the Mariners in 1986. Ten years later his 20-strikeout game vs. the Tigers, Clemens threw 151 pitches, which would likely cause many pundits (Michael Kay for example) heads to explode. Kerry Wood, in his famous record-setting day vs. the Astros in April, 1998, needed 122 pitches.
Eight pitchers have thrown a game with 19 strikeouts, including Randy Johnson twice. Both games came in 1997. Johnson needed 148 pitches to strike out 19 White Sox and then 142 pitches in a loss to the Athletics. The 18-strikeout game has happened 13 different times. The only one this century, believe it or not, was thrown by Ben Sheets pitching for the Brewers against the Braves in 2004 and he need 116 pitches.
If there’s any chance for a pitcher to match Clemens or Wood, he’ll have to either be super efficient or have a manager (and organization) which still places value on the baseball record book. Darvish’s best chance to make a run at 20 will likely come during a game in a National League park where he can conserve some pitches throwing against his opposing pitcher.
Clemens and Woods might not have company for a while, if ever.