19to21: October 1, 2008
Honoring the Kings of Ks
19 to 21
No, that’s not how many strikeouts Mark Reynolds had this month, it’s
Baseball...Then and Now
Wouldn’t you just know it? Among all the big stories in the 2008 baseball season, including the good, the bad and the ugly, everyone -- even Bill Chuck… even Jim Baker – missed the biggest story of all.
No, the biggest story wasn’t the absence of both New York teams from the post season for the first time since 1995, although, from the point of view of the game’s greater good, that’s a huge story. Baseball doesn’t need more dominance from New York, it needs more teams like the Milwaukee Brewers miraculously righting their season to make it to the NLDS.
The biggest story wasn’t even the Chicago Cubs seemingly punching their ticket to their first World Series since 1945 (let’s not jump to any 100-year conclusions until the last out is recorded in the Series… these are the Cubs we’re talking about), and then tanking in the final games against the Mets and Brewers by playing their JV and pitching stiffs half the time. A disgrace, but not that big a story.
Elderly pitchers excelling? Well, 45 year old Jamie Moyer did go 16-7 to tie Phil Niekro’s win mark for a 45-year old pitcher. And 39 year old Mike Mussina took away Moyer’s record of being the oldest pitcher to win 20 games for the first time. And 45 year old Randy Johnson did make a comeback that put him within five wins of 300, but, what the heck, with all these oldtimers taking the mound, there had to be some good stories amidst the Smoltz’ and Glavine’s heading to the DL.
Maybe it was the end-of-season heroics, possibly at the expense of their arms, of C.C. Sabathia and Johan Santana (who still hasn’t changed his evil ways)? Nah, the former will only become a really big story if he gets $150 million next year and his arm falls off halfway through the 2009 season. And for the latter, well, he’s irrelevant right about now.
Even the Mets swallowing the Big Apple whole for the second straight year, an unprecedented case of back-to-back collapses (with the Phillies making up eight games in 17 games last year, going from seven behind to a game ahead, thanks in part to a 5-12 Mets record, and 6 ½ games in 17 games this year, going from 3 ½ behind to 3 ahead, thanks in part to a 7-10 Mets record), even that Swan Song for Shea, though it unquestionably gladdened the hearts of baseball fans across this great nation who have long since been thoroughly tired of the Mets and their fans, “aren’t we cute, aren’t we precious” routine… even the Mets’ pratfall wasn’t the biggest story.
No, the big story was a Tale of Three Ks, in Arizona, Philadelphia and Oakland, where Mark Reynolds, Ryan Howard and Jack Cust staged the greatest strikeout derby in major league history. Call them the Kings of K. No one seems to have noticed that, back in August, all three players were on pace to strike out 200+ times in the 2008 season – a staggering accomplishment considering the K record was stuck on 189 for 34 years. As it turned out, only Reynolds kept his date with destiny, fanning 204 times to take both the National League and Major League records away from Howard. Still, Cust gave it all he had. The Pride of Flemington, New Jersey, where he learned to strike out in his dad’s indoor batting facility, did pick up the American League single season mark with 197 whiffs. That left Howard out in the cold, after tying last year’s mark of 199. A September where you hit .340 with 32 RBIs and vault into the MVP debate does make it hard to set a strikeout record.
For some historical perspective on the Reynolds/Howard/Cust pas de trois, consider that, with the exception of a relatively brief period in the late 1950s and 1960s, single season strikeout records have proven remarkably durable, maybe because no one particularly wants that type of fame, to the point where pusillanimous mangers and players have ducked the mark – the Preston Wilson and Jose Hernandez cases come readily to mind in recent years. Since good old Sam Wise became the first major leaguer to fan 100 times in a season, here’s how the major league record has progressed…
Year Name Ks
1884 Sam Wise 104
1914 Gus Williams 120
1938 Vince DiMaggio 134
1956 Jim Lemon 138
1961 Jake Wood 141
1962 Harmon Killebrew 142
1963 Dave Nicholson 175
1969 Bobby Bonds 187
1970 Bobby Bonds 189
2004 Adam Dunn 195
2007 Ryan Howard 199
2008 Mark Reynolds 204
Why in the world the 1884 Boston Beaneaters (who finished second, it might be noted) let Wise, a shortstop/second baseman, play in 114 games (he only missed two games all year) and bat 426 times is a mystery lost in the sands of time. Wise struck out 104 times, walked 25 times and authored a .214/.257/.319 batting line… an 81 Adjusted OPS. Still, Wise must have made an impression on someone, because his record would stand for 30 years (not that batter strikeouts was a record that anyone followed real closely at that time) until the St. Louis Browns’ Gloomy Gus Williams (yes, that really was his nickname… not too hard to figure out why, is it?) fanned 120 times, walked 36 and had a 98 Adjusted OPS. Note that this was during the Deadball Era when, admittedly, no one struck out very much, but, despite all his Ks. Williams’ .253/.308/.339 batting line was pretty close to the AL average.
Williams’ record lasted 24 years, when the first famous name in the K Derby made its mark. Recaps of the DiMaggio baseball history inevitably mention that older brother Vince was a tremendous outfielder with power, but that he had one glaring weakness – he struck out a lot. And, for that era, he did. In all, he struck out more than 100 times in four different seasons, including 134 times during the 1938 campaign with the Boston Bees (nee; Beaneaters) while authoring a .228/.313/.369 mark that put his Adjusted OPS at a surprisingly high (though not very good) 95.
DiMaggio’s mark stood for another 18 years until Lemon, one of the prototypical all-or-nothing sluggers, fanned 138 times for the Washington Senators while hitting 27 home runs, posting a very good 127 Adjusted OPS (.271/.349/.502) and proving that you could still strikeout close to once a game (he played in 146 in 1956) and yet be an effective hitter. Of course, second baseman Jake Wood proved otherwise in his rookie year with the Tigers, fanning 141 times and hitting just 11 home runs in a .258/.320/.376 season that netted him an 83 Adjusted OPS, even though he played in a less-offensive era.
Fortunately for Wood, his accomplishment was erased the next year by a genuine, gold-plated Hall of Famer who hit 48 home runs, walked 106 times and had a 138 Adjusted OPS. Yes, even a star like Harmon Killebrew made this list… something most people don’t remember because his mark was totally wiped out the next year when the White Sox’ Nicholson struck out a remarkable 175 times. No one noticed that, with 22 home runs and 63 walks in a low-offense environment, he actually had a better than average year (Adjusted OPS 107). The ’63 season would prove to be his only year as a regular, maybe because he was branded with the strikeout mark for that next six years, or until Bobby Bonds came along. Bonds was an anomaly. A fast (461 steals) power hitter (332 home runs) who struck out an incredible amount (he had seven more seasons above 130 Ks) and yet he batted leadoff most of his career. Bonds, while he was playing, got a lot of grief for striking out so much, but his on-base percentage was .353 and he scored 100 runs six times. In his two record-setting seasons, Bonds’ Adjusted OPS numbers were 131 and 134 and he hit 32 and 26 home runs. He could play.
Then, 34 years went by until the right circumstances came along. A big hitter who wasn’t afraid to set the record, and a manager (Dave Miley in this case) who would let him do it. Like Vince DiMaggio, Dave Nicholson and Bobby Bonds, Adam Dunn gets hassled a great deal for his strikeouts. On the other hand, after Babe Ruth, A-Rod and Sammy Sosa, who has the most consecutive 40+ home run season in major league history? That’s right, five in a row for Dunn, including the 2004 season when he hit a career high 46 and finally broke Bonds’ record by fanning 195 times AND posting a 146 Adjusted OPS.
Well, that’s where the record stood until Howard moved the mark up to 199 last year. Recall, though, the circumstances of his last year of 2007. The Phillies and Mets were tied for first in the NL East. The Mets were swallowing the apple at Shea against the Marlins (sounds familiar, doesn’t it). The Phillies were playing the Nationals in Philadelphia. Late in a 5-1 game, Howard comes up, sitting on 199 Ks. Now, the Nationals weren’t going to score another four runs if the Phillies’ fielders all took naps. But, Howard went up to bat, and nailed his 47th home run (instead of his 200th strikeout) to put the cap on the Phillies’ first miraculous comeback. Now jump ahead a year. The Phillies have already clinched the NL East the day before and are playing their JV in a meaningless game against the Nationals. All the Phillies regulars sit, except Howard, who comes up to pinch hit, of all things, once again sitting on 199 Ks. He singles to left and scores a run. Whatever you want to say about Ryan Howard, he has no fear (and he sure hits in September.)
Over in the AL, Cust, a typical Billy Beane player, was leading the league in both strikeouts and walks, with 197 of the former and 111 of the latter. Although his .231/.375/.476 line may have looked queer at best, and ugly at worst, his Adjusted OPS was 131. And, he hit into just seven double plays on the year. By contrast, Miguel Tejada hit into 32 DPs for the Astros… that’s 50 more outs, or almost two game’s worth. Beane knows what he is doing.
Finally, there’s the new record-holder, Reynolds, who certainly had an interesting season in his second major league campaign, especially since Dunn joined him on the D’Backs in a trade (and struck out 164 times himself along the way.) His line was .239/.320/.458 for the pennant-contending, though not overly offensive, D’Backs. His Adjusted OPS was just 97, and he ran up those 204 Ks in just 152 games. Like Dave Nicholson, Mark Reynolds may not get too many more chances unless he makes contact more often, or unless he hits more than 28 home runs to go along with his historic 204 Ks. For the moment, however, Mark Reynolds is the unquestioned King of K.
-- John Shiffert