Better to Burn Out?

Did you get a chance to see the kid pitch in 2010?

It’s true the rookie only pitched [23.1, 13.1, 15.1, 27, 20.2, 68] innings this year, but small sample sizes be damned he was awesome! He mowed down batters at a(n) [amazing, spectacular, unbelievable, absurd, Strasburgian, fairly good] rate of  [12.3, 12.8, 13.5, 13.7, 17.4, 12.2] batters per nine innings. As a [White Sox, Reds, Angels, Dodgers, Braves, Nationals] fan I can’t wait for [2011, 2011, 2011, 2011, 2011, 2013?] to see the kid pitch again. Mark my words, [Chris Sale, Aroldis Chapman, Jordan Walden, Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, Stephen Strasburg] is a name you want to remember.

Before this year there had been 14 pitchers in history to debut with strikeout rates of more than 12 per nine innings.* In 2010 alone there were six, from the (over?)hyped Stephen Strasburg to the unheralded Kenley Jansen. It’s certainly true that whenever you look at historical comparisons involving strikeouts the numbers will be skewed towards our modern age of free swingers where the K no longer has the stigma it once carried. Still, there’s never been a year like we just witnessed when it comes to flame throwing debuts.

* Using Chapman’s innings total for the admittedly low cutoff.

But what does it portend? Did we see the debut of the next Randy Johnson? The next Kerry Wood? The next Jonathan Broxton? Joba Chamberlain? Karl Spooner? Here’s the complete list:

Rk Player SO/9 IP Year Tm
1 Craig Kimbrel 17.42 20.2 2010 ATL
2 Jonathan Broxton 14.49 13.2 2005 LAD
3 Macay McBride 14.14 14.0 2005 ATL
4 Kenley Jansen 13.67 27.0 2010 LAD
5 Jordan Walden 13.50 15.1 2010 LAA
6 Karl Spooner 13.50 18.0 1954 BRO
7 Edwar Ramirez 13.29 21.0 2007 NYY
8 Pat Neshek 12.89 37.0 2006 MIN
9 B.J. Ryan 12.84 20.1 1999 TOT
10 Aroldis Chapman 12.83 13.1 2010 CIN
11 Joba Chamberlain 12.75 24.0 2007 NYY
12 Jose Valverde 12.70 50.1 2003 ARI
13 Ron Villone 12.60 45.0 1995 TOT
14 Kerry Wood 12.58 166.2 1998 CHC
15 Francisco Liriano 12.55 23.2 2005 MIN
16 J.R. Richard 12.43 21.0 1971 HOU
17 Chris Schroder 12.39 28.1 2006 WSN
18 Chris Sale 12.34 23.1 2010 CHW
19 Takashi Saito 12.29 78.1 2006 LAD
20 Stephen Strasburg 12.18 68.0 2010 WSN

Provided by

Browsing the historical precedents hardly makes one giddy with lofty expectations. On the plus side it includes several names who put up decent seasons in the closer role. But the glaring downside is the rate at which these guys burned out. The only certified star is J.R. Richard. I’m sure any of the six teams would be happy if their young pitcher’s career paralleled Richard’s.** But even Richard will be remembered more for the tragic end of his career at age 30 than for being one of the best pitchers in baseball during the late seventies.

** Except perhaps the Nationals, who might be disappointed though I suspect even they shouldn’t be.

But regardless of what lies ahead, regardless of whether it was a fluke of small sample or a portent, regardless of whether I particularly like what it might imply about where the game is heading, when I look at Craig Kimbrel’s 17.4 strikeouts per nine innings I am impressed. There is no one who ever pitched even a third of his innings in any season who could match his strikeout rate, and that’s worth at least a tip of the cap. The analytic side of me knows that Mark Whiten’s four home run game was just the sort of fluke you would expect with a lot of baseball played over a lot of years, but so what? It was still an impressive line. And speaking of Mark Whiten, how come his name never comes up in conversations about the unbreakable records? No, I don’t mean the four home runs in a game. I’m talking about career his 27.00 strikeouts per nine innings.

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