We haven't seen a pitcher strike out 300 batters in a season since Randy Johnson fanned 334 back in 2002. The closest anyone has come since, other than Johnson striking out 290 in 2004, was when Justin Verlander sent 269 batters sheepishly back to the bench in 2009. Even with league-wide strikeout rates up over the last few years, no one has been able to crack the elusive 300 barrier. But that could all change this year.
Yu Darvish is striking out batters a rate previously unthinkable in the years A.U. (After Unit). Through 101.1 innings, Darvish has 137 strikeouts, with a K-rate of 34.2 percent. When Johnson struck out 334 hitters en route to his fifth Cy Young in '02, his K-rate was 32.3 percent. The Big Unit notched at least 300 strikeouts six times in his career, and in five of those six years his strikeout rate was at least 32 percent. Clearly, Darvish can't slow his pace all that much and still get to the magical 300. So can he keep this up? Let's explore.
First of all, Darvish is on track to eclipse his 2012 totals for innings pitched and batters faced. He made 29 starts in his rookie year, throwing 191.1 innings and facing 816 batters. We mentioned his 101.1 innings in the previous paragraph, during which he has seen 401 batters step to the plate. So long as he stays healthy, he will easily top 200 innings, and could face somewhere on the order of 850 batters. That's certainly a recipe for a pitcher with his dominant stuff to amass 300 strikeouts. Through Monday, the Rangers have played 76 games. Another five games, which, conveniently for this column, matches one more turn through the rotation, and they'll be at the halfway point.
While this is an incredibly simplified calculation, for argument's sake let's just go ahead and double Darvish's innings and batters faced, and add one average start. That would have him tossing about 210 innings and facing around 830-840 hitters. A 34.2 percent strikeout rate against 840 batters would give Darvish 287 strikeouts on the season. Close, but no cigar. He'll have to either up his strikeout rate, or go even deeper into games. Can he do this? More importantly, will Ron Washington and the Rangers brass let him, especially if they manage to clinch the AL West with time remaining in the regular season? Hard as I may try, I can't get Washington or Jon Daniels or Nolan Ryan to let me in on the team's innermost deliberations, so I can't answer that last question. But I can answer the first.
Darvish has been a strikeout machine all season long. He has fanned 14 batters in a game three times this season, on April 2, May 5 and May 27. He has reached double digits an additional three times, most recently in his last start when he sent down 10 A's on strikes. Unfortunately, his pace is slipping. His strikeout rate in April was 38.4 percent. In May, it fell to 33.3 percent. For June, he has dipped to 29.4 percent.
There are also batted-ball signs that Darvish is slowing ever so slightly. In April, hitters had just a 14.3 percent line-drive rate against him. It rose to 19.5 percent in May and is at 22.4 percent in June. After posting a 51.9 percent ground-ball rate in April, he has been in the low-40s in both May and June. While his dominance hasn't waned at all, hitters are striking out less frequently and squaring him up more often than they had.
Given these factors, and the likelihood that the Rangers won't tax his arm any more than necessary during the regular season, I do not believe we will see a 300-strikeout pitcher this year, running the total of seasons without one A.U. to 11.
Starting pitcher barometer
• Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates -- Cole was merely good in his first two starts of the year, both wins. He was great in his last outing against the Angels, taking a shutout into the seventh and allowing just two runs on four hits, walking one while striking out five. He reportedly touched 101 on the gun, flashing the power that is only part of the reason why he was one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball coming into 2013. He'll be a mainstay in the Pirates' rotation, as the team seeks its first playoff berth since 1992, and he should be a mainstay of someone's roster in every single mixed league, regardless of parameters.
• Matt Garza, Chicago Cubs -- After getting knocked around by the Reds for nine runs in five innings on June 11, Garza has looked like his old self his last two times on the bump. In outings against the Mets and Astros, the righty has allowed one run on seven hits in 15 innings, striking out 13 and walking just four. Admittedly, the Mets and Astros aren't exactly conjuring memories of the greatest offenses the MLB has ever seen, but Garza has looked impressive in both starts. If you're in an NL-only league, the time to shop Garza has arrived. The Cubs are certainly open for business, and Garza could be the first to go. The Orioles, among others, have been rumored to be interested.
• Zack Wheeler, New York Mets -- Just like Cole, Wheeler looked every bit the future ace in his major league debut, picking up the win over the Braves after six shutout innings with seven strikeouts. After a brief demotion that was nothing more than a procedural move, he'll make his second start Tuesday, taking on the White Sox. Chances are he's here to stay, now. Given that, we have to increase his value for the rest of the year. He should be universally owned.
• Derek Holland, Texas Rangers -- This has less to do with the fact that Holland has surrendered four runs in each of his last three starts than with the fact that he has fanned just four batters in three of his last four outings. Holland surged up the starting pitcher ranks earlier this year by 10.15 batters per nine innings in May. In June, that number is down to 6.94, which is much closer to his career average. The big strikeout totals start after start look like they may be a thing of the past.
• Paul Maholm, Atlanta Braves -- The story with Maholm is much the same. In nine starts since May 11, the lefty has whiffed more than four batters just once. If he's not striking batters out, he needs to get by with superior rates, and he's slowing down in that regard, as well. In April, his FIP was 3.02; it jumped to 4.18 in May and is 4.66 in June. You missed your opportunity to sell high, but it still might be a good time to see what sort of return he'll fetch on the market with teams looking for pitching help.
What a relief
• Now that we're just a bit more than a month from the trade deadline, we'll turn a lot of attention in this section of the column to closers who might be traded. If there's one ninth-inning guy who's a lock to get dealt, it's probably the Cubs' Kevin Gregg. As stated earlier, the Cubs will not be shy about moving anyone with value who doesn't factor into their future, and Gregg certainly fits that definition. While he has been extremely effective since signing with the Cubs, converting all 11 of his save opportunities and striking out 26 batters while allowing just three earned runs in 24.1 innings, any team that trades for him will likely use him as a setup man. In other words, his days as a closer are numbered. If and when the Cubs deal him, there's no obvious candidate to take over as the closer on the North Side of Chicago. With Carlos Marmol being designated for assignment, James Russell would likely get the first shot at the job.
• I hope you guys have been listening to me all season. I've been pitching Koji Uehara as a worthwhile guy to own, even as a setup man. With Andre Bailey struggling in Boston, Uehara has taken over as the closer. There's no telling if this will be a permanent move, but if Uehara can shut it down in his first few save opportunities, he could grab a stranglehold of the ninth inning.