THE K FACTOR
When Seattle's Randy Johnson fanned 19 White Sox batters last
Friday night, he tied the major league single-game strikeout
record for lefties--for the second time this year. The Big
Unit's big night would have been a rare event not too long ago,
but now it's almost commonplace. Until Bob Feller did it in
1938, no pitcher in the modern era had struck out 18 in a single
game. Twenty-one years passed before Sandy Koufax matched
Feller's mark. But in the 1990s the 18-K mark has been reached
or exceeded six times.
Similarly, before this year the only Yankee ever to strike out
16 or more in a game was Ron Guidry, who whiffed 18 in 1978.
This year, two Yankees pitchers, David Wells and David Cone,
struck out 16 within a month of each other. Double-digit outings
have become so routine for pitchers that even rookies are
getting into the act. Two weeks ago Steve Woodard of the Brewers
struck out 12 in his first major league start, matching the
American League record for K's in a debut, which was set in 1915.
Throughout the majors, in fact, strikeouts have increased at a
frightening pace. Fans have seen an average of 13 K's a game
this season. In 1980 the average was less than 10. Why the
proliferation of whiffs? "I think the Number 1 reason is, guys
are not shortening their swings enough," says Brewers hitting
coach Lamar Johnson. "They're swinging way too hard with two
August 17, 1997
That just makes matters easier for pitchers. "You've got guys
who aren't home run hitters who are taking big swings with two
strikes," says Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. "They all
think they're home run hitters."
Remember when big leaguers used to kick dirt and hang their
heads in mortification when they struck out? They're not any
longer. "There's no stigma attached to striking out anymore,"
says Cubs manager Jim Riggleman. "When I played, someone who
struck out 80 or 100 times had a lot of strikeouts. Now 100
strikeouts is pretty routine."
The reason everyone is trying to hit home runs is that homers
command the big money when players go to arbitration. "You used
to have just your number 3 and 4 batters hitting home runs, and
most of the rest of your guys trying to put the ball in play,"
says Astros manager Larry Dierker. "But now you see catchers
swinging from their rears, shortstops swinging from their rears.
Everybody's trying to hit homers."
According to Phillies batting coach Hal McRae, many of today's
players have fundamental flaws in their swings. These hitters
hold their cocked elbows high and their bats in a vertical
position, he says, lengthening their swings to try to generate
more bat speed. "The longer the swing, the more probability
you'll strike out," says McRae. "The old-timers used more of a
flat starting position, so they had a shorter swing." Next game
you watch, think about the way Pete Rose used to hold the bat,
and see how many batters do the same. It won't be many, even
when they have two strikes.
The concept of selfless offensive play has, regrettably, gone
the way of the $3 bleacher seat. "Guys just don't care about
fundamentals the way they used to," says McRae. "You don't see
guys hitting the ball to the right side to move the runners
over. Guys don't bunt like they should. Everybody just swings
away, and you see the results. If you connect, great. If you
don't, well, it's just another out."
As common as double-digit strikeout games have become, the
300-strikeout season is still a rarity. Only a dozen pitchers
have achieved it this century (chart). This year Randy Johnson
may do it a second time--he struck out 308 in 1993 and had 243
through Sunday--and Curt Schilling his first. Schilling, a 6'4",
234-pound righthander who throws 95-mph fastballs for the lowly
Phillies, has fanned 10 or more batters 12 times this year on
his way to striking out a total of 232 in 26 games. He should
get about nine more starts this season, which puts him on pace
to exceed the 300 mark. "Getting 300 strikeouts means something
to me," says Schilling, "but not as much as you might think. As
much as I enjoy striking people out, I'd rather be winning."
Before Sunday's eight-strikeout, three-hit shutout of St. Louis,
Schilling, 30, had four straight double-figure-strikeout games
without a win. Indeed, his 12-10 record doesn't even hint at his
dominance and his value to Philadelphia. In games Schilling
started, the Phillies were 14-12 through Sunday. Without him,
they were 26-63. "When he pitches we're actually a pretty good
team," says Phillies manager Terry Francona. "He doesn't allow a
lot of fly balls, so we actually look good [on defense]. He has
endurance, throws hard and has pinpoint accuracy, so whenever he
starts, we have a very good chance to win."
"He is the best location pitcher I've ever played with," says
Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal. "He's fun to catch."
But just try hitting against him. Since undergoing surgery in
1994 to remove a bone spur from his elbow, Schilling has
steadily improved his fitness, his work habits and his mental
preparation. "When I'm on the mound, there will not be a
situation I haven't thought about," he says.
Schilling has always had good command of his fastball, which he
throws about 90% of the time, and he says that in the last two
years, he's been throwing the ball harder than ever. That has
given him even more of an edge over hitters. "I'm not much of a
mystery when you face me," he says. "Hitters know I'm going to
throw fastballs. It's just a matter of me putting them where I
want them." Schilling was third in the National League in
innings pitched at week's end, with 187, but he says batters
shouldn't count on his wearing out anytime soon. "I feel better
now than I ever have, knock on wood."
Knock on wood? If Schilling keeps up his scorching strikeout
pace, he won't be hearing much of that.
Mets righthander Pete Harnisch may have officially earned a
no-decision for his six innings against the Cardinals in the
Mets' 5-4 win at Shea Stadium last week, but his very presence
on the field was a victory--for him and for the millions of
other Americans who suffer from depression. In his first start
since Opening Day, Harnisch turned in a solid performance,
striking out three and allowing two runs on five hits and a walk
before leaving the game with a 3-2 lead. More important, he
enjoyed himself. "I had fun out there," he said after receiving
the cheers of 22,777 rain-soaked fans. "I was comfortable, more
comfortable than I thought I'd be. I feel good. And tomorrow
I'll wake up and feel good about myself because I contributed to
The 30-year-old Harnisch, whose depression was diagnosed after
he suffered bouts of insomnia before and after Opening Day, has
been candid about his progress in fighting the oft-misunderstood
illness, which, among other things, deprived him of his appetite
and confidence and put him on the disabled list for four months.
Aided by medication and the support of his family, friends and
teammates, Harnisch has regained more than 20 of the 30 pounds
he lost during his ordeal, rediscovered his pitching form and
recaptured the gregariousness that made him one of the most
well-liked guys in the Mets clubhouse. "It's like nothing ever
happened," says reliever John Franco. "The old Pete is back."
Harnisch's successful return made it easier for the Mets to
complete a deal with the Cubs last week that brought New York
some desperately needed help in the bullpen. In exchange for
starter Mark Clark, outfielder Lance Johnson and infielder Manny
Alexander, the Mets got outfielder Brian McRae and relievers Mel
Rojas and Turk Wendell.
While Harnisch looks for his first win in more than a year, his
every appearance on the mound may turn out to be a save. "I know
some people have lost their jobs because of depression," he
says. "I'm not the world's biggest star, but I do have a public
forum, and people can learn a lot from that. If one employer
says to an employee, 'Oh, you're going through what Pete
Harnisch went through. I understand,' if I can save one person's
job, then going through all this might have been for a reason."
HITLESS IN ST. LOUIS
If the citizens of St. Louis are impatient for first baseman
Mark McGwire to hit homers at his old American League rate (one
per every 12.3 at bats in his career, best among active major
leaguers), you wouldn't know it from the standing ovation he
received as he stepped into the batter's box for the first time
at Busch Stadium, last Friday against the Phillies. McGwire
responded to the warm welcome with a solo 441-foot homer--the
longest at Busch this year--in the third inning. That only
pumped up his National League batting average from .077 to .111,
but it sent fans into a frenzy.
As epic as it was, though, that dinger--McGwire's first in his
last 72 at bats, including 27 for St. Louis--hardly represents
the slugfest the offensively impaired Cardinals were hoping for
when they traded three young righthanded pitchers (T.J. Mathews
and prospects Eric Ludwick and Blake Stein) for McGwire on July
31. Since leaving Oakland, where he racked up 34 homers and 81
RBIs this season, McGwire had gone 3 for 34 with one home run
and one RBI for the Cardinals through Sunday. "I'm facing
pitchers I've never faced before and playing in surroundings I'm
not familiar with," he says.
If nothing else, McGwire can use his time with St. Louis to see
if he likes the National League, in case any of its teams beckon
during his upcoming free agency. "It's been difficult," he says,
"but a transition period is to be expected. I'm not worried
about what's going on right now. I have confidence in my
ability. When you change leagues, you start from zero. If you
put my numbers together, I'm still having a pretty good season."
That may be true, but the only numbers that really count now are
the ones he puts up for the Cardinals. St. Louis manager Tony
La Russa admits he took a risk by bringing in a player from the
American League in midseason, but if nothing else, it was
worthwhile psychologically. "When you've got the [strong]
pitching we've got and offensive inconsistency, and you don't
try to do something aggressive, you're giving up," says La
Russa, whose Cards were 7 1/2 games behind the Astros in the
Central Division race when they acquired McGwire and had slipped
to 9 1/2 back at week's end. "We didn't mortgage our future for
this. If it doesn't work out, well, Mark took a shot in the
National League, and we took a shot. But I feel he is going to
help us and be productive. The question now is, Can we do
THE 300 K CLUB
The list of pitchers who have struck out 300 or more batters in
a season is as exclusive as the list of players who have hit 50
or more homers in a season, but somehow that pitching feat has
gone relatively unappreciated. Here are the dozen hurlers who
have cracked the 300 mark since 1900 and the number of times
they did it:
PITCHER, TEAM EXCEEDED 300 SEASON (YEAR)
NOLAN RYAN, Angels/Rangers 6 383 (1973)
SANDY KOUFAX, Dodgers 3 382 (1965)
RUBE WADDELL, Athletics 2 349 (1904)
SAM MCDOWELL, Indians 2 325 (1965)
WALTER JOHNSON, Senators 2 313 (1910)
J.R. RICHARD, Astros 2 313 (1979)
BOB FELLER, Indians 1 348 (1946)
STEVE CARLTON, Phillies 1 310 (1972)
MICKEY LOLICH, Tigers 1 308 (1971)
RANDY JOHNSON, Mariners 1 308 (1993)
MIKE SCOTT, Astros 1 306 (1986)
VIDA BLUE, A's 1 301 (1971)
Source: Elias Sports Bureau