Following up on my February salute to Yogi Berra for his highly productive season in 1950, a few sluggers are certainly on a pace to average about one strikeout per game in 2017. Kris Bryant, one of the most likeable players in Major League Baseball for his enthusiastic approach to playing the national pastime, deserved to be named NL Rookie of the Year in 2015 and Most Valuable Player in 2016. In those two seasons Bryant hit 65 home runs and struck out 353 times. Mike Trout, the American League golden boy with 2012 ROY honors and two MVP awards to his credit, had 168 homers and 784 strikeouts through the end of 2016. In 19 seasons Berra homered 358 times and fanned 414 times. Even more remarkable are the statistics for Yogi’s teammate, Joe DiMaggio: 13 seasons, .325 batting average, 361 home runs, 369 strikeouts. (Statistics exclude postseason appearances.) Fans who say, “Who cares? An out is an out” need only look at the Cubs highlights for the game versus the Milwaukee Brewers on April 8, 2017. By making contact and hitting the ball somewhere, on the ground or in the air, the Cubs scored 11 runs on 17 hits with no home runs or triples and every starter got at least one hit. Texas Leaguers and swinging bunts look like line shots in the box score.
Berra would likely counter the suggestion that pitchers in this century are better than they were when he played by pointing out that the Pinstripers weren’t just facing batting practice hurlers. The Yanks won 103 games in 1954, yet finished a distant second to the Cleveland Indians who won 111 games largely due to the strong arms of three Hall of Famers: Bob Feller, Early Wynn, and Bob Lemon. Mike Garcia, the fourth starter for the Indians, did not make it into the Hall of Fame, yet he was probably Cleveland’s most effective pitcher in 1954 with a record of 19-8 and an E.R.A. of 2.64, best in the American League.
For those who argue that pitching is better now than it was decades ago because training programs make today’s starting pitchers stronger and more durable, remind them of the statistics of two other Hall of Famers. Lefty Warren Spahn, who pitched over 5,200 innings, won 20 or more games 13 times, threw 382 complete games, and won 23 games in 1963 at the age of 42 and would have recorded 24 victories that season had not one of his 7 defeats occurred because his teammates failed to score a run in a 16-inning marathon in which the gallant Spahnie threw over 200 pitches. In 1965, the year Spahn retired, right-hander Ferguson Jenkins began his HOF career. Fergie, a power pitcher who recorded 3,192 strikeouts in his 19-year career, pitched over 4,500 innings, threw 267 complete games, and won 20 or more games in six consecutive seasons for the Chicago Cubs. In 1971, the year Jenkins won the Cy Young Award, he threw 30 complete games, which equals the total of complete games recorded by all of the Chicago Cubs pitchers in the last 11 years (2006 through 2016).