When the 2003 calendar flipped to May, four Cubs starters -- Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement -- were among the top 26 in the National League in strikeouts, with Wood second and Prior tied for fourth. By season's end, Chicago had four pitchers among the top 13 in strikeouts in the league. Wood (266 K's) and Prior (245) finished first and second in the NL, and Chicago had aggregated a Major League-record 1,404 strikeouts. That monstrous tally would remain unsurpassed until 2013, when the Tigers -- led by Max Scherzer (240 K's), Justin Verlander (217) and Anibal Sanchez (202) -- amassed 1,428 to force the record book folks at Elias to put that change on their to-do list. These leading roles were just part of an exceptionally special season for the top three in the Tigers' starting rotation.
Like Chicago's quartet in 2003, Detroit's trio in '13 had a notable presence on the league's strikeout leaderboard, with Scherzer finishing second, Verlander coming in fourth and Sanchez in sixth place (a fourth Tigers starter, Doug Fister, was 22nd). And if the triumvirate's individual ranks for 2013 were impressive, their raw totals of K's and respective strikeout rates as a collective unit were downright historic. In both cases, the firm of Scherzer, Verlander and Sanchez has few parallels to stand against, and when matches do present for inspection, the names offer an interesting survey of time and status.
Trios of teammates amassing strikeoutsThree pitchers on a team with 200+ strikeouts from 1893-2013:
|Team||Players and league rank in strikeouts|
|1967 Twins||Dean Chance (3), Jim Kaat (6), Dave Boswell (7)|
|1969 Astros||Don Wilson (4), Larry Dierker (6), Tom Griffin (12)|
|2013 Tigers||Max Scherzer (2), Justin Verlander (4), Anibal Sanchez (6)|
From 1893-2013, there have been 56 teams to see at least two of their pitchers reach 200 K's in a season, with the first two -- the Athletics (Rube Waddell and Eddie Plank) and the Highlanders (Jack Chesbro and Jack Powell) -- doing so in 1904. Adding a third contributor to the milestone shrinks the club to just three -- the 2013 Tigers, the 1967 Twins and the 1969 Astros.
Led by their three strikeout artists, the 1969 Astros compiled 1,221 strikeouts, a modern-era record that would not be surpassed until 1996 (the 1990 Mets came the closest, with 1,217). That '69 campaign was a special year for Don Wilson, Larry Dierker and Tom Griffin (at least in terms of K's), as all three pushed their individual strikeout totals to the highest they would ever be.
Perhaps even more noteworthy, all three Astros pitchers reached these heights with the oldest among the trio being Wilson, who tallied 235 K's while pitching in his age-24 season. Dierker, 22, compiled 232 strikeouts (at the time, the 12th-highest total since 1893 for a pitcher under 23), and Griffin, 21, in his first year collected 200 strikeouts in 188 1/3 innings, for a league-leading 9.56 K's per nine (through 1969, the second-highest rate since 1893 for a qualifying pitcher in his first year). In that latter category, Griffin edged out Wilson (9.40) for top honors in the NL. With that pair, the Astros became the first team ever to feature two qualifying pitchers with at least 9.40 K's per nine innings. That feat has been matched only seven times since, with both the 2003 Cubs (Wood and Prior) and '13 Tigers (Scherzer and Sanchez) part of that club.
Looking at the AL's top pitchers in 2013 for strikeout rate, Scherzer (10.08 K's/9) finished second behind Yu Darvish, with Sanchez (9.99) coming in third and Verlander (8.95) owning the eighth-best value. Similar to their raw totals of K's, such a collective level of K/9 rates made for an interesting question: namely, how often does that happen? The short answer: never (until now) -- dating back to 1893, no team before the 2013 Tigers had ever seen three of its pitchers throw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title and finish the year with at least 8.95 strikeouts for every nine innings thrown. Dropping the baseline just a little bit, however, does invite two other teams into the club.
Rapid rates of strikeouts by a trio of teammatesThree pitchers on a team with at least 8.50 K's/9 1893-2013
|Team||Players & K/9|
|1990 Mets||David Cone (9.91), Sid Fernandez (9.08), Dwight Gooden (8.63)|
|2012 Rays||Matt Moore (8.88), James Shields (8.82), David Price (8.74)|
|2013 Tigers||Max Scherzer (10.08), Anibal Sanchez (9.99), Justin Verlander (8.95)|
In 1990, when David Cone, Sid Fernandez and Dwight Gooden played significant roles in the Mets chasing the '69 Astros mark of 1,221 K's, the team may have come up short in that endeavor, but underneath that failure, the trio's imprint was undeniable. Not only did they make their mark with those three exceptional strikeout-per-nine values, they also finished first, second and third in the NL in that category -- something that hadn't been done in the league since the Dodgers' trio of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Stan Williams accomplished the feat in 1960 (and before that, it hadn't happened in the NL since the Giants' Red Ames, Hooks Wiltse and Christy Mathewson turned the trick in 1905). If Gooden wasn't Gooden any longer, Cone was spectacular (also leading the league in K's and K:BB ratio) and Fernandez, with his 1990 season part of his resume, owned (for the time) three of the top 16 K/9 seasons for a qualifying left-hander since 1893 and four of the best 27 hits/9 seasons for a qualifying southpaw since 1993.
When it comes to strikeouts, Detroit's remarkable trio issued a particularly compelling stamp on the 2013 season. Ironically, the collective brilliance that allowed them to reach rare or unprecedented heights came in a campaign that saw only Sanchez completely exceed or match the best of his prior strikeout work, as the 2013 AL ERA champ tied his career high for strikeouts and established a new standard for K's/9. In the case of Verlander, 2013 saw him collect at least 200 K's for the fifth straight season (a stretch surpassed by only one Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich), but record his fewest strikeouts during the stretch and his lowest K rate since 2010. As for the AL Cy Young Award winner, Scherzer; while he did establish a new high in strikeouts, he couldn't quite match his rate from the year before, when he fanned an historically stout 11.08 batters per nine innings. But these three bundled together, in a season in which the MLB strikeout rate was the highest it has ever been, stood out from the crowded landscape and helped define the year.
Roger Schlueter is senior researcher for MLB Productions. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.