You may or may not know this — I didn’t until brilliant reader Hard_8 alerted me on Twitter — but Chicago’s Carlos Marmol is having one of the greatest strikeout seasons in the history of Major League Baseball. It’s obscene, really. Marmol has struck out 131 batters in just 73 innings this year. That’s 16 Ks per nine innings. Nobody in baseball history has ever been within a strikeout of that:
Best strikeouts per nine (min. 50 ip)
1. Carlos Marmol, 2010, 16.00
2. Eric Gagne, 2003, 14.98
3. Billy Wagner, 1999, 14.95
4. Brad Lidge, 2004, 14.93
5. Armando Benitez, 1999, 14.77
Even when I was a kid and knew even less about baseball than I do now, I always got a thrill by comparing a pitcher’s strikeout total to his innings pitched. I remember when I got my first Herb Score baseball card — picked it up in a baseball card shop when I had this idea of collecting every Topps Indians card ever made — and saw that he had struck out 245 batters in 227 innings. And that really set my imagination going. How good would a pitcher have to be to strike out more than one major league batter per inning? It’s a miracle, really.
And when Score did it, well, it kind of was a miracle. He was the first full-time starter to do it. Technically Bob Feller was the first to do it when he was 17 years old in 1936. But he only threw 62 innings that year, and while it’s remarkable that a 17-year-old kid could come off the Iowa farm and strike out 76 batters in 62 innings. Feller struck out 150 in 148 2/3 innings the next year.
Bob Turley in 1953 struck out 61 in 60 1/3 innings. And a man named Bill Bailey struck out 131 batters in 128 innings in 1914, but that was in the old Federal League.
Anyway, Score was the first to do it over a full season, 200-plus innings pitched, and he did it in back-to-back years, 1955 and 1956.
It became fairly common after Score, for overpowering starters to strike out a batter an inning. Sandy Koufax became the first qualifying starter to strike out 10 per nine innings in 1960. Sam McDowell struck out 10.7 per nine in 1965. In the 1960s, starters like Jim Maloney, Bob Veale, Luis Tiant, Don Wilson and Sonny Siebert all averaged a strikeout per inning in their best seasons.
In the 1970s, Nolan Ryan (7 times), J.R. Richard, Frank Tanana and Tom Seaver all did it.
In the 1980s, Ryan, Dwight Gooden, Mike Scott, Roger Clemens, Mario Soto and Mark Langston all did it.
In the 1990s, a bunch of guys did it — Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, David Cone, Clemens, Curt Schilling, Hideo Nomo, Kevin Brown, John Smoltz, Darryl Kile and, yes, one more time, Nolan Ryan.
And in the 2000s, 22 different pitchers have thrown 200 innings and struck out more than a batter per inning.
So, striking out a batter an inning it’s not a rare thing anymore. And it’s basically a requirement for relievers now. Hard-throwing relievers have pushed the strikeouts-per-nine numbers into the stratosphere the last 50 or so years.
10 Ks: Ryne Duren struck out 10.35 batters per nine in 1958.
11 Ks: Dick Radatz struck out 11.02 batters per nine in 1963
12 Ks: Tom Henke struck out 12.26 batters per nine in 1986
13 Ks: Rob Dibble struck out 13.55 batters per nine in 1991
14 Ks: Rob Dibble struck out 14.02 batters per nine in 1992
Then there was Gagne getting within .02 of 15 strikeouts per nine in 2003.
And now there’s Marmol striking out SIXTEEN batters per nine innings. He’s an interesting story — he started off as a no-hit catcher and outfielder. Well, I guess the no-hit part came later. When he was 18, he hit .295 with no power for the Cubs Rookie League team, which really isn’t bad for an 18-year-old. The next year, however he hit .236/.250/.309, which is bad, especially when you consider he looked utterly overmatched in a brief tryout in Class A ball. The Cubs were apparently not entirely down on him as a hitting prospect, but they thought his great arm showed more promise and moved him to pitcher. He struck out 74 in 62 innings in Class A. The Cubs were sold.
What seems to make Marmol so ridiculously unhittable is his odd semi-sidearmed motion that apparently makes the ball very difficult to pick up before it’s right on the hitter. Oh, he throws plenty hard — 94-to-98 mph on his good days — and his dominant pitch is his slider which perhaps more than any other pitch in baseball looks like a fastball until you’re halfway through your swing and miss. The awesome Fangraphs site shows that hitters miss Marmol’s pitches 59.4% of the time when the ball is out of the strike zone, which is the highest percentage among relievers in baseball.
Miss percentage when ball is out of strike zone among relievers:*
1. Carlos Marmol, 59.4%
2. Billy Wagner, 58.2%
3. Carlos Villanueva, 55.6%
4. Jonny Venters, 52.6%
5. Joel Hanrahan, 52.5%
*It’s worth noting that when hitters swing at Mariano Rivera’s pitches, they usually make contact. Not GOOD contact, mind you, but contract. Even on pitches outside the strike zone, hitters who swing connect more than 75% of the time.
Well, his strikeouts are down this year, but this trend is not actually new. It’s been a a couple of years since Rivera has gotten a lot of swinging strikes. His continued dominance seems to come from his Svengali-like talent for getting hitters to get themselves out.
But perhaps more impressive than Marmol’s ability to get hitters to swing and miss when the ball it out of the strike zone is his ability to get hitters to swing and miss when the ball is IN the strike zone.
Miss percentage when the ball it in the strike zone among relievers:
1. Carlos Marmol, 26.3%
2. Octavio Dotel, 24.9%
3. Tyler Clippard, 24.6%
4. Matt Thornton, 23.8%
5. Takashi Saito, 22.7%
Remarkable. When Marmol throws a strike, and major league hitters swing, they will flat miss more than a quarter of the time. It’s the highest miss percentage for a reliever in five years.*
*I just have to share this with you: In 2004, hitters swung and missed at Brad Lidge strikes almost 42% of the time. And if the ball was out of the strike zone, forget about it, they missed more than 70% of the time. I have no doubt that Brad Lidge, that one year, was one of the most unhittable pitchers in the history of baseball.
Strikeouts are a tricky thing. For instance, you probably know that Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon has been disastrously bad lately. His last seven outings, he has given up 14 hits, 11 earned runs, he has blown two saves and his ERA is 13.50. BUT he has also struck out 15 in 7 1/3 innings. How do you explain it? Joe Sheehan points out that he has been unlucky — the batting average on balls hit in play is a ridiculous .650. A couple of Brilliant Readers offer the theory that his split fingered fastball — probably his most effective strikeout pitch — has been fine while his fastball command has not.
But the point is Papelbon, these last few games, is striking out batters at an absurd rate, and he’s pitching terribly. It’s hard to figure. Marmol, meanwhile, his last seven outs have been strikeouts. Seven times this year, every out he has gotten in an appearance have been strikeouts. He has struck out three or more in an outing an 20 times — a simply astonishing number for a relief pitcher. No reliever in baseball is even close.
And he has been comically good the last month. He has not given up a single run. He has struck out 23 in 14 innings. The league has batted .064 against him over that stretch — and all three hits have been singles.
And yet, Marmol hasn’t exactly had a legendary season overall. You know about his last month. You know about the strikeouts. He has allowed only 39 hits per 73 2/3 innings, and he has only allowed one home run, and you get 10 Cubs brownie points if you know who got the home run*. You would think this would make him just about invincible.
*Pittsburgh’s Jeff Clement.
But he has not been invincible. And you know why? Well, the main point seems to be simple control: He has walked 50 batters, and he has hit seven more. It is funny the contortions people will go to to prove that a walk is not as good as a hit. It’s not — in certain situations. But a walk is still awfully good for a hitter. It’s MOSTLY as good as a single. Marmol’s lack of control has probably been the key in him blowing five saves. His WHIP ranks a mediocre 12th among closers with 25 saves, and before the great last month his ERA was 3.39 (even now his 2.69 ERA ranks 10th among closers). It’s like the little ghost on the old CIncinnati Reds scoreboard used to say: “Walks Will Haunt.”
Still, this is a remarkable year for Carlos Marmol because of the strikeouts. Think about it this way: 59% of the outs Carlos Marmol has gotten this year are strikeouts. Crash Davis once said strikeouts are fascist, and maybe they are. And maybe Carlos Marmol’s nickname should be “The Dictator.”