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K as in King Jose
2002-09-22 02:19
by Mike Carminati

K as in King

Jose Hernandez is about to set the single-season strikeout record. He is one behind Bobby Bonds' 1970 record of 189, and has eight games left on the Brewers miserable season-they just lost their 100th game tonight.

Hernandez has not played in the last three games after striking out twice in Wednesday's game to pull within one strikeout of the record. He no longer appears to be a lock to break 200 K's for the first time ever.

Given this imminent historic moment, I thought a review of the record itself was in order, just like was popular in the last few years when the home run record fell. The single-season strikeout crown changed hands eight times before it rested on the head of the first man to strikeout 100 times in a season Boston Beaneater Sam Wise, who had 104 in 1884, eclipsing the old record by 25. He would never exceed 66 K's in his eight remaining big-league years. 1884 was the year that pitchers were finally allowed to deliver a pitch with his hand above the hip, though still no higher than his shoulder. Five other NL players surpassed the previous high that year (the rival American Association and Union Association kept no record of strikeouts for individual batters).

Wise's record stood until 1914, aided by the NL's 15-year interruption in keeping the stat in the batting records. In that year, Gus Williams of the Browns whiffed 120 times to set the record and was out of baseball in a year. This coming one year after Danny Moeller of the Senators fell one short of the record but became the second man to collect a 100 in a season (103 in 1913).

The next man to strike out 100 times would not come until 1932, and the record would stand until 1938. Between 1934 and 1941 the major-league leader had 100 strikeouts each year, possibly due the home run craze that followed Babe Ruth. Jimmie Foxx came with one of Williams record. The record fell to Vince DiMaggio of the Boston Bees (still referred to as Braves by the fans) in his second year. For Vince, the weakest player of the three DiMaggio brothers, this was the second straight 100+ strikeout year, though he would only do it twice more in his remaining eight seasons.

In 1949 Duke Snider became the last player to lead the majors in strikeout with fewer than 100 (92). DiMaggio's record stood until Washington Senator Jim Lemon broke it by four in 1956 (with 138). It was Lemon's first full season. He would play five more and break 100 twice.

With the expansion of the 1960s, the record changed hands a few times. This could be due to the, at least perceived, dilution of batting talent after the 1960s draft. It was felt-quite the reverse of today-that having the extra teams and their attendant rosters aided the pitchers. In 1961 Tiger rookie Jake Wood struck out 141 times, and though he played six more seasons never started again. Free-swinging Hall-of-Fame Twin Harmon Killebrew surpassed that total by one the next year. This was Killebrew's career best, er, worst. In 1963 the White Sox Dave Nicholson crushed that tally with 175. Nicholson would play 4 more seasons, but never started again (though he did strike out 126 times in 294 at-bats in 1964).

Nicholson would hold on to this albatross of a distinction until Bobby Bonds eclipsed him in 1969 with 187. Bonds outdid himself the next year with 189, the record that has stood until this day. Strikeouts have continued to be on the rise in the last few years. Eleven of the top 25 single-season strikeout victims have come since 1997 (12 if you count Hernandez this year).

I find this records history very edifying. After a maturation process, the record was in the hands of four men for over 75 years. Then it went through a period of frequent transition and change, and three men held in exactly three years. Then only one other man has held the record until now. Well, until Hernandez's next game this year. Given the volatility of the single-season home run record in the last few years, it's gratifying to hear that a record can have a short period of volatility and then go back to pattern of changing hands only every 25-40 years. We'll just have to see if this holds true for home runs.

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