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History Gives Far Better Perspective on Pitching

Column by Martin Duke

During September, baseball fans saw two outstanding pitching performances - one a day after the other - that made an astounding mark in a season that has seen the greatest offense in baseball since 1930.

One, of course, is Roger Clemens' 20-strikeout performance. It has been discussed to death in the local papers, and I will not repeat by heaping praise on him here. Instead I will put it in a new perspective by analyzing the strikeout as a part of modern pitching.

This is not to meant to degrade Roger Clemens in any way. He is one of the top 20 pitchers of all time and probably one of the top 5 strikeout pitchers in history. But both his and other power pitchers' gaudy K numbers are inflated by the nature of the game today.

For starters, let's look at the top 10 single season strikeout-per-game averages.

1. Nolan Ryan, 1987: 11.48.

2. Dwight Gooden, 1984: 11.39.

3. Nolan Ryan, 1989: 11.32.

4. Randy Johnson, 1993: 10.86.

5. Sam McDowell, 1965: 10.71.

6. Randy Johnson, 1994: 10.67.

7. Nolan Ryan, 1973: 10.57.

8. Nolan Ryan, 1991: 10.56.

9. Sandy Koufax, 1962: 10.55.

10. Nolan Ryan, 1972: 10.43.

Notice anything about these years? They're all during the post-1950 homer-happy era, when many batters swung for the fences every time at the plate.

In fact, the highest pitcher on that list before 1950 is Hugh Daily, who in 1884 played for three teams in the old Union Association, striking out 483 in 58 games - 8.68 per game, 77th on the all-time list. That was before they moved the mound back, folks.

Next is Hal Hewhouser in 1946 - 94th on the all-time list - who pitched as the offensive trend was beginning. Walter Johnson, one of the best strikeout pitchers in the first half of the century, isn't even in the top 100.

These statistics are even more telling when you consider that pitchers used to be expected to throw a complete game.

If one were to compile a top 10 list of strikeouts per inning, modern pitching would seem even more impressive, even in leagues diluted by expansion.

It used to be that hitters felt more shame in a strikeout than pride in a home run - and it showed in the statistics. In 1945 Pete Gray struck out 11 times in 234 at-bats. Pete Gray had only one arm.

Nomo-Mania II

In Boston, the mania over Clemens' miracle in Detroit obscured what may have been the greatest no-hitter of them all. The night before 20 went down in Detroit, Japanese import Hideo Nomo no-hit the Colorado Rockies in Coors Field.

In Coors Field!

If you've read this far into the column, I don't have to tell you how much of a hitter-friendly park the pinball machine in Denver is, but consider this: Total Baseball assigns a park factor to each stadium in major league history, with hitters' parks getting high scores and pitchers' parks low ones. A neutral field gets a score of 100.

Mile High Stadium, dimensionally quite similar to Coors Field but old enough to have statistics out for it, is a 142. For comparison, the next highest score is a 127, given to Wrigley Field (not the one in Chicago), home of the expansion Los Angeles Angels in 1961. Although both foul lines and center field were respectable distances, the 345-foot power alleys caused home runs to be hit out at a record pace that year.

What amazes me is that the magnitude of the moment is better appreciated in Japan, where Nomo is something of a national hero, than here.

Cowboys crashing

As a Washington Redskins fan, I can only point out with glee the 13 record of the World Champion Dallas Cowboys. After ugly losses to Chicago, Indianapolis, and Buffalo with the vaunted Emmitt Smith starting, fans in Big D are starting to push the panic button.

By the time you read this, the outcome of the huge Monday night game in Philadelphia will be known, but I say it's a must-win for Dallas.

I hate to moralize, but this is what happens when you ignore the league in pursuit of Nike dollars and out-of-control living: Your players skip town in droves for free-agent money and get suspended for every offense under the sun.

Fans, don't let your teams grow up to be Cowboys; make sure they're 49ers instead. Dallas will probably make the playoffs, but not by much.

A purist lives here

Although polls show that over 80 percent of fans now favor baseball's new wild card system, I, a member of that dying breed known as the purist, continue to maintain that it stinks.

The proof was provided last weekend, as San Diego's dramatic 42 victory Saturday at Dodger Stadium placed the teams in a tie at the top of the NL West going into Sunday's finale.

Thanks to Montreal's late-season fade, both teams had already qualified for the playoffs. Were it not for the wild card, the game would have been a do-or-die one-game playoff where the loser went home and the winner stayed alive.

Instead, the game is reduced to a playoff seed determination, largely academic in the unpredictability of a baseball 5-game series.

I'm sorry to say it, but I think the drama and emotion of Russ Hodges' "THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!" call on that famous New York afternoon in 1951 may never be duplicated in another regular season game.

What's wrong with deciding anything in 162 games?