When starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez disposed of Marlins outfielder Chris Coghlan in the first inning yesterday, the Tigers pitching staff broke the single-season Major League Baseball strikeout record. The previous record of 1,404 strikeouts was held by the 2003 Chicago Cubs led by right handers Kerry Wood (266 strikeouts) and Mark Prior (245). This year's Tigers finished with 1,428 punch outs paced by Max Scherzer (240), Justin Verlander (217) and Sanchez (210),
The Tigers strikeout feat is impressive, but it's important to consider that Major League Baseball also set a record for most strikeouts this year with 36,697. The previous high was 36,426 set just last year. So, it's not too surprising that this year's league leader would break the all-time mark. Last year's Brewers staff just missed the record recording 1,402 strikeouts.
Figure 1 below shows the increase in strikeouts over the decades. This year's strikeout rate of 7.6 per team per game nearly triples the all-time low of 2.7 strikeouts per game in 1925. Some credit has to go to modern pitchers, who have more pitches and more
information about opposing batters than ever before. However, much of
the change is likely due to the way batters approach the game. In
earlier decades, batters were more interested in making contact, whereas
today there is more focus on swinging for the fences.
One does not have to go back that far to see a dramatic increase in strikeouts though. They have increased 31% in the last twenty years (there were just 5.8 per game in 1993) and 21% in the last ten years (6.3 per game in 2003 when the Cubs set the record). The more recent increase is somewhat perplexing as it has occurred during a period when home runs have been on the decline. Some of that may be
the umpires calling bigger strike zones in an effort to suppress offense
as MLB tries to separate itself from the so called steroid era.
Data source: Baseball-Reference.com
In order to make fairer comparisons across history, I wanted to look at strikeout rates relative to league average. The average American League team had 1,235 strikeouts in 2013, so the Tigers were 16% better than average. In comparison, the Cubs staff struck out 32% more than the average National League staff in 2003.
The all-time best relative strikeout rate was by the 1932 Yankees who struck out 56% more than league average (780 versus the AL average of 502). That staff was powered by future Hall of Famers Red Ruffing (190) and Lefty Gomez (176).
The top Tigers strikeout rate belongs to the 1946 staff which was 37% better than league average. The great Hal Newhouser (275), Virgil Trucks (161), Dizzy Trout (151) and Fred Hutchinson (138) all finished in the top seven in the American League.
So, while the Tigers strikeout record this year is noteworthy, it does not quite rank among the most dominant strikeout seasons of all time.