Special Ks

The cold days of winter are wearing on and the Hot Stove market is burning out – it’s been all but frozen in Houston since the Bill Hall signing – while Spring Training games remain a few weeks away yet, so there’s not been much to talk about in Astroland. Jeff Bagwell HOF talk has died down until next winter at least, and no significant news has emerged on the Astros’ “For Sale” front. This makes it a great time to look back, and while I’ve also got thoughts to share about Bagwell and about Houston’s moderate moves this off-season, a bit of research on another topic motivated this post.

Namely this: It’s long been interesting to me, but any fan even casually acquainted with Astros history should be able to tell you – Houston loves the strikeout. LOVES it. From Houston pitchers, obviously, as no one loves to see their own hitters getting fanned (though Astros fans can at least take pride in last season that no other NL team’s offense struck out less). Maybe it started with J.R. Richard, maybe it started with Nolan Ryan, maybe it has much to do with the majority of the franchise’s history still tied to the pitcher-friendly Astrodome. It can’t hurt that both Ryan and Roger Clemens are Houston-area residents. So can any other franchise lay a stronger claim to legendary K-Men than the Astros?
As a kid in Houston in the ’80s, I had twin giant posters of Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan on my wall. I grew up in the shadow of Roger Clemens’ high school. My favorite regular Astrodome moment was hearing The Rifleman theme echo under the roof whenever a Houston pitcher whiffed an opponent. I was indoctrinated early on the love of the strikeout, and I’m a bigger fan of pitcher’s duels than of slugfests to this day. Thanks to the power of the Internet (and the wonderful baseball-reference.com), I’ve been able to look back at just how much the strikeout has dominated Houston baseball history.
The obvious, of course, is Houston’s tie to Nolan Ryan, who spent more seasons in an Astros uniform (nine) than that of any other team. But all three of the top all-time strikeout pitchers – Ryan, Randy Johnson, and Clemens – spent time in Houston. So did #7 (Don Sutton) and #15 (Curt Schilling) on the career K list. Of all pitchers to record at least 290 strikeouts in a season in the last 35 years, only one – Pedro Martinez – has never suited up for the Astros. Houston can lay at least some claim to all of the other six – Ryan, Johnson, Clemens, Schilling, Richard, and Scott.
If you want to protest (legitimately) than most of those big years – particularly Johnson’s and Schilling’s – occurred outside of Houston, then also consider that since Richard’s first full season in 1975, the Astros have landed at least one starter in the NL’s top 10 for strikeouts every season but six (1990, 1994, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2008), and Doug Drabek’s 121 in ’94 only missed the top 10 due to a tie for 9th at 122 between Steve Avery and Denny Neagle. (I count Roy Oswalt for 2010 because he recorded 120 of his 193 Ks last year with the Astros, even though he finished the season in Philly.) The dominance doesn’t end with starters, either, as among guys with at least 500 career IP, both of the top two pitchers all-time in career SO/9 – Brad Lidge and Billy Wagner – are Houston farm products and long-time Astros.
Oswalt is gone this year, of course, but it’s still well possible that Houston’s string could continue; both Wandy Rodriguez (8th 2009) and Brett Myers (3rd 2005, 5th 2006) have been top 10 strikeout guys before. With 158 SO in 153.2 IP last season, Bud Norris is certainly capable too, if he can stay consistent in 2011.
The truly legendary, dominant strikeout pitcher was missing from baseball last year, following Randy Johnson’s retirement in 2009. The current active pitcher with the most Ks in a season is Justin Verlander, with 269 in ’09, and the active career leader is either Jamie Moyer (if he pitches this year) at #36 all-time, or else Javier Vasquez at #40. Tim Lincecum and Johan Santana are probably the poster strikeout guys now, but both recorded only (“only”) 265 in their respective best seasons so far. Santana, by the way… is of course also an Astros farm product, though he never pitched in Houston before famously being lost to Minnesota.
No real point to this post other than that – just interesting historical analysis. I’ll be very interested to see where the next 300 K guy comes from. Have we seen him yet (Strasburg?), or is he yet to come?
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