February 25, 2004
No team in the history of baseball struck out more batters than the 2003 Chicago Cubs.
I don't know about you, but that seems to me like it should have been a much bigger deal last season.
The Cubs whiffed a total of 1,404 batters last year, an average of .964 per inning and 8.67 per game. With 27 outs per game, that means the Cubs struck out enough batters to take care of 52 entire games without letting a ball in play.
To put their team total in perspective, consider that the Cubs struck out 640 more batters than the Detroit Tigers, which is enough additional outs for nearly 24 entire games.
Among pitchers who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, only six had more strikeouts per nine innings than the Cubs had as a team. And two of those six pitchers were on the Cubs.
Of course, 2003 wasn't the first time the Cubs piled up huge strikeout numbers. Check out how they ranked among the 30 major league teams in strikeouts since 1996:
YEAR SO RANK
1996 1027 18
1997 1072 15
1998 1207 3
1999 980 27
2000 1143 5
2001 1344 1
2002 1333 1
2003 1404 1
That's a very strange looking pattern, but it can actually be explained by just two words: Kerry Wood.
Wood debuted in 1998 and struck out an amazing 233 batters in just 166.2 innings pitched. That year, the Cubs jumped from 15th to 3rd in team strikeouts. Then Wood missed all of 1999 with an injury and the Cubs dropped all the way to 27th in team Ks.
He returned in 2000 and, over the last three years, he struck out 217, 217 and 266 batters, while the Cubs led all of baseball in strikeouts.
Wood led the National League with 266 strikeouts last year and Mark Prior finished right behind him with 245. Two other Chicago starters, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano, also finished among the top 15 in the league in Ks.
Even Chicago's relievers got in on the strikeout action. Among National League pitchers who didn't start any games in 2003, Kyle Farnsworth and Mike Remlinger ranked 6th and 7th in strikeouts. Chicago's closer, Joe Borowski, tied for 18th.
During the off-season, the Cubs added a couple more strikeout artists to their bullpen, signing Latroy Hawkins from Minnesota and Kent Mercker from Atlanta. With those two guys onboard, the Cubs' pitching staff now includes the following players (with the following strikeout rates):
Kerry Wood 11.35
Kyle Farnsworth 10.85
Mike Remlinger 10.83
Mark Prior 10.43
Juan Cruz 9.59
Latroy Hawkins 8.73
Joe Borowski 8.70
Kent Mercker 7.81
Matt Clement 7.63
Carlos Zambrano 7.07
The National League as a whole last year struck out 6.64 batters per nine innings, meaning each and every one of those guys were above league-average. Seven of them were at least 30% better than league-average, four of them were at least 50% above league-average, and Kerry Wood checked in at right around 70% above league-average. That's an awful lot of missed bats, no wonder they call it The Windy City.
You might notice one name missing from that list above. The Cubs, in addition to signing Hawkins and Mercker for their bullpen, also signed a starting pitcher this off-season. His name is Greg Maddux and he's one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. Oh, and his strikeout rate sticks out like a sore thumb on this staff.
Greg Maddux struck out just 124 batters in 218.1 innings last season, or 5.11 per nine innings pitched. That would not only rank him last in that group, it would put him about 28% behind the second-to-last-place guy, Carlos Zambrano (who, despite his low standing on the Cubs' strikeout rate list, actually ranked 13th in the NL in strikeouts last year).
Maddux was just slightly better at striking people out two years ago, whiffing 5.33 batters per nine innings. Before that, his strikeout rate was typically in the mid-6s and he topped 7.0 Ks per nine innings just two times in 18 years.
One might think that adding a pitcher who doesn't strike anyone out like Maddux to the starting rotation might put an end to Chicago's chances of leading the world in strikeouts again. Let's see if that's true...
Those four guys combined to throw 294 innings for the Cubs in 2003. They struck out 204 batters, or 6.24 per nine innings.
Even with Maddux's meager K rate dragging them down, the three pitchers the Cubs signed for 2004 (Maddux, Hawkins, Mercker) combined for 247 strikeouts in 351 innings, or 6.33 per nine innings.
It's hard enough trying to project numbers for a single pitcher, let alone an entire pitching staff, but let's give it a try. Let's assume the Cubs can avoid a major injury to one of their key pitchers in 2004.
Their innings might be distributed something like this:
Mark Prior 220 255
Kerry Wood 210 265
Greg Maddux 200 114
Carlos Zambrano 200 157
Matt Clement 200 170
SP TOTAL 1030 961
Joe Borowski 65 63
Latroy Hawkins 70 68
Kyle Farnsworth 70 84
Mike Remlinger 65 78
Kent Mercker 50 44
Juan Cruz 70 75
RP TOTAL 390 412
*To project the strikeout totals, I simply used each guy's 2003 strikeout rate, prorated to the amount of innings I put them down for in 2004.
Counting on all five starters throwing 200+ innings in 2004 is probably wishful thinking. On the other hand, all five of them did pitch 200+ innings in 2003.
Here's another thing to consider: Mark Prior was 2nd in the NL in strikeouts last year, despite making just 30 starts. He went on the DL in mid-July after crashing into Marcus Giles while running the bases, and probably missed at least two and possibly three starts (not to mention his start that day being cut short).
Assuming Prior stays away from collisions with diminutive second basemen who have brothers named Brian in 2004, he could very easily add 15-20 innings to his 2003 total of 211.1, which would help Chicago's quest for strikeouts even more than the 220 innings I have him "projected" for above.
Add up those two groups of projections above and you get 1,420 total innings and 1,373 strikeouts. That still leaves about 40 innings left to fill, which makes sense, since no team is going to go all season using just 11 pitchers (the Cubs used 17 last year).
Assuming some combination of minor league call-ups and mid-season acquisitions can combine to strikeout somewhere around 6.0 batters per nine innings in those 40 remaining innings, the Cubs will once again be right around 1,400 strikeouts at the end of 2004.
And who knows, maybe someone will actually notice the Cubs trying to break a major league record this time.
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