By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There was a bit of ballyhoo among Red Sox fans and media members on Wednesday night when manager John Farrell sent his ace back out to the mound to pitch the eighth inning. With the game well in hand with an 8-0 lead, why take on any possible risk for Chris Sale?
But with fewer than 100 pitches thrown on the evening, Sale headed back out to the mound and was able to record his 300th strikeout of the year.
“It was fun. I’m appreciative of that,” Sale said after earning his 17th win, regarding his teammates giving him a standing ovation in the dugout after his 300th strikeout. “We go through the trenches together and put in a lot of hard work. They don’t call these the dog days for nothing. Having them have my back and being able to share that moment with them was special. I’m very appreciative of it.”
What’s been most impressive about Sale’s first season in Boston is he’s lived up to almost impossibly high expectations. He leads all of baseball in innings pitched, leads MLB in strikeouts, is tied for the most wins, and has been the leader of a Red Sox rotation that ranks second in the AL in ERA.
After the Red Sox sent Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech to the White Sox, Sale would have had to be a Cy Young winner in order to ease all worry about the deal. He’s done it.
Yet while there was some debate on Wednesday night as to whether or not Farrell should have let Sale continue pitching in a game that was in hand just so that he could reach a milestone, the accomplishment itself might have lost a bit of it shine. So here’s some perspective on what throwing 300 strikeouts means.
Sale became just the fourth American League pitcher since the designated hitter was adopted in 1973 to record 300 strikeouts in a season, and he joins some heavy hitters in terms of name recognition: Pedro Martinez (1999), Randy Johnson (1993), and Nolan Ryan (1973, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1989). Ryan, of course, is baseball’s all-time strikeout leader, while Johnson ranks second all time and Martinez ranks 13th.
Roger Clemens ranks third all time in strikeouts, yet he never once in his 24-year career threw 300 strikeouts in a single season.
Sale has a long way to to on that all-time list (at age 28, he ranks 192nd all time in strikeouts, if you’re keeping track at home), but the rarity of the accomplishment nevertheless shows how rare the left-hander’s 2017 season has been.
Expanding it a bit further, here’s every 300-strikeout season ever recorded in American League history:
DESIGNATED HITTER ERA
2017 — Chris Sale, BOS, 300
1999 — Pedro Martinez, BOS, 313
1993 — Randy Johnson, SEA, 308
1989 — Nolan Ryan, TEX, 301
1977 — Nolan Ryan, CAL, 341
1976 — Nolan Ryan, CAL, 327
1974 — Nolan Ryan, CAL, 367
1973 — Nolan Ryan, CAL, 383
1972 — Nolan Ryan, CAL, 329
1971 — Mickey Lolich, DET, 308
1971 — Vida Blue, OAK, 301
1970 — Sam McDowell, CLE, 304
1965 — Sam McDowell, CLE, 325
1946 — Bob Feller, CLE, 348
1912 — Walter Johnson, WSH, 303
1910 — Walter Johnson, WSH, 313
1904 — Rube Waddell, PHA, 349
1903 — Rube Wadell, PHA, 302
The 300-strikeout mark has been reached slightly more often in the National League, with four different pitchers combining to reach the milestone nine times since 1997. The benefit of facing a pitcher in the batter’s box does skew the numbers a bit … but not as much as Johnson racking up four seasons himself with 300 strikeouts. Curt Schilling (1997, 1998, 2002), Martinez (1997) and Clayton Kershaw (2015) are the other pitchers to accomplish the feat.
Sale’s season is not yet over. Depending on how the playoff picture formally shakes out, he’ll either start once more or, at the most, twice. He’s unlikely to throw 14 strikeouts in that start to pass Martinez (Sale averaged about 10 K’s per start and his single-game high this season is 13) for the most single-season strikeouts in Red Sox history.
Yet if he does throw nine strikeouts in his start next week against Toronto, he’ll finish the year with the second-most strikeouts by an American League pitcher over the last 40 years. For what it’s worth, Sale has faced the Blue Jays three times this season, and he recorded 13, 11 and 11 strikeouts in those three starts.
Of course — there’s always an of course — era plays a factor in this accomplishment. When Martinez struck out 313 batters in 1999, he did it right in the thick of the steroid era. The next-closest AL pitcher was Chuck Finley at 200, then Aaron Sele at 186. By comparison this year, Corey Kluber is at 252 and Chris Archer is at 241.
Likewise, when Randy Johnson threw 308 strikeouts in ’93, the next-closest pitchers in the AL were Mark Langston (196) and Juan Guzman (1994).
Strikeouts have increasingly become less of a taboo in the game. To wit: From an offensive perspective, every team in the American League this year will finish the year with at least 1,000 strikeouts. Six teams already have more than 1,300 strikeouts.
By comparison in 1999, only seven teams had 1,000 strikeouts, and Oakland had the most in the AL at 1,129. In 1993, only two teams had 1,000 strikeouts on the year: Oakland at 1,048 and Detroit at 1,122.
So clearly, there are more strikeouts to go around among pitchers these days. With that understood, we can say that Chris Sale is not quite Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez or Nolan Ryan. But even despite those rising strikeout numbers around the AL, only Sale has been able to top that 300-mark in the 21st century.
Strikeouts were just as prevalent in the AL last year, and it only took 254 strikeouts from Justin Verlander to lead the league in strikeouts. Same goes for 2015, when Sale led the AL with 274, and in 2014, when David Price led the AL with 271.
One distinction that adds some shine to Sale’s 2017 accomplishment, provided the Sox hold on to their three-game lead over the Yankees: He’ll be the only AL pitcher in the DH era to throw 300 strikeouts for a team that wins its division. Martinez’s ’99 Red Sox made the playoffs as a wild card, but Johnson’s ’93 Mariners finished fourth in the AL West, while Ryan’s ’89 Rangers finished fourth and his Angels teams never finished better than fourth. From that standpoint, Sale’s 2017 performance has some added significance.
Sale’s accomplishment this year may not be on the level of those three Hall of Famers, but he’s done something that neither he nor his peers have been able to do since the Clinton administration.