Being a starting pitcher today is probably more different than it has ever been in baseball history.
Usually, teams are happy if a starter gives them five or six solid innings. Pitch count limits, which were unheard of 20 years ago, are now standard procedure. Complete games are an extreme rarity.
One of the effects of all this is that starters’ innings-pitched totals are on the decline. Back in the day, a typical front-line starter might pitch 275-300 innings a season. But with starters pitching fewer innings, their yearly strikeout totals are down as well.
Last season, for example, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw topped the 300-strikeout plateau. That was only the fourth time in the 21st Century that a pitcher has accomplished that feat. (Bonus points to you if you knew that the others were Randy Johnson in 2001, and he and Curt Schilling both the next year.)
Despite pitchers throwing harder than they ever have, it is clear that a 300-strikeout season may be something we never see again. Pitchers simply do not throw enough innings anymore to make it a likely possibility.
The Detroit Tigers have had a number of hard-throwing starting pitchers throughout their history. Only one, however, has struck out 300 hitters in a single season.
If you guessed Mickey Lolich, you are correct.
As the great Yankee manager Casey Stengel used to say, that is “fairly amazing.”
Justin Verlander never did it. Max Scherzer never did. Neither did Jack Morris, Denny McLain, or Hal Newhouser. All were starting pitchers who could bring the heat and rack up innings.
But it was Lolich, the portly pitcher from Portland, who holds the distinction.
The year was 1971, an eventful one in American history.
Amtrak began carrying its first passengers.
Charles Manson was sentenced to death.
Walt Disney World opened in Orlando, Florida.
Soul Train made its television debut.
Three years removed from his three complete-game wins in the World Series, the 30-year-old left-handed Lolich fanned 308 batters that summer.
Prior to ’71, the most K’s Lolich had in a season was 271 in 1969. He had always been able to strike guys out; he had averaged 7.8 per nine innings for his career through 1970. But he averaged only 7.4 in ’71, his lowest figure since his rookie season. Lolich fanned a lot of batters even though his first rule was to throw the ball over the plate.
“My philosophy was to throw two of my first three pitches for strikes,” Lolich told Dan Holmes in an interview in 2004.
In 1971, however, the Tigers had a new manager in Billy Martin. With only two reliable starting pitchers in Lolich and Joe Coleman, Martin worked them both like dogs. Lolich had never made more than 39 starts or threw more than 280 innings. In ’71, he started 45, and tossed a whopping 376 innings to lead all of baseball. He also had 29 complete games (his previous high was 15). Because of his high workload, he was able to accumulate all those strikeouts.
What was a typical month like for Mickey that season? In July he opened the month on the 2nd by tossing a complete game victory over the O’s at Tiger Stadium. Three days later he went the distance against the Yankees to get the win, despite his teammates making three errors behind him. Three days later he handled the Senators by pitching yet another complete game. That gave Mick three complete game wins in nine days, and he struck out 18 batters. After a breather for the All-Star break (Lolich pitched in that game too), Martin ran Mickey out for five more starts in July, four of them on three days rest. In the final two, he tossed 11 and 12 innings, fanning 24. In total for the month, Lolich logged 72 1/3 innings in eight starts, striking out 58 batters.
Lolich withstood the grind, topping all of baseball with 25 wins. Coleman, for his part, won 20 and fanned 236. Lolich had a WAR for pitchers of 8.6, third in the American League behind only the White Sox’ Wilbur Wood (11.7) and Vida Blue of Oakland (9.0).
In 1971, Lolich had 11 games in which he struck out at least ten batters. His season-best was 14, which he did twice (against the California Angels on August 31, and versus the Washington Senators five days later, both games at Tiger Stadium.
Twice that year, Lolich tossed complete-game victories against his old teammate McLain, who by then was toiling with the Senators. It was McLain, in fact, who had held the previous franchise record for strikeouts in a season, with 280 in 1968. Lolich tied that mark at home on September 18 when he fanned the Orioles’ Davey Johnson. He established a new record when the next batter, Andy Etchebarren, went down swinging.
And who did Lolich strike out for number 300? That would be the Yankees’ Ron Hansen, in the eighth inning of his penultimate start on September 26, in Detroit.
Despite his fine efforts, Lolich finished second to Blue in the American League Cy Young Voting, who also won the Most Valuable Player Award. In the season’s final weeks, Lolich made no secret of his desire to win both trophies. After the Yankee game, a 3-2 complete-game loss that denied him his 26th win, he acknowledged that he was having “a once-in-a-lifetime year.”
How true his words were. Lolich never again came close to 300 strikeouts, and neither has any Tiger pitcher since.