Last week, the New York Yankees placed starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia on the 60-day disabled list. The big lefthander is having more knee problems and it’s possible that he’ll have to undergo major surgery on his knee soon. The type of surgery that could signal the end of his fantastic career.
That would be unfortunate, but it would also be the latest in a series of events that have left Mickey Lolich at the top of the strikeout list for lefties in league history, with 2,679. No American League southpaw has ever fanned more batters than the former Tigers’ hurler and hero of the 1968 World Series. Lolich threw his last pitch in the American League in 1975, and in the intervening 39 years several great left-handed pitchers have struck out a lot of hitters, but none have been able to climb past Mickey.
Here’s a timeline of the challenges to Lolich’s title as greatest lefty strikeout pitcher in AL history:
Ron Guidry, 1778 K’s, last pitched in 1988
In 1978, Guidry was the toast of baseball, winning the Cy Young with a 25-3 record while striking out 248 batters. The thin lefty seemed set for greatness, but he withered after a few years. succumbing to the demands of the game. Guidry was only about 160 pounds and he suffered a few nagging injuries over the years, even though he continued to be an effective pitcher through the mid-1980s. But only reached 200 K’s once more, and he fell way short of Mickey’s mark of 2,679 strikeouts.
Frank Tanana, 2669 K’s, last pitched in the AL in 1993
The onetime Tiger pitched 21 years and only spent a few months in the National League in his final big league season, so he should have caught Lolich. But several things kept him from doing so. First, he developed a serious shoulder injury in 1978 when he was with the Angels. To that point in his career, the Detroit native had averaged more than 8 K’s per nine innings, but after that he transformed himself into a “junk ball pitcher.” Amazingly, Tanana was very successful doing that, and he won more than 150 games as a left-hander with a big, looping curveball and a 85 MPH fastball. After his injury, Tanana pitched in at least 29 games in 12 straight seasons, but he was whiffing only 120 batters per year, so he couldn’t quite catch Lolich. He spent 7 1/2 seasons withe the Tigers and was only 22 K’s behind Lolich when the 1992 season ended. But that offseason, the only guaranteed roster spot free agent ofer he received was from the Mets, so he made his first foray into the National League. He made 29 starts for the Mets in ;93 and struck out more than 100 batters, pitching fairly well. He was dealt to the Yankees late in September hoping to get a chance to break the AL strikeout record. However, in three starts for the Yanks, Tanana could only get 12 more K’s, leaving himself exactly 10 behind Mickey Lolich. He retired in 1994 when he didn’t get an offer from any other team.
Mark Langston, 2233 K’s, last pitched in the AL in 1999
He came out charging, striking out at least 200 batters in five of his first six seasons. Then, the Seattle Mariners decided to trade him away (in a deal that got them Randy Johnson, more on him below). Langston spent part of a season in the NL with the Montreal Expos before coming back to the AL with the Angels, where he had several fine seasons. He just ran out of gas, slowing down a tick in his 30s and never again reaching the 200-K mark. An injury in 1985, the labor stoppages in 1994-95, and the four months he spent in an Expos’ uniform probably cost him the 447 K’s he needed to beat out Lolich. Langston was a very good left-handed strikeout pitcher.
Chuck Finley, 2527 K’s, last pitched in the AL in 2002
Finley was a teammate of Langston’s on the Angels for seven years, the two teaming to form a powerful duo from the left side. In some ways, Finley was the opposite of Langston — he matured as a power pitcher and didn’t top the 200-K mark until he was in his 30s. Finley was with the Angels for 17 seasons, the longest tenure of any hurler in franchise history, but he wasn’t able to get past Lolich’s K mark, though he came very close. He missed about 12 starts due to the labor strife in 1994-95, but that still probably wouldn’t have given him the 153 strikeouts he needed to reach Mickey.
David Wells, 1954 K’s, last pitched in the AL in 2006
The crafty left-hander was employed for 21 years as a big league pitcher, all but a few of them in the American League. But even if the much-traveled Wells had stuck in the AL for his whole career, he didn’t fan batters at a high enough rate to get to Mickey. Even tallying all of his K’s in all 21 seasons (AL & NL), Wells was more than 400 shy of Lolich’s total.
Randy Johnson, 2545 K’s, last pitched in the AL in 2006
The Big Unit had more than 4,800 strikeouts in his amazing career, but he split his 24 seasons evenly between the AL and NL, thus he ended up just over 100 K’s short of Mickey. Lucky for Lolich, the Mariners traded Johnson to the Astros in 1999 because they knew they wouldn’t be able to sign the tall lefty when he became a free agent. Houston couldn’t afford him either, and Johnson ended up in Arizona where he won four consecutive Cy Young awards. Johnson may be the best lefthander to ever pitch in the American League and deserves a spot among Lefty Grove, Sandy Koufax, and Steve Carlton in the debate for greatest southpaw of all time, but he couldn’t stick in the AL long enough to surpass Mickey.
Andy Pettitte, 2020 K’s, last pitched in the AL in 2013
He never struck out more than 180 batters in any one season, but Pettitte pitched a long time and was durable. In mid-career he bolted the Yanks to sign a lucrative free agent contract with the Astros, which cost him his chance to challenge Lolich’s strikeout mark. Even so, counting Pettitte’s AL and NL seasons, he still came up more than 200 strikeouts short of Mickey (2,448 career K’s for Pettitte). It’s not a given that had he stayed with the Yankees (and not missed the 2011 season when he retired the first time), the lefty would have surpassed the league strikeout record.
CC Sabathia, 2309 K’s, on disabled list currently
He seemed a lock to eclipse Lolich’s league K record a few seasons ago when he signed an 8-year deal with the Yankees. But things started to slow down last year when CC had the worst season of his career. He’s still only 33 years old, but if his knee is severely injured it will be difficult for this extremely large man to make a comeback at all.
Scott Kazmir, 1254 K’s, active now
This southpaw has the talent to break the record and he’s in the middle of a resurgent season with the Oakland A’s, but there are many question marks about this 30-year old. Kazmir has already missed one full season when he had Tommy John surgery, he’s in his 30s and he’s less than half way to Lolich. Like Tanana, Kazmir has had to adjust on the mound, though not as dramatically. Early in his career when he was with Tampa Bay, Kazmir struck out more than 10 batters a game, now he’s fanning about 8 per game after recovering from the surgery. He’ll have to be healthy (and stay in the AL for a long time) to have a chance to beat Mickey’s total.
Jon Lester, 1359 K’s, active now
Lester has spent all nine years of his career as a member of the Boston Red Sox, and he’s topped 200 K’s twice. However, two things work against his chances to get to 2,679:
1) He’ll be a free agent after the 2014 season and will be coveted by many teams, including many in the NL
2) Lester has seen his strikeouts decrease in each of his last three seasons.
Lester is a fan favorite in Boston, but it’s not certain he’ll still be in their uniform when the 31-year old makes his first start in 2015, but if he’s in the American League, he has a chance to move up the Junior Circuit Southpaw K List, but he will need more than 1,200 strikeouts. That will require him to average 170 per season for seven years (when he’ll be 38), or 200 for six years. Not an easy task.
With players (especially good strikeout pitchers) flipping leagues more frequently, and with players having less incentive to play into their 40s, it seems unlikely that many lefthanded pitchers will creep close enough to pass Lolich on the all-time AL strikeout list. Sabathia is on the doorstep, but he’s finding out why it’s not easy to be a power pitcher and last that long.