Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Four Strikeouts — A Baseball Rarity

With the incredible string of recent Perfect Games, including the one (almost) thrown by Armando Galarraga, we may have missed a similarly rare baseball occurrence–Four Strikeouts.  We are not talking about a batter striking out four times in a game; that inglorious feat is called a Golden Sombrero.  We are referring to a pitcher recording four strikeouts in a single inning.

Four strikeouts in one inning?  “How could that happen?” you say.  It can happen when a catcher fails to cleanly catch the third strike, either by way of a passed ball or a wild pitch.  When that happens, and first base is unoccupied or there are two outs in an inning, the batter can run to first base to try to beat the catcher’s throw.  So the planets really need to be in alignment for this to happen. 

Last night (June 3rd), Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners became the 52nd player in baseball history to record 4 strikeouts in one inning. (see link for video)

From the current list of 4-strikeout-in-an-inning feats, several noteworthy stats pop out:

  • Ed Craneof the New York Gothams accomplished the accomplished the first 4-strikout inning for the National  League in 1888
  • Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators accomplished the feat first for the American League in 1911
  • Orval Overall (T206 card at right) is the only pitcher to record 4 strikeouts in a World Series inning, for the Chicago Cubs in the first inning of Game 5 of the 1908 WS–the last series game ever won by the Cubs (Could this be the real curse?)
  • Pitchers for the Cleveland Indians have done this 5 times, most recently in 2000.

However, the oddest factoid about 4-strikeout innings is that Chuck Finley has done this 3 times while no one else has ever done it more than once.  The unlucky lefthander performed the feat twice in 1999 for the Angels and once in 2000 for the Cleveland Indians.  Finley was a power strikeout pitcher (currently 23rd all time on MLB list with over 2,600 punch outs) with a down-breaking forkball that gave fits to both hitters and catchers.

Theoretically, a pitcher could record an unlimited number of strikeouts in one inning.  However, five strikeouts in an inning has neveroccurred in a regular season Major League game. It has occurred several times in the minor leagues, most recently by Garrett Bauer of the Rockford RiverHawks against the Windy City Thunderbolts on July 1 2008.  In the major leagues, knuckleballer Joe Niekro also struck out five men in an inning during a spring exhibition game when Niekro was with the Houston Astros. Source: Wikipedia

The likelihood of a pitcher recording 4 strikeouts in an inning has been increasing in recent years.  This is due to several factors including:

  • The sheer number of games played has approximately doubled since the early part of the 20th century.  
  • New pitch types, like the split-finger fastball, are more difficult to control for catchers, and
  • The strikeout level per 9 innings pitched has consistently gone up from 1900 to the present, almost doubling from about 3 strikeouts per 9 innings pitch in 1900 to approximately 6 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. (Source: Hardball Times: http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/strikeout-rates-through-the-years/)

The most infamous third-strike passed ball occurred during the 1941 World Series.  From the New York Times

On the afternoon of Oct. 5, 1941, the Yankees were trailing the Dodgers, 4-3, at Ebbets Field in Game 4 of the World Series and were down to their final out with Brooklyn about to tie the Series at two games apiece. Tommy Henrich, the Yankees’ star outfielder, was at the plate facing the ace reliever Hugh Casey, with nobody on base and a full count.

Casey threw a pitch that broke sharply, and Henrich swung and missed. The home-plate umpire, Larry Goetz, signaled a strikeout and the game was seemingly over.

But the pitch hit the heel of Owen’s glove and skipped away for a passed ball. As Owen chased the ball near the Dodgers’ dugout, Henrich raced to first base. Joe DiMaggio followed with a single to left, then Charlie Keller hit a ball high off the right-field screen, scoring Henrich and DiMaggio and giving the Yankees a 5-4 lead.

After Bill Dickey walked, Joe Gordon doubled to make the score 7-4. The Dodgers went down quickly in the ninth, and the Yankees had a lead of three games to one. They captured the World Series the next day, inspiring the enduring headline in The Brooklyn Eagle, “Wait Till Next Year.”

Vindication was a long time coming for the Dodgers, who lost to the Yankees four more times in the World Series before defeating them in 1955 for their only championship in Brooklyn.

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