After three seasons lost in the wilderness, Zach Duke(notes) is finally living up to some of the promise he showed as a 22-year-old rookie in 2005, when he posted a 1.81 ERA as a second-half callup. His problem is that, while he has pretty good control, he doesn't strike people out. Major league pitchers this year have averaged 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings; Duke comes in at 4.5 K/9 — which, in this age, usually is a predictor of bad performance.
Only, Duke hasn't been bad. He has a 3.10 ERA, 32 percent better than the average pitcher, neutralizing park and league factors. It's not unprecedented for a pitcher to have a good year with relatively few strikeouts. At one time, it was more common for low-strikeout pitchers to survive and even thrive. Hall-of-Famer Ted Lyons, in his prime in the late '20s with the White Sox, had a career rate of 2.3 K/9 and more career walks than strikeouts.
Since 1980, only 19 pitchers with 162 innings have relative K-rates and adjusted ERAs as low as Duke does this season. One came in this decade, five in the '90s, and 13 in the '80s. And none did it twice.
The most recent example was Kenny Rogers in 2005, who went 14-8 for the Rangers with an improbable 3.52 ERA in a bandbox — despite only 87 Ks in 195 1/3 innings (4.01 K/9).
Like today's Duke, Rogers was a southpaw from the South, just over 6-feet tall who — with
a fastball that never seemed to break 90 mph — got by on guile, left-handedness and by stranding more than 75 percent of his baserunners. (The MLB average this year is just over 71 percent.)
None of the 19 pitchers on the list were Hall of Famers, and a few of the seasons were fluky events in mediocre careers — such as Allan Anderson's 1988 or Mike Dunne's 1987 rookie campaign. However, the vast majority were very good pitchers for a very long time. Eleven of the 19 lasted long enough to win at least 100 games in the majors, three won more than 200 games — Joe Niekro, Jerry Reuss and Rogers himself — and five had multiple All-Star appearances. It suggests that if you have a successful season with relatively few strikeouts, odds are you're a pretty good pitcher.
In the old days, the low K pitcher had a better chance to be great. Of the 67 pitchers in the Hall of Fame, 31 have a career K/9 under 4.5. To be fair, many (including Al Spalding, namesake of the sporting goods company, and Candy Cummings, inventer of the curveball) had their glory years before the modern era — before strikeouts and walks were under modern rules. But many, like Cy Young (3.4 K/9), Carl Hubbell (4.20 K/9), Robin Roberts (4.52 K/9), and Warren Spahn (4.43 K/9) pitched well into the twentieth century, and Spahn and Roberts pitched into its latter half. And some left-handed schlub named Babe Ruth only struck out 3.6 men per nine innings, in the midst of a pretty good pitching career.
Similarly, in the 52 years of the Cy Young Award (and the 41 years in which both leagues have given out a separate award), only seven of 93 Cy Young-winning seasons have been achieved with a 4.5 K/9 or fewer. (One of them was Spahn in 1957.) But HOFers Catfish Hunter (AL, 1974) and Jim Palmer (AL, '76) proved it could be done. Randy Jones, the 1976 NL Cy Young Award winner, had a K/9 of just 2.7. Suffice to say that it was a different era.
Spahn, Roberts, and Bob Lemon, all finished by the 1960s, are the three most recent pitchers in the Hall with K/9 totals that low. So it's unlikely we'll see many newcomers able to construct a similar career.
It's a shame Zach wasn't born several decades earlier. He might have had a much better chance at sustained success back then. As it is, Pirates fans are just holding their breath, waiting for a seemingly inevitable meltdown. A couple of generations ago, his chances of keeping it going all season wouldn't have seemed too remote. Today, it seems impossible.
Until he proves otherwise.