All season long, the Omaha Storm Chasers’ pitching staff has been turning up the heat.
And the slider. And the curveball. And the change-up.
So many quality arms, possibly combined with shifting hitting philosophies and the increased use of baseball bullpens, have the Storm Chasers potentially on the verge of a profound accomplishment.
With 1,086 strikeouts in 130 games, Omaha on Monday night broke the franchise record of 1,082 strikeouts in a season set last year — and still has 14 games to play.
More impressive, the Chasers also have a chance at the Pacific Coast League record of 1,228 strikeouts — at their current rate of 8.4 per game, they’d wind up 26 short of the total compiled by the 2001 Iowa Cubs.
After completing a road trip Tuesday night, the first-place Chasers return home Wednesday with Danny Duffy — who just pitched six one-hit shutout innings against the Detroit Tigers, no less — taking the mound.
All the strikeouts have caught Omaha coaches and Kansas City front office types a little off guard.
When Royals farm director Scott Sharp was told his team had a chance to set the league strikeout record, he thought he knew which one but still had to ask:
“Please say it’s pitching and not hitting,” Sharp said, laughing.
Omaha pitching coach Larry Carter can’t quite bring it into focus, either.
“I just know we’ve struck out a lot of guys,” he said. “I don’t know what it really means. They’ve been doing a good job. But I don’t really have an answer.”
Showing the depth of quality pitching on the staff that ranks second in the league with a 3.93 ERA, only one Chaser has more than 100 strikeouts — Justin Marks with 106.
“It’s not like one guy is getting them all,” Carter said. “You go down the line and guys are striking guys out.”
They’ve got Yordano Ventura’s — at times — 102 mph fastball. Duffy frequently hits 97, devastating for a left-handed starter. But those two were mid-season additions who have combined for only 121 strikeouts.
Lefty Will Smith’s velocity and slider have ticked up since his move to the bullpen, but he was already having a career strikeout year as a starter. He’s got 99 strikeouts, but he’s in the big leagues now.
Smith is one of five Chasers who have pitched at least 42 innings while recording at least 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings.
Lefty Donnie Joseph and his devastating slider have been good for 80 strikeouts in 51 1⁄3 innings, a team-best rate of 14.0 per nine innings. Lefty Buddy Baumann, using a slider and cutter, ranks second with 13.1 per nine, having fanned 61 in 42 innings.
The list also includes reliever Michael Mariot (10.1) — Duffy (9.6) and Ventura (9.3) fall just short. Lefty curveball artist Everett Teaford, who has 94 strikeouts, averages 9.4
Expand the minimum to nine innings pitched, and 10 Chasers have averaged at least 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings, with four others getting at least one strikeout per inning.
Maikel Cleto, another with a triple-digit fastball, fans 8.3 per nine. Marks, who features a slider and has been on a strikeout tear, gets 8.2. PCL All-Star Chris Dwyer has 99 strikeouts, averaging a modest 6.3.
What’s going on around here?
“I think it comes from throwing the fastball in,” Carter said. “And we just try to do our homework. If that’s a result of it — I have no idea. We’re not doing anything everybody else isn’t trying to do.”
Carter turned to Omaha hitting coach Tommy Gregg for help in seeking an explanation.
“It’s getting ahead in the count and then having an out pitch, and these guys do that well,” Gregg said.
The PCL strikeout record dates to 1964, but that’s a good starting point anyway — PCL teams played 158 games or more prior to 1965 and were still playing more than the current 144-game schedule until the early 1970s.
Carter is in his first season as the Omaha pitching coach, but no, he said, he’s not doing anything specifically that somehow focuses on strikeouts.
“All we talk about is hits to innings pitched and walks per nine innings,” Carter said. “I never talk about strikeouts. You don’t want to give up more than one hit per inning. You want the opponents’ batting average to be .260 or less, and you want to walk less than three per nine innings.”
Simple enough formula. And the Chasers have the quality arms to execute it.
“We are trying to produce power arms,” Sharp said of the organization in general. “And we’ve got good arms here. We’re had a lot of guys go up and down (to the big leagues and back).”
Still, besides an Iowa team that featured young flamethrower Carlos Zambrano, no one has (since 1963 anyway) topped 1,200 strikeouts.
Nashville, with a future Cy Young Award winner (R.A. Dickey) and a half-season from a future All-Star (Yovani Gallardo) had 1,148 in 2007.
For historical perspective, Portland had Luis Tiant and half-seasons from Sam McDowell and Tommy John in a 158-game 1964 but still managed only 1,083.
Of course, hitters strike out more frequently these days.
Rarely does a starting pitcher go much more than three times through the batting order. Omaha, with its preponderance of left-handers, doesn’t do much situational matching out of the bullpen, but it will run several relievers out for one- or two-inning stints.
“Strikeouts in general are up,” Sharp said. “I don’t know what that’s a commentary on — pitching or hitting. The game in general has maybe become more specialized — you’re seeing more relievers in a game. So a hitter sees different looks, creating more opportunities to strike out.”
There isn’t as much stigma attached to striking out as there used to be, either. A lot of players, even organizations, look at it as just another out. Better than hitting into a double play.
And getting on base by a walk has become a more concrete goal.
“You see so many hitters today, with two strikes, taking borderline pitches that they feel are just off the plate,” Omaha manager Mike Jirschele said. “Years ago, you were taught that with two strikes you expand that strike zone. You don’t let the umpire call you out.”
It all started on opening day, when Omaha pitchers struck out 16 in eight innings. Two days later, they got 14. They fanned 19 in a 12-inning game on July 1. There have been 19 games of 12 strikeouts or more, including four in a row in late July.
Add it up, and Omaha has a chance to be the second team in the modern era of the PCL to reach 1,200 strikeouts and to perhaps set the record.
What’s it all mean?
“It’d be a hell of an accomplishment,” Carter said. “But I’d rather make the playoffs and have a chance to play for the championship than strike out a bunch of guys and not make it.”