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Failure to Whiff: Lester’s Place In History

It’s too early to worry. It’s only one outing, right? Right?

But when three of baseball’s premier strikeout pitchers combine for just one punchout in games on Friday,¬†well, it’s interesting. And exceptionally rare–especially for these guys.

Entering 2011, Jon Lester had made 123 starts in his career, with his only K-less appearance coming on April 9, 2008. In that game he lasted 5 1/3 frames, allowing four hits and four runs to go along with four walks. Brett Myers had made 216 career starts and never left a game sans strikeout while lasting at least five frames. Ubaldo Jimenez had started 116 games, whiffing one or fewer batters in at least five innings on just two occasions: September 20, 2007 (6 1/3 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 BB, 1 K), and May 21, 2008 (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 1 K).

On Friday, neither Lester nor Myers recorded a strikeout, and Jimenez fanned only one batter. In fact, Myers recorded only one missed swing. In a total of 18 1/3 innings, this trio managed fewer strikeouts than Ryan Madson did in his one inning of work.

What makes this situation so interesting is that these three pitchers are all above average at striking hitters out. Last season, Lester whiffed 26.1 percent of the batters he faced; Jimenez struck out the opposition 23.9 percent of the time; and Myers checked in with a 19.2 percent clip. With the league average around 17 percent, these three were clearly not strangers to strikeouts. Yet on Friday, they fell way below expectations in this department. The season is much too young to begin investigating why strikeouts eluded these three, but we can certainly look into the rarity of the situation from an historical perspective.

I initially wondered how frequently starting pitchers with strikeout rates in the 20-25 percent range left a game while striking out nary a hitter. To that end, I pooled together all starting pitchers from 1954-onward who logged at least 120 innings in a season, and counted their K-less games in the following season. The only games being counted, however, were those in which the pitcher lasted five innings. In theory, a data query along these lines should not produce many results as it stands to reason that pitchers with a high propensity to strike batters out would, well, strike batters out.

Setting the strikeout rate at 20 percent in the first season, there were 41 pitchers with one K-less game in the following season and three pitchers who couldn’t produce a punchout on two occasions in the following campaign: Carlos Zambrano in 2007 (June 1 and August 14), Randy Wolf in 2002 (July 26 and August 11), and Roger Clemens in 1987 (July 1 and July 21). Particularly noteworthy about those games is that both of Clemens’ games were complete games, and the latter outing actually resulted in a five hit shutout.

But what happens when the minimum strikeout rate is increased from 20 percent to 26 percent, given that there is a difference between both Myers’ and Lester’s abilities to miss bats? If the ante is upped in this fashion, there are actually only three instances in the Retrosheet era where a pitcher with a high strikeout rate in a season failed to record a strikeout in a game the next year: Randy Johnson on May 15, 2005 against the Athletics, Kerry Wood on August 8, 2004 against the Giants, and Luis Tiant on May 2, 1969 against the Senators. Lester’s outing this past Friday represents just the fourth such instance in history.

Lester, Jimenez, and Myers are going to strike batters out this season. Plenty of information gathered over the last several seasons confirms this fact, but one of the best parts of this game is how players can still put together surprising and, in this case, historically rare performances. Nobody should panic because Lester allowed three homers while failing to whiff an opposing hitter, just like nerves should be relaxed with regards to Jimenez and Myers. It’s too early to worry right now, but if one of these hurlers goes K-less in his next scheduled start, further investigation will be merited in order to determine what might be going wrong.