Strikeout pitchers weren't always dime-a-dozen in baseball. The trend in that direction began in the late 50s/early 60s, assisted (temporarily) by a strike zone change, and has since moved into an escalating phase of play that is a key factor in the accelerating homogeneity and uniformity of the present-day game.
That trend was arrested, briefly, in 1969 when both the strike zone and the pitching mound were modified. And a retrospective look at that time frame reveals a surprising, little-known fact about just what team was in the forefront of that short-lived "counter-movement" towards finesse pitchers.
|Yankees' K/9 rates, 1964-1981|
Today we call it "pitching to contact," which has the slightly condescending air of much of what's been developed over recent years to color our knowledge as much as improve it. The only piece of "wisdom" pertinent to the finesse pitcher is that he's at greater risk for injury, particularly if given heavy use at an early age.
It's possible that the above mantra has been repeated for so long, however, that we are no longer even willing to think that a finesse pitcher can be successful at all in the major leagues. 1972 might as well be 1872 as far as current theory is concerned: even "control" pitchers such as Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright strike batters out at a rate higher than what the AL managed as a league forty-one years ago.
The shocking story inside the 1972 season as played out in the American League, though, was that for most of that year, the best pitcher in the league was one who struck out barely more than two batters per nine innings.
His name: Steve Kline. Not the feisty southpaw reliever of recent vintage, but the 6'3" right-hander drafted out of high school in the seventh round by the Yankees in 1966. Kline weathered a rough patch in the minors during 1969 and made it to the big leagues in 1970, where he struggled a bit despite a career high 4.4 K/9 rate. Yankee pitching coach Jim (Milkman) Turner--remembered mostly from his double-talking ways as described in Jim Bouton's Ball Four--applied his own soft-tossing tenets to Kline, and hooked him up with Thurman Munson, who was emerging as starting catcher and team captain. Munson would be behind the plate for 30 of Kline's 32 starts in 1972.
Kline refined his approach further as a result, and from early June through late August, produced an exact half-season (16 GS) that--despite striking out less than two men per nine innings--rivaled the bottom-line performance of Bob Gibson four years earlier. Over those starts, spanning 128 IP, Kline's ERA was 1.20(!!). Along with Munson, Bobby Murcer and Sparky Lyle, he was the key figure in the slow-but-steady resurgence of a sluggish, slow-starting Yankee squad that would move to within a half-game of the AL East lead in mid-September before losing twelve of their final seventeen contests.
Our old friend QMAX (the Quality Matrix) provides us with a useful breakout of Kline's all-too-brief assignation with transcendence, as well as capturing the shape and quality of the other significant starting pitchers in the 1972 AL. Kline's ability to change both the angle and the speed of his slider seemed to become elevated to a level approaching hoiiness during this stretch: his groundball tendencies also reached an all-time high. His QMAX total for these starts was 4.06 (2.31 S; 1.75 C), which is astonishing for anyone--much less a pitcher who is striking out just under two men per nine innings.
Kline would fade in September, and he would experience a progressive series of arm problems in 1973. It's easy for us now to toss him into the pile of abused young pitchers who were littering the game (and, despite all kinds of modern-day precautions, still do so today).
And it would be hard to argue with the results in the ten starts Kline made on three days' rest: 6-2, 1.45 ERA. We can now point with horror to that, and to his 236 IP at the age of 24, but in the context of 1972 these weren't extreme totals. Five pitchers had more than 40 GS; seven pitchers, including 21-year-old Bert Blyleven and 25-year-old Nolan Ryan, had more than 280 IP.
It was a marvelous year for starting pitchers: while the AL produced far more twenty-game winners in the years adjacent to 1972, superb seasons were turned in by every conceivable style of hurler, from flamethrowers (Ryan) to knuckleballers (Wilbur Wood, whose September slump as he pressed on to 375+ IP probably cost the upstart White Sox their shot at the eventual WS champ Oakland A's). Gaylord Perry won the Cy Young award, but QMAX tells us that Catfish Hunter was just as good. Other notable seasons were turned in by Jim Palmer, Mickey Lolich, and Luis Tiant. The QMAX charts (provided for Perry, Hunter, Lolich, Ryan and Wood) show just how that success is spread around in the varied shapes of performance.
For half a season, however, Steve Kline was better than each and every one of these arguable Hall of Famers. Just because he couldn't sustain that level of excellence is no reason why he should be consigned to the dustbin of history. We may never see another pitcher like him again--and, despite the dire prognosis that seems to accompany such masters of the pitching microsphere, contemplating that realization is more than a little bit sad.