- Matt Meyers
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You have to feel for Jordan Zimmermann, he of the Friday evening one-hitter, and Kyle Kendrick (three-hit shutout) a little bit. On any other night, either of those two would have been the story. But they were both upstaged by Anibal Sanchez, who set a Detroit Tigers franchise record by striking out 17 batters in a 10-0 victory against the Atlanta Braves.
Sanchez isn't in the class of Verlander or Scherzer as a strikeout pitcher (few are), but he did whiff 202 batters while pitching for the Marlins in 2011. So that got me thinking: Could the Tigers' pitching staff set the record for most strikeouts in a season?
The record is just 10 years old, and it was set by the 2003 Chicago Cubs; the Mark Prior/Kerry Wood-led staff fanned 1,404. Through 21 games, the Tigers have 211 strikeouts, which is a hair more than 10 per game and puts them on pace to shatter the record with 1,628.
That figure is a bit misleading due to the fact that the season is in its infancy, and Sanchez's performance is being given too much weight as a result. Rick Porcello and his 2.1 strikeouts per nine innings are set to take the bump for the Tigers on Saturday, and if Detroit's pitchers only rack up five strikeouts, for example, that strikeout "projection" would drop to 1,583.
Nonetheless, this staff has what it takes to threaten the record. Verlander and Scherzer are in the upper echelon of strikeout pitchers, and it wouldn't be unheard of for each of them to surpass 230 Ks apiece, as they did last season. For context, Wood and Prior had 266 and 245 for the Cubs, respectively, in 2003. The Cubs club didn't have another pitcher crack the 200-K plateau, which is where Sanchez can give the Tigers an edge.
Assuming Sanchez can surpass 200 punchouts, the Tigers would be halfway to the record before any of their other starters or relievers entered the equation. Thus far, the Tigers' relievers are doing their part, as Al Alburquerque (15.2 strikeouts per nine), Darin Downs (13.0), Joaquin Benoit (10.5) and Phil Coke (10.4) are all fanning more than a man per inning. And the recently promoted Bruce Rondon throws 100 mph and should pull his weight in the strikeout department. As you might recall, the 2003 Cubs featured two relievers who racked up a ton of strikeouts, with Kyle Farnsworth fanning 92 and Mike Remlinger whiffing 83.
When it comes down to it, the Tigers' chances of breaking the record will be dictated by two factors: health (duh) and Porcello. While his current strikeout rate is lower than his career rate of 4.9 per nine, he's never been a guy who misses a lot of bats. If he remains in the rotation all season, he will make it difficult for Detroit to pass the Cubs.
Of course, Porcello might pitch himself out of the rotation if he can't get his ERA into single digits posthaste, and the Tigers' chance of breaking the record would almost certainly get a boost from whomever his replacement might be. (It would likely be Drew Smyly, who is fanning 10.2 per nine as a reliever this season and has a career mark of 8.7.)
With the way strikeout rates have been rising over the lpast decade, it's only a matter of time before the team strikeout record falls. With Anibal Sanchez in top form, the Tigers are equipped to make it happen.