Back when Chris Archer had his 11-strikeout game two weeks ago, the Rays Radio Network (@RaysRadio) sent out a very interesting tweet.
— RaysRadio (@RaysRadio) September 9, 2012
That is a pretty strange list, and we can add to it the only other pitcher in Rays history to accomplish the feat, Dan Wheeler. How were these the five pitchers to strike out 10 batters in their first 3 MLB games?
Out of the bullpen, we have seen how electric Wade Davis’ stuff can be. He has struck out 10.9 batters per 9 innings and 81 total on the season, fourth among AL full-time relievers. His problem as a starter is that his fastball has gotten straight at higher velocities and that between his slider and curveball could not find a consistent second pitch. But in that game, Davis’ fastball touched 94 MPH with great life and his curveball featured dynamic break while his slider was a good third pitch. If Davis had been able to do that more often, he never would have gone to the bullpen.
Andy Sonnanstine never proved himself to be effective consistently for the Rays, managing his best season in 2008 when he went 13-9 with a 4.39 ERA. What held back Sonnanstine was a fastball that topped out at 87-88 MPH. Because of that, he was always very dependent on his cutter, throwing it over half the time. His slider has been his best second-best secondary offering, but between those two pitches it wasn’t enough. In his second career start, Sonnanstine saw a third pitch rise to his occasion, his curveball. Sonnanstine never had the consistency with his curveball along with his changeup to become the solid mid-rotation starter the Rays thought he could be.
It is awfully hard to remember Dan Wheeler as a starter. It was back in 1999, nine years before Wheeler became an effective reliever after the Rays reacquired him in 2007. Wheeler never threw hard, topping out around 90-91 MPH, and although he had a plus pitch in his slider, he never could be consistent enough with his curveball and splitter to last as a starter. We don’t have any specifics on how he struck out 12 batters versus the Oakland A’s on 9/12/99, but in the game he actually allowed 4 runs on 5 hits, including 2 home runs, and 3 walks on his way to the loss in the game. For one game he was able to use all his pitches to miss bats, but even then his command was off and he got hit hard. Because he couldn’t do that consistently, he ended up as a reliever, and for a while was quite good in that role.
An isolated 10-strikeout game means nothing. When you look back and say “how in the world did that pitcher have a 10 strikeout game?”, it’s a case of unfulfilled potential. The great pitchers are a significant threat to strike out 10 batters every time out. Most pitchers fall short of that, some pitchers farther than others. In Matt Moore and Chris Archer, the Rays have two pitchers who they think have a real chance to be pitchers like that someday. For Davis, Sonnanstine, and Wheeler, it was just an outlier in a careers that never had that type of trajectory. Looking at the list of pitchers who have struck out 10 or more batters within their first 3 starts, we see some all-time greats. There’s Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, and skipping a whole bunch of years, Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester, Tim Lincecum, and Stephen Strasburg (twice). So many of the list never reach anywhere near that level and are eventually forgotten. That’s the way it is in general with pitchers, with baseball players, and in sports in general. What is a 10-strikeout game in your first 3 starts? It’s a flash of brilliance. The great ones show more of them. The ones who fall short look back fondly and do the best they can to carve out careers for themselves even as they know they’ll never get their again. It’s a testament to the Rays’ ability to scout pitchers how they have the last four AL pitchers to strike out 10 or more batters in their first 10 starts. They certainly don’t all get there, but so many of their pitchers have a chance.