Alex Cobb looked spectacular on Tuesday night to help the Tampa Bay Rays to a two-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals. How spectacular? Let’s go into the annals of Rays history to find out.
On 6/25/1999 (and, unfortunately, not too many other days), Wilson Alvarez was worth the five-year, $35 million contract the Devil Rays gave him prior to their inaugural season. He tossed a complete game as the Rays beat the Toronto Blue Jays, and while he did allow 4 runs, he struck out 11 while walking none. Following that performance, however, it would more than seven years before another Rays pitcher struck out 10 batters while walking none.
On July 31, 2006, Casey Fossum became that pitcher in what was an extreme outlier game for him. Only one other time all season did he strike out more than TWO batters without walking at least one. But on that trade deadline day in 2006, Fossum went 7 innings against the Detroit Tigers allowing just an unearned run on 6 hits, striking out 10 while walking none. Of course, he did hit two batters, but we’ll conveniently ignore that. Fossum was an unlikely candidate to become the second Ray to strike out 10 without a walk, but after his game, such performances wound up being much more common for the Rays.
Less than a year later, on 6/10/07, Andy Sonnanstine had one of his handful of brilliant performances in his rookie year, going 7 innings allowing 2 runs on 7 hits, striking out 10 while walking none. He finished the season with a terrible 5.85 ERA, and he somehow never managed an ERA under 5.35 after any of his starts the entire season. How is that even possible? His performance was not all that unlikely, though, because he actually managed a 6.7 K/9 and a 1.8 BB/9 on the season–he didn’t walk many guys, so when he did have a high-strikeout game, he had a better chance of walking nobody. Also, as we know, he delivered a solid 2008 season for the Rays. Even if Sonnanstine did have his moments with the Rays, however, he was the last non-ace to deliver a ten-strikeout, zero-walk game for a very long time. Here is every such game by the Rays since then.
Looking at that table, the point becomes pretty obvious–after Alvarez, Fossum, and Sonnanstine, the next 17 games where a Rays starting pitcher struck out 10 while walking none were thrown by the best three pitchers in their history: David Price, James Shields, and Scott Kazmir. That’s pretty crazy, but let’s look past that for just a moment.
In that 2007 season alone, there were five such games by the D-Rays. Where does that fit in history? As it turns out, the record for most starting pitcher ten-strikeout, zero-walk games by one team is an insane nine by the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks. The D-Backs also had seven each in 2000 and 2001, plus six in 2004. Those Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling guys were pretty good. For whatever reason, though, six of the top seven teams on the leaderboard were National League teams. In AL history, however, the 2007 D-Rays are tied for second, trailing only the 1998 New York Yankees. Right behind them with four was the all-time great pitching staff of the 2012 Rays. Tied with that 2012 squad, though, are actually the 2014 Rays. Granted, three of those games came from David Price, but the Rays have a real chance to tie their 2007 team and just maybe become the second AL team with at least six games of 10 strikeouts and no walks by a starter in one season. A playoff berth would be more exciting, but you can’t argue with being tied for first in American League history in anything positive at all.
Now let’s get back to the pitcher that inspired this whole article, Alex Cobb. Cobb broke the streak of 17 straight by Price, Shields, and Kazmir. Simply put, the torch has been passed. Cobb has a lot more work to do to become that next Rays ace, but it has taken a transcendent talent to achieve those types of results, and we know that Cobb has the ability to be such a pitcher. He may not have the mid-90’s fastball of the others (yes, even Shields touches 95 MPH), but his split-change is right up with any of their secondary pitches, and his curveball gives him a second dynamic offering behind his fastball. When David Price leaves, whether it’s five days from now, five months from now, or after the 2015 season, Cobb is going to be that next Rays frontline starter. It is only symbolic how his ten-strikeout, no-walk game fits in Rays history, but he has the talent to make the symbolism work out perfectly.