In his first start of the season Sunday against Tampa Bay, Yu Darvish quickly proved the neck soreness that delayed his season debut was but a minor issue. Darvish hurled seven shutout innings in the 3-0 victory and held the Rays to seven hits and one walk.
Darvish led the major leagues with 277 strikeouts in 2013. His first inning of the new season brought more of the same, as Darvish whiffed the first two batters he faced, Rays outfielders David DeJesus and Wil Myers. Myers marked Darvish's 500th strikeout victim in just 401 2/3 innings pitched, making the Rangers ace the new fastest pitcher in MLB history to 500 strikeouts. It's an impressive achievement for Darvish, but as history shows, it's a bit of an inauspicious one as well.
Darvish wrested the mark from another phenom starter, former Cubs ace Kerry Wood, who struck out 500 over 404 2/3 innings in 1998, 2000 and 2001 (he missed the entire 1999 season due to injury). Wood and Mark Prior, another member of the 500 strikeouts in under 500 innings club, helped the 2003 Cubs set a record for most strikeouts in a season with 1,404. That record stood until last season's Tigers struck out 1,428, led by another pair of power arms in Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. In many ways, Wood and Prior marked the beginning of the era of the power arm in the starting rotation.
Since then, a number of pitchers of varying quality have managed 500 strikeouts within their first 500 innings. Josh Beckett reached 500 strikeouts in 497 innings and has a strong 13-year career under his belt. Stephen Strasburg managed the feat in 427 innings despite working through a Tommy John surgery. Yovani Gallardo did it in 481 innings and has been a steady No. 2 starter throughout an under-the-radar career in Milwaukee.
Most of the stories, however, are less positive. Tim Lincecum reached the milestone in 449 1/3 innings over his first three seasons but has a 3.89 ERA (92 ERA+) since. Scott Kazmir struck out his first 500 in 482 1/3 innings and appeared to be finished by age 27 before resurfacing last year in Cleveland. Francisco Liriano, now Pittsburgh's ace, did it in his first 493 innings as a Minnesota Twin and had similar struggles to Kazmir with injuries and ineffectiveness for years in between. Oliver Perez did it in a tremendous 438 1/3 innings -- hence the Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax comparisons dropped by Scott Boras during Perez's free agency after the 2008 season -- but couldn't throw strikes and was a general disaster in five years as a Met. Former Giant Jonathan Sanchez did it in 484 innings. Sanchez struck out 634 over 606 2/3 innings in his first five seasons and turned it into a 4.26 ERA (99 ERA+) and has since struggled to hold down a roster spot.
This explosion of pitchers reaching the 500 strikeout mark within 500 tracks coincides with the explosion of strikeouts around baseball. Since Wood entered the league in 1999, league-wide strikeouts per nine innings have risen from 6.4 to 7.6. Much of this is due to the rise in specialist relievers, but starting pitchers with mid-to-upper 90s gas are nowhere near the rarity they were in the 20th century. And all these pitchers, with the notable exception of Gallardo, were capable of reaching back and firing 95 mph or faster throughout a start at their peaks.
Before Wood, the record belonged to Hideo Nomo, who couldn't be farther from the power pitcher mold that has dominated the accomplishment since. Nomo's fastball, when he did throw it, sat in the low-90s. Instead, Nomo relied on his tornado-like delivery and absurd movement from a trademark forkball to keep bats off balls and rack up the strikeouts with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out a league-leading 236 batters in just 28 starts and 191 1/3 innings in his rookie year in 1995. He needed just 444 innings to rack up 500 strikeouts. It was a record doomed to fall quickly due to the upcoming wave of power arms, but it also serves a testament to Nomo's uniquely amazing ability, as he is one of the few to accomplish the feat without a massive fastball.
Nomo squeaked by previous record-holder Dwight Gooden's mark by less than an inning. Gooden, however, remains the last pitcher to strike out over 500 batters in his first two seasons. Gooden led both leagues in strikeouts in both his rookie and sophomore seasons and his 544 combined strikeouts is a modern era (since 1901) record. His sophomore season, as a 20-year-old in 1985, was one of the best pitching seasons ever. Gooden led the National League in complete games (16 of 35) and innings pitched (276.2) while leading both leagues in wins (24), strikeouts (268), ERA (1.53) and ERA+ (229). Gooden was the platonic ideal of the power pitcher in the mid-1980s, one of the most intimidating pitchers to ever toe a major league rubber. He racked up double-digit strikeout games in an era when the league struck out just 5.5 times per nine innings -- just imagine him against players like Adam Dunn or Ryan Howard in today's MLB.
Only one other 20th century pitcher accomplished the feat: Cleveland's Herb Score, over the 1955 and 1956 seasons. Score reached the majors as a 22-year-old in 1955 and promptly became one of the league's best pitchers. He struck out a league-leading 245 batters in 227 1/3 innings to earn the 1955 Rookie of the Year award and All-Star berth. In 1956, Score added 263 more strikeouts in 249 1/3 innings to become the first to notch 500 strikeouts in his first two years.
Score was in the same rotation as a pair of Hall of Famers in Early Wynn and Bob Lemon, and the aging Bob Feller remained on Cleveland's roster in a relief role as well. Despite the talent around him, Score was hyped as potentially one of the best pitchers to ever play the game after his pair of record-setting seasons. Score's talent for the strikeout was unimaginable in the mid-50s, as the league struck out approximately 4.5 times per nine innings during his first two seasons in the league. Score more than doubled that in each of his first two seasons, and was on his way to a third in 1957 when disaster struck.
On May 7, 1957, Score took a line drive off his right eye and suffered a broken nose. According to his eye specialist, Dr. Charles Thomas, "It was fortunate that the ball hit him flush. It caught the top of the eyebrow bone, the cheekbone, and the nose, fracturing the nose. The bone structure of Herb's face absorbed most of the impact that otherwise would have destroyed his eye." Score managed to make it back for the 1958 season, but made just 12 appearances before succumbing to an elbow injury. He appeared in 65 games over the next four years and still had an excellent (for the era) 7.1 K/9, but he walked nearly as many as he struck out and posted a 4.49 ERA over that stretch. It's hard to say whether the head injury or the elbow injury was the one that did him in, but either way, Score resembles Wood and Prior as one of the great what-if pitchers of the game's history.
This is the group Darvish joins. Of the 12 previous starting pitchers to strike out 500 batters before recording 500 innings pitched, none have sustained success deep into their careers. All have fallen to something, whether Tommy John surgery or freak injuries or a swift late-20s decline. None of the retired players have made the Hall of Fame. Of the other active players, only Strasburg seems to have a chance, and he is far too young to warrant any Hall assumptions.
This isn't to suggest Darvish is doomed. On the contrary, despite the bleak history above, there is no better predictor of future great pitching than past great pitching. Rather, it puts into context how difficult it is to maintain success as a power strikeout pitcher. The velocity and sharpness required and the sheer number of pitches makes the near-impossible task of staying healthy as a major league pitcher even harder. Darvish, unlike a few on this list, has the big body and strength required to handle such a load. Nothing is unavoidable, as Herb Score knew well, but if anybody is capable of turning an astounding first 400 innings into a phenomenal -- and long -- major league career, it is new strikeout sprint king Yu Darvish.