The rise of the 12-strikeout game

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Last night, it was Dillon Gee and Doug Fister. On Wednesday, it was Eric Stults, of all people.

All told, there have been 23 12-strikeout games from pitchers one-third of the way through the 2013 season. Not only is it a record pace, but it’s already more than the entire league achieved in 2005 or 2008. It matches the total of 12-strikeout performances from 2009.

The all-time record for 12-strikeout games was 57 in 1965, followed by 54 from both 1968 and 1997. Tripling this year’s total, since most every team has played 51-55 games, would put us at 69 for 2013.

That’s a huge step forward from recent years. Here’s a list of 12-strikeout games by season since 1996:

1996: 24
1997: 54
1998: 51
1999: 41
2000: 44
2001: 49
2002: 40
2003: 26
2004: 31
2005: 19
2006: 29
2007: 27
2008: 20
2009: 23
2010: 35
2011: 36
2012: 46

Of course, we’re seeing more strikeouts now than ever before, but we also have more attention paid to pitch counts these days and a lot of starters leaving before they can rack up 12 strikeouts. That likely played a role in the decline that started a decade ago, though the fact that Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens were all getting up there in years was important as well. Those four rank first, third, fifth and sixth, respectively, in the number of 12-strikeout games since 1916. The active leader in 12-K games is Johan Santana with 15. Next are Tim Lincecum with 12 and Justin Verlander with 10.

This year, 19 different pitchers have turned in the 23 12-strikeout games. Yu Darvish is responsible for three, while Verlander and Anibal Sanchez have two apiece. The Tigers have six in all, with Max Scherzer and Fister also on the list.

As for the victims, the Braves and Mariners both make the list three times. The Braves were the loser in the high-strikeout game of 2013, when Sanchez fanned 17 in eight innings on April 26.

The Padres’ Stults still rates as the unlikeliest with 12 strikeouts. He hadn’t reached that total in any two consecutive starts since 2007.

Nationals activate Stephen Strasburg off the disabled list

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The Nationals officially activated Stephen Strasburg off the 10-day disabled list, the team announced Saturday. They’ll pencil him into the starting lineup for their second set against the Padres on Saturday night. Strasburg is expected to assume Max Scherzer‘s roster spot after Scherzer landed on the disabled list with neck inflammation prior to Friday’s series opener. No other roster moves appear to be necessary for the time being.

Strasburg, 28, is finally looking stable after serving a 26-day stint on the DL with a right elbow nerve impingement. It’s the first serious injury he’s sustained since last August, when he missed 20 days with inflammation in his right elbow, and one the Nationals are taking seriously as they juggle multiple stints for their elite starters. He’ll enter Saturday’s competition with a 10-3 record in 20 starts, supplemented by a 3.25 ERA, 2.7 BB/9 and 10.4 SO/9 through 121 2/3 innings.

Elbow issues are nothing to be played around with, but Strasburg’s performance in his lone rehab outing relieved any residual apprehension the Nats might have had about his activation this weekend. He tossed 66 pitches for High-A Potomac, hitting 95 MPH with his heater and logging three hits, one run, one walk and five strikeouts over five innings. Club manager Dusty Baker is hoping for a similarly dominant start against the Padres, and told reporters that he’ll hold Strasburg to a performance count as the righty works his way back to a full-time gig.

MLB umpires will wear white wristbands to protest “escalating verbal attacks”

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The World Umpires Association is dissatisfied with the punishment meted out to Tigers’ second baseman Ian Kinsler following his lengthy criticism of MLB umpire Angel Hernandez on Tuesday. Kinsler’s comments were sparked by a confrontation on Monday night, when the infielder was ejected after arguing balls and strikes with Hernandez in the fifth inning.

“It has to do with changing the game. He’s changing the game. He needs to find another job, he really does,” Kinsler told reporters. “Candidly, leave the game. No one wants you behind the plate anymore. No one in this game wants you behind the plate any more, none of the players.”

Kinsler was fined an undisclosed amount for the remarks, but did not receive a suspension. Hernandez, meanwhile, returned to cover second base the next day and appeared to resolve the conflict with a brief conversation and a handshake.

Whether or not the comments speak to underlying truths about Major League Baseball’s flawed umpiring system, they clearly got under the skin of the World Umpires Association. The union released a statement Saturday condemning Major League Baseball for choosing to overlook the “escalating attacks” on the men in blue:

This week, a player publicly and harshly impugned the character and integrity of Angel Hernandez – a veteran umpire who has dedicated his career to baseball and the community. The verbal attack on Angel denigrated the entire MLB umpiring staff and is unacceptable.

The Office of the Commissioner has failed to address this and other escalating attacks on umpires. The player who denigrated Hernandez publicly said he thought he would be suspended. Instead got far more lenient treatment – a fine. He shrugged that off and told reporters he has ‘no regrets’ about his offensive statements calling for an end to Hernandez’s career.

The Office of the Commissioner’s lenient treatment to abusive player behavior sends the wrong message to players and managers. It’s ‘open season’ on umpires, and that’s bad for the game.

We are held accountable for our performance at every game. Our most important duty is to protect the integrity of the game, and we will continue to do that job every day. But the Office of the Commissioner must protect our integrity when we are unfairly attacked simply for doing our jobs.

Starting Saturday, umpires will don white wristbands in protest of the Commissioner’s lack of support, and will continue to do so until their concerns are addressed.

Kinsler’s comments may have been in poor taste, but given the established in-game ramifications for challenging an umpire’s decisions, it’s difficult to tell where the union wants MLB to start drawing the line. If players already face ejections for questioning the parameters of a strike zone (often immediate ones, without any room for a productive or non-confrontational discussion), it seems unfair to hit them with suspensions for venting their frustrations after the game. Until Major League Baseball finds a way to start automating calls, however, the “human element” of the game will continue to pose problems for players and umpires alike.