IT WOULD SEEM that Yu Darvish is in trouble. It's the top of the third, and Yankees are everywhere: Eric Chavez on third, Russell Martin on second, Derek Jeter on first. At the dish is Curtis Granderson, he of the 41 homers and 119 RBIs last season. If this were blackjack, Darvish would surrender. But the rookie -- for whom the Rangers coughed up $51.7 million just for the right to negotiate -- isn't concerned. After all, he features as many different pitches as a grand piano: a four-seam fastball, cutter, sinker, curve, slider, changeup and splitter. With two balls and two strikes on Granderson, Darvish throws a looping, 78 mph curve that appears to be in slow motion. It begins a foot off the plate, on a level with Granderson's armpits. It ends on the outside corner, right at his knees. All Granderson can do is watch. Strike three. Two pitches later, A-Rod grounds into a double play, and Darvish improves as the night goes on: In the seventh, facing Raul Ibanez, Chavez and Jeter, he strikes out the side.
The phenom ends this April 24 game with 10 strikeouts in 81/3 innings, leading the Rangers to a 2-0 win. According to Elias, the outing marks the first time in 14 years that a pitcher has tossed at least eight shutout innings while tallying double-digit K's in his first career start against the Yankees. Twelve days later in Cleveland, the 25-year-old righty gets tagged with his first big league loss, but not before fanning 11 Tribe hitters in just six innings. His punchout parade is even more impressive when you consider how infrequently the Yanks and Indians have been striking out: through May 22, just 16.3 percent and 17.4 percent of their plate appearances, respectively, among the five lowest rates in baseball. Darvish's Yankees masterpiece was the first of five straight starts with seven or more K's, making him the first Texas pitcher to do that since the Reagan administration (Bobby Witt, 1987). Darvish is, in short, a strikeout master -- and would command even more attention if there weren't so many other hurlers wearing crowns this season.
Welcome to the reign of the K. Through May 22, the major league strikeout rate was 19.5 percent, on pace to shatter the record of 18.6 percent set ... last year. By comparison, in 1973, with the birth of the designated hitter, big leaguers struck out just 13.7 percent of the time, or once every 7.3 plate appearances. Give an everyday player 600 plate appearances back in '73 and that's 82 whiffs, entirely respectable by traditional baseball standards. Three decades later, hand that same everyday player 600 plate appearances and he finishes the season with 117 K's. What in the name of Rob Deer is going on?