On April 11, 2010, Jason Bergmann came in as a relief pitcher in the 8th inning of the Nats’ 6th game of the season. He struck out the only batter he faced on three pitches, giving him 299 career Ks, all with the Nats. Three days later Bergmann gave up a two-run homer in one inning of work, lifting his season ERA to a gaudy 15.43 in just 4 appearances. The very next day he was sent down to AAA Syracuse and never pitched in the majors again despite being only 28-years old and, get this, also being at that time the Nats’ all time career strikeouts leader.
Despite being mostly lousy during his Nationals tenure, Bergmann had been just good enough to be a mainstay of their pitching staff for their first five seasons in DC, going from reliever to starter and then back to reliever again. To say those Nats pitching staffs didn’t miss a lot of bats is a huge understatement. At the time of Bergmann’s demotion, John Patterson held the team’s single season strikeout record, recording 185 in their 2005 inaugural season. One-year hired gun Esteban Loaiza checked in at number 2 from that same season with 173. Beyond those two, however, no Nats pitcher had struck out even 150 batters during one campaign. In 2009, for example, John Lannan somehow pitched a team leading 206.1 innings while recording only 89 Ks. That same year nobody on the Nats’ staff managed to even hit triple digits, though rookie Jordan Zimmermann certainly would have had he not blown out his elbow that year.
There have been lots of articles recently about the ever-increasing number of strikeouts in MLB and how it has negatively affected the offensive side of the game. And in recent times, no team has more dramatically altered the strikeout effectiveness of their pitching staff than the Nats. By 2012, just two years after former team strikeout king Bergmann was so unceremoniously cut loose, all five Nats’ starters would record more than 100 Ks, and for the first time one of them would top the 200 K mark (Gio Gonzalez with 207). By 2014, a fully healthy Stephen Strasburg would claim the NL strikeout crown with 242–or just 57 fewer than Bergmann recorded during his entire five-year career.
During the second half of the Nats’ first decade in Washington, GM Mike Rizzo’s philosophy of preferring hard throwers who do miss a lot of bats has completely rewritten the team record book in the strikeout category. Eight of the team’s top 10 single season strikeout marks have been set in just the past three years. Meanwhile, Strasburg (746), Zimmermann (739) and Gonzalez (561) have all blown way past Bergmann’s former club record of 299, and even a reliever, Tyler Clippard, has joined the Nats’ 500 K club by racking up a nifty 530. Only ground ball specialist Doug Fister has bucked the overall recent trend.
And it doesn’t stop with the big club. As of now, the Nats’ two top prospects, Lucas Giolito and A.J. Cole, have been putting up strikeout numbers in the minors that eerily resemble Strasburg and Zimmermann, respectively.
So is the league-wide emphasis on strikeouts hurting baseball by driving down offense? Perhaps, but in recent years it has also been a boon for the Nats and a big reason for their current run of success.