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Aaron Cook’s unique path to history (and the rumor mill)

07.27.12 at 2:10 pm ET
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It’s a run that’s reaching historic proportions. Even Aaron Cook‘s teammates can’t believe what he’s doing.

Prior to his last start, one Red Sox player was trying to achieve some sort of context for what the sinkerballer has done thus far, inquiring of Red Sox media relations members about the lowest strikeout total ever for a starting pitcher.

Back in 1927, Red Sox pitcher Ted Wingfield struck out one batter in 74 2/3 innings, a historically low 0.12 strikeouts per nine innings rate. Cook stands no chance of that one — with three strikeouts in 36 innings this year, he’d need to toss about 189 innings over the duration of this season without a strikeout to surpass Wingfield — but history nonetheless could be in his sights.

The lowest strikeout rate ever by a pitcher who made at least 10 starts in a season is 0.82 per nine innings, set by Pirates pitcher George O’Donnell in 1954. But he made more appearances as a reliever (11) than a starter (10). The lowest strikeout rate ever by a starter who made at least 10 starts and who made the majority of his appearances in that capacity was Eppa Rixley, who punched out 10 batters in 94 1/3 innings (0.95 per nine innings) for the Reds in 1933.

Cook is leaving O’Donnell and Rixley in his dust. He has punched out just three batters in his six starts (spanning 36 innings) this year, or 0.75 per nine innings.

The 33-year-old is the embodiment of the “Bull Durham” ideology that strikeouts are undemocratic.

“For me they are,” Cook acknowledged with amusement recently. “Strikeouts are great. I’d love to be a strikeout pitcher, but this is what I have, this is what I am and I’m fine with that.”

As well he should be. After all, it would be difficult to argue with the results that Cook — who starts on Friday night against the Yankees in New York for the Sox — has achieved thus far this year.

In six starts this year, Cook has a 3.50 ERA, an indication that he’s throwing strikes and that batter after batter is pounding his anvil of a sinker into the ground. Just as he is striking out no one, he’s also not walking anybody, having given up three free passes — with his 0.75 walks per nine inning ranking as the second lowest mark in Red Sox history by a pitcher with at least 30 innings in a season, behind only Cy Young (0.69 walks per nine innings in an incredible 380 innings in 1904).

While Cook’s first outing in a Red Sox uniform was something of a disaster — he allowed seven runs while pitching on one leg after a gaping laceration in his knee left him pitching on one leg, a condition that landed him on the DL for about seven weeks — since his activation, he is 2-2 with a 2.16 ERA.

In other words, his sinker is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing, and in some ways, the absence of strikeouts are a badge of honor.

“It means they’re mis-hitting the ball instead of hitting it square,” he said. “I like to get the hitter out of the box in three or four pitches. … I pitch to contact and I’m getting contact right now.”

The right-hander said that his sinker is now the best it has been since 2008, when he earned an All-Star spot with the Rockies while going 16-9 with a 3.96 ERA (and striking out 4.4 per nine innings).

“That was probably the last time [the sinker] felt this consistent, where I could throw it to either side of the plate, was able to use sliders, curveballs, cutters just to keep them honest so they can’t sit on that one pitch and that one location,” said Cook.

Cook has added a cutter to his slider and curve to create what he considers a mix to effectively unbalance hitters.

“The intention for those [secondary pitches] is to get swing-and-miss, but I guess I don’t have swing-and-miss stuff right now,” he joked. “If I get 0-2, 1-2, I’m trying to get a strikeout with it. I think some of the hitters aren’t used to seeing breaking stuff from me and they’re not really committed to it but they’re getting enough of it to put it in play.

“I feel like [the breaking stuff] is really good, the way that I’m used to using it — not necessarily for strikeouts but just enough to keep the hitters honest, especially lefties. They can’t just keep going out there looking for a sinker away. I can cut it in, slide it in, bounce a curveball. It’s just what I’ve developed, what works for me and I’m going to keep using it.”

Cook, who signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox this offseason that is paying him a prorated $1.5 million salary plus incentives, has been everything for which the Sox could have hoped since he came off the DL about five weeks ago. He’s delivered quality starts in four of his five outings, and the Sox have had a chance to win every time he’s taken the hill.

That, in turn, creates an interesting dynamic in the coming days. Cook is currently affordable for any team. He’s signed just through this season before he will become a free agent again.

The Sox have another potential starter, Franklin Morales, who made an eye-opening series of starts in which he had 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings, but who is currently relegated to the bullpen where he serves as rotation depth. Morales, moreover, is under team control through 2014, so if he’s capable of sustaining the success he showed as a starter (a role in which he was 2-1 with a 3.42 ERA in five starts), it would represent a significant development for the Sox not just in 2012 but beyond.

While it would be difficult for the Sox to consider diminishing their starting pitching depth given that GM Ben Cherington said on Dennis & Callahan this morning that the Sox are looking to do the opposite.

“We need to add, we need to improve the rotation, if anything — improve internally or add to the rotation,” he said. “I think we’re sort of stuck in neutral if we start taking guys out of the rotation who are good major league pitchers.”

Still, Cook is a player who represents a short-term asset. There has been modest interest in him as a potential trade target to date, but if he has a strong outing on Friday in Yankee Stadium — at a time when the number of available starting pitchers appears to be dwindling, with Wandy Rodriguez and Anibal Sanchez already having moved, word that Matt Garza will not be able to pitch before the trade deadline, Ryan Dempster seemingly taking a Dodgers-or-bust approach to his right to veto any trade, Cliff Lee reportedly unavailable, Cole Hamels having been locked up to a long-term deal by the Phillies and the Marlins evidently seeking a package more dazzling than their technicolor home run celebration for Josh Johnson — then it is possible that interest in Cook could pick up.

If Cook again proves capable of shutting down a playoff-caliber lineup (something he has done to three contending teams: White Sox, A’s and Braves), then teams might come to view him as an affordable mid-year rotation upgrade.

That’s not to say that the Sox would necessarily deal him. The team is still making its decision on how to approach the deadline, and whether or not to trade short-term assets such as Cook, who are under contract to the team only through 2012 but who are performing well.

Still, the significance of Cook’s start on Friday night could be far-reaching — both in helping to determine how his team will view its status as a contender going forward, and what kind of market there might be for his one-of-a-kind services.

Read More: 2012 Trade Deadline, aaron cook, cy young, eppa rixley
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