Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Five MLB pitchers wear single-digit numbers, which is a lot

It's always been rare for pitchers to wear single-digit numbers, but that might be changing.

Julio Urias recorded the first win of his Major League career Tuesday against the Milwaukee Brewers. The 19-year-old lefty allowed just two runs on two hits in six innings (he did walk six batters, but he also struck out that many). When he was called up in May, Urias became the youngest pitcher to make his MLB debut since Felix Hernandez in 2005. The Dodgers didn't plan to keep him up for long, but a laundry list of injuries to the rotation (that may now include Clayton Kershaw) has forced their hand.

But because he's stayed up, Urias has become the face of the pitchers-wearing-single-digit-numbers movement. After wearing #78 in his first start against the Mets, he switched to #7 upon the release of infielder Alex Guerrero and has kept it since. Urias wore the number when he started playing baseball at five years old, and had told the team previously that he would want it in the big leagues if it was available.

If seeing Urias wear #7 on the mound feels a little strange, it should. There are only four other pitchers currently donning single-digit numbers: Colorado's Adam Ottavino (0), Toronto's Marcus Stroman (6), St. Louis's Mike Leake (8), and Tampa Bay's Blake Snell (4).

Ottavino became the first pitcher ever to wear #0 when he changed numbers before the 2013 season (he previously wore #37). Of course, the number looks like the first letter of his last name, which actually leads to a pretty cool image.

Stroman donned #54 when he first came up, but switched in 2015. He said the change was about his grandma, although it's a mighty fine coincidence that he pitches in Toronto, which locals call "The 6."

Leake wore #8 at Arizona State and took it back upon signing with the Cardinals this offseason. He previously wore #44 for the Reds (who, fittingly, took him eighth overall in 2009) and #13 for the Giants, but both of those numbers were already in use (by Trevor Rosenthal and Matt Carpenter).

Snell, unlike any of the others, had #4 hanging in his locker from day one. When the Rays called him up this April, he simply asked to wear his favorite number, and coach Jamie Nelson agreed to give it up. The 23-year-old lefty also earned his first win this week against the Boston Red Sox.

For five different pitchers to wear single-digit numbers goes against a long-standing baseball tradition. When uniform numbers were first introduced to the sport, they were doled out based on the lineup (with the leadoff hitter wearing #1 and so on). The backup catcher wore #9, and the starting pitchers wore 10, 11, 12 and 14 (skipping #13 out of superstition). Even as hitters started taking other numbers, pitchers remained in the double digits. Not only was it somewhat aesthetically unpleasing, but there was a stigma that not playing every day rendered them "undeserving" of such a low number. Most pitchers who went against the grain did so for a single season at most. The Wall Street Journal in 2005 chronicled the history of single-digit pitchers, showing that they actually became less common over time. In the first nine years since that piece came out, only Josh Towers (#7 from 2003-07) and Kyle Drabek (#4 from 2010-14) had added to it, both doing so in Toronto. Ottavino's switch in 2013 brought the total to just six single-digit pitchers in the 21st century.

Towers and Drabek kept their numbers for five seasons before switching teams; nobody else had done so for more than a year since World War II ended. The boom this year seems significant, as all of these pitchers (especially the four starters) seem poised to both stay in the big leagues and keep their current numbers. We could be at the onset of a revolution here.


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