The Greatest Strikeout Seasons Ever

August 24, 2017
 
I asked for some help in my last article: I wanted to know how to create a metric that would measure individual strikeout performances across eras, while taking into account each seasons’ proximity to the ‘ceiling’ of potential strikeouts.
 
Let me try and explain that through a few hypotheticals. Who is the better strikeout pitcher?
 
Name
K%
Pitcher A
15%
Pitcher B
20%
 
Absent any other context, all of us would say that Pitcher B is the better strikeout pitcher. He is, after all, striking out a greater percentage of the hitters he faces.
 
But if we add some contexts, we muddy the waters a little bit. How does these guys compare to their peers in the league? Who is the better strikeout pitcher now?
 
Name
K%
Lg. K%
Pitcher A
15%
5%
Pitcher B
20%
10%
 
Most of us would say that Pitcher A is the better strikeout pitcher, because he’s managed to triple the league’s average. Pitcher B struck out more hitters overall, but he’s not quite as far ahead of the league as Pitcher A. If you listed each pitcher by Adjusted Strikeout Percentage (K%+), Pitcher A would have a K%+ mark of 300, meaning that he was three times the league average. Pitcher B would score a 200 K%+.
 
So that’s one context out of the way, the league context. The best pitchers today have strikeout rates that exceed anything Walter Johnson or Sandy Koufax ever accomplished: that doesn’t mean that they were better strikeout pitchers than Walter Johnson or Sandy Koufax. They just happen to pitch in an era more favorable to strikeouts. Adjusting for league context helps us get a better picture.
 
But what about this case?
 
Name
K%
Lg. K%
Pitcher A
30%
15%
Pitcher B
50%
25%
 
Both pitchers would have the same Adjusted Strikeout Percentage: 200. They’ve both doubled the league average.
 
Are they the same?
 
I think that most of us would agree that they’re not the same. While both pitchers have doubled the strikeout rates in their respective leagues, Pitcher B is striking out more batters overall. He has doubled his league’s strikeout rate in an era of more strikeouts. He is pitching closer to the maximum ceiling of this metric. It’s a fair bit harder to double a 25% strikeout percentage than it is to double a 15% strikeout percentage.
 
Let me phrase that a little differently, just so we’re all following this point. The maximum K%+ that Pitcher A could tally is 667. If he struck out every single batter he faced, his percentage would be six-point-six-seven times the league average.  
 
If Pitcher B did the exact same thing, his Adjusted Strikeout Percentage would be only 400, or four times the league average. He can’t do any better than that, because the league is much closer to the ceiling. He can’t strike out 150% of the batters he faces, not unless he knows how to warp spacetime.
 
I asked how to account for this ‘ceiling’ issue, and the ever-brilliant Tom Tango provided the answer. He said that I should use something called the Odds Ratio Method, which consists of calculating the odds that an event will occur in a league and for an individual player, and dividing the two decimals.
 
Let’s do Player A:
 
Name
K%
Lg. K%
Pitcher A
30%
15%
 
 
League Odds  =  League K%  /  (Ceiling of Metric – League K%)
Pitcher Odds  =  Pitcher K%  /  (Ceiling of Metric – Pitcher K%)
 
League Odds  =  .15  /  (1.00 – .15)
Pitcher Odds  =  .30  /  (1.00 – .30)
 
League Odds  =  .17647
Pitcher Odds  =  .42857
 
Pitcher Odds / League Odds  =  .42857 / .17647  =  2.43
 
Pitcher A has an Odds Ratio K% of 2.43. How about Pitcher B?
 
Name
K%
Lg. K%
Pitcher B
50%
25%
 
League Odds =  .25  /  (1 – .25)
Pitcher Odds =  .50  /  (1 – .50)
 
League Odds = .3333
Pitcher Odds = 1.0000
 
Pitcher Odds / League Odds  =  1 / .3333  =  3.00
 
So we get:
 
Name
K%
Lg. K%
Odds Ratio K%
Pitcher A
30%
15%
2.43
Pitcher B
50%
25%
3.00
 
Both pitchers have the same ratio of strikeouts relative to their league. But Pitcher B rates as the better strikeout pitcher, because we’re now adjusting for his league being closer to the absolute ceiling for strikeouts.
 
*             *             *
 
Just an aside: this kind of stuff is really satisfying for me. I’ve been wondering how to understand strikeout rates better than by just adjusting for league contexts for a little while, just tinkering with different kinds of equations and not really getting anywhere.
 
This math takes us a step closer to a good answer. That’s really satisfying, to know that we can adjust for the ceiling of any metric. We can do this for most stats…we can it for batting average or slugging percentage just as easily as we do it for strikeout percentages. That’s really handy. It’s great.
 
And…it’s not perfect. We’re on our way to fixing for one little variable, but there is nothing perfect about this metric. For one thing, we’re invariably counting the pitcher’s individual strikeouts among the league’s strikeouts…the league average that we’re about to use is going to include the individual pitchers who we’ll look at. So…that’s not perfect.
 
And there are other reasons it isn’t perfect. I’m sure a lot of you will point out the many ways that this metric is flawed. I get that, and I agree with that. I’m not trying to suggest we’re at a solution; I’m just celebrating the little step. I’m excited that there is a mathematical solution to one small problem; to one strand in the wider tapestry we are trying our best to see.
 
 
*             *             *
 
Let’s try and use this technique to answer a real-life question: who had the best strikeout season in baseball history?
 
How do we figure that out?
 
First we have to settle on a variable. We can use strikeout percentage (K%), or strikeouts-per-nine (K/9). Which one is more accurate to the question at hand?
 
Just my two cents, I like K/9 IP a little better than strikeout percentage, at least for this specific question. Nolan Ryan struck out a lot of guys, but he also walked a ton of guys…if you go by his percentage of strikeouts, those walks are going to hurt him, because they are plate appearances that don’t end in strikeouts. If you go by strikeouts-per-nine, those walks won’t matter.
 
Mid-seventies Nolan Ryan wasn’t the greatest pitcher of his era, but he was pretty obviously a terrific strikeout pitcher. I think K/9 reflects that a little better than K%. Same holds for a pitcher like Sam McDowell and Bob Feller. Same holds for a lot of strikeout pitchers, frankly. There is a big correlation between getting a lot of strikeouts and giving up a lot of walks. I don’t want to penalize walks.
 
Can we use the Odds Ratio Metric for stikeouts-per-nine innings?
 
Sure. We just have to change the limit. The ceiling for K% is 100%, or 1.00. The ceiling for K/9 IP is 27.
 
Or…it’s actually a little more than 27. Technically, the limit of K/9 is infinite. If you had an impossibly bad catcher behind the plate, it would be possible for a pitcher to strike out an infinite number of batters per nine innings. But the realistic limit of the metric is 27.
 
What’s next?
 
Every pitching season in baseball history is a gigantic database, and I’m not really interested in plugging in the league data for every season. How about looking at the annual league leaders in strikeouts-per-nine innings pitched?
 
After all, we’re looking for the best strikeout seasons ever….you can’t reasonably claim ‘best strikeout season’ if you didn’t pace your league in K/9. We shouldn’t miss any big-time strikeout pitchers if we go by the K/9 leaders.  
 
There have been 117 seasons since the American League joined the National League in 1901. That gives us a sample of 234 pitching seasons:
 
Year
National League
K/9
American League
K/9
1901
Tom Hughes
6.57
Ned Garvin
4.27
1902
Doc White
5.44
Rube Waddell
6.84
1903
Christy Mathewson
6.56
Rube Waddell
8.39
1904
Hooks Wiltse
5.74
Rube Waddell
8.20
1905
Red Ames
6.78
Rube Waddell
7.86
1906
Red Ames
6.91
Rube Waddell
6.47
1907
Red Ames
5.63
Rube Waddell
7.34
1908
Orval Overall
6.68
Rube Waddell
7.31
1909
Orval Overall
6.47
Heinie Berger
5.90
1910
Louis Drucke
6.31
Walter Johnson
7.61
1911
Rube Marquard
7.68
Smoky Joe Wood
7.54
1912
Pete Alexander
5.66
Walter Johnson
7.39
1913
Jeff Tesreau
5.33
Walter Johnson
6.32
1914
Ben Tincup
6.27
Dutch Leonard
7.05
1915
Pete Alexander
5.76
Dutch Leonard
5.70
1916
Larry Cheney
5.91
Walter Johnson
5.55
1917
Hippo Vaughn
5.94
Walter Johnson
5.19
1918
Hippo Vaughn
4.59
Guy Morton
5.16
1919
Hod Eller
4.97
Allen Russell
4.80
1920
Al Mamaux
4.77
Doc Ayers
4.44
1921
Burleigh Grimes
4.05
Walter Johnson
4.88
1922
Dazzy Vance
4.91
Guy Morton
4.53
1923
Dazzy Vance
6.33
Syl Johnson
4.75
1924
Dazzy Vance
7.65
Walter Johnson
5.12
1925
Dazzy Vance
7.50
Lefty Grove
5.30
1926
Dazzy Vance
7.46
Lefty Grove
6.77
1927
Dazzy Vance
6.06
Lefty Grove
5.97
1928
Dazzy Vance
6.42
George Earnshaw
6.65
1929
Pat Malone
5.60
Lefty Grove
5.56
1930
Bill Hallahan
6.71
Lefty Grove
6.46
1931
Dazzy Vance
6.17
Bump Hadley
6.21
1932
Dizzy Dean
6.01
Red Ruffing
6.60
1933
Dizzy Dean
6.11
Lefty Gomez
6.25
1934
Paul Dean
5.79
Red Ruffing
5.23
1935
Van Mungo
6.01
Johnny Allen
6.09
1936
Van Mungo
6.87
Johnny Allen
6.11
1937
Van Mungo
6.82
Lefty Gomez
6.27
1938
Carl Hubbell
5.23
Bob Feller
7.78
1939
Mort Cooper
5.55
Bob Feller
7.46
1940
Cliff Melton
4.91
Bob Feller
7.33
1941
Johnny Vander Meer
8.03
Bob Feller
6.82
1942
Johnny Vander Meer
6.86
Hal Newhouser
5.05
1943
Johnny Vander Meer
5.42
Allie Reynolds
6.84
1944
Max Lanier
5.66
Hal Newhouser
5.39
1945
Preacher Roe
5.67
Hal Newhouser
6.09
1946
Kirby Higbe
5.73
Hal Newhouser
8.46
1947
Ewell Blackwell
6.36
Bob Feller
5.90
1948
Harry Brecheen
5.75
Lou Brissie
5.89
1949
Don Newcombe
5.49
Tommy Byrne
5.92
1950
Ewell Blackwell
6.48
Early Wynn
6.02
1951
Mel Queen
6.58
Mickey McDermott
6.65
1952
Vinegar Bend Mizell
6.92
Mickey McDermott
6.50
1953
Vinegar Bend Mizell
6.94
Billy Pierce
6.17
1954
Harvey Haddix
6.38
Billy Pierce
7.06
1955
Sam Jones
7.37
Herb Score
9.70
1956
Sam Jones
8.40
Herb Score
9.49
1957
Sam Jones
7.59
Bob Turley
7.76
1958
Sam Jones
8.10
Camilo Pascual
7.41
1959
Don Drysdale
8.05
Herb Score
8.23
1960
Sandy Koufax
10.13
Jim Bunning
7.18
1961
Sandy Koufax
9.47
Juan Pizarro
8.69
1962
Sandy Koufax
10.55
Juan Pizarro
7.66
1963
Jim Maloney
9.53
Al Downing
8.76
1964
Sandy Koufax
9.00
Sam McDowell
9.19
1965
Sandy Koufax
10.24
Sam McDowell
10.71
1966
Sandy Koufax
8.83
Sam McDowell
10.42
1967
Gary Nolan
8.18
Luis Tiant
9.23
1968
Bill Singer
7.97
Sam McDowell
9.47
1969
Tom Griffin
9.56
Sam McDowell
8.81
1970
Tom Seaver
8.76
Sam McDowell
8.97
1971
Tom Seaver
9.08
Vida Blue
8.68
1972
Tom Seaver
8.55
Nolan Ryan
10.43
1973
Tom Seaver
7.79
Nolan Ryan
10.57
1974
Tom Seaver
7.67
Nolan Ryan
9.93
1975
John Montefusco
7.94
Frank Tanana
9.41
1976
Tom Seaver
7.80
Nolan Ryan
10.35
1977
Jerry Koosman
7.62
Nolan Ryan
10.26
1978
J.R. Richard
9.90
Nolan Ryan
9.97
1979
J.R. Richard
9.64
Nolan Ryan
9.01
1980
Mario Soto
8.61
Len Barker
6.83
1981
Steve Carlton
8.48
Dave Righetti
7.60
1982
Mario Soto
9.57
Dave Righetti
8.02
1983
Steve Carlton
8.73
Floyd Bannister
7.99
1984
Dwight Gooden
11.40
Mark Langston
8.16
1985
Sid Fernandez
9.51
Floyd Bannister
8.46
1986
Mike Scott
10.00
Mark Langston
9.21
1987
Nolan Ryan
11.48
Mark Langston
8.67
1988
Nolan Ryan
9.33
Roger Clemens
9.92
1989
Mark Langston
8.92
Nolan Ryan
11.32
1990
David Cone
9.91
Nolan Ryan
10.24
1991
David Cone
9.32
Nolan Ryan
10.56
1992
David Cone
9.79
Randy Johnson
10.31
1993
Jose Rijo
7.94
Randy Johnson
10.86
1994
Andy Benes
9.87
Randy Johnson
10.67
1995
Hideo Nomo
11.10
Randy Johnson
12.35
1996
John Smoltz
9.79
Roger Clemens
9.53
1997
Pedro Martinez
11.37
Randy Johnson
12.30
1998
Kerry Wood
12.58
Roger Clemens
10.39
1999
Randy Johnson
12.06
Pedro Martinez
13.21
2000
Randy Johnson
12.56
Pedro Martinez
11.78
2001
Randy Johnson
13.41
Hideo Nomo
10.00
2002
Randy Johnson
11.56
Pedro Martinez
10.79
2003
Kerry Wood
11.35
Pedro Martinez
9.93
2004
Oliver Perez
10.98
Johan Santana
10.46
2005
Mark Prior
10.15
Johan Santana
9.25
2006
Jake Peavy
9.56
Johan Santana
9.44
2007
Jake Peavy
9.67
Erik Bedard
10.93
2008
Tim Lincecum
10.51
A.J. Burnett
9.39
2009
Tim Lincecum
10.43
Justin Verlander
10.09
2010
Tim Lincecum
9.79
Jon Lester
9.74
2011
Zack Greinke
10.54
Brandon Morrow
10.19
2012
Gio Gonzalez
9.35
Max Scherzer
11.08
2013
A.J. Burnett
9.85
Yu Darvish
11.89
2014
Clayton Kershaw
10.85
Chris Sale
10.76
2015
Clayton Kershaw
11.64
Chris Sale
11.82
2016
Jose Fernandez
12.49
Michael Pineda
10.61
2017
Max Scherzer
12.35
Chris Sale
12.83
 
That’s a long list, so let’s get cracking.
 
Year
National League
K/9
Lg. K/9
1901
Tom Hughes
6.57
3.83
1902
Doc White
5.44
3.52
1903
Christy Mathewson
6.56
3.44
 
Hold on a second….
 
We’re measuring these pitchers against the league’s overall K/9 rate. Does it makes more sense to use the league’s overall strikeout rate, or the strikeout rate among starting pitchers?
 
Year
National League
K/9
Lg. K/9
Lg. SP K/9
1901
Tom Hughes
6.57
3.83
3.83
1902
Doc White
5.44
3.52
3.52
1903
Christy Mathewson
6.56
3.44
3.44
 
No difference there: the league strikeout rate at the turn of last century was essentially the same as the starter’s strikeout rate, because a) pitchers mostly stayed in games, and b) relief pitchers were typically the worst guys on the staff.
 
But what happens if we extend that into modern times?
 
 
Year
National League
SO9
Lg. K/9
Lg. SP K/9
1901
Tom Hughes
6.57
3.83
3.83
1902
Doc White
5.44
3.52
3.52
1903
Christy Mathewson
6.56
3.44
3.44
2012
Gio Gonzalez
9.35
7.69
7.28
2013
A.J. Burnett
9.85
7.49
7.19
2014
Clayton Kershaw
10.85
7.78
7.36
 
For modern pitchers, there’s a big difference between the overall strikeout rate and the strikeout rate among starting pitchers, because relief pitchers strike out a high percentage of hitters in today’s game. If we stick with overall K/9, we’re going to diminish some of the distance that elite strikeout starters have over their peers.
 
So we’re going to use the K/9 rate of starters in our math:
 
Year
National League
K/9
SP K/9
Odds Ratio K/9
1901
Tom Hughes
6.57
3.83
1.94
1902
Doc White
5.44
3.52
1.68
1903
Christy Mathewson
6.56
3.44
2.20
1904
Hooks Wiltse
5.74
3.54
1.79
1905
Red Ames
6.78
3.65
2.15
1906
Red Ames
6.91
3.76
2.12
1907
Red Ames
5.63
3.51
1.76
 
So we get a list that looks a lot like this.
 
Red Ames is our first standout. I hadn’t ever heard of him before, but he was a high-strikeout, high-walk pitcher for the Giants. He holds the ‘modern’ record for most wild pitches in a single-season (30), not counting pre-1901 pitchers. Ames had a reputation as a tough-luck pitcher…as a pitcher who lost games he should have won. I wonder if there is a correlation between being a wild, walk-prone pitcher and having that reputation. Ryan had that reputation, at least for a while. People chalked his W-L record up to bad teams.
 
I’ll post the whole list at the bottom of the article. What I thought I’d do first is look at the top-five Odds Ratio K/9 seasons of each decade, and then look at the top-20 seasons overall. So let’s do that.
 
Red Ames, it turns out, wasn’t the strikeout star of the first decade of World Series baseball.
 
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
K/9
SP K/9
Odds Ratio K/9
1902
AL
Rube Waddell
6.84
2.54
3.27
1903
AL
Rube Waddell
8.39
3.87
2.69
1904
AL
Rube Waddell
8.20
4.08
2.45
1907
AL
Rube Waddell
7.34
3.67
2.37
1908
NL
Orval Overall
6.68
3.37
2.31
 
Rube Waddell was. Waddell dominated the strikeout board for this decade: in addition to the top four spots, Waddell lays claim to the 6th, 9th, and 13th best seasons.
 
It is my opinion that 85% of the ‘Rube’ of George Edward Waddell was exaggerated. Being an effective major league pitcher requires some degree of intelligence, and Waddell’s success suggests that, deliberate or native, he received more than his fair share from the good Lord. The man was simply too good of a pitcher to be the man-child that he is made out to be in the literature about him.
 
Christie Mathewson and Orval Overall were the two NL’ers who did well in this era. Neither compared to Waddell. Orval Overall is, of course, the quintessential baseball name of that period.
 
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
SO9
SP K/9
Odds Ratio K/9
1911
NL
Rube Marquard
7.68
3.90
2.36
1910
AL
Walter Johnson
7.61
4.21
2.13
1911
AL
Smoky Joe Wood
7.54
4.19
2.11
1912
AL
Walter Johnson
7.39
4.24
2.02
1914
AL
Dutch Leonard
7.05
4.12
1.96
 
Another ‘Rube’ tops the list, though Marquard doesn’t blow away the pack quite the same way as Waddell.
 
One of the tests of this metric is whether it identifies the guys you’d expect to be the best of their generation. Certainly, Walter Johnson qualifies: we’d expect him to show up here, and he appears throughout this decade, as does Old Pete Alexander….not quite ‘old’ then. The 1911 season for Smoky Joe Wood was the year before he won 34 games.
 
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
SO9
SP K/9
Odds Ratio K/9
1924
NL
Dazzy Vance
7.65
2.80
3.42
1926
NL
Dazzy Vance
7.46
2.77
3.34
1925
NL
Dazzy Vance
7.50
2.84
3.27
1926
AL
Lefty Grove
6.77
2.92
2.76
1928
NL
Dazzy Vance
6.42
2.80
2.70
 
The 1920’s is basically Dazzy Vance and Lefty Grove, with Walter Johnson making a few appearances.
 
Dazzy Vance’s 7.65 strikeout rate in 1924, a remarkable total for it’s era, is a strikeout less than the current league average. Just offering that tidbit for context.
 
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
SO9
SP K/9
Odds Ratio K/9
1938
AL
Bob Feller
7.78
3.58
2.65
1930
NL
Bill Hallahan
6.71
3.14
2.51
1939
AL
Bob Feller
7.46
3.65
2.44
1933
NL
Dizzy Dean
6.11
2.92
2.41
1936
NL
Van Mungo
6.87
3.45
2.33
 
From Rube to Rube to Dazzy to Dizzy. Bob Feller debuted late into the decade and promptly launched himself to the top of the charts. Lefties Gomez and Grove showed up in the early part of the decade.
 
Van Mungo was this decade’s wild flamethrower: the SABR biography of Mungo starts with a quote from Wilbert Robinson, who said that Mungo was, "Another Vance, another Dazzy." He didn’t quite live up to that hype, but he had a few strong years before the walks got too close to the strikeouts.
 
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
SO9
SP K/9
Odds Ratio K/9
1941
NL
Johnny Vander Meer
8.03
3.64
2.72
1946
AL
Hal Newhouser
8.46
4.32
2.39
1942
NL
Johnny Vander Meer
6.86
3.44
2.33
1943
AL
Allie Reynolds
6.84
3.59
2.21
1940
AL
Bob Feller
7.33
3.92
2.20
 
Newhouser, Vander Meer, and Feller were the strikeout stars of this decade. The most interesting guy on the list, to me, is Newhouser. While he won the AL MVP awards in 1944 and 1945, his best showing, at least as far as strikeouts go, was 1946, when all the World War II players came back. He came in second in the MVP vote, but was every bit as good a pitcher that year as he was in the earlier seasons. Maybe a bit better.
 
I don’t think the war cost Vander Meer a shot at the Hall of Fame, but you could make the case if you squinted hard ‘nuff. He was twenty-eight when he went off to join the Navy, coming off three consecutive years where he paced the NL in strikeouts, but also walking a bunch of hitters. Vander Meer was a lefty, and there are plenty of lefties who managed to strike out a lot of hitters as younger players, but didn’t get the control part down until their late twenties. It’s possible that Vander Meer would have had his peak years in 1944 and 1945.
 
Then again, the Reds weren’t much of a team throughout Vander Meer’s career: they reached the World Series in 1939 and 1940, years when Vander Meer was injured. When he was healthy, he was healthy on a second-rate ballclub. On a winner, Vander Meer might’ve had a few 20-win seasons around the war years, and you could fill in the gap with two big years and make a case. He just had bad timing.
 
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
SO9
SP K/9
Odds Ratio K/9
1955
AL
Herb Score
9.70
4.55
2.77
1956
AL
Herb Score
9.49
4.88
2.46
1956
NL
Sam Jones
8.40
4.50
2.26
1951
AL
Mickey McDermott
6.65
3.72
2.04
1959
AL
Herb Score
8.23
4.84
2.01
 
The three years where Herb Score appears on this list are the three years when he managed to pitch more than 120 innings. 1955 and 1956 are the two pre-injury seasons….1959 was a couple years after Gil McDougald’s liner nearly killed him.   
 
Score said that the thing that cost him his career wasn’t the line drive, but an elbow injury from 1958 was what really did him in. You can see the game in his 1958 logs: after shutting out the White Sox (and striking out 13 hitters) in early April, he had a really bad game against Washington, walking eight guys and losing the game in the ninth. It’s probable that the elbow was the real damage.
 
That said, I think Herb Score was heading for a Hall-of-Fame career, and maybe an inner-circle one. Like a lot of lefties, he walked his fair share of batters in the early years of his career, but Score seemed to be figuring it out earlier than other lefties. His strikeout-to-walk ratio improved from 1955 to 1956, and it improved from the first-half of 1956 to the second-half. If he had avoided McDougald or the elbow injury, there’s a good chance that he would’ve emerged as the best pitcher of his generation.
 
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
SO9
SP K/9
Odds Ratio K/9
1962
NL
Sandy Koufax
10.55
5.48
2.52
1960
NL
Sandy Koufax
10.13
5.45
2.37
1965
AL
Sam McDowell
10.71
5.86
2.37
1966
AL
Sam McDowell
10.42
5.86
2.27
1965
NL
Sandy Koufax
10.24
5.87
2.20
 
Sandy and Sudden Sam comprise most of the 1960’s list.  
 
This is the third decade in a row where Cleveland had one of the top strikeout pitchers in the game….Feller and Allie Reynolds, then Herb Score, then Sudden Sam. I don’t have anything to say about that, just pointing it out.
 
Sam McDowell was traded for Gaylord Perry after the 1971. At the time of the trade, most people thought that the Giants got the better end of it: McDowell was approaching his twenty-ninth spin around the sun, while Perry was thirty-four, and looking older than that. Of course, Gaylord Perry went on to win 180 games and a couple more Cy Young Awards on his way to the Hall of Fame, while McDowell flamed out, winning just 19 games after the trade. Sometimes a bet on the old guy pays off.
 
That was the sixties. The seventies are going to be pretty boring:
 
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
SO9
SP K/9
Odds Ratio K/9
1976
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.35
4.57
3.05
1978
AL
Nolan Ryan
9.97
4.40
3.01
1973
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.57
5.01
2.83
1977
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.26
4.82
2.82
1974
AL
Nolan Ryan
9.93
4.78
2.70
 
Nolan also claims the sixth spot, and then J.R. Richards and Frank Tanana get some years scattered around other seasons of Ryan’s.
 
Nolan lead the 1980’s, too, though he gets a little competition:
 
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
SO9
SP K/9
Odds Ratio K/9
1989
AL
Nolan Ryan
11.32
5.11
3.09
1984
NL
Dwight Gooden
11.40
5.48
2.87
1987
NL
Nolan Ryan
11.48
5.74
2.74
1988
AL
Roger Clemens
9.92
5.31
2.37
1982
NL
Mario Soto
9.57
5.14
2.34
 
I started caring about baseball right in the middle of the debate about Clemens or Gooden as the best pitcher in the game. Through the end of 1990, you could reasonably make a case for each pitcher, but Rocket pulled ahead in 1991 and 1992, winning a couple ERA titles and a third Cy Young Award while Gooden scuffled to a couple 3.00+ ERA seasons. Then Gooden missed time, and it wasn’t a debate.
 
Clemens and Nolan Ryan, two Texans, had a couple appearances in the 1990’s, but a new generation of pitchers pushed them off the list at the end of the decade:
 
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
SO9
SP K/9
Odds Ratio K/9
1999
AL
Pedro Martinez
13.21
5.99
3.36
1995
AL
Randy Johnson
12.35
5.75
3.11
1997
AL
Randy Johnson
12.30
6.08
2.88
1998
NL
Kerry Wood
12.58
6.53
2.74
1999
NL
Randy Johnson
12.06
6.26
2.67
 
Pedro and Unit would hold sway over the next decade, too, with Kerry Wood showing up in the sixth spot before his arm fell apart:
 
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
SO9
SP K/9
Odds Ratio  K/9
2001
NL
Randy Johnson
13.41
6.66
3.01
2000
NL
Randy Johnson
12.56
6.42
2.79
2000
AL
Pedro Martinez
11.78
5.98
2.72
2002
NL
Randy Johnson
11.56
6.46
2.38
2002
AL
Pedro Martinez
10.79
5.91
2.38
 
One of the things that has surprised me about this is how clear the strikeout kings are, decade by decade. It was Waddell and Walter Johnson, Vance and Grove and Feller, Score and Sandy and Sudden Sam McDowell, Nolan and Pedro and Randy.  There aren’t long periods where it’s not really clear who the big guns are….the strikeout guys show up at the top year-after-year.
 
Which brings us to our current decade:
 
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
SO9
SP K/9
Odds Ratio K/9
2017
AL
Chris Sale
12.83
7.88
2.20
2013
AL
Yu Darvish
11.89
7.20
2.16
2015
AL
Chris Sale
11.82
7.26
2.12
2016
NL
Jose Fernandez
12.49
7.88
2.09
2017
NL
Max Scherzer
12.35
7.91
2.03
 
In my last article, I wrote a little about Chris Sale. Chris Sale isn’t on par with Pedro Martinez, at least when it comes to strikeouts. But he is posting the best strikeout rate of the decade, and he’s making the case that he’s the current strikeout king in baseball, even if Kershaw or Scherzer have been better pitchers than Sale.
 
*             *             *
 
So what are the best strikeout seasons of all-time, according to Odds Ratio K/9 IP?
 
Rank
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
SO9
SP K/9
OR K/9
1
1924
NL
Dazzy Vance
7.65
2.80
3.42
2
1999
AL
Pedro Martinez
13.21
5.99
3.36
3
1926
NL
Dazzy Vance
7.46
2.77
3.34
4
1925
NL
Dazzy Vance
7.50
2.84
3.27
5
1902
AL
Rube Waddell
6.84
2.54
3.27
6
1995
AL
Randy Johnson
12.35
5.75
3.11
7
1989
AL
Nolan Ryan
11.32
5.11
3.09
8
1976
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.35
4.57
3.05
9
2001
NL
Randy Johnson
13.41
6.66
3.01
10
1978
AL
Nolan Ryan
9.97
4.40
3.01
 
Dazzy Vance nets the top spot, and three of the top four strikeout seasons of all-time. He has a clear claim for the title of Best Strikeout Pitcher Ever.
 
That said, Nolan Ryan also has three slots on the top-ten, and Randy Johnson shows up twice. If we go further down our list, who gets more ticks?
 
11
1997
AL
Randy Johnson
12.30
6.08
2.88
12
1984
NL
Dwight Gooden
11.40
5.48
2.87
13
1973
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.57
5.01
2.83
14
1977
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.26
4.82
2.82
15
2000
NL
Randy Johnson
12.56
6.42
2.79
16
1955
AL
Herb Score
9.70
4.55
2.77
17
1926
AL
Lefty Grove
6.77
2.92
2.76
18
1987
NL
Nolan Ryan
11.48
5.74
2.74
19
1998
NL
Kerry Wood
12.58
6.53
2.74
20
2000
AL
Pedro Martinez
11.78
5.98
2.72
 
No Vance, but Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan both show up twice. That gives us a tally of: Ryan (5), Johnson (4), Vance (3). Going another ten:
 
21
1941
NL
Johnny Vander Meer
8.03
3.64
2.72
22
1974
AL
Nolan Ryan
9.93
4.78
2.70
23
1928
NL
Dazzy Vance
6.42
2.80
2.70
24
1903
AL
Rube Waddell
8.39
3.87
2.69
25
1999
NL
Randy Johnson
12.06
6.26
2.67
26
1938
AL
Bob Feller
7.78
3.58
2.65
27
1993
AL
Randy Johnson
10.86
5.47
2.65
28
1923
NL
Dazzy Vance
6.33
2.80
2.64
29
1979
AL
Nolan Ryan
9.01
4.32
2.63
30
1978
NL
J.R. Richard
9.90
4.90
2.61
 
All three pitchers make two appearances each. We’re at Ryan (7), Johnson (6), Vance (5).
 
Let’s go down to fifty, and call it a day:
 
31
1992
AL
Randy Johnson
10.31
5.18
2.60
32
1928
AL
George Earnshaw
6.65
3.02
2.60
33
1991
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.56
5.43
2.55
34
1962
NL
Sandy Koufax
10.55
5.48
2.52
35
1979
NL
J.R. Richard
9.64
4.88
2.52
36
1930
NL
Bill Hallahan
6.71
3.14
2.51
37
1927
AL
Lefty Grove
5.97
2.75
2.50
38
1975
AL
Frank Tanana
9.41
4.78
2.49
39
1972
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.43
5.48
2.47
40
1956
AL
Herb Score
9.49
4.88
2.46
41
1927
NL
Dazzy Vance
6.06
2.85
2.45
42
1904
AL
Rube Waddell
8.20
4.08
2.45
43
1939
AL
Bob Feller
7.46
3.65
2.44
44
1990
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.24
5.44
2.42
45
1933
NL
Dizzy Dean
6.11
2.92
2.41
46
1946
AL
Hal Newhouser
8.46
4.32
2.39
47
2002
NL
Randy Johnson
11.56
6.46
2.38
48
2002
AL
Pedro Martinez
10.79
5.91
2.38
49
1960
NL
Sandy Koufax
10.13
5.45
2.37
50
1965
AL
Sam McDowell
10.71
5.86
2.37
 
Nolan picks up three more seasons, Johnson gets two, and Vance gets one. Out of the top-fifty seasons, that’s Ryan (10), Johnson (8), Vance (6).
 
So while Vance can be credited as having the best peak strikeout seasons, Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson are ahead of him in career performance. You can pick how you’d like to rate them, but I’m sticking with Nolan, who shows up multiple times across three decades. You can’t go wrong saying ‘Nolan Ryan’ when anyone asks anything about strikeouts.
 
*             *             *
 
We get Vance, Pedro, Waddell, Randy, and Nolan at the top of our list…all great strikeout pitchers. Who shows up at the bottom?
 
Here are the ten worst seasons to lead their leagues in K/9 rates:
 
Rank
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
SO9
SP K/9
OR K/9
234
2012
NL
Gio Gonzalez
9.35
7.28
1.43
233
1968
NL
Bill Singer
7.97
5.94
1.48
232
1940
NL
Cliff Melton
4.91
3.49
1.50
231
1913
NL
Jeff Tesreau
5.33
3.76
1.52
230
1915
AL
Dutch Leonard
5.70
3.99
1.54
229
1967
NL
Gary Nolan
8.18
5.88
1.56
228
1934
AL
Red Ruffing
5.23
3.60
1.56
227
1920
AL
Doc Ayers
4.44
3.02
1.56
226
1921
NL
Burleigh Grimes
4.05
2.73
1.57
225
1919
AL
Allen Russell
4.80
3.26
1.57
 
Not great pitchers. The metric does a good job of filtering the elite strikeout pitchers from guys who lucked into one or two good years in leagues with no clear competition. Gary Nolan is the outlier: he was a burner, but his arm blew out before he could have himself a career.
 
So that’s it. I’ve thrown enough tables at you to make you sick, so I’ll probably lay off the Excel on the next article. Big thanks to Tom Tango for introducing me to the Odds Ratio Method, and thanks to everyone who offers ideas on other ways to approach this question.
 
Here are all 234 pitching seasons, ordered by year and league:
 
Rank
Year
Lg.
Pitcher
SO9
SP K/9
OR K/9
180
1901
AL
Ned Garvin
4.27
2.58
1.78
134
1901
NL
Tom Hughes
6.57
3.83
1.94
5
1902
AL
Rube Waddell
6.84
2.54
3.27
205
1902
NL
Doc White
5.44
3.52
1.68
24
1903
AL
Rube Waddell
8.39
3.87
2.69
77
1903
NL
Christy Mathewson
6.56
3.44
2.20
42
1904
AL
Rube Waddell
8.20
4.08
2.45
174
1904
NL
Hooks Wiltse
5.74
3.54
1.79
67
1905
AL
Rube Waddell
7.86
4.19
2.24
88
1905
NL
Red Ames
6.78
3.65
2.15
137
1906
AL
Rube Waddell
6.47
3.77
1.94
94
1906
NL
Red Ames
6.91
3.76
2.12
52
1907
AL
Rube Waddell
7.34
3.67
2.37
188
1907
NL
Red Ames
5.63
3.51
1.76
91
1908
AL
Rube Waddell
7.31
3.99
2.14
61
1908
NL
Orval Overall
6.68
3.37
2.31
222
1909
AL
Heinie Berger
5.90
4.02
1.60
105
1909
NL
Orval Overall
6.47
3.58
2.06
93
1910
AL
Walter Johnson
7.61
4.21
2.13
138
1910
NL
Louis Drucke
6.31
3.68
1.93
99
1911
AL
Smoky Joe Wood
7.54
4.19
2.11
54
1911
NL
Rube Marquard
7.68
3.90
2.36
111
1912
AL
Walter Johnson
7.39
4.24
2.02
219
1912
NL
Pete Alexander
5.66
3.81
1.61
193
1913
AL
Walter Johnson
6.32
4.01
1.75
231
1913
NL
Jeff Tesreau
5.33
3.76
1.52
128
1914
AL
Dutch Leonard
7.05
4.12
1.96
159
1914
NL
Ben Tincup
6.27
3.80
1.85
230
1915
AL
Dutch Leonard
5.70
3.99
1.54
211
1915
NL
Pete Alexander
5.76
3.78
1.67
221
1916
AL
Walter Johnson
5.55
3.76
1.60
212
1916
NL
Larry Cheney
5.91
3.89
1.66
203
1917
AL
Walter Johnson
5.19
3.34
1.69
164
1917
NL
Hippo Vaughn
5.94
3.60
1.83
131
1918
AL
Guy Morton
5.16
2.91
1.95
194
1918
NL
Hippo Vaughn
4.59
2.83
1.75
225
1919
AL
Allen Russell
4.80
3.26
1.57
168
1919
NL
Hod Eller
4.97
2.98
1.82
227
1920
AL
Doc Ayers
4.44
3.02
1.56
181
1920
NL
Al Mamaux
4.77
2.91
1.78
186
1921
AL
Walter Johnson
4.88
2.99
1.77
226
1921
NL
Burleigh Grimes
4.05
2.73
1.57
209
1922
AL
Guy Morton
4.53
2.90
1.68
114
1922
NL
Dazzy Vance
4.91
2.69
2.01
196
1923
AL
Syl Johnson
4.75
2.96
1.73
28
1923
NL
Dazzy Vance
6.33
2.80
2.64
92
1924
AL
Walter Johnson
5.12
2.67
2.13
1
1924
NL
Dazzy Vance
7.65
2.80
3.42
76
1925
AL
Lefty Grove
5.30
2.70
2.20
4
1925
NL
Dazzy Vance
7.50
2.84
3.27
17
1926
AL
Lefty Grove
6.77
2.92
2.76
3
1926
NL
Dazzy Vance
7.46
2.77
3.34
37
1927
AL
Lefty Grove
5.97
2.75
2.50
41
1927
NL
Dazzy Vance
6.06
2.85
2.45
32
1928
AL
George Earnshaw
6.65
3.02
2.60
23
1928
NL
Dazzy Vance
6.42
2.80
2.70
106
1929
AL
Lefty Grove
5.56
3.02
2.06
73
1929
NL
Pat Malone
5.60
2.86
2.21
75
1930
AL
Lefty Grove
6.46
3.38
2.20
36
1930
NL
Bill Hallahan
6.71
3.14
2.51
83
1931
AL
Bump Hadley
6.21
3.25
2.18
66
1931
NL
Dazzy Vance
6.17
3.16
2.24
59
1932
AL
Red Ruffing
6.60
3.32
2.31
81
1932
NL
Dizzy Dean
6.01
3.12
2.19
87
1933
AL
Lefty Gomez
6.25
3.32
2.15
45
1933
NL
Dizzy Dean
6.11
2.92
2.41
228
1934
AL
Red Ruffing
5.23
3.60
1.56
176
1934
NL
Paul Dean
5.79
3.58
1.78
95
1935
AL
Johnny Allen
6.09
3.26
2.12
115
1935
NL
Van Mungo
6.01
3.37
2.01
104
1936
AL
Johnny Allen
6.11
3.34
2.07
58
1936
NL
Van Mungo
6.87
3.45
2.33
144
1937
AL
Lefty Gomez
6.27
3.70
1.91
102
1937
NL
Van Mungo
6.82
3.76
2.09
26
1938
AL
Bob Feller
7.78
3.58
2.65
202
1938
NL
Carl Hubbell
5.23
3.35
1.70
43
1939
AL
Bob Feller
7.46
3.65
2.44
179
1939
NL
Mort Cooper
5.55
3.43
1.78
80
1940
AL
Bob Feller
7.33
3.92
2.20
232
1940
NL
Cliff Melton
4.91
3.49
1.50
84
1941
AL
Bob Feller
6.82
3.62
2.18
21
1941
NL
Johnny Vander Meer
8.03
3.64
2.72
223
1942
AL
Hal Newhouser
5.05
3.40
1.60
57
1942
NL
Johnny Vander Meer
6.86
3.44
2.33
72
1943
AL
Allie Reynolds
6.84
3.59
2.21
171
1943
NL
Johnny Vander Meer
5.42
3.29
1.81
197
1944
AL
Hal Newhouser
5.39
3.41
1.73
130
1944
NL
Max Lanier
5.66
3.22
1.96
122
1945
AL
Hal Newhouser
6.09
3.45
1.99
117
1945
NL
Preacher Roe
5.67
3.17
2.00
46
1946
AL
Hal Newhouser
8.46
4.32
2.39
192
1946
NL
Kirby Higbe
5.73
3.59
1.75
200
1947
AL
Bob Feller
5.90
3.79
1.71
145
1947
NL
Ewell Blackwell
6.36
3.76
1.91
160
1948
AL
Lou Brissie
5.89
3.56
1.84
220
1948
NL
Harry Brecheen
5.75
3.89
1.61
170
1949
AL
Tommy Byrne
5.92
3.62
1.82
214
1949
NL
Don Newcombe
5.49
3.62
1.65
182
1950
AL
Early Wynn
6.02
3.76
1.77
191
1950
NL
Ewell Blackwell
6.48
4.12
1.75
107
1951
AL
Mickey McDermott
6.65
3.72
2.04
146
1951
NL
Mel Queen
6.58
3.91
1.90
201
1952
AL
Mickey McDermott
6.50
4.22
1.71
163
1952
NL
Vinegar Bend Mizell
6.92
4.27
1.83
206
1953
AL
Billy Pierce
6.17
4.04
1.68
183
1953
NL
Vinegar Bend Mizell
6.94
4.41
1.77
129
1954
AL
Billy Pierce
7.06
4.13
1.96
199
1954
NL
Harvey Haddix
6.38
4.11
1.72
16
1955
AL
Herb Score
9.70
4.55
2.77
142
1955
NL
Sam Jones
7.37
4.44
1.91
40
1956
AL
Herb Score
9.49
4.88
2.46
63
1956
NL
Sam Jones
8.40
4.50
2.26
156
1957
AL
Bob Turley
7.76
4.80
1.86
167
1957
NL
Sam Jones
7.59
4.77
1.82
208
1958
AL
Camilo Pascual
7.41
4.97
1.68
151
1958
NL
Sam Jones
8.10
5.02
1.88
113
1959
AL
Herb Score
8.23
4.84
2.01
187
1959
NL
Don Drysdale
8.05
5.23
1.77
204
1960
AL
Jim Bunning
7.18
4.78
1.68
49
1960
NL
Sandy Koufax
10.13
5.45
2.37
116
1961
AL
Juan Pizarro
8.69
5.17
2.00
79
1961
NL
Sandy Koufax
9.47
5.33
2.20
210
1962
AL
Juan Pizarro
7.66
5.17
1.67
34
1962
NL
Sandy Koufax
10.55
5.48
2.52
161
1963
AL
Al Downing
8.76
5.60
1.84
120
1963
NL
Jim Maloney
9.53
5.81
1.99
166
1964
AL
Sam McDowell
9.19
5.94
1.83
148
1964
NL
Sandy Koufax
9.00
5.65
1.89
50
1965
AL
Sam McDowell
10.71
5.86
2.37
74
1965
NL
Sandy Koufax
10.24
5.87
2.20
62
1966
AL
Sam McDowell
10.42
5.86
2.27
172
1966
NL
Sandy Koufax
8.83
5.76
1.79
185
1967
AL
Luis Tiant
9.23
6.12
1.77
229
1967
NL
Gary Nolan
8.18
5.88
1.56
143
1968
AL
Sam McDowell
9.47
5.96
1.91
233
1968
NL
Bill Singer
7.97
5.94
1.48
150
1969
AL
Sam McDowell
8.81
5.52
1.89
157
1969
NL
Tom Griffin
9.56
6.16
1.85
139
1970
AL
Sam McDowell
8.97
5.54
1.93
198
1970
NL
Tom Seaver
8.76
5.89
1.72
127
1971
AL
Vida Blue
8.68
5.24
1.97
110
1971
NL
Tom Seaver
9.08
5.39
2.03
39
1972
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.43
5.48
2.47
178
1972
NL
Tom Seaver
8.55
5.58
1.78
13
1973
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.57
5.01
2.83
213
1973
NL
Tom Seaver
7.79
5.33
1.65
22
1974
AL
Nolan Ryan
9.93
4.78
2.70
207
1974
NL
Tom Seaver
7.67
5.15
1.68
38
1975
AL
Frank Tanana
9.41
4.78
2.49
169
1975
NL
John Montefusco
7.94
5.04
1.82
8
1976
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.35
4.57
3.05
154
1976
NL
Tom Seaver
7.80
4.82
1.87
14
1977
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.26
4.82
2.82
217
1977
NL
Jerry Koosman
7.62
5.27
1.62
10
1978
AL
Nolan Ryan
9.97
4.40
3.01
30
1978
NL
J.R. Richard
9.90
4.90
2.61
29
1979
AL
Nolan Ryan
9.01
4.32
2.63
35
1979
NL
J.R. Richard
9.64
4.88
2.52
190
1980
AL
Len Barker
6.83
4.36
1.76
90
1980
NL
Mario Soto
8.61
4.84
2.14
118
1981
AL
Dave Righetti
7.60
4.43
2.00
101
1981
NL
Steve Carlton
8.48
4.85
2.09
98
1982
AL
Dave Righetti
8.02
4.50
2.11
56
1982
NL
Mario Soto
9.57
5.14
2.34
112
1983
AL
Floyd Bannister
7.99
4.66
2.02
141
1983
NL
Steve Carlton
8.73
5.38
1.92
135
1984
AL
Mark Langston
8.16
4.92
1.94
12
1984
NL
Dwight Gooden
11.40
5.48
2.87
124
1985
AL
Floyd Bannister
8.46
5.07
1.97
69
1985
NL
Sid Fernandez
9.51
5.29
2.23
133
1986
AL
Mark Langston
9.21
5.67
1.95
89
1986
NL
Mike Scott
10.00
5.81
2.15
195
1987
AL
Mark Langston
8.67
5.76
1.74
18
1987
NL
Nolan Ryan
11.48
5.74
2.74
51
1988
AL
Roger Clemens
9.92
5.31
2.37
100
1988
NL
Nolan Ryan
9.33
5.44
2.09
7
1989
AL
Nolan Ryan
11.32
5.11
3.09
147
1989
NL
Mark Langston
8.92
5.57
1.90
44
1990
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.24
5.44
2.42
64
1990
NL
David Cone
9.91
5.53
2.25
33
1991
AL
Nolan Ryan
10.56
5.43
2.55
125
1991
NL
David Cone
9.32
5.70
1.97
31
1992
AL
Randy Johnson
10.31
5.18
2.60
71
1992
NL
David Cone
9.79
5.51
2.22
27
1993
AL
Randy Johnson
10.86
5.47
2.65
218
1993
NL
Jose Rijo
7.94
5.52
1.62
53
1994
AL
Randy Johnson
10.67
5.85
2.36
123
1994
NL
Andy Benes
9.87
6.08
1.98
6
1995
AL
Randy Johnson
12.35
5.75
3.11
60
1995
NL
Hideo Nomo
11.10
6.27
2.31
126
1996
AL
Roger Clemens
9.53
5.86
1.97
165
1996
NL
John Smoltz
9.79
6.40
1.83
11
1997
AL
Randy Johnson
12.30
6.08
2.88
65
1997
NL
Pedro Martinez
11.37
6.61
2.25
96
1998
AL
Roger Clemens
10.39
6.16
2.12
19
1998
NL
Kerry Wood
12.58
6.53
2.74
2
1999
AL
Pedro Martinez
13.21
5.99
3.36
25
1999
NL
Randy Johnson
12.06
6.26
2.67
20
2000
AL
Pedro Martinez
11.78
5.98
2.72
15
2000
NL
Randy Johnson
12.56
6.42
2.79
108
2001
AL
Hideo Nomo
10.00
6.04
2.04
9
2001
NL
Randy Johnson
13.41
6.66
3.01
48
2002
AL
Pedro Martinez
10.79
5.91
2.38
47
2002
NL
Randy Johnson
11.56
6.46
2.38
82
2003
AL
Pedro Martinez
9.93
5.67
2.19
55
2003
NL
Kerry Wood
11.35
6.39
2.34
70
2004
AL
Johan Santana
10.46
5.97
2.23
85
2004
NL
Oliver Perez
10.98
6.46
2.18
140
2005
AL
Johan Santana
9.25
5.76
1.92
121
2005
NL
Mark Prior
10.15
6.28
1.99
158
2006
AL
Johan Santana
9.44
6.07
1.85
175
2006
NL
Jake Peavy
9.56
6.34
1.79
68
2007
AL
Erik Bedard
10.93
6.30
2.23
162
2007
NL
Jake Peavy
9.67
6.30
1.83
177
2008
AL
A.J. Burnett
9.39
6.22
1.78
136
2008
NL
Tim Lincecum
10.51
6.67
1.94
149
2009
AL
Justin Verlander
10.09
6.49
1.89
155
2009
NL
Tim Lincecum
10.43
6.80
1.87
189
2010
AL
Jon Lester
9.74
6.55
1.76
216
2010
NL
Tim Lincecum
9.79
6.96
1.64
152
2011
AL
Brandon Morrow
10.19
6.60
1.87
153
2011
NL
Zack Greinke
10.54
6.88
1.87
119
2012
AL
Max Scherzer
11.08
6.99
1.99
234
2012
NL
Gio Gonzalez
9.35
7.28
1.43
86
2013
AL
Yu Darvish
11.89
7.20
2.16
224
2013
NL
A.J. Burnett
9.85
7.19
1.58
184
2014
AL
Chris Sale
10.76
7.35
1.77
173
2014
NL
Clayton Kershaw
10.85
7.36
1.79
97
2015
AL
Chris Sale
11.82
7.26
2.12
132
2015
NL
Clayton Kershaw
11.64
7.55
1.95
215
2016
AL
Michael Pineda
10.61
7.63
1.64
103
2016
NL
Jose Fernandez
12.49
7.88
2.09
78
2017
AL
Chris Sale
12.83
7.88
2.20
109
2017
NL
Max Scherzer
12.35
7.91
2.03
 
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. 
 
 

COMMENTS (6 Comments, most recent shown first)

Brock Hanke
In general, this is a really good article, and far better than I could have done. I do want to quibble about Rube Waddell. I think that the stories about Waddell are probably true, and that Waddell is more similar to Steve Dalkowski than anyone else. Dalkowski, as almost everyone here knows, was a strikeout machine in the minors with the O's. Earl Weaver spent one year managing him, realized that he didn't have the mental capacity to manage throwing multiple pitch types, told him to forget about the curve ball and just bring the heat, and, if Dalko had stayed with Weaver as Earl progressed up the ladder, he would probably have been a great major league strikeout pitcher. Waddell is what happens when the minors aren't so developed, so Connie Mack signs you when you're already ready for the bigs.

Years ago, in one of the Abstracts, Bill mentioned a guy he worked with in a rail yard. The guy wasn't very bright so he tried to solve all problems with muscle first. This wasn't always the best approach, but the side effect was that the guy was VERY strong, because he used his muscles for everything. I think that's probably Dalko and Waddell, both. They were just the two who started out with major league arms at birth.

I also am inclined to argue that Waddell was the best strikeout pitcher of the century, because of the era he played in. In Waddell's time, EVERYONE bunted, pretty much all the time. In general, bunting is a great answer to a pitcher whose speed you can't hit. After 1920, people didn't bunt so much. So Waddell was facing competition that was much better equipped to handle superhuman speed than anyone after, say, Walter Johnson. Johnson has more seasons where he led leagues, but they were not consecutive, like Waddell's were. So Johnson was a MUCH better pitcher, but just looking at K's, I'd go with Waddell.
5:35 AM Aug 29th
 
DaveFleming
That's a good point, Tom, that you can make K/9 into a percentage. I stuck with K/9 for two reasons:

1. BB-Ref has a nice list of the yearly leaders in K/9 that I could use as a data set (my current laptop has a memory capacity in negative gigabytes), and,

2. K/9 just seems a clearer illustration of what I wanted to think about, which is that there is a context around the 'ceiling' or 'limit' of a metric that I never really thought about, and hadn't ever attempted to adjust for before. Somehow, understanding the difference between 3 of 27 outs and 9 out of 27 outs was clearer in my head than 11% K% versus 33% K%. But that's just me.

I did run a few guys through the system by K%, and it seemed to draw similar results (vance, Pedro, Randy, etc.) I admit that it might be the more accurate metric, overall.

* * *

That said...and this is just an aside to the pitching stuff....I think sometimes we give the 'rate' stuff a bit too much credit.

For example: I've sometimes used an offensive player's 162-game average instead of looking at their 'per 600 plate appearances'. To me, that difference is important...if you have two teammates who have the same exact skills as hitters, but one guy gets 50 extra plate appearances a year because his manager trusts him to hit a little higher in the lineup, I think that should be reflected somewhat. Using 'per 600' erases that detail a bit, while using 'per 162' doesn't.

I'm not saying that I'm right on this....it's just something I think about from time to time. There's something about pure percentages that seems to wash away the complexity of what we're talking about, at least for me.

But thanks for the help with this one, and your feedback!
5:34 PM Aug 25th
 
tangotiger
Note you can make this K/9IP as a percentage, by simply saying K per outs. If you K 10 per 9 IP you have 10 K in 27 outs. So, the percentage of outs that are K is 37%.

It doesn't change the math, but we don't have to talk about "ceilings". It's purely "percentages", which is what odds are about, success per opportunity.

Anyway, it gets the point clearer: do you care about percentage of outs that are K or percentage of batters faced that are K?

I HUGELY prefer K/PA.
1:01 PM Aug 25th
 
JackKeefe
I mentioned that park factors were important, particularly when discussing Dazzy Vance as a strikeout artist. Ebbets Field in the 20's was constructed so that you could see the apartment buildings just beyond the centerfield fence, where people used to hang their wash. Dazzy Vance used to wear very loose fitting shirtsleeves cut at the elbow that would flap like laundry when he pitched, making it extremely difficult to pick up the ball against that backdrop. I didn't do any of Chuck's research though. I didn't mention it earlier, but I think somebody once found that Dazzy pitched poorly at Ebbets Field on days where there was inclement weather, because those were days when folks took their laundry in. So the park was a big factor.
3:11 AM Aug 25th
 
chuck
That's too bad. I deleted my own version, as I thought "well, it's there online if I want it." I did list some home and road splits for K rates and also went into how Brooklyn's 3-year strikeout park factor, according to Seamheads, was 113 in 1924.

It was an extremely high 126 for the single year park factor. I didn't save the numbers sheet I worked from either, but off the top of my head, Vance's home/road ratio for K/9 was something like 149 (1.49, with the decimal removed).
2 of the other main starters had high ratios also, with Bill Doak's much higher than Vance's even. And the rest of the Dodger pitchers under 120 innings, taken as a group, had a ratio the same as Vance's.

I think Jack Keefe brought this topic up, and I can't remember who mentioned about the shirtsleeves in Brooklyn. Brooklyn's 113 strikeout park factor in 1924... the next highest was the Cubs, I think, well down at 104.
9:54 PM Aug 24th
 
DaveFleming
Hey guys...this article ended up getting double posted, and then I wound up deleting the entire chat stream. That was all my fault, and I'm really sorry.

One of you posted something REALLY interesting about Vance and shirtsleeves and home-road k-rates, which I was intending to respond to, and a few others posted some terrific avenues going forward. Please re-post them, if you're willing!

On the positive side, I've fixed the big typos in the original. So that's...something.
8:23 PM Aug 24th
 
 
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