SO YOU’RE NOT A BASEBALL FAN, but you agree to go to a game with your friend, the baseball nut. You happen upon a game that turns out to be two pitchers throwing no-hitters at the same time. Which usually means lots of strikeouts, no hits, few walks, few baserunners, and no runs. Exactly the kind of b-o-r-i-n-g game that makes a non-fan cry (“Waa, waa!”) and keeps him/her a non-fan—because nothing is happening!
Then, to make matters worse, after six scoreless, uneventful innings, your buddy turns to you with eyes gleaming and exclaims, “I can’t believe how lucky we are!!!”
Because as Bob Dylan said, “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you?” It’s a furshlugginer pitchers’ duel with not one but two no-hitters happening at the same time, a truly rare event in the game.
Baseball is the only game where the most powerful offensive weapon is part of the defense!
It helps to know that of all the major team sports, baseball is the only game where the most powerful offensive weapon—the pitched ball—is part of the defense, not the offense. And the pitcher’s greatest weapon is the strikeout, in which he keeps the batter from even putting the ball in play!
And, with a few exceptions, the best pitchers tend to strike out the most batters. Most pitchers with the ability to strike out lots of batters have long, successful major league careers, usually winning lots of games. Most pitchers who rack up huge strikeout totals tend to rank among the very best pitchers in the game. 1
Topps 1987 bubblegum trading card.
No advanced knowledge necessary
It’s August, rather late into the 2017 baseball season, and I haven’t said a thing about the (former) national pastime. So, here is a brief article that doesn’t require advanced knowledge of the game’s more arcane stats. A few smarts and a little common sense is all you need to understand the lists below.
This article was inspired by a question that my cousin Michael Umphred asked on his Facebook page. He noted that pitcher Nolan Ryan had struck out 5,714 batters (the all-time career record), and then asked how many father-son combinations did he strike out in his career. 2
This is truly a trivia question for those schooled in baseball minutiae: there have been more than 100 father-son combinations that have played in the Major Leagues. I was clueless as to how many even played during Ryan’s lengthy career and didn’t even hazard a guess. 3
The determination of greatness should be the pitcher’s effectiveness in helping his team win games.
Mike’s question got me looking things up on the internet about strikeouts and pitchers and walks and that led me to this list of the top ten pitchers in career strikeouts. All but one are from the post-WWII era; the only old pitcher on the list is dinosaur Walter Johnson (#9). I didn’t include him, as I wanted to keep the players and the statistics “modern.”
1. Nolan Ryan 5,714
2. Randy Johnson 4,875
3. Roger Clemens 4,672
4. Steve Carlton 4,136
5. Bert Blyleven 3,701
6. Tom Seaver 3,640
7. Don Sutton 3,574
8. Gaylord Perry 3,534
10. Greg Maddux 3,371
11. Phil Niekro 3,342
These are raw numbers and represent hard-throwing pitchers with lengthy careers. Nolan Ryan, one of the most dominating pitchers in the history of the game, struck out 800 more batters than his nearest competitor, Randy Johnson.
But Ryan ended up with a modest career winning percentage of .526 (based on a won-lost record of 324-292). On the other hand, Johnson finished at a much more impressive .646 (303-166).
Topps 1989 bubblegum trading card.
That one extra baserunner
One reason is that Randy walked far fewer batters than Nolan, both in raw numbers (1,497-2,795) and in walks-per-innings-pitched. Ryan walked 4.4 batters per 9 innings pitched, while Johnson only walked 3.3. That one extra baserunner per game over a course of hundreds of games took its toll. 4
This led me to the “Career Leaders for Strikeouts / Base on Balls” (or strikeout-to-walk ratios) on the Baseball Reference website. Here are the same ten pitchers from above with their ranking in the career leaders list (preceding their name in brown type) followed by their strikeout-to-walk ratio (following their name in bold black type):
32. Greg Maddux 3.37
41. Randy Johnson 3.26
60. Roger Clemens 2.96
81. Bert Blyleven 2.80
97. Tom Seaver 2.62
90. Don Sutton 2.66
112. Gaylord Perry 2.56
218. Steve Carlton 2.26
307. Nolan Ryan 2.04
419. Phil Niekro 1.85
First, Baseball Reference does not set a minimum number of innings pitched to qualify for the list of career leaders, so nine of the top sixteen are all active pitchers. These guys all have pitched less than 2,000 innings, and will almost certainly see their ratios decrease with time as they pitch more innings (and get older while doing so).
Second, if we use 2,500 innings pitched as a reasonable minimum, the all-time leader is Curt Schilling (4.38), followed by Pedro Martinez (4.15). If that 2,500 level was used across the board, each of the ten pitchers above would leap up the ladder in their career standings!
As the list shows, Ryan “only” struck out two batters for every one he walked. A 2-1 ratio is modest by the standards of most of the game’s better pitchers. Johnson struck out more than three batters for every one he walked, a much, much more impressive achievement, especially over so long a period of time and innings pitched.
The pitcher with the best career strikeout-to-walk ratio is current phenom Chris Sale, who strikes out five batters for each one he walks! But Sale is still young and entered the 2017 season with only 1,100 innings pitched. He still has most of his career in front of him (and he is having another phenomenal season as I write this). (Topps 2017 trading card.)
Hanging around too long
Each of the ten pitchers had significantly better ratios during their best years; several of these men had their ratios hurt dramatically by hanging around too long and pitching past their prime. Steve Carlton is probably the best example.
The point here is that arguing for a pitcher’s greatness simply by giving his raw strikeout total, or his standing among career strikeout leaders, without showing other statistics, does not make the case for the pitcher being “great.” In the end, the determination of greatness is the pitcher’s effectiveness in helping his team win baseball games.
So while we can easily argue that Nolan Ryan was “the greatest strikeout pitcher off all time,” it’s much more difficult to argue that he was the greatest pitcher of all time! 5
Question: “What the hell is a picture of Bob Dylan doing in this article?” Answer: Because I quoted lyrics from his song, Ballad Of A Thin Man above: “Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?” Alas, I couldn’t find a Topps trading card for Bob.
Show me the ‘waa’!
Oh, right, there’s the ‘waa’ in this article’s title One of the benefits of sabermetrics is the light that it shines on players who didn’t rack up big numbers or glamour stats. For example, during his career, Bert Blyleven was considered a good pitcher with a helluva curve—but not a great pitcher. In the glamour stats for starter pitchers, he only won 20 games once but never led the league in wins, and he only led the league in strikeouts once.
But Wins Above Average (WAA) estimates how many wins a pitcher gave his teams above what a league-average pitcher would have done for the same teams. 6
While we can argue that Nolan Ryan was the greatest strikeout pitcher off all time, it’s difficult to argue that he was the greatest pitcher of all time.
Ryan supporters always argued that his won-lost record was hurt by pitching for sub-par teams, and his WAA supports this: it shows him winning 35 more games than an average pitcher. But the same method shows Blyleven winning 52 games above average! (Randy won 68.)
Yet Ryan was elected into the Hall of Fame on his first year of eligibility while Bert had to sit through 14 years of being (shamefully) passed over by the voters before being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011.
Where he belongs.
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is Nolan Ryan during the 1988 season pitching against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. In career strikeouts, Ryan is first with 5,714 (1st place); in career walks, 2,795 (1st place). In career wins, Ryan is 324 (14th place); in career losses, 292 (3rd place). While we can argue that Nolan Ryan was the greatest strikeout pitcher off all time, it’s difficult to argue that he was the greatest pitcher of all time. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
1 There exceptions to this observation.
2 And God only knows why his parents chose me as Godfather, a nearly sacred position among Catholics.
3 So being the clever devil that I like to think I am, I wrote “All of them?” as my answer to Mike’s question.
4 I know, I know: this is a simplistic look at these two pitchers’ won-lost records; a sabermetrician could finesse other statistics to tell a truer story, but this is Baseball Statistics for Beginners!
5 I am not implying here that Cousin Mike was implying on his Facebook page anything about Nolan Ryan’s greatness. He was just asking a baseball trivia question of his Facebook friends.
6 WAA is similar to but not identical to Wins-Above-Replacement (WAR).