League-Adjusted Strikeouts

Craig Kimbrel owns the fourth-best K%+ in baseball history. (via LWYang)

Craig Kimbrel owns the fourth-best K%+ in baseball history. (via LWYang)

One of the pleasures of baseball lies in the ease of its translation. Though the game certainly has had its distinct eras, an evolution of rules and enforcement and training, the consistency of baseball is unrivaled by the like of football or basketball. Baseball has never had to struggle with a reconception of its most basic elements, like what a catch and a foul are; certainly, the game has changed, but in the past hundred years it’s at least recognizable.

But the statistical environment of different eras do obviously fluctuate, and we as fans struggle to encompass this. Not that we aren’t aware of it; we know a 3.00 ERA in 1968 means something very different than that same mark in 1999. But it requires an annoying internalized equation, a consistent demand to double the numbers and add 30. It leads us to rough approximations at best, and often lulls us to the siren’s song of the Fun Fact over the untranslated truth.

This isn’t intellectual dishonesty. Rate stats are all well and good, but nothing captures the heart like a milestone. Numbers like 3,000 hits and 300 wins and 500 home runs still pull at us, despite the fact that some of those lights have receded from or washed up on the shore. Even the benchmarks of our rate stats require constant supervision: the career K/9 of Nolan Ryan, for example, is 9.55, a strong number, and one just shy of James Shields’ 2015 season.

We have some statistics that deal with this. Weighted on-base average (wOBA) and Baseball Prospectus’ True Average both seek to approximate a player’s offensive contribution and condense it into a single number, consistent across eras, and do so admirably. But neither is particularly intuitive: say a batter has a .330 wOBA. Is that average? If you’ve spent your time dealing with steroid era numbers, it’ll look low. One person could come away happier with a number than another person. Statistics like wRC+ and ERA+ remove this doubt by adjusting to 100: 102 is two percent higher than average, 98 is two percent lower. It’s far easier to visualize. But certain statistics have been left out in the cold.

strikeout rate

If there’s a single defining feature of the modern, post-steroid game of baseball, it’s not runs allowed or home runs hit. It’s strikeouts, which continue to climb at climate change-level rates. At a glance, the all-time K/9 reveals that five of the top six strikeout pitchers of all time will pitch in 2016. You have to go all the way to 46th place to find someone who pitched before the mid-80s (Dick Radatz), and to get there you have to pass by such luminaries as Marlins middle reliever Mike Dunn and journeyman Michael Gonzalez. Clearly, the numbers we use to define greatness have gotten away from us a little.

The solution: league-adjusted strikeout rate. It’s nothing fancy:

(strikeouts / batters faced) / (league strikeouts / league batters faced) * 100

A pitcher who struck out the exact same ratio of batters as the league he played in that year would score 100; twice as many would score 200, half as many 50. Higher is, assuming you’re rooting for the pitcher, better.

Seasonal K%+ Scores

STARTING PITCHING SEASONAL K%+ SCORES, TOP 100 & BOTTOM 10
Rank Season Name Team Lg TBF K K% Lg K% Lg K%+
     1 1924 Dazzy Vance Robins NL 1221 262 0.215 0.072 298
     2 1925 Dazzy Vance Robins NL 1089 221 0.203 0.071 287
     3 1926 Dazzy Vance Robins NL  713 140 0.196 0.071 276
     4 1937 Bob Feller Indians AL  651 150 0.230 0.091 253
     5 1926 Lefty Grove Athletics AL 1072 194 0.181 0.072 251
     6 1928 Dazzy Vance Robins NL 1126 200 0.178 0.071 251
     7 1999 Pedro Martinez Red Sox AL  835 313 0.375 0.157 239
     8 1923 Dazzy Vance Robins NL 1187 197 0.166 0.071 235
     9 1941 Johnny Vander Meer Reds NL  945 202 0.214 0.092 232
    10 1928 Lefty Grove Athletics AL 1075 183 0.170 0.076 224
    11 1927 Lefty Grove Athletics AL 1106 174 0.157 0.071 223
    12 1927 Dazzy Vance Robins NL 1123 184 0.164 0.074 223
    13 1939 Bob Feller Indians AL 1243 246 0.198 0.089 222
    14 1955 Herb Score Indians AL  978 245 0.251 0.113 222
    15 1995 Randy Johnson Mariners AL  866 294 0.339 0.154 221
    16 1976 Nolan Ryan Angels AL 1195 327 0.274 0.124 220
    17 2000 Pedro Martinez Red Sox AL  817 284 0.348 0.158 220
    18 1933 Dizzy Dean Cardinals NL 1202 199 0.166 0.076 219
    19 1978 Nolan Ryan Angels AL 1008 260 0.258 0.118 218
    20 1938 Bob Feller Indians AL 1248 240 0.192 0.088 218
    21 2001 Pedro Martinez Red Sox AL  456 163 0.357 0.165 216
    22 1930 Bill Hallahan Cardinals NL 1045 177 0.169 0.079 215
    23 1938 Joe Krakauskas Senators AL  551 104 0.189 0.088 214
    24 1957 Sandy Koufax Dodgers NL  444 122 0.275 0.128 214
    25 1989 Nolan Ryan Rangers AL  988 301 0.305 0.143 214
    26 1973 Nolan Ryan Angels AL 1355 383 0.283 0.132 214
    27 1956 Herb Score Indians AL 1022 263 0.257 0.121 214
    28 1946 Hal Newhouser Tigers AL 1176 275 0.234 0.110 213
    29 1984 Dwight Gooden Mets NL  879 276 0.314 0.148 212
    30 1928 George Earnshaw Athletics AL  728 117 0.161 0.076 212
    31 1932 Red Ruffing Yankees AL 1098 190 0.173 0.082 210
    32 1946 Bob Feller Indians AL 1512 348 0.230 0.110 209
    33 1997 Randy Johnson Mariners AL  850 291 0.342 0.164 209
    34 1936 Van Mungo Dodgers NL 1313 238 0.181 0.087 209
    35 1928 Pat Malone Cubs NL 1048 155 0.148 0.071 209
    36 1930 Lefty Grove Athletics AL 1191 209 0.175 0.084 208
    37 2001 Randy Johnson Diamondbacks NL  994 372 0.374 0.180 208
    38 1930 Dazzy Vance Robins NL 1061 173 0.163 0.079 207
    39 1977 Nolan Ryan Angels AL 1272 341 0.268 0.130 207
    40 1924 Walter Johnson Senators AL 1148 158 0.138 0.067 207
    41 1926 Jakie May Reds NL  703 103 0.147 0.071 206
    42 1974 Nolan Ryan Angels AL 1392 367 0.264 0.129 205
    43 1980 J.R. Richard Astros NL  438 119 0.272 0.133 204
    44 1940 Bob Feller Indians AL 1304 261 0.200 0.098 204
    45 1942 Johnny Vander Meer Reds NL 1017 186 0.183 0.090 204
    46 1975 Frank Tanana Angels AL 1029 269 0.261 0.129 203
    47 1979 Nolan Ryan Angels AL  937 223 0.238 0.117 203
    48 2000 Randy Johnson Diamondbacks NL 1001 347 0.347 0.171 203
    49 1929 Pat Malone Cubs NL 1152 166 0.144 0.072 201
    50 1970 Tom Hall Twins AL  619 184 0.297 0.148 201
    51 1935 Johnny Allen Yankees AL  692 113 0.163 0.081 201
    52 1931 Dazzy Vance Robins NL  918 150 0.163 0.081 201
    53 1991 Nolan Ryan Rangers AL  683 203 0.297 0.148 200
    54 1962 Sandy Koufax Dodgers NL  744 216 0.290 0.145 200
    55 1993 Randy Johnson Mariners AL 1043 308 0.295 0.148 200
    56 1979 J.R. Richard Astros NL 1175 313 0.266 0.134 199
    57 1978 Ron Guidry Yankees AL 1057 248 0.235 0.118 198
    58 1999 Randy Johnson Diamondbacks NL 1079 364 0.337 0.170 198
    59 1987 Nolan Ryan Astros NL  873 270 0.309 0.156 198
    60 1932 Dizzy Dean Cardinals NL 1203 191 0.159 0.080 198
    61 1978 J.R. Richard Astros NL 1139 303 0.266 0.135 197
    62 1936 Johnny Allen Indians AL 1030 165 0.160 0.082 196
    63 1926 Bob Shawkey Yankees AL  445  63 0.142 0.072 196
    64 1945 Preacher Roe Pirates NL  936 148 0.158 0.081 196
    65 1976 Dennis Eckersley Indians AL  821 200 0.244 0.124 196
    66 1929 Lefty Grove Athletics AL 1168 170 0.146 0.075 195
    67 1941 Bob Feller Indians AL 1466 260 0.177 0.091 195
    68 1933 Lefty Gomez Yankees AL 1027 163 0.159 0.081 195
    69 1931 Bump Hadley Senators AL  768 124 0.161 0.083 195
    70 1943 Allie Reynolds Indians AL  819 151 0.184 0.095 195
    71 1939 Johnny Vander Meer Reds NL  593 102 0.172 0.088 194
    72 1972 Nolan Ryan Angels AL 1154 329 0.285 0.147 194
    73 1990 Nolan Ryan Rangers AL  818 232 0.284 0.147 193
    74 1924 Bob Shawkey Yankees AL  892 114 0.128 0.067 192
    75 1998 Randy Johnson – – – MLB 1014 329 0.324 0.169 192
    76 1988 Roger Clemens Red Sox AL 1063 291 0.274 0.143 191
    77 1994 Randy Johnson Mariners AL  694 204 0.294 0.154 191
    78 1982 Mario Soto Reds NL 1033 274 0.265 0.139 191
    79 1948 Ewell Blackwell Reds NL  599 114 0.190 0.100 190
    80 1937 Van Mungo Dodgers NL  665 122 0.183 0.096 190
    81 1998 Kerry Wood Cubs NL  699 233 0.333 0.175 190
    82 1944 Max Lanier Cardinals NL  908 141 0.155 0.082 190
    83 1932 Lefty Grove Athletics AL 1207 188 0.156 0.082 189
    84 1933 Roy Parmelee Giants NL  924 132 0.143 0.076 189
    85 2002 Pedro Martinez Red Sox AL  787 239 0.304 0.161 189
    86 2002 Johan Santana Twins AL  452 137 0.303 0.161 188
    87 1931 Carl Hubbell Giants NL 1010 155 0.153 0.081 188
    88 1965 Sandy Koufax Dodgers NL 1297 382 0.295 0.157 188
    89 1945 Hal Newhouser Tigers AL 1261 212 0.168 0.090 188
    90 1925 Lefty Grove Athletics AL  908 116 0.128 0.068 187
    91 1947 Ewell Blackwell Reds NL 1086 193 0.178 0.095 187
    92 1992 Randy Johnson Mariners AL  922 241 0.261 0.140 186
    93 1932 Lefty Gomez Yankees AL 1149 176 0.153 0.082 186
    94 1937 Lefty Gomez Yankees AL 1148 194 0.169 0.091 185
    95 1983 Jose DeLeon Pirates NL  438 118 0.269 0.145 185
    96 1959 Sandy Koufax Dodgers NL  679 173 0.255 0.138 185
    97 1965 Sam McDowell Indians AL 1116 325 0.291 0.158 185
    98 2006 Francisco Liriano Twins AL  473 144 0.304 0.165 185
    99 2002 Randy Johnson Diamondbacks NL 1035 334 0.323 0.175 185
   100 1976 Frank Tanana Angels AL 1142 261 0.229 0.124 184
   101 1931 Bill Hallahan Cardinals NL 1061 159 0.150 0.081 184
   102 1981 Fernando Valenzuela Dodgers NL  758 180 0.237 0.129 184
10,995 1924 Ernie Wingard Browns AL  947  23 0.024 0.067  36
10,996 1951 Sam Zoldak Athletics AL  525  18 0.034 0.096  36
10,997 1945 Bill Lee – – – MLB  820  25 0.030 0.085  36
10,998 1935 George Blaeholder – – – MLB  744  22 0.030 0.083  35
10,999 1934 Benny Frey Reds NL 1058  33 0.031 0.088  35
11,000 1920 Slim Sallee – – – MLB  549  15 0.027 0.077  35
11,001 2003 Nate Cornejo Tigers AL  842  46 0.055 0.157  35
11,002 1950 Joe Haynes Senators AL  465  15 0.032 0.094  34
11,003 1919 Slim Sallee Reds NL  893  24 0.027 0.080  34
11,004 1939 Bill Beckmann Athletics AL  692  20 0.029 0.089  32
11,005 1946 Jim Bagby Red Sox AL  476  16 0.034 0.110  31
11,006 2005 Kirk Rueter Giants NL  489  25 0.051 0.169  30

What we can learn from this:

Dazzy Vance is the greatest starting strikeout pitcher of all time.

In his greatest strikeout season, 1924, Vance struck out 7.65 batters per nine innings. That number was surpassed by 40 qualified pitchers in 2015, including one Rick Porcello. But in that year, the remainder of the National League struck out a mere 2.63 batters per nine, and actually walked more batters than they dismissed. That’s amazing enough, but what truly astounds is how often his name shows up. While many other pitchers had a year or two at peak velocity, Vance’s six-year run (1923-1928) all rank in the top 12 seasons among starters all-time. It was a different time, but Vance owned an era in a way that doesn’t get the credit that Cy Young and Christy Mathewson received.

The seventies belonged to Nolan Ryan.

This is not a surprise, although Ryan rather surprisingly never had an elite strikeout season in the 1995 Randy Johnson mold. You have to go through five Ryan years to get to the next guy, teammate Frank Tanana, who serves as a pretty good example of how hard it is to make the top of the list multiple times. It’s fun to see 1989 Nolan Ryan and 1973 Nolan Ryan right next to each other.

The fifties didn’t really belong to anyone.

Actually, they belonged to Herb Score, who owns two of the only three appearances of the decade in the K%+ top 100. But with his career cut tragically short, and Koufax spending much of the fifties still finding his bearings, there’s just no other strikeout pitchers that dominate the era.

Johnny Vander Meer wasn’t just a two-game wonder; he was a two-year wonder.

The long-time Reds starter is basically known for one fun fact: he’s the only pitcher to throw back-to-back no hitters (and perhaps always will be). But he was pretty formidable for a whole season in 1941, years after his historic feat. The top of the starter list is actually surprisingly light on non-Hall of Famers, given how quickly the fastball can go; he and Herb Score (whose career was derailed by injuries) are the only two outsiders in the top 20.

Kirk Rueter started 13 years in the major leagues somehow.

Rueter was one of those guys pressed into service as a youngster, one who never had anything to work with. (His highest adjusted strikeout rate was 81.) Perhaps only his perfect 8-0 record got him a second season, but he wound up with four playoff berths. But despite plying his trade in the heart of the steroid era, despite wielding an arsenal as threatening as a pitching machine, he never sank below 0.7 fWAR in a season. Until his last, when he pitched 107.1 innings and struck out 25 batters – five of them opposing pitchers.

RELIEF PITCHING SEASONAL K%+ SCORES, TOP 100 & BOTTOM 10
Rank Season Name Team Lg TBF SO K% Lg K% Lg K%+
    1 2003 Eric Gagne Dodgers NL 306 137 44.8% 17.1% 262
    2 2014 Aroldis Chapman Reds NL 202 106 52.5% 20.5% 255
    3 1999 Billy Wagner Astros NL 286 124 43.4% 17.0% 255
    4 2012 Craig Kimbrel Braves NL 231 116 50.2% 20.1% 250
    5 1992 Rob Dibble Reds NL 286 110 38.5% 15.4% 250
    6 2004 Brad Lidge Astros NL 369 157 42.5% 17.3% 246
    7 1975 Skip Lockwood Mets NL 192  61 31.8% 13.1% 243
    8 1999 Armando Benitez Mets NL 312 128 41.0% 17.0% 241
    9 1981 Ron Davis Yankees AL 285  83 29.1% 12.1% 240
   10 1991 Rob Dibble Reds NL 334 124 37.1% 15.6% 238
   11 1990 Rob Dibble Reds NL 384 136 35.4% 15.1% 235
   12 1982 Bill Caudill Mariners AL 380 111 29.2% 12.6% 233
   13 1993 Duane Ward Blue Jays AL 282  97 34.4% 14.8% 233
   14 1960 Ryne Duren Yankees AL 229  67 29.3% 12.6% 232
   15 1989 Lee Smith Red Sox AL 290  96 33.1% 14.3% 232
   16 1959 Ryne Duren Yankees AL 322  96 29.8% 12.8% 232
   17 2011 Kenley Jansen Dodgers NL 218  96 44.0% 19.1% 231
   18 1975 John Hiller Tigers AL 295  87 29.5% 12.9% 229
   19 1987 Tom Henke Blue Jays AL 363 128 35.3% 15.4% 229
   20 1989 Rob Dibble Reds NL 401 141 35.2% 15.4% 229
   21 1981 Rich Gossage Yankees AL 173  48 27.7% 12.1% 229
   22 1989 Tom Henke Blue Jays AL 356 116 32.6% 14.3% 228
   23 1982 Rich Gossage Yankees AL 356 102 28.7% 12.6% 228
   24 1977 Bruce Sutter Cubs NL 411 129 31.4% 14.0% 224
   25 1998 Billy Wagner Astros NL 247  97 39.3% 17.5% 224
   26 2004 Francisco Rodriguez Angels AL 335 123 36.7% 16.4% 223
   27 1989 Bryan Harvey Angels AL 245  78 31.8% 14.3% 223
   28 1930 Whit Wyatt Tigers AL 363  68 18.7%  8.4% 222
   29 1976 Skip Lockwood Mets NL 375 108 28.8% 13.0% 222
   30 2007 Jonathan Papelbon Red Sox AL 224  84 37.5% 17.0% 221
   31 1991 Bryan Harvey Angels AL 309 101 32.7% 14.8% 220
   32 2013 Aroldis Chapman Reds NL 258 112 43.4% 19.7% 220
   33 2012 Aroldis Chapman Reds NL 276 122 44.2% 20.1% 220
   34 2006 Joe Nathan Twins AL 262  95 36.3% 16.5% 220
   35 1958 Ryne Duren Yankees AL 307  87 28.3% 12.9% 220
   36 1996 Troy Percival Angels AL 291 100 34.4% 15.7% 219
   37 2011 Craig Kimbrel Braves NL 306 127 41.5% 19.1% 218
   38 2010 Carlos Marmol Cubs NL 332 138 41.6% 19.1% 217
   39 1978 Victor Cruz Blue Jays AL 199  51 25.6% 11.8% 217
   40 2005 B.J. Ryan Orioles AL 290 100 34.5% 15.9% 217
   41 2001 Dan Plesac Blue Jays AL 190  68 35.8% 16.5% 216
   42 1980 Rich Gossage Yankees AL 401 103 25.7% 11.9% 216
   43 1997 Billy Wagner Astros NL 277 106 38.3% 17.7% 216
   44 2003 Rafael Soriano Mariners AL 201  68 33.8% 15.7% 216
   45 1995 Troy Percival Angels AL 284  94 33.1% 15.4% 215
   46 1976 Dave LaRoche Indians AL 389 104 26.7% 12.4% 215
   47 1978 Mark Littell Cardinals NL 447 130 29.1% 13.5% 215
   48 1992 Dennis Eckersley Athletics AL 309  93 30.1% 14.0% 214
   49 2008 Grant Balfour Rays AL 224  82 36.6% 17.1% 214
   50 2005 Joe Nathan Twins AL 276  94 34.1% 15.9% 214
   51 1993 John Wetteland Expos NL 344 113 32.8% 15.4% 214
   52 1927 Garland Braxton Senators AL 639  96 15.0%  7.1% 213
   53 1999 Matt Mantei – – – MLB 284  99 34.9% 16.4% 212
   54 1986 Tom Henke Blue Jays AL 370 118 31.9% 15.0% 212
   55 1997 Armando Benitez Orioles AL 307 106 34.5% 16.4% 211
   56 2000 Robb Nen Giants NL 256  92 35.9% 17.1% 210
   57 2011 Sergio Romo Giants NL 175  70 40.0% 19.1% 210
   58 1994 Bobby Ayala Mariners AL 236  76 32.2% 15.4% 209
   59 2005 Brad Lidge Astros NL 291 103 35.4% 16.9% 209
   60 2014 Andrew Miller – – – MLB 242 103 42.6% 20.4% 209
   61 1990 Bryan Harvey Angels AL 267  82 30.7% 14.7% 209
   62 2014 Brad Boxberger Rays AL 247 104 42.1% 20.2% 209
   63 1980 Victor Cruz Indians AL 355  88 24.8% 11.9% 208
   64 2006 J.J. Putz Mariners AL 303 104 34.3% 16.5% 208
   65 1962 Dick Radatz Red Sox AL 506 144 28.5% 13.7% 208
   66 1991 Duane Ward Blue Jays AL 428 132 30.8% 14.8% 208
   67 2009 Jonathan Broxton Dodgers NL 300 114 38.0% 18.3% 208
   68 2002 Eric Gagne Dodgers NL 314 114 36.3% 17.5% 208
   69 1933 Dazzy Vance Cardinals NL 427  67 15.7%  7.6% 207
   70 1970 Pete Richert Orioles AL 216  66 30.6% 14.8% 207
   71 2015 Kenley Jansen Dodgers NL 181  77 42.5% 20.6% 207
   72 1977 Rich Gossage Pirates NL 523 151 28.9% 14.0% 206
   73 2006 Takashi Saito Dodgers NL 303 107 35.3% 17.1% 206
   74 2004 B.J. Ryan Orioles AL 361 122 33.8% 16.4% 206
   75 2005 Francisco Rodriguez Angels AL 279  91 32.6% 15.9% 205
   76 1958 Herb Score Indians AL 182  48 26.4% 12.9% 205
   77 2015 Aroldis Chapman Reds NL 262 110 42.0% 20.6% 204
   78 1947 Joe Page Yankees AL 584 116 19.9%  9.7% 204
   79 1979 Bruce Sutter Cubs NL 403 110 27.3% 13.4% 204
   80 2000 Armando Benitez Mets NL 304 106 34.9% 17.1% 204
   81 2003 Jose Valverde Diamondbacks NL 204  71 34.8% 17.1% 204
   82 1975 Dave LaRoche Indians AL 359  94 26.2% 12.9% 204
   83 2011 Al Alburquerque Tigers AL 182  67 36.8% 18.1% 203
   84 1999 John Rocker Braves NL 301 104 34.6% 17.0% 203
   85 1976 Wayne Twitchell Phillies NL 254  67 26.4% 13.0% 203
   86 2004 Octavio Dotel – – – MLB 356 122 34.3% 16.9% 203
   87 2011 David Robertson Yankees AL 272 100 36.8% 18.1% 203
   88 2015 Andrew Miller Yankees AL 218  89 40.8% 20.1% 203
   89 2000 Byung-Hyun Kim Diamondbacks NL 320 111 34.7% 17.1% 203
   90 2010 Billy Wagner Braves NL 268 104 38.8% 19.1% 203
   91 2004 Eric Gagne Dodgers NL 326 114 35.0% 17.3% 202
   92 1926 Walter Beall Yankees AL 384  56 14.6%  7.2% 202
   93 2013 Greg Holland Royals AL 255 103 40.4% 20.0% 202
   94 1985 Tom Henke Blue Jays AL 153  42 27.5% 13.6% 202
   95 1995 Roberto Hernandez White Sox AL 272  84 30.9% 15.4% 201
   96 2006 Francisco Rodriguez Angels AL 296  98 33.1% 16.5% 201
   97 1977 Len Barker Rangers AL 196  51 26.0% 13.0% 201
   98 1979 Jim Kern Rangers AL 578 136 23.5% 11.7% 201
   99 2005 Rudy Seanez Padres NL 248  84 33.9% 16.9% 200
  100 1963 Dick Radatz Red Sox AL 541 162 29.9% 15.0% 200
9,173 1921 Jim Shaw Senators AL 193   4  2.1%  7.4%  28
9,174 1945 Tom Earley Braves NL 178   4  2.2%  8.1%  28
9,175 1981 Jim Kaat Cardinals NL 229   8  3.5% 12.9%  27
9,176 1928 Ray Moss Robins NL 268   5  1.9%  7.1%  26
9,177 1927 Charlie Barnabe White Sox AL 284   5  1.8%  7.1%  25
9,178 1945 Arnold Carter Reds NL 209   4  1.9%  8.1%  24
9,179 1933 Jack Berly Phillies NL 231   4  1.7%  7.6%  23
9,180 1929 Red Peery Braves NL 187   3  1.6%  7.2%  22
9,181 1954 George O’Donnell Pirates NL 373   8  2.1% 10.6%  20
9,182 1927 Ted Wingfield Red Sox AL 346   1  0.3%  7.1%   4

Relievers who strike out a lot of batters aren’t the stereotypical wild men.

The iconic fireballing reliever, perhaps embedded into our consciousness by Ricky Vaughn and Mitch Williams, doesn’t hold true. While few of the names near the top of the list could be called control artists, neither do we find many Marmols. In fact, perhaps surprisingly given the nature and volatility of relievers, what we find are many famous players, members of the Hall of Fame or at least Hall of Very Great, with decent if not amazing walk rates. A fun comparison is Bryan Harvey, whose 1989 and 1991 seasons show up near each other – the former combined with a 6.7 BB/9, the latter with a 1.9 BB/9.

relievers

The great strikeout relievers of our time are great in any time.

Despite the inflated strikeout numbers of the modern era, the greatness of Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen hold up pretty well. The dominant relievers of our era really are dominant. But Eric Gagne’s one majestic season still edges them, as easy as it is to forget now.

Rob Dibble could have been a Hall of Famer.

In the modern era (1988 forward), Dibble ended his career at age 31 with 12.9 fWAR, good for 20th among relievers and tied with Craig Kimbrel in almost the same amount of career innings. Throw out his two failed comebacks, which cost his value a win apiece, and he leaps up into a tie for 12th, among pitchers who threw at least twice as many career innings. His four great seasons all rank in the top 20. Whether or not his fastball flew too close to the sun, it’s a warning for fans of the modern closers: relievers just don’t age like they used to.

Ryne Duren’s legacy deserves another look.

One of the tendencies we have in baseball and human nature is that we focus on the most glaring characteristic in a person. Rarely was this more on display than with Duren, whose near-blindness and shaded coke-bottle glasses only fed into the fame of his terrible wildness. Perhaps the fear of an uncontrollable, half-blind (and two-thirds drunk) reliever throwing high-90s fastball did the job of intimidating and disconcerting batters, but it also led to the pitcher’s own caricaturization. Forever battling against expectations, potential and sobriety, Duren was shipped out at the first sign of weakness, and ultimately the man cleaned himself up and became a prolific speaker for alcoholics in his post-playing days. But despite near-anonymity now, this stat shows that at his peak, he was quite effective despite the walks, and deserving of at least as much lasting notoriety as Mitch Williams.

Ted Wingfield’s 1927 season is impossible to conceive.

If not for this statistic, Wingfield would be utterly forgotten, a swingman for a few years in the Roaring Twenties with a poor ERA on last-place teams. But his final encore at the age of 27 is the stuff of numeric legends: he faced 346 batters and struck out exactly one of them. It took him four months to get it, in fact, picking it up in long relief on August 10, striking out Max Bishop. His eight consecutive starts without a strikeout is a record that might stand the test of time, and only retirement kept it from going higher.

The best – and the worst – strikeout seasons in history failed to make the cut.

To qualify for the starter list a pitcher had to go 100 innings, and to qualify for the reliever list, a pitcher had to be predominantly a reliever. This cut off outliers on both ends of the spectrum. On the low end, we lose Aaron Cook’s final season, which was Kirk Rueter version 1.1. (The two started the same number of games, but Cook missed the innings cut because he wasn’t as good.) On the high end, we lose Bob Feller’s rookie season, where he struck out 70 batters in 54 innings as a starter, all before becoming a legal adult. Only three pitchers in the league that year managed even half his 11.03 K/9.

Career K%+ Scores

Included below are a list of career K%+ scores for the top 100 and bottom 10 pitchers in baseball history who have faced at least 1,000 batters in their career. Please note that career totals are not meant to be compared against each other the way that season totals can be. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, since K% declines with age, pitchers who were too ineffective to last into their thirties, or who have been prevented from reaching them by the present tense, will have inflated numbers. And since we’re working with a list of numbers with different denominators, eras with high league-average strikeout rates will see generally flatter bell curves than strikeout-depressed eras. That’s why so many of the scores in the 130s and 70s belong to the deadball era.

CAREER K%+, TOP 100 & BOTTOM 10
Rank Name TBF K/9 Career K%+
    1 Dazzy Vance 12,220  6.2 216
    2 Rob Dibble  1,836 12.2 215
    3 Aroldis Chapman  1,205 15.4 213
    4 Craig Kimbrel  1,262 14.6 202
    5 Kenley Jansen  1,211 14.0 199
    6 Bryan Harvey  1,388 10.4 193
    7 Billy Wagner  3,407 11.9 188
    8 Herb Score  3,400  8.8 182
    9 Tom Henke  2,765  9.8 182
   10 Nolan Ryan 22,557  9.6 179
   11 Ryne Duren  2,436  9.6 177
   12 Armando Benitez  2,831 10.9 172
   13 Brad Lidge  2,404 11.9 172
   14 Mark Clear  3,446  9.0 171
   15 Sandy Koufax  9,497  9.3 170
   16 Randy Johnson 16,958 10.6 169
   17 David Robertson  1,741 12.0 169
   18 Greg Holland  1,210 12.1 168
   19 Duane Ward  2,613  9.2 168
   20 Dick Radatz  2,779  9.7 168
   21 Takashi Saito  1,195 10.7 167
   22 B.J. Ryan  2,071 10.5 166
   23 Scott Williamson  1,436 10.5 164
   24 Mark Littell  1,837  7.9 164
   25 Ugueth Urbina  2,755 10.5 163
   26 Octavio Dotel  3,734 10.8 161
   27 Troy Percival  2,756  9.9 161
   28 J.R. Richard  6,542  8.4 160
   29 John Wetteland  3,109  9.5 159
   30 Pedro Martinez 11,543 10.0 158
   31 Van Mungo  8,640  5.3 158
   32 Tommy Bridges 11,864  5.3 158
   33 Bill Caudill  2,649  8.4 157
   34 Lefty Grove 16,633  5.2 157
   35 Walter Johnson 12,830  4.7 157
   36 Damaso Marte  1,779  9.5 157
   37 Mark Prior  2,771 10.4 157
   38 Lefty Gomez 10,572  5.3 157
   39 Jim Kern  2,927  7.4 156
   40 Ernesto Frieri  1,021 11.6 156
   41 Dizzy Dean  8,117  5.3 156
   42 Joe Page  3,396  5.9 155
   43 Rod Scurry  1,543  8.4 155
   44 Pat Malone  8,276  4.8 153
   45 Kerry Wood  5,634 10.3 153
   46 Lee Smith  5,031  8.7 153
   47 Tom Hall  3,234  8.4 153
   48 Francisco Rodriguez  3,830 10.8 152
   49 Carlos Marmol  2,455 11.6 151
   50 Claude Jonnard  1,206  4.1 151
   51 Yu Darvish  2,262 11.2 151
   52 Sam McDowell 10,411  8.9 150
   53 Jack Meyer  1,667  7.4 150
   54 Koji Uehara  1,370 10.6 149
   55 Antonio Bastardo  1,117 11.0 149
   56 Jeff Nelson  2,979  9.5 149
   57 Robb Nen  2,983 10.0 149
   58 Jonathan Papelbon  2,622 10.1 148
   59 Al Reyes  1,038  8.9 148
   60 Michael Gonzalez  1,395 10.4 148
   61 Rafael Betancourt  2,335  9.5 148
   62 Roger Clemens 20,240  8.6 148
   63 Paul Shuey  2,093  9.4 147
   64 Jose Fernandez  1,098 10.5 147
   65 Johnny Vander Meer  9,017  5.5 146
   66 Jakie May  6,616  4.4 145
   67 Ewell Blackwell  5,454  5.7 145
   68 Sid Fernandez  7,614  8.4 145
   69 J.J. Putz  1,974  9.5 145
   70 Bob Feller 16,180  6.1 145
   71 Ferdie Schupp  3,934  4.8 144
   72 Michael Wuertz  1,299  9.6 144
   73 Randy Myers  3,684  9.0 144
   74 Brendan Donnelly  1,227  8.6 144
   75 Jonathan Broxton  2,220 10.3 144
   76 Bob Shawkey  9,850  4.2 143
   77 Sergio Romo  1,319 10.2 143
   78 Tippy Martinez  3,219  6.8 143
   79 Trevor Hoffman  4,352  9.4 143
   80 Antonio Osuna  1,866  9.2 143
   81 Kiko Calero  1,062  9.6 142
   82 Jesse Orosco  4,391  8.2 142
   83 Hal Newhouser 12,512  5.4 142
   84 Johnny Allen  8,292  4.9 142
   85 Frank Francisco  1,587  9.9 142
   86 Chris Sale  3,408 10.3 142
   87 Stephen Strasburg  2,998 10.4 141
   88 Arthur Rhodes  4,367  8.7 141
   89 Hank Johnson  4,398  4.8 141
   90 Joakim Soria  1,709  9.6 141
   91 Marshall Bridges  1,132  7.9 140
   92 Tyler Clippard  2,093  9.8 140
   93 John Hiller  5,033  7.5 140
   94 Satchel Paige  1,995  5.5 140
   95 Paul Assenmacher  3,205  8.5 140
   96 Rich Gossage  7,344  7.5 140
   97 Jose Valverde  2,336  9.9 140
   98 Dan Plesac  4,245  8.7 140
   99 George Pipgras  6,306  4.3 140
  100 Guy Morton  5,249  4.4 139
2,630 Sam Zoldak  3,765  2.0  49
2,631 Dave Eiland  1,163  3.7  49
2,632 Randy Martz  1,093  2.4  49
2,633 Jeff Ballard  3,245  2.8  48
2,634 Bob Kline  1,968  1.8  48
2,635 Bill Beckmann  1,796  2.2  48
2,636 Ernie Wingard  3,113  1.3  45
2,637 Benny Frey  4,942  1.4  42
2,638 Nate Cornejo  1,289  3.0  41
2,639 Ted Wingfield  2,282  1.1  18

The data is yours to look at and manipulate: if you want to start in more modern times, you can cut down the date ranges, or perhaps change the game started cutoff for starters versus relievers. This isn’t a predictive stat, so you can have fun with the data and decide how you want it to mean to you.

The K%+ statistic doesn’t really tell us anything new. That doesn’t mean it’s not useful; calculators don’t tell us anything new, but they make the math easier. Think of this statistic as shorthand, a means of reminding us that each pitcher existed in his own time and conditions. And that Dazzy Vance was really, really amazing.

References & Resources


Patrick Dubuque is a wastrel and a general layabout. Many of the sites he has written for are now dead. Follow him on Twitter @euqubud.
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Joe Pancake
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Joe Pancake

Cool article! A few comments: 1. It would be interesting to somehow factor batters faced back into the equation so that pitchers who faced more batters would be rewarded, something like (pitcher K% – league K%) * batters faced. That would make Dazzy Vance’s 1924 season look even better. 2. The mention of Ryne Duren and Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn reminded me of a Sports Illustrated interview I read with “Major League” writer David S. Ward. Here’s his quote about Vaughn: “Wild Thing was Ryne Duren, who I knew as a Yankees reliever, a big guy who wore these Coke-bottle… Read more »

AaronB
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AaronB

Patrick, tremendous work, thanks so much! I just love the comps across the eras of baseball and ways that show how a pitcher like Dazzy Vance compares to Randy Johnson. Vance, shows up on the RP list too for those who may have missed it. Any idea how a guy like Rube Waddell comes into play? He’s always fascinated me as a pitcher because of his ability to get the K, despite playing at a time where contact was king. His career K/9 rate of 7.0 would surely play positively using your formula. Thanks again!

Geoff Young
Guest

Fun stuff, Patrick.

I did something similar here several years ago: http://www.hardballtimes.com/strikeout-rates-through-the-years/

And Steve Treder did likewise several years before that: http://www.hardballtimes.com/strike-zone-dominance-in-context-dazzy-and-pedro/

Very enjoyable read. Thanks!

Chris J
Guest
Chris J

Wonderful research, Patrick. This will serve as a great barometer for my own findings that I’ve been working on for several years now. My version also includes heavy contextual (era-specific) consideration, with an emphasis on career and peak qualifying seasons (750+ batters faced), along with a host of other factors (consecutive year, single season, decade, and all-time weighting, relation to career K totals and contemporaries, etc…) Ultimately, every pitcher with at least 500+ strikeouts will be included. I may never complete it, but if I do, I will post my findings here. Geoff, thanks for the links. I’ve been fascinated… Read more »

Eric
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Eric

I don’t look at this from the point of view of the pitcher, but rather the hitter. To me, there is such a thing as a “wasted plate appearance.” Examples of which are backward K’s (don’t even get me started on the epidemic of taking a pitch, first strike or otherwise), catchers interference, 4 pitch walks, HBP where all previous pitches thrown were balls, a walk that starts off 3-0 with the token down the middle strike followed by a ball, an IBB. Furthermore, on an individual basis, yes a double or triple play is worse than a strikeout, but… Read more »

Thomas Scherrer
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Thomas Scherrer

If we could spin this analogy to pitchers seasons being like vintage wine, then the wine was really good pre-WW 2. We had to wait almost 60 years until another classic wine hit the shelves…something called Pedro ’99. Drinking Pedro ’99 may have been the best ever for wine lovers. Its flavor and complexity; aroma and robust color; overall taste. Paired well against steaks that were pumped with synthetic steroids

Ken S.
Guest
Ken S.

Vance was amazing all right. During 1922-1932, the main part of his career, he struck out 10 or more in a game 37 times. The next 3 highest were Lefty Grove with 20, Red Ruffing with 9, and Bill Hallahan with 6. No one else had more than 5. There were a total of 137 10+K games during that period, so Vance had 27% of them.