More unbreakable pitching records

So my paean to Mariano Rivera led some readers to comment that I’d missed a few key pitching records of the last few decades, and they were right. So, as a mea culpa, below is my homage to Nolan Ryan. Okay, I’ll cover more than just the Ryan Express, but his exploits are a key part of the conversation.

Strikeouts, career

Just about every baseball fan knows Ryan has the career strikeout record, but you may not realize how large the gap is between him and second place. When he retired following the 1993 season, Ryan’s total of 5,714 whiffs was more than 1,500 ahead of Steve Carlton, who could accumulate only a measly 4,136 punchouts in his career. That’s not quite Rickey Henderson-over-Lou Brock domination, but it’s close.

Since he hung up his spikes, Ryan’s lead has dwindled to barely more than half what it used to be, as Randy Johnson now sits in second place with 4,875 Ks. Also sliding ahead of Carlton is Roger Clemens, who dialed up 4,672 strikeouts in his 24-year career.

If you’re looking for an active player who might eventually take a run at Ryan, well, the leading “active” pitcher is Jamie Moyer with 2,441. Next. Andy Pettitte sits at 2,320, so he might surpass Moyer, but then again, he might not. CC Sabathia has fanned 2,214 batters in his 12-year career, so if he doubles his output he’ll still be more than 1,000 whiffs shy of Ryan.

As we go down the line, things just get sillier and sillier—until we get to Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander. Hernandez has the narrow advantage of more strikeouts (1,487) in his eight campaigns than Verlander (1,454) has in his eight, but Hernandez surges way ahead in this competition based on his three-year age advantage, 26 to 29. Still, if Hernandez continues at this pace over a 24-year career, tripling his current total doesn’t get him to even 4,500 whiffs.

Despite strikeouts becoming more and more common, barring a serious change in how starting pitchers are used—such as a four-man rotation and teams allowing 150-pitch outings, or somebody inventing a robotic Big Unit—nobody is going to catch Ryan.

Odds of record falling: Zero percent, maybe less.

Strikeouts, single-season

Ryan tops the list here again, with 383 Ks in 326 innings during the 1973 campaign. Just to show off, he notched 367 the next year in 332.2 frames.

This record may seems safe also, but reader Anon had this to say:

Let me point out that Randy Johnson would likely own the single-season K record if the D-backs hadn’t skipped his last start at the end of the 2001 season. Unit was at 372 with a final start on the last day of the season coming up against the Brewers. who set a single-season team K record that year (Jose Hernandez, Richie Sexson, Geoff Jenkins, Jeromy Burnitz—yeah whiff-tastic). D-backs had a playoff spot wrapped up with no home-field or anything at stake so Eric Knott got the start; Brewers teed off on the back-end of the D-backs’ bullpen for 15 runs but still struck out eight times. RJ should own that record.

If Johnson had made that start with the sole purpose of Ryan’s record (and doing so in under 260 innings), he certainly had a good shot. However, Arizona wisely put the team’s postseason fortunes ahead of one man’s personal goals, and the 2001 World Series championship remains the Diamondbacks’ only title. It’s unfortunate that Johnson didn’t get the shot after recording 364 and 347 punchouts the previous two years, but I imagine his World Series ring feels pretty good when he wears it.

Verlander is the K king these days, leading the majors the last two campaigns with totals of 250 and 239 while throwing no more than 251 innings. No offense to Verlander’s incredible talent, but is that the profile of a new single-season strikeout leader? Nope. I agree with reader Michael Caragliano’s sentiment that even with strikeouts becoming more commonplace, Verlander’s—or any similar pitcher’s—innings and whiff rate both would need to spike significantly.

Odds of record falling: 1.23456 percent.

Strikeouts, single-game

Reader David wondered if we’ll see more than 20 punchouts in a single nine-inning game, and Cass mentioned Stephen Strasburg as a good candidate to break this record. I don’t know if it will be Strasburg, Verlander, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, (all with terrific strikeout-per-nine totals over the last few seasons), some kid currently pitching in high school or someone yet to be born, but I think there’s a solid chance this mark falls.

As already mentioned, strikeouts continue to rise. A pitcher needs to be old enough to be past the injury nexus so he’s allowed to throw a bunch of pitches in a game and finish things off. After all, it was just last Sept. 25 that Greinke struck out 13 batters in only five innings. The seven hits and two walks he surrendered led to a pitch count of 110, so he was pulled from the game. His Angels teammates went on to record seven more whiffs (thanks for nothing, Scott Downs), so the team had 20 for the contest.

A workhorse on the mound for a non-contending team, facing a hack-tastic opponent late in the season with little else on the line? That could do it. A top-notch pitcher totally zoned in and able to lull both the batters and his fielders to sleep? It might happen. Adam Dunn being allowed to DH for everybody (and use ghost runners when he walked)? Okay, probably not, but you see the point. It maybe not be probable, but 21 whiffs by one pitcher certainly is possible.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Odds of record falling: 35 percent.

Consecutive saves

Sorry, Asym, I’m going here again. Ian R. tossed out Eric Gagne’s 84 straight saves without blowing one as a likely long-standing mark, and added that Tom Gordon is No.2 with 54 straight saves.

This record depends somewhat on how closers will be used going forward. If teams concern themselves with putting their best pitchers in the most critical spots, it is unlikely that someone will be perfect in more than 84 high-leverage situations. However, if a manager comes along who makes Tony La Russa look reckless and arbitrary in his reliever usage, then perhaps we’ll see this record go down.

It’s not very difficult to avoid blowing a three-run lead in a single inning, and if a manager set things up so that more often than not his closer came on in those situations, such a streak is achievable. However, the glacial shift we may be witnessing in bullpen usage away from the La Russa standard could preclude such a run. And we are talking about 84 consecutive final-inning shutdowns, which is quite the impressive run.

Odds of record falling: Less than 10 percent.

Career appearances

It’s funny that the career appearance record was mentioned by two people, but they credited two different players as the leader. Ian R. correctly identified Jesse Orosco as the all-time appearance record-holder, with 1,252 over 24 seasons. Next in line is Mike Stanton with 1,178. Rivera has the lead among active players at 1,051, but I don’t see him sticking around beyond 2013.

The next several active pitchers on the list are in their late 30s and much too far back to make a run at Orosco. However, one player lurking in the distance just might have what it takes.

Francisco Rodriguez has 682 appearances in 10 full seasons, plus his five-game call-up at the end of the 2002 season that led to his lights-out performance in that year’s playoffs. He’s also only 30 years old, and since he’s moved out of the closer role, he could register more appearances since he won’t be reserved for save opportunities.

Of course, the big issue right now is that K-Rod doesn’t have a job for 2013. Last year was his first ever with an ERA+ below 100 (94), which could be a fluke. He did appear in 78 games and recorded 72 strikeouts in the same number of innings, so he can be very productive. If he can keep earning opportunities—and work through his personal legal issues—he has a chance.

Beyond Rodriguez … well, Jeremy Affeldt is nearly halfway to Orosco’s total in 11 seasons, and he’s a lefty, so might get the chance to pitch forever. Otherwise, any other candidates are pretty early in their careers.

Odds of record falling: 3.14 percent.

Ryan, no-hitters and records

To wrap things up, David also mentioned Ryan’s career walks and career losses totals. First, Cy Young has 316 losses while Ryan has “only” 292. Second, Ryan does lead the pack by a *wide* margin with 2,795 free passes (Carlton is next with 1,833). I’ll cite these negative marks, but I don’t feel like dwelling on them at this time. I’m more interested in exploring the positive pitching records established in the last few decades. Maybe a future article will explore the infamous tallies players have totaled in their careers.

Ryan’s seven no-hitters are something I want to touch upon. The next highest total is four, by Sandy Koufax. I have a tough time deciding if this is a record or more of a feat or accomplishment. As a counting stat, seven is a small number for a record, but given that we’re talking about something as rare—but not random—as a no-hitter, I’m comfortable calling this a record and saying it’s not going to fall in my lifetime.

A no-hitter mark I don’t call a “record” is Johnny Vander Meer’s back-to-back no-nos, touched on by readers “The Wilpons Must Go” (great handle) and Dennis Bedard. Yes, it’s quite an impressive achievement. No, it won’t ever be broken, though it could be matched. But as I said in the comments section, “I have a hard time calling something a record when the number describing it is ‘two.'” Amazing and unique, but maybe not a record, per se.

I didn’t cover every single record mentioned in the last article’s comments, but I hope I gave several of the key achievements their due this time around. Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting.

Greg has been a writer and editor for The Hardball Times since 2010. In his dreams, he's the second coming of Ozzie Smith. Please don't wake him up.
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David P Stokes
9 years ago

How about Cy Young’s record for career starts?  He had 815.  Ryan got fairly close—to 773—but nobody under 40 has over 500.

Michael Caragliano
9 years ago

Taking a closer look at Marshall’s 106 appearances, here are the two things that jumped out at me. One, Marshall logged 208 innings, all in relief. That’s almost two innings an appearance, two games out of every three. Nowadays, some managers hesitate to use their closer two games in a row out of fear of overusing him. Two, he only recorded 21 saves. Yes, the save is the most over-rated stat in the game, but still, that’s ten fewer saves than he had the year before (but he only made 92 appearances in 1973, so obviously he made them count). John Hiller set the save record the previous season in 43 fewer appearances. I never closely looked at how many of his appearances qualified under the save rule, but you figure Walt Alston would’ve brought him into a few more save situations by accident. Maybe not ebough to crack 40 saves, but certainly you figure he should’ve reached 30.

9 years ago

…career strikeouts is almost sure to fall, eventually.  hell, if Johnson had been able to throw more than half his pitches for strikes his first few seasons…if he’d come up a little earlier..the record would be his right now.

another ryan or another johnson aren’t going to show up on a schedule…but a guy *is* gonna show up, and take the record for his own.  it’s a lock, really..

Greg Simons
9 years ago

waldo, I wasn’t clear in this follow-up article, but in the original the idea was whether the record would fall in the next 30-40 years.  There could be a human being on earth right now who could do it, but I think modern usage patterns would not allow it, and the time it will take for MLB teams to change their approach and allow such an achievement is beyond that time frame.

9 years ago

Bless Nolan Ryan, he’s a national treasure, but just to be perverse I’ll point out he collected his seven no-hitters while pitching 27 seasons until he was 46. Koufax collected his four by age 30 and retired after a great, great season. If it hadn’t been for the … what was it, arthritis? … he probably had two, three or more still in him. He still would have had 1967 and 1968 (The Year of the Pitcher) to pitch to the expanded strike zone, and might easily have gotten two a season both years. I know that sounds absurd, four no-hitters in two years, but the man was at the height of his considerable prowess and had every edge against the hitters going for him.

Greg Simons
9 years ago

Good point, bucdaddy.  It’s amazing what he achieved in only nine seasons of more than 150 innings, five above 200 and two above 300.

Three Cy Youngs, another 3rd-place finish, an MVP and two more 2nd-place finishes.  He made the HOF on the strength of basically 4-5 great seasons and 2-3 more good ones.  I agree, he could have done some amazing things if he’d remained healthy.

9 years ago

If you don’t like the number “2” for records, then how about Fernando Tatis’ record of 8 RBIs in an inning? I don’t see that being broken any time soon…

Greg Simons
9 years ago

Tatis’ two-grand slam inning was the first game I ever listened to on the internet.  As a Cardinals fan, I loved it!

9 years ago

Career complete games is still the standard for unbeatable pitching record. 749 in a 22 year career by Cy Young certainly does seem impressive even as just a number.

The active player leader (Roy Halladay with 66) is on pace to—almost equal Jack Morris/Don Sutton/Don Drydale (roughly 170 complete games)—assuming that Halladay keeps pitching well until he breaks Satchel Paige’s record for being the oldest pitcher ever.

Assuming that he breaks Satchel Paige’s record with the proper mindset – ie that he’s just getting started—then baseball fans can look forward to Cy Young’s record falling—in (roughly) the year 2168.

Of course skeptics might argue that Roy Halladay is unlikely to maintain his innings-eating dominance as he nears the age of 190.

Mike C
9 years ago

Thank you for mentioning “nine-inning game” in your discussion of “Strikeouts, single-game”.  It seems to be rarely mentioned that the single-game record for strikeouts is not 20, but 21.  This was achieved in 1962 by Tom Cheyney of the Washington Senators in a complete-game, 16-inning, 2-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles.  He threw 228 pitches.

Oh yeah, and that one isn’t likely to be broken either.

Ian R.
9 years ago

To be fair to David, I think his comment referencing games pitched was about Mike Marshall’s record single-season mark (106 in 1974), not the career record. That does look like an awfully hard mark to match (although a few fairly recent relievers have come close) unless there’s a crazy shift in reliever usage.

Thanks for the pair of shoutouts!

Greg Simons
9 years ago

Thanks for clarifying, Ian R.  Yeah, 106 appearances in one season?  That’s painful just to think about.

Greg Simons
9 years ago

dennis, it’s true that bucdaddy and I were speculating about how great Koufax may have been, but it was just speculation, which is why we used “might” and “could.”  And it’s fun to think about what Koufax or Teddy Ballgame or Satchel Paige may have accomplished under different circumstances.

I think it’s reasonable to give Williams at least partial credit, if only in our minds, for what he may have done if he hadn’t gone off to war twice.  He had established his performance level before he left and maintained it when he returned.  We’re interpolating his numbers. 

Koufax is more iffy because we’re extrapolating, and pitchers get hurt all the time.

Marrying your high school sweetheart?  Well, that’s outside the realm of any prediction or projection system I know of.

Joey Belle
9 years ago

Great couple of articles. Id love to see this for hitter records too eventually

Greg Simons
9 years ago

Thanks, Joey, or should I call you Albert?  The hitting record article actually started off the series.  Here’s a link:

9 years ago

Normally you would look for other pitchers similar to Koufax who pitched at the same time and see what happened to them over time. In this case, there’s an obvious problem with that, of course.

My guess is that he would have continued to be dominant for at least the next two years. He had several advantages going for him, and you can trace his career progression according to those advantages (though, of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation). The major advantages:

1. He gradually moved from Ebbets Field to the Coliseum to Dodger Stadium, from a bandbox to a very pitcher-friendly field, and

2. After 1962, the MLB PTB expanded the strike zone.

Now a lot of pitchers gained one or both of those advantages (the Astrodome figures into this too) and none of them (with the possible exception of Marichal, who gets overlooked probably because he had the disadvantage in the day of being not only black but also accented-English black) turned into Koufax. Koufax apparently learned that all he had to do was throw heat and drop his monster curve into that big zone and never worry about the ball getting hit out of Dodger Stadium. IIRC, he also had some pretty good defensive players behind him.

So I think it’s likely that if not for the pain, he would have been Koufax in 1967 and 1968. After that, things get fuzzier. He was wild early in his career and could have reverted to that some, once the strike zone shrank. OTOH, he was Koufax; the umpires may have given him all the benefit of the doubt on borderline calls. Or maybe he would have become just another pitcher.

It’s all just fun speculation, as Greg Simons notes.

BTW, one of my favorite fun stats is that Koufax pitched an entire season of around 330 innings and didn’t hit a single batter.

Greg Simons
9 years ago

Not that it’s easy to comp Koufax, but maybe Randy Johnson is a decent SWAG at what Koufax could have been.  Two lefties, wild early in their careers, harnessing their control while still striking out a ton of batters.

Here’s a fun Ryan stat.  When he broke Koufax’s single-season strikeout record of 382 with 383 in 1973, his last start was an 11-inning, 16-K performance.  He went the distance and got the win.

This capped of a run of seven straight complete games (he went “only” 8.2 frames in his start before the streak) in which he went 65 innings with 69 strikeouts, 39 hits, 34 walks and a 7-0 record.

Great googly moogly!!

David P Stokes
9 years ago

@ JFree: Cy Young’s record for complete games is probably the most unbreakable.  What’s amazing about it isn’t that he completed so many of his starts (it was common in his day, after all, for starters to complete the vast majority of their starts; while I think that he completed a higher percentage of his starts than was the norm even then, but not by a huge degree), it’s that he had so many starts at all.  Only Ryan and Sutton had as many starts as Young had complete games (and isn’t it interesting that Sutton got that many starts, considering that he was the first long-term starter to essentailly pitch his whole career in a 5-man rotation?).

9 years ago

Same ANon who posted the Randy Johnson piece previously. Thought of another Randy Johnson achievement that might be tough to top – single game K record for a reliever. (I’ll let you decide if that is a bit too obscure for consideration.)

On July 18, 2001 Curt Schilling started the game with 2 perfect innings and as he was set to start the 3rd, a light transformer blew out stopping the game. After a long wait, the game was suspended to be resumed the next day as part of a double header. Johnson was set to go the next game. Bob Brenly decided rather than bring someone in to finish the suspended game (since Schilling couldn’t go obviously) he would just bring the next scheduled starter in. (IIRC, there may have been roster implications as well like calling someone up between games or something like that.)

Johnson mowed down 16 Padres in 7 innings in “relief”. Most in the b-ref database back to 1916. Hard to see someone topping that one, maybe a 20+ inning game where one guy is forced to go a bunch of innings but most of the time guys like that aren’t big K pitchers.

dennis Bedard
9 years ago

bucdaddy brings up a good point and a common mistake we baseball addicts make, especially with players we admire.  I call it the Vida Blue/Dwight Gooden syndrome.  That is, take a player whose career was cut short by injury or war time service (i.e., Ted Williams) and then add to his career totals an average of his best years or assume that he would keep getting better and add to the totals accordingly.  It is all a lot of fun and for the diverse among us, we can add to the mix how life would have turned out if we married our high school sweetheart instead of taking a different path.  But I digress.  Koufax had five or six mediocre years before reeling off his five great seasons.  It is no sure thing that he would have continued his dominance.  There is as much of a chance that he would have reverted to his pre peak years and gone 15-15 or 10-18 for six or seven years.  I remember the 1971 All Star game.  Vida Blue was the next superstar pitcher but it was not to be.  Ditto Gooden.  I could name a few others who fizzled.  Another point about Koufax:  his greatness overshadowed another five year streak that was almost as remarkable.  Take a look at Juan Marichal’s numbers from ‘63-‘69.  Almost matches Koufax.

9 years ago

As he really deserves recognition for this here, just wanted to toss out another quick war torn, “should have been” record that will likely never be touched.

If not for his service in WWII, Bob Feller would have almost certainly managed 11 straight seasons leading his league in Strikeouts. The seasons missed were his peaking age 23-26 years, where he posted K totals of 240-260 in the four previous, and 348 in his first full year back from the war.

…and honestly, based on that 348 upon return, he could possibly hold the single-season mark today if not for the missing 4 seasons. But anyway, back to the Titles…

Fellers biggest competitors in the AL for the top mark at the time were Bobo Newsom and Hal Newhouser – neither of which missed service time. Newsom split the 42 season between leagues and tied for the Al lead at 113. The following season Allie Reynolds beat out Hal with 151, before Newhouser lead in 44 & 45 with 187 & 212, respectively. Those are all marks which Feller would have easily topped based off his marks prior to leaving and that upon returning.

As is, the continuous seasons leading his league in Ks mark instead belongs to Walter Johnson, who did so 8 straight times between 1912-1919. Close on his tail with 7 straight each are Lefty Grove between 1925-1931 and Dazzy Vance between 1922-1928. Those will likely stay intact themselves… But Fellers “should be” 11 blows them out of the water, and would be a mark unlikely to ever be matched.

Dennis Bedard
9 years ago

I was just poring through some old issues of The Sporting News and found this oddball pitching feat that will probably never be repeated.  In 1966, Cards pitcher Larry Jaster started five games against the Dodgers.  He completed all five games and pitched a shutout in each.  That’s 5 complete games and 5 shutouts against the same team in the same season.  Last year the season high for total shutouts was 5 and complete games, 6.  I think this off the wall accomplishment stands the test of time.

Eric Arvidson
9 years ago

Great stuff!

9 years ago


That’s a pretty remarkable feat by a mediocre pitcher, sort of like vander Meer’s back-to-back no-hitters. I’ll add that if you toss out the games against the Dodgers, Jaster went 6-5 with 55 earned runs in 107 innings, an ERA of 4.50+. In 1966, that was pretty lousy. Jaster’s five shutouts against LA were his only shutouts of the season. He had only seven total for his career.

I can’t help noting Jaster came to the majors at age 21, and had 150 innings put on his arm both at age 22 and 23. He basically became washed up at age 25, in 1969. Coincidentally, that was the year baseball made the strike zone smaller (again) and lowered the mounds. Jaster was awful in 1969 and out of baseball after 1972, at age 28, after the Braves gave him a brief (awful) shot at a comeback.


The game logs:

April 25: 2-0 seven-hitter, no walks, seven K’s; LP Osteen
July 3: 2-0, three-hitter, one walk, five K’s; LP Drysdale
July 29: 4-0, five-hitter, two walks, eight K’s; LP Drysdale
Aug. 19: 4-0, five-hitter, three walks, seven K’s; LP Osteen
Sept. 28: 2-0, four-hitter, two walks, four K’s; LP Sutton

The Dodgers and Cardinals played four other shutout games that year, three by LA (Koufax 1-0, Sutton 2-0, Drysdale 2-0) and Al Jackson threw one for the Cards, 2-0.

That’s pretty much my memory of my Pirates playing the Dodgers in the mid-‘60s, an endless string of 2-1 games.

It only took MLB another two years (and Yaz leading the AL at .301) to figure out there wasn’t enough hitting going on.

9 years ago

A few other fun facts about the NL in 1966:

The Cardinals scored fewer runs than anyone in the league, about 3.5 per game. They gave up 3.6. Bob Gibson threw five shutouts too, Jackson had three; the Cardinals had 17 complete-game shutouts, 19 as a team. A 21-year-old Steve Carlton had one, and someone named Jim Cosman, who pitched one game all year for St. Louis, threw a two-hitter. He ended up with a 12-game MLB career.

The Dodgers were third-worst at scoring, 3.7 a game, but gave up only 3.0. Koufax pitched five shutouts, Osteen and Drysdale three each, Sutton two. LA had 13 CG shutouts, 20 as a team. That led the league.

The Dodgers, who scored .1 run a game more than the awful Mets, were the NL champions.

What should have been to no one’s surprise, but of course was, the Dodgers got swept by the Orioles in the World Series. They didn’t score a run after the third inning of the first game.

Dennis Bedard
9 years ago

Here is another one.  September 9, 1965.  Koufax throws a perfect game against the Cubs.  Rare but not that odd.  But in the same game Cub pitcher Bob Hendley throws a one hitter against the Dodgers.  Final score: 1-0.  Chance of that happening again?  1% or less

9 years ago


Maybe not AGAIN, but … you’re aware of the game Fred Toney and Jim Vaughn threw against each other?

dennis Bedard
9 years ago

I am now.  Thanks.

Cliff Blau
9 years ago

One reason Mike Marshall had so few saves in 1974 is that the save rule was rationalized for just that one year.  Under the 1973 he would have about 20 more saves.