The Lyons Share of Strikeouts

Ted Lyons has the lowest strikeout rate of any pitcher with 250 wins or more in MLB history. (via Penale52)

Ted Lyons is an unusual figure in baseball history. Pitching in relative obscurity with the White Sox during the post-Black Sox years, he never appeared in a postseason game in 21 seasons. During his lengthy tenure with the franchise, the team never finished higher than third place. Since the All-Star Game was not instituted till halfway through his career, he had just one appearance (1939) to his credit.

Lyons went 260-230 for his career and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1955. Had he pitched for a better team, had he not given up three seasons to the military, and had he not agreed to quit pitching in favor of managing the Sox at age 45, he could have won 300 games – and that is a conservative estimate. “If he’d pitched for the Yankees, he would have won over 400 games,” opined Joe McCarthy, who managed the Yankees from 1931 to 1946.

Having established Lyons’ bona fides, we are now free to explore the most intriguing aspect of his career. As stellar as his stamina and stats appear, it is questionable if he could find a spot on a major league roster today. If scouts were keeping tabs on a contemporary prospect in the Lyons mold, they would likely recommend not drafting him. In his day, Lyons was an underachiever in the realm of strikeouts; in today’s K-crazy environment, he appears downright derelict.

Though Lyons was something of a clubhouse strongman and looked the part of a power pitcher (5-foot-11, 200 pounds), he relied on changing speeds and junkballs to take care of business. Of the 45 hurlers who have 250 or more major league victories, he is dead last in strikeouts with a mere 1,073 in 4,161 innings.

That comes to a rate of 2.4 strikeouts per nine innings. Today, three times that rate is considered barely sufficient. For his time, Lyons is but an extreme illustration of the change in strikeout context over the years. As we’ll see, such legendary power pitchers as Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson compiled whiff rates unthinkable by 2018 standards.

Lyons’ strikeout stats are remarkable because they are even lower than those of some 19th century and deadball-era pitchers, who played when contact hitting was all but synonymous with hitting. Starting his big league career in 1923, Lyons certainly had the opportunity to throw a lively ball past any number of sluggers (e.g, Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Greenberg).

His career shows that it was once possible to fashion a Cooperstown-worthy career as a starting pitcher without blowing away batters. You could kill them softly and still have a shot at enshrinement so long as you won enough games.

Not so long ago, 300 victories guaranteed admission to Cooperstown. Given five-man rotations, vanishing complete games, the major league Church of the Sacred Pitch Count, and the enhanced role of bullpens, 250 will likely be the threshold in the years to come.

Let’s look at the 45 pitchers in major league history who have won 250 or more games and see how they varied in terms of strikeout frequency. Of these pitchers, only nine (Roger Clemens, Tommy John, Jim Kaat, Jim McCormick, Tony Mullane, Jamie Moyer, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettite and Gus Weyhing) do not have plaques in Cooperstown, though some may yet be enshrined, and a case can be made for each candidate.

The rankings in terms of career totals for strikeouts and wins are shown as well. (The strikeout rankings keep changing slightly since several active pitchers — CC Sabathia, Bartolo Colon and Justin Verlander, among others — are still adding to their totals and hence moving up the career strikeout list. Only Colon, however, is within striking distance of 250 victories.)

Average K/9 of Pitchers with 250+ Career Wins
Name Strikeouts Strikeout Rank Average K/9 Wins Wins Rank
Randy Johnson 4875 2 10.6 303 22
Nolan Ryan 5714 1 9.5 324 14
Roger Clemens 4672 3  8.6 354 9
Bob Gibson 3117 14 7.2 251 45
Steve Carlton 4136 4 7.1 329 11
Mike Mussina 2813 20 7.1 270 T-32
Tom Seaver 3640 6 6.8 311 18
Bert Blyleven 3701 5 6.7 287 26
Andy Pettite 2448 39 6.6 256 41
Fergie Jenkins 3192 12 6.4 284 T-28
Don Sutton 3574 7 6.1 324 T-14
Greg Maddux 3371 10 6.1 355 8
Bob Feller 2581 27 6.1 266 T-36
Gaylord Perry 3534 8 5.9 314 17
Jack Morris 2478 34 5.8 254 T-42
Phil Niekro 3342 11 5.6 318 16
Walter Johnson 3509 9 5.3 417 2
Tom Glavine 2607 25 5.3 305 21
Lefty Grove 2266 54 5.2 300 T-23
Jim Palmer 2212 59 5 268 35
Jim Kaat 2461 36 4.9 283 30
Christy Mathewson 2507 32 4.7 373 T-3
Tim Keefe 2564 28 4.6 342 10
Early Wynn 2334 49 4.6 300 T-23
Robin Roberts 2357 47 4.5 286 27
Eddie Plank 2246 55 4.5 326 13
Warren Spahn 2583 26 4.4 363 5
Tommy John 2245 T-56 4.3 288 25
Carl Hubbell 1677 146  4.2 253 44
Red Ruffing 1987 86 4.1 273 31
John Clarkson 1978 87  3.9 328 12
Grover Cleveland Alexander 2198 62 3.8 373 T-3
Old Hoss Radbourn 1830 108 3.6 309 19
Tony Mullane 1803 112 3.6 284 T-28
Jim McCormick 1704 135 3.6 265 38
Mickey Welch 1850 105 3.5 307 20
Gus Weyhing 1667 T-151 3.5 264 39
Cy Young 2803 21 3.4 511 1
Kid Nichols 1881 102 3.3 361 T-6
Burleigh Grimes 1512 T-207 3.3 270 T-32
Red Faber 1471 226 3.2 254 T-42
Pud Galvin 1807 111 2.7 361 T-6
Eppa Rixey 1350 T-272 2.7 266 T-36
Jamie Moyer 2441 40 2.6 269 34
Ted Lyons 1073 T-440 2.4 260 40

Only Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan have averaged better than one strikeout per inning, though Roger Clemens came close. After that it drops off to Bob Gibson with 7.1 and gradually declines to Ted Lyons at the bottom of the list with 2.4.

Unlike a lot of strikeout pitchers, Randy Johnson worked his way up to it. His strikeout averages were highly respectable in 1988, 1989 (his first full season) and 1990 (8.7, 7.3, 7.9). Then he hit his stride. In an astounding display, he had at least 10.2 K per nine from 1991 through 2002. His high water mark was 13.4 in 2001, the Diamondbacks’ lone title year.

Ryan had nine seasons at nine strikeouts per nine or better. His legend was set in concrete when he was in double figures four seasons with the Rangers after his 40th birthday. His personal best was 11.5 in 1987 with the Astros. Despite that gaudy statistic and leading the league in ERA (2.76) and strikeouts (270) that year, he somehow wound up with a record of 8-16 on the blah 76-86 Astros.

Johnson’s 2001 season of 13.4 K per nine innings is the all-time single-season high. Only one other pitcher has eclipsed that 13 mark. That was Pedro Martinez, with 13.2 in 1999. Notably, Chris Sale came close last year at 12.9. Of the top 11 seasons all-time in K/9, Johnson authored six (1995, 1997, 1998, and 1999, 2000 and 2001).

It is somewhat surprising that another Johnson, the legendary Walter, averaged 5.4 strikeouts per nine. Not quite a Slow Freight, but not exactly a Big Train. Hell, Phil Niekro and his knuckleball, a half century later, had a higher rate than Johnson and his fastball. Walter Johnson’s 417 victories, second only to Cy Young, means he pitched a lot of innings (5,914.1), so he couldn’t help but stockpile strikeouts.

Another legendary fireballer was Rapid Robert Feller. In 1937, at age 17, he struck out American League batters at a rate of 11 per nine innings, albeit in just 62 innings pitched. In subsequent seasons, that rate was a sliding scale, bottoming out at 6.8 (even so, a league-leading average) in 1941. After the war, the rate went up to 7.4 in 1945 (in just 72 innings, however), and 8.4 in 1946 with a league-leading total of 348. After that, age began to take its toll, as his average shrank from 5.9 (again, a league-leading average) in 1947 to 2.7 in 1955 and 2.8 in 1956 in light duty (in 83 and 58 innings pitched, respectively).

You probably wouldn’t guess that Feller’s career strikeout rate would be no better than Don Sutton’s or Greg Maddux’s, yet there they sit side by side. Feller’s drop-off is dramatic but understandable. Most power pitchers expand their repertoire as they get older. They lose a few miles per hour on the fastball and can’t rely on it exclusively, so they have to develop some other pitches. Power pitchers from rookie year to retirement are quite rare.

Having said that however, today’s mushrooming strikeout totals by batters means that pitchers’ strikeout totals are mounting even as they age. And it shows up in the stats of the best starters today.

For example, through 2017, Sale has averaged 10.6 K/9. Stephen Strasburg is at 10.2, and Max Scherzer at 10.2. Corey Kluber is almost in double figures at 9.9. Where they will end up when they retire is a matter of speculation, but with no signs of batters cutting down on their swings, it’s hard to see those strikeout rates falling into a sharp decline. Yet the dearth of complete games means none of them is likely to accrue enough innings to join the 4,000-plus strikeout club, sole members of which are Ryan, Randy Johnson, Clemens and Steve Carlton.

As for Lyons: He went straight from Baylor University to the White Sox in 1923. His best seasons were from 1925 through 1930, when he won more than 20 games three times and led the league in complete games and innings pitched twice. Intriguingly, in 1942 at the age of 41, he went 14-6, completed all 20 of his starts, and led the AL in ERA with 2.10. He still holds the White Sox franchise record for wins, innings pitched and complete games. Accordingly, his uniform number (16) has been retired.

Given his advanced years (he turned 41 three weeks after Pearl Harbor), he could have stayed out of the military and continued his baseball career, battening on the war-weakened AL lineups. Instead, after the 1942 season, he enlisted in the Marines for a three-year hitch. At age 45 he returned to the White Sox in 1946 for 42.2 innings and a 2.32 ERA. His playing career ended when the White Sox named him manager in midseason.

If Ted Lyons were around today, he certainly would strike out more batters. Even so, he wouldn’t cut it as a role model. In a way, that’s unfortunate. Pitching to contact has its advantages. For one thing, it’s always possible to get a hitter out on the first or second pitch. A strikeout requires a minimum of three pitches. If you pitched a complete game and struck everyone out on three pitches, that would take 81 pitches.

Of course, no one does that. If you threw two strikes for every ball, that would be outstanding, yet that would mean a minimum of 120 pitches if you struck out every batter in nine innings – and that’s not counting two-strike foul balls. Given pitch count limits today, few starters will be permitted to go the limit.

Power pitchers actually benefit from being just a little bit wild – in other words, throwing a relatively high proportion of balls. This adds to the pitch count, but hitters hesitate to dig in against such pitchers. By contrast, Lyons was almost as parsimonious with walks as he was with strikeouts. In fact, his walks per nine innings rate of 2.4 eclipsed his K/9 rate of 2.3, making him the only Hall of Fame pitcher to walk more than he struck out.

His control actually improved in the latter stages of his career, possibly due to the White Sox restricting him to Sunday afternoon starts (hence his nickname of Sunday Teddy). Under those conditions, in his last four full seasons before World War II, he averaged 1.6 bases on balls per nine innings, leading the league three straight years from 1939 through 1941. He was accomplishing a lot with minimal effort. I think they call that efficiency.

In the long run, pitching to contact and good control cut down on the number of pitches thrown, keeping the pitch-count police happy and allowing starting pitchers to pitch deeper into games. This won’t necessarily make a difference in every team’s win and loss record, but it will likely make a difference in the career of the individual pitcher.

Ted Lyons-like longevity may be beyond the grasp of all but a few, but given today’s salaries and pensions, what pitcher wouldn’t want to stick around as long as possible? Sure, Nolan Ryan made it to age 46 while lighting up the radar gun. That’s the stuff legends are made of. On the other hand, another legend, Sandy Koufax, didn’t make it past 30.

But so long as radar gun-slinging scouts fawn over power pitchers, the likes of Ted Lyons will likely pass under the radar. Still, one fine day, a Lyons-like starter may somehow end up in a rotation and achieve some success, leading pundits to wonder how he does it. It reminds me of the old joke about the economist who saw how well an economic policy worked in practice and wondered if it would work in theory.

True, conventional wisdom does change over time.

But it often does so kicking and screaming, and usually quite slowly.

References and Resources:

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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you have Jamie Moyer’s K/9 wrong….

Jetsy Extrano
Jetsy Extrano

Yeah, that 2.6 is his career BB/9. The K/9 is 5.4, right above the Big Train.

Barney Coolio
Barney Coolio

Lyons was also a good hitter for a pitcher. Lifetime .233 hitter with 5 homers. He was used as a pinch hitter 18 times in 1933. Never more than 8 in any other season. I wonder why he had such a PH spike in 1933. Also, Bartolo Colon has 240 wins, and CC Sabathia has 238. You say that only Colon is within striking distance of 250 wins. Honestly, if I had to bet on who is more likely to hit 250 wins, in either 2018 or later, I would bet on Sabathia. Are you just drawing a hard line?… Read more »

Barney Coolio
Barney Coolio

Ted Lyons was too old to be drafted, but volunteered for service at age 40. Red Ruffing was drafted at age 37, but discharged in 1945 upon turning 40. Ruffing wasn’t too thrilled to be in the army, even though he was stationed in Hawaii. He was probably really happy to be discharged in June 1945 when the course of the war in the Pacific was unknown.

Las Vegas Wildcards
Las Vegas Wildcards

Strikeouts were just viewed in a different light during the career of Ted Lyons when compared with today. Many hitters wanted to avoid fanning, it was a different approach.