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.
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.
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.
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.
Odds of record falling: 35 percent.
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.
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.