Strike Zone Dominance in Context (Dazzy and Pedro!)

Who has been the best strikeout pitcher of all time?

That’s an easy one, right? Just look it up: Nolan Ryan blows everyone else away with his career total of 5,714. Or, on a per-inning basis, it would be Randy Johnson, with the best single-season K/9 rate among starting pitchers, with 13.41 in 2001. The Big Unit also holds the career K/9 mark, with 11.12.

But wait! Not so fast, Mr./Ms. Didn’t-Think-it-Through! That easy, simple question isn’t really easy or simple at all … in fact, yes, it’s a trick question!

Ryan and Johnson are both terrific strikeout pitchers, of course. But each has pitched in eras with strikeout rates overall quite a bit higher than the historical norm. There are a number of reasons for the long-term trend toward increasing strikeouts, but chief among them is the simple fact that over time, fewer and fewer batters have devoted much effort toward avoiding the strikeout. Rightly or wrongly (and there’s good reason to think that they’re generally correct), modern players and teams have increasingly decided that the cost-benefit yield of preventing strikeouts per se isn’t worth much. The typical modern hitter is more prone than hitters of yore to take a full rip with two strikes, and the typical modern manager is more prone than managers of yore to stock his lineup with such hitters.

So, the best strikeout pitchers of the modern era — flamethrowers Ryan and Johnson heading the class — have racked up staggering, unprecedented strikeout totals. But without considering their K rates within the context of league-wide norms, we can’t tell if these pitchers are in fact the greatest strikeout pitchers of all time, in comparison to their contemporaries. To answer that question requires a painstaking contextual analysis.

Exquisite Research To The Rescue

Fortunately for us, a tireless researcher has come along and done the work! Bob Evans of Woodstock, Illinois (who goes by the handle of Dr. Memory over at Baseball Think Factory) has compiled a magnificent database. This mother lode of fascinating information includes major league pitchers’ strikeout rates, and their walk rates, and their strikeout/walk rates, for both individual seasons and careers, going all the way back to 1871 – and all of them expressed as a value relative to league average. A pitcher who is perfectly consistent with his league norm receives a score of 100 (achieving 100% of the league average rate); better than the league norm yields a value of greater than 100, and worse yields less than 100. We can call these stats K+ for the league-normalized strikeout rate, BB+ for the league-normalized walk rate, and KBB+ for the league-normalized strikeout/walk rate.

The K+ Story: Prepare to be Dazzled

So how do Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson perform in this context? Ryan’s career K+ was 178 – in other words, 78% better than his typical peer. That’s a tremendous mark, but it’s only fifth best all-time. Here’s the list of Top Ten Career K+, for pitchers facing at least 5,000 batters:

1.   Dazzy Vance      1915-1935  216
2.   Rube Waddell     1897-1910  190
3.   Randy Johnson    1988-2004  182
4.   Amos Rusie       1889-1901  179
5.   Nolan Ryan       1966-1993  178
6.   Toad Ramsey      1885-1890  174
7.   Pedro Martinez   1992-2004  171
8.   Sandy Koufax     1955-1966  169
9T.  Dizzy Dean       1930-1947  163
9T.  Lefty Grove      1925-1941  163

(I confess I had never heard of Toad Ramsey before encountering this list; he was quite the intriguing American Association supernova.)

That’s right, the best career strikeout pitcher of all-time, when viewed in league-norm context, is Dazzy Vance. It’s no contest: Vance completely dominates Ryan, Johnson, and everyone else.

In 1924, Vance had the greatest single-season league-normalized strikeout performance ever. Fanning 262 in 309 innings – in a National League full of contact hitters, in which only one other pitcher struck out more than 86 batters – Vance’s K+ for 1924 was 290. The burly right-hander had three other seasons that are among the top ten best K+ of all-time. Here are the Top Ten Single Season K+ performances, among pitchers throwing at least 200 innings:

1.   Dazzy Vance      1924  290
2.   Rube Waddell     1902  284
3.   Dazzy Vance      1925  279
4.   Bobby Mathews    1873  278
5.   Dazzy Vance      1928  242
6.   Lefty Grove      1926  241
7.   Cy Seymour       1898  239
8.   Rube Waddell     1900  238
9.   Pedro Martinez   1999  233
10.  Dazzy Vance      1923  228

We see that Randy Johnson, despite holding seven of the top ten single-season marks for K/9, doesn’t have a season that cracks the top ten all-time in K+. The Big Unit’s greatest K+ year was 1995, at 216, which ranks 16th on the all-time list. Nolan Ryan’s best K+ season, by the way, was 215 in 1976.

Let’s Control Ourselves Now

The other side of the strikeout coin is, of course, the base on balls. As with strikeout rates, walk rates certainly haven’t remained constant throughout history. The leaderboard of fewest walks-per-inning performances is totally dominated by 1870s and 1880s pitchers: nine balls for a walk would have that effect. In order to really find out who the best control artists of all-time have been, we have to control for league context, which BB+ happily does for us. The top ten career marks for BB+, among pitchers facing at least 5,000 batters, reveals an interesting mixture of old-timers and moderns:

1.   Bob Tewksbury    1986-1998  229
2.   Babe Adams       1906-1926  215
3.   Deacon Phillipe  1899-1911  213
4.   Brad Radke       1995-2004  204
5T.  Rick Reed        1988-2003  203
5T.  Tiny Bonham      1940-1949  203
7.   Jon Lieber       1994-2004  199
8.   Bret Saberhagen  1984-2001  195
9.   Dick Hall        1955-1971  193
10T. Robin Roberts    1948-1966  190
10T. Fritz Peterson   1966-1976  190

The Tewkster! The Tewksmeister! Tewksburyrama!

The single season control artist top ten list, again among pitchers with at least 200 innings, incorporates a broad range of history as well:

1.   Christy Mathewson  1913  448
2.   Christy Mathewson  1914  440
3.   Greg Maddux        1997  411
4.   Babe Adams         1920  384
5T.  Bob Tewksbury      1992  381
5T.  Bob Tewksbury      1993  381
7.   LaMarr Hoyt        1985  370
8.   David Wells        2003  369
9.   Tiny Bonham        1942  339
10.  Red Lucas          1933  327

We’re familiar with how amazing Maddux’s control was at his peak, as well as that of Tewksbury, Hoyt, and Wells. Mathewson in those golden twilight years of his must have been painting with a micron-width brush.

See the Zone, Be the Zone, Dominate the Zone

The most interesting context of all in which to consider strikeouts and walks isn’t only their occurrence relative to league norms, but also their occurrence relative to one another. I like to call this the phenomenon of “Strike Zone Dominance.” A pitcher might just lay the ball into the zone, and thus scrupulously avoid walks, but be hit very hard. Or a pitcher might feature the most nasty wicked unhittable stuff, but be unable to control it, and allow hitters to just wait out the base on balls.

Thus the most impressive pitching feat of all – the truest essence of pitching effectiveness – is the ability to consistently throw pitches within the strike zone, but which can’t be hit. A batter who knows the pitch is going to be called a strike if he doesn’t swing, but who isn’t able to make contact if he does swing, is a batter in a heap of trouble. A pitcher who exercises this kind of command is demonstrating Strike Zone Dominance.

So, factoring in the context of fluctuating league-wide strikeout and walk rates over the years, what pitcher has dominated the strike zone best of all? For single season performance among pitchers with at least 200 innings, we need look no further than the Fenway Park of recent years: Pedro Martinez had the two greatest years of all time, with a KBB+ of 531 in 2000, and 504 in 1999.

Here’s the rest of the single season KBB+ top ten list:

3.   Walter Johnson     1913  499
4.   Curt Schilling     2002  494
5.   Christy Mathewson  1908  475
6.   Greg Maddux        1997  446
7.   Cy Young           1901  434
8.   Jim Whitney        1884  420
9.   Ben Sheets         2004  414
10.  Cy Young           1905  412

An impressive list of names, no doubt. If you’re like me, it causes you to take a fresh look at Grasshopper Jim Whitney. And, wow: Ben Sheets really is turning into something special, isn’t he?

Taking a look at the greatest career KBB+ performers, who else but Clarence Arthur Vance should move to the head of the class:

1.   Dazzy Vance        1915-1935  238
2.   Christy Mathewson  1900-1916  228
3.   Pedro Martinez     1992-2004  227
4.   Curt Schilling     1988-2004  223
5.   Walter Johnson     1907-1927  221
6.   Dizzy Dean         1930-1947  212
7.   Lefty Grove        1925-1941  211
8.   Deacon Phillippe   1899-1911  209
9.   Bret Saberhagen    1984-2001  208
10T. Dennis Eckersley   1975-2001  207
10T. Cy Young           1890-1911  207

We’ve been lucky enough to witness Pedro, Schilling, Saberhagen, and Eckersley as they exhibited their Strike Zone Dominance. Considering these familiar images, this list provides us a vivid sense of what it must have been like to watch, not only Vance, but Mathewson, Johnson, Dean, Grove, and Young. And if you’re like me, Deacon Phillippe has just earned new respect.

Forget the Good, How About Just the Bad and the Ugly

As enjoyable as it is to marvel at the greatest performers in any regard, it’s almost as much fun to consider the worst. (Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s more fun.) Here for your voyeuristic pleasure are a few worsts.

Worst Single Season K+:
1871-1900:  Bill Stearns   1873  21
1901-1919:  Slim Sallee    1919  33
1920-1946:  Ernie Wingard  1924  35
1947-1972:  Steve Kline    1972  40
1973-1992:  Ross Grimsley  1977  43
1993-2004:  Ricky Bones    1993  47

Worst Career K+:
1.   Benny Frey       1923-1936  42
2.   Jack Dunn        1897-1904  49
3.   Jack Russell     1926-1940  56
4.   Kirk Rueter      1993-2004  58
5.   Sherry Smith     1911-1927  59
6T.  Lary Sorenson    1977-1986  60
6T.  Sloppy Thurston  1923-1933  60
8T.  Bill Carrick     1898-1902  62
8T.  Bob Purkey       1954-1966  62
8T.  Jim Barr         1971-1983  62
8T.  Lew Burdette     1950-1967  62

Worst Single Season BB+, since 1901:
1T.  Sam Jones       1955  53
1T.  Randy Johnson   1991  53
3.   Nolan Ryan      1977  54
4.   Gene Krapp      1911  55
5T.  Pete Schneider  1918  56
5T.  Sam McDowell    1971  56
5T.  Nolan Ryan      1976  56
8.   Snake Wiltse    1902  57
9T.  Randy Johnson   1992  58
9T.  Bob Brown       1932  58

Worst Career BB+:
1.   Tommy Byrne         1943-1957  63
2T.  Ed Donehy           1895-1903  67
2T.  Bob Turley          1951-1963  67
4.   Ed Crane            1884-1893  68
5.   Doc Scanlan         1903-1911  69
6T.  Hugh Daily          1882-1887  70
6T.  Nolan Ryan          1966-1993  70
8T.  Mickey McDermott    1948-1961  71
8T.  Eric Plunk          1986-1993  71
8T.  Johnny Vander Meer  1937-1951  71

Worst Single Season KBB+, since 1920:
1.   Dick Errickson  1940  33
2T.  Sugar Cain      1933  35
2T.  Ernie Wingard   1924  35
4.   Ted Wingfield   1925  42
5T.  Jamey Wright    1998  45
5T.  Hugh Mulcahy    1937  45
7T.  Ray Starr       1943  47
7T.  Ross Grimsley   1977  46
9.   Milt Gaston     1926  47
10.  Mike Torrez     1973  48

Worst Career KBB+:
1.   Jamey Wright   1996-2004  53
2.   Hugh Mulcahy   1935-1947  57
3.   Benny Frey     1923-1936  58
4.   Jean Dubuc     1908-1919  60
5T.  Jack Dunn      1897-1904  61
5T.  Ownie Carroll  1925-1934  61
7.   Dick McBride   1871-1876  62
8T.  Jersey Bakely  1883-1891  63
8T.  Elmer Jacobs   1914-1927  63
8T.  Mike LaCoss    1978-1991  63
8T.  Ed Killian     1903-1910  63

If nothing else, these lists make clear that Kirk Rueter and Jamey Wright are – well, everything we’ve feared they were.

Okay, Back to the Good

Why don’t we wrap this up with some actives-only Best lists? Remember, to qualify, the single season minimum is 200 innings, and the career minimum is 5,000 batters faced.

Best Single Season BB+, active pitchers:
1.    Greg Maddux     1997  411
2.    David Wells     2003  369
3.    Brian Anderson  1998  316
4.    Greg Maddux     1996  307
5.    Greg Maddux     2001  303
6T.   Brad Radke      2004  302
6T.   David Wells     2000  302
8T.   Greg Maddux     1995  301
8T.   Brad Radke      2001  301
10.   Curt Schilling  2002  285

Best Career BB+, active pitchers:
1.    Brad Radke        204
2.    Jon Lieber        199
3.    David Wells       179
4.    Brian Anderson    177
5.    Greg Maddux       173
6.    Jose Lima         170
7.    Mike Mussina      166
8.    Shane Reynolds    165
9.    Curt Schilling    160
10T.  Paul Quantrill    145
10T.  Terry Mulholland  145

Best Single Season K+, active pitchers:
1.    Pedro Martinez  1999  233
2T.   Pedro Martinez  2000  216
2T.   Randy Johnson   1995  216
4.    Randy Johnson   1997  204
5.    Randy Johnson   2001  202
6.    Randy Johnson   2000  197
7.    Randy Johnson   1993  195
8.    Randy Johnson   1999  193
9.    Randy Johnson   1998  190
10.   Randy Johnson   2002  180

Best Career K+, active pitchers:
1.    Randy Johnson   182
2.    Pedro Martinez  171
3.    Roger Clemens   149
4.    Curt Schilling  139
5.    Tom Gordon      135
6.    Hideo Nomo      133
7.    John Smoltz     129
8.    Mike Mussina    122
9T.   Chan Ho Park    116
9T.   Jason Schmidt   116
 
Best Single Season KBB+, active pitchers:
1.    Pedro Martinez  2000  531
2.    Pedro Martinez  1999  504
3.    Curt Schilling  2002  494
4.    Greg Maddux     1997  446
5.    Ben Sheets      2004  414
6.    Greg Maddux     1995  394
7.    Curt Schilling  2001  358
8.    Randy Johnson   2004  331
9.    Roy Halladay    2003  330
10.   David Wells     2000  320

Best Career KBB+, active pitchers:
1.    Pedro Martinez  227
2.    Curt Schilling  223
3.    Mike Mussina    202
4.    Jon Lieber      192
5.    Brad Radke      180
6.    Randy Johnson   179
7.    Greg Maddux     175
8.    David Wells     174
9T.   Roger Clemens   171
9T.   Shane Reynolds  171

One parting thought: how amazing has been the career progression of The Big Unit, Randy Johnson, from one of the all-time very worst control pitchers in his early years, to one of the best Strike Zone Dominators in his late career?

References & Resources
I’ve just scratched the surface here. Feel free to have fun exploring Dr. Memory’s database to your heart’s content. You can find it at Chris Jaffe’s terrific website:

http://runsupportindex.blogspot.com

All thanks to Chris, and especially to Bob Evans (alias Dr. Memory)!

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