On July 21, 1997 Curt Schilling pitched eight innings against the Pirates, striking out 15. For his trouble, he was rewarded with a loss. That isn’t an everyday occurrence, but it does happen more than one might suspect.
In our continued efforts here at The Hardball Times in general, and The Annotated This Week in Baseball History specifically, to provide you with the best of information you already know, pitchers who strike out a lot of batters in a game are pitching very well. And pitchers who are pitching very well usually win.
The statistics bear this out. Since 1954—and through July 21 of this year—pitchers have recorded 15 or more strikeouts in 205 starts. Their overall winning percentage in those games is .731. Taking out the times when the pitcher did not figure in the decision (often, but not always when the game reaches extra innings) and the winning percentage jumps to .862, an astoundingly high figure.
(I chose 15 or more strikeouts because that represents a clear majority of outs, 55 percent, in a nine-inning game.)
But of course, .862 is still not 1.000, which means there are games, 24 games in fact, when a pitcher had some combination of raw stuff and command to strike out 15 batters yet was either let down sufficiently by his teammates—or undone by his own mistakes—to lose the game.
|Randy Johnson, three-time loser of high-K games (Icon/SMI)|
Not surprisingly, the failures of a pitcher’s teammates could be defined as the most frequent cause of defeat in high-strikeout games. The average run support in these lost games is just 1.41. That includes seven shutouts, and nine instances of just one run of support. Put another way, in two-thirds of all the lost games, a pitcher received one run or none in support.
Only three times in these losses did the team attempting to support a high strikeout pitcher score four or more runs. Surprisingly, the most runs ever allowed in a high-strikeout game was by Bob Gibson, who allowed six runs, albeit only three earned, during a 1968 game. That was one of only seven starts in Gibson’s famed 1968 season when he allowed three or more runs.
The worst start in pure runs allowed was by another great pitcher, Steve Carlton. In September of 1981 Carlton struck out 15 Mets in eight innings. That’s a great total, but Carlton also allowed eight hits (including four for extra bases) and four walks. Combined with strong relief work from the Mets (six and a third scoreless innings) that was enough to hand Carlton a 5-4 loss.
He shares this dubious distinction with Jim Bibby, who allowed five runs, but did it in 10.2 innings in a 1973 game.
By Bill James’ “Game Score” statistic, the worst game with many a strikeout was pitched by yet another great, Sandy Koufax. Coming in 1960, this was before he became the Koufax we remember. He struck out 15 in nine and two-thirds innings, while also walking seven and giving up nine hits. Koufax threw an incredible 175 pitches this game.
Less than three weeks later, Koufax again would strike out 15, this time in 13 innings. He also walked nine, gave up three hits and lost again. In that game, Koufax threw 193 pitches, which makes my arm hurt just thinking about it. No pitcher since has lost two high-strikeout games in a season, and only in 1997 have two pitchers lost a high strikeout game in one season.
The two unluckiest pitchers in this category are Carlton and Randy Johnson. Both have lost three games with a high number of strikeouts, although Johnson can probably claim the better line. In his three losses, Johnson pitched 24 innings and had a 3.75 ERA while striking out 52 with just two walks. Carlton went 25 innings, had a 4.32 ERA and struck out 50 with nine walks.
Carlton and Johnson also share another unsavory honor, along with Nolan Ryan: striking out the most batters while still losing. All three struck out 19 and still managed to lose. Ryan was perhaps the toughest loser of all: He went 10 scoreless innings in a duel with Mickey Lolich in 1974.
In the 11th, after his 15th strikeout and a popup, Ryan allowed a single, a stolen base and another single and fell behind 1-0. His Angels failed to rally in the bottom of the inning—though they got the winning run on base with two outs—and Ryan was stuck with a loss.
Carlton and Johnson did not pitch as well as Ryan in their 19-whiff games, with both allowing four runs. Johnson was especially inept on the mound, giving up 11 hits (including two home runs) over his nine innings.
Of the 24 high-strikeout loss games, a third were thrown by 300-game winners. Another three were thrown by Hall of Famers who did not win 300 games. With possible Hall of Famers John Smoltz, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez also being on the list, a majority of the games were thrown by either current or likely Hall of Famers.
Nonetheless, some of the losses are inevitably thrown by lesser lights. In 1965 Jim Maloney went 11 innings and struck out 18, but nonetheless lost—to the 112-loss Mets!—on an 11th- inning home run. Maloney, a career 100-game winner, still ranks above many of the other pitchers who managed it, including Sterling Hitchcock and Paul Foytack, who did it in 1956.
Short of those situations which actually require a victory to count, like perfect games, it is hard to imagine a situation more likely for a pitcher to lead his team to success than handling a majority of the outs himself. Nonetheless, whether it be due to anemic offense behind him or his own struggles when he isn’t striking out batters, it is possible to lose.
These 24 games, along with the no-decisions, reflected pitchers without success despite their best efforts at missing bats. Strikeouts are always a good thing for the men on the mound, but perhaps in these cases the pitchers wish they had saved them for other days.