Read about the worst relative strikeout seasons here.
A natural extension of seeking to identify the worst pitching strikeout season in baseball history is to find the best. That covers the two extremes. I suppose I could do the most average strikeout seasons next, but (yawn) I had to go take a nap after just writing that sentence.
What I really enjoy about looking at baseball in this way is that it often gives me a fresh perspective on history that I’ve long lost the ability to recall. Such is the case here where exploring the topic of lots of strikeouts led me to a lot of reading about two pitchers in particular from baseball’s past that I hadn’t thought about, statistically, in a while.
Before I get to them, Pedro Martinez’s remarkable 1999 season deserves a digital nod of acknowledgement. It takes a mountain of talent to rack up enough strikeouts to more than double the league rate when that rate is already as high as 16%, but that’s what Pedro did in ’99, striking out 37.5% of batters he faced. It’s in the top ten of all time and the best since integration.
Moving well back in time, 1936 saw the debut of a 17-year-old Bob Feller. The flame throwing wild man walked or hit 51 batters and struck out another 76 of the 279 he faced. Almost half of plate appearances ended in with the hitter not making contact and 27% were by strike out at a time when the league average was under 9%. With a 250-batter-faced minimum, Feller’s mark is baseball’s best, at the age of 17.
Feller would never match that high again and in fact faced a rather abrupt decline in strikeouts over his career. According to him, he hurt himself pitching in this game and though he skipped no starts, his strikeout rate in 1947 up through that game was 20% and for the rest of the season fell to 14% and never recovered.
The weapon of Feller was his fastball. Clocked by army equipment later in his career, it measured 98.6 miles per hour while crossing the plate. Nowadays, we measure the speed of a pitch at the point of 50 feet from home plate so if the 98.6mph mark was accurate, that implies a pitch that would measure in the range of 106-110mph today. It’s almost unfathomable. And makes one wonder how hard he threw at 17.
Before Bob Feller though was a man who took a very different path to greatness. While Feller spent no time in the minor leagues, Dazzy Vance spent nearly a decade there. He didn’t truly join the Major League ranks until he was 31 with the Brooklyn Robins. He led the National League in strikeouts his rookie year and would for the next six seasons as well.
Vance didn’t top the league the most often, though he was close. He did it seven times, tied with Randy Johnson for the second most. Nolan Ryan beat them both with eight. However, Vance’s seven are collectively more impressive given the margin he rose above his peers. Vance occupies six of the ten best relative rates and his 1924-6 stretch ranks first, second and third.
There’s a valid argument that because of the increasingly tougher competition that Randy or Nolan are the more deserving strikeout kings or even that Feller might be if you give him back four years from World War II, but Vance remains the only pitcher over a full season to have tripled the league strikeout rate.