The Best Relative Strikeout Seasons

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.

1922 31 245.2 3.70 1069 94 8 134 12.5% 7.2%
1923 35 280.1 3.50 1187 100 11 197 16.6% 7.3%
1924 34 308.1 2.16 1221 77 9 262 21.5% 6.9%
1925 31 265.1 3.53 1089 66 10 221 20.3% 7.0%
1926 22 169.0 3.89 713 58 1 140 19.6% 7.2%
1927 32 273.1 2.70 1123 69 6 184 16.4% 7.3%
1928 32 280.1 2.09 1126 72 7 200 17.8% 7.5%

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.

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.

25 Responses to “The Best Relative Strikeout Seasons”

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  1. Dick says:

    I disagree.

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  2. Anon says:

    There’s a valid argument that because of the increasingly tougher competition that Randy or Nolan are the more deserving strikeout kings

    This logic is flawed. Better players don’t necessarily stikeout less.

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  3. Anon says:

    Do the best and worst relative strikeout seasons for hitters next.

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    • novaether says:

      Adam Dunn? Mark Reynolds? Russell Branyan?

      K rates stabilize quite early:

      So that could make things pretty interesting. If that’s the case, then sorting all bating seasons by K% with a min 100 PA, the worst offender is John Kelly in 1883 with a hilariously atrocious 66.7% strike out rate. However, doesn’t seem to agree on that.

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      • Anon says:

        It wouldn’t be just looking at K%; it would look at K% relative to league K%.

        For yesterday’s article, he looked at 1916 – 2011. I assume it was the same for this article.

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    • JimNYC says:

      This one had an obvious answer for me; I never considered it could be anybody other than Dazzy Vance. The best relative strikeout season also has an obvious answer; I can’t imagine it’s anybody other than Joe Sewell.

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  4. Tom H. says:

    While a normalized rate like you are showing here is interesting, it may not be the best measure. It might be more telling to look at number of standard deviations above the mean, rather than ratio to the mean, i.e. a Z-score. Of course, that would take more work (needing to use a full league K% distribution, rather than just the mean), but it’s a suggestion.

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  5. byron says:

    Holy crap did you bury the lede here: Bob Feller was throwing 106-110 mph “late in his career”? Wikipedia cites more numbers in this range. And he put up a 74 FIP- (66 ERA-!) at 17?

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    • JimNYC says:

      There’s a reason he was called Rapid Robert. He’s generally considered to be the fastest major league (i.e., non-Steve Dalkowski) pitcher of all time.

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      • NRJyzr says:

        What’s crazier, Feller has insisted several times that Walter Johnson threw harder than he did.

        Personally, I’m not sure I buy that, but it’s interesting.

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      • Hurtlockertwo says:

        And Walter Johnson said Smokey Joe Wood threw harder than he did.

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  6. johnny 5 says:

    living in maine i watched every game pedro pitched for years and them first couple seasons in boston were just amazing he made even the best hitters look like little leaguers in the box and he could make a pitch break in any direction you could imagine / not to mention the burst through the zone on his heat … silly

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  7. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Fact, Randy Johnson pitched in 618 games in his great career and had only 9 apperances where he didn’t record a strikeout. He also went from 1989 to 2000 and had a least one strikeout in every aapperance in that period. That is amazing.

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  8. Hurtlockertwo says:

    The first ten HR’s Bob Feller gave up in his career were to: Goose Goslin, Joe Dimaggio, Lou Gehrig, Joe Dimaggio, Frankie Hayes, Joe Cronin, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Red Ruffing, Jimmie Foxx. Except for Frankie and the pitcher Ruffing, that’s a pretty good list of hitters that went deep on him and his 100 mph fastball.

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  9. Martinez (as did Clemens) pitched much of his career in Boston, where the small foul area (22,100 sq. ft.) allows more fouls to go into the stands and give additional strikeout opportunities. Feller pitched much of his career after ’47 in Cleveland Municipal Stadium, where large foul area (43,500 ft; yes, twice as large!) sucks up additional strikeout opportunities.

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  10. pft says:

    The accuracy of equipment back in those days was probably not great. I am skeptical of the 98.6 result..

    I would disregard any records set before full integration, which occurred in the NL in the 60’s and the AL by the 70’s. The talent pool was just too weak, and MLB was probably not much better than AAA. Imagine the numbers Pedro would have put up in Triple A (with a handful of MLB hitters).

    What Pedro did in 1999 was awesome BTW. This was the height of the steroid era in the AL East and pitching in one of the great hitters parks (great lighting and background for hitters).

    Johnson and Nolan were also great, no question, but I saw Pedro more.

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    • JimNYC says:

      Sure, just disregard the first century of major league baseball. Great idea. Things only matter if you saw them.

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    • Donut3 says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      I agree on the skepticism about the radar gun, but it was army equipment, so it was probably close enough. I doubt he threw 110, but considering guys like Chapman and Zumaya have been able to go 103-104, I’d say it’s possible for the guy who is said to be the hardest ever thrower to touch 105 or maybe even 106.

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      • buddy says:

        The state of physical training and conditioning is better than it’s ever been, and pitchers who can even touch 100mph are still extremely rare. So while it’s possible that Feller threw faster than anyone else today, I’m always skeptical of anything that came before consistently accurate measurements.

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  11. bstar says:

    This site could use more articles like this, ones that actually touch on the history of this great game. Seriously……..disregard baseball before full integration????

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  12. willjohnson says:

    Just because no ones been able to equal it doesn’t mean feller couldn’t throw that hard. Considering how many pitchers there were prior to radar guns, it makes sense that an old-timer could be the fastest ever.

    Also, consider that pitchers generally don’t try to throw as hard as they possibly can, but focus on control and secondary stuff. Younger pitchers often throw the hardest as their arms are still fresh and many are too fixated on velocity.

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  13. RustyKuntzIsTheGOAT says:

    what about walter johnson?

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