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California Angles

Ryan, bringing the heat

A clear sign of a stand-out season for a pitcher is 300+ strikeouts. Since 1900, no pitcher has ever finished with more than 300 strikeouts and an ERA above 3.36. In fact, 27 of the 34 times a pitcher has achieved 300k, the pitcher’s ERA has been below 3.00. The lowest fWAR for a 300k pitcher is 5.3. Even at its worst, a 300k season is a good season.

But what are the very best 300k seasons? The ones that rank among the all-time great years?

When baseball fans talk strikeouts, the inevitable name to pop up is Nolan Ryan. Ryan was a great pitcher. He is the all-time leader in career strikeouts, single-season strikeouts and no-hitters. His fWAR is over 100. But he also walked a lot of batters. And by a lot, I mean the most ever. He walked 2795 hitters in his career; Steve Carlton is second on that list with 1833. That’s a 34% gap between first and second place on the all-time walks list. That’s not good. And he lead the league in walks 8 times, so it wasn’t just his longevity that added up to bite him.  He owns six of the 34 single-seasons with 300+k, but he is also the only 300k pitchers with an ERA- of 100, and he never won a Cy Young Award in 27 seasons, largely because of those walks. In his six seasons of 300k, he walked fewer than 157 batters just once.

K BB ERA- fWAR
1973 383 162 79 8.7
1974 372 202 85 6.3
1977 341 204 71 6.6
1972 329 157 79 5.4
1976 327 183 100 5.3
1989 301 98 81 7.0

Some of those ERA- and fWAR scores are excellent, and we don’t want to detract from what Ryan did. But none of his seasons were, individually, the best in this category.

Arizona Diamondbacks' starting pitcher Randy Johns

The terrifying Randy Johnson.

Who is next on the list? Randy Johnson seems fitting. He was the lefty version of Nolan Ryan for the first part of his career, averaging 128 walks pers season over his first four full years. But then he mastered control of his fastball and turned into one of the all-time greats.

Like Ryan, Johnson can claim six spots on the 300k list. Unlike Ryan, several of Johnson’s seasons were all-around brilliant, and he might contend for one of the top spots.

K BB ERA- fWAR
2001 372 71 55 10.4
1999 364 70 53 9.5
2000 347 76 56 9.6
2002 334 71 54 8.1
1998 329 86 72 7.6
1993 308 99 74 7.0
sandy-koufax-joins-dodgers

Koufax

Johnson’s ERA- from 1999-2002 never broke 56, a dazzling stat. Ryan only dropped below 70 once, and that was in a shortened 1981 season.

Johnson’s 2001 season is probably his best, but all four highlighted seasons above belong in the discussion of “best”.

The next pitcher with multiple 300k seasons is Sandy Koufax. He did it three times, including 382 in 1965, which was the record at the time. At a glance, it appears that one or two of his seasons will match up well with Johnson’s best.

K BB ERA- fWAR
1965 382 71 63 10.0
1966 317 77 53 9.1
1963 306 58 62 9.2

Curt Schilling also had 300k three times, though he doesn’t quite match up to Koufax. While walks limited Ryan, Schilling actually had very low walk rates. What appears to have hurt Schilling’s numbers were the hard hits and home runs allowed. He has a couple of the highest HR/9 on the 300k list. Still, when you rarely walk anybody and strike out more than 300 batters, there’s only so much damage those hits can do.

K BB ERA- fWAR
1997 319 58 69 8.2
2002 316 33 75 9.3
1998 300 61 76 8.3
pedro

Pedro

At this point, we’ve covered four players who make up more than half of the list. But have we seen the very best seasons yet?

Pedro Martinez. While his thin frame somewhat limited his IP, at least compared to some of the burly workhorses above, he still managed to top 300k twice. His 1999 season in particular is worth noting, as it may just be the greatest single season by a pitcher, 300k or not. Let’s take a look.

K BB ERA- fWAR
1999 313 37 42 11.6
1997 305 67 45 8.5

Pedro has the two lowest ERA-, the highest fWAR and second best K/BB on the list. Playing devil’s advocate, the 313k only ranks 18th on the list, and is 70 short of Ryan’s record. It’s an argument of quality vs. quantity.

Who owns the other 14 spots on the list?

K
BB
ERA-
fWAR
R. Waddell
1904
349
91
61
9.2
1903
302
85
80
8.0
B. Feller
1946
348
153
65
10.0
S. McDowell
1965
325
132
63
8.7
1970
304
135
75
7.6
W. Johnson
1910
313
76
56
9.6
 
1912
303
76
42
9.3
J.R. Richard
1979
313
98
78
8.9
1978
303
141
94
6.4
S.Carlton
1972
310
87
56
11.1
M. Lolich
1971
308
92
83
8.3
M. Scott
1986
306
72
63
8.6
V. Blue
1971
301
88
56
5.6
C. Kershaw
2015
301
42
57
8.6

There are quite a few 300k seasons with astounding ERA- and fWAR scores. Since swing-and-misses are the best thing a pitcher can achieve, this shouldn’t be surprising.

Still, there are a couple of instances when a slightly higher ERA- or lower fWAR might be pushed to the side in favor of historical importance, such as Rube Waddell’s 349k season and Koufax’s 382k season. Both were records at the time. Nolan Ryan’s 383k was obscured by the enormous number of walks, as we discussed above. The list below is an approximate ranking of the absolute best 300k seasons. There is a general trend toward higher fWAR near the top, though you can see that fWAR was not the deciding factor throughout the list.

 Top 10 K ERA- fWAR
P. Martinez 1999 313 42 11.6
S.Carlton 1972 310 56 11.1
R. Johnson 2001 372 55 10.4
S. Koufax 1965 382 63 10
R. Johnson 1999 364 53 9.5
W. Johnson 1912 303 42 9.3
P. Martinez 1997 305 45 8.5
R. Waddell 1904 349 61 9.2
R. Johnson 2000 347 56 9.6
W. Johnson 1910 313 56 9.6

 

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