This article was written by Bryan Soderholm-Difatte
This article was published in the Spring 2015 Baseball Research Journal
Walter Johnson. Lefty Grove. Bob Feller. Sandy Koufax. Nolan Ryan. Randy Johnson. Their names are synonymous with “overpowering strikeout pitcher.” Relative to their peers, however, none of them, nor any other pitcher, was as dominant in the “K-Zone” in any single season as Brooklyn’s Dazzy Vance in 1924.
Walter Johnson. Lefty Grove. Bob Feller. Sandy Koufax. Nolan Ryan. Randy Johnson. Their names are synonymous with “overpowering strikeout pitcher.” Relative to their peers, however, none of them, nor any other pitcher, was as dominant in the “K-Zone” in any single season as Brooklyn’s Dazzy Vance in 1924.Rube Waddell. Walter Johnson. Lefty Grove. Bob Feller. Sandy Koufax. Sam McDowell. Nolan Ryan. Doc Gooden. Roger Clemens. Pedro Martinez. Randy Johnson. (There are others, of course.) Their names are synonymous with “overpowering strikeout pitcher.” Even as time marches on, their names are not forgotten because each has been a standard against which subsequent generations of strikeout pitchers are measured.
Relative to their peers, however, none of them, nor any other pitcher, was as dominant in the “K-Zone” in any single season as Dazzy Vance in 1924.[fn]The “K-Zone” is a term popularized by ESPN in its televised baseball broadcasts to refer to the strike zone. ESPN uses exclusive technology that allows viewers to see the location of pitches in relation to the batter’s notional strike zone, as defined by the rule book.[/fn] And he pitched in the toughest year to strike out batters.
Who was Dazzy Vance? His true name was Charles Arthur, but he earned the nom de guerre “Dazzy” because of the “dazzling” blazing fastball he was demonstrating early in his minor league career. Until breaking in with Brooklyn as a 31-year old rookie in 1922, however, Vance’s career had been stalled almost entirely in the minor leagues because of chronic arm problems that contributed to an unacceptable lack of control, causing both the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees to give up on him in the middle-1910s. Bill James relates the story that Vance was cured of his sore arm when he was pitching in New Orleans in 1920 by a doctor who operated on his arm following an injury sustained in a hand of poker, after which he became the impressive pitcher who is today in the Hall of Fame.[fn]Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (NY: The Free Press, 2001), 869.[/fn]
Vance was extremely tough to hit. Not only did he have a terrific fastball and a wicked curve that broke sharply downward, and not only did he threw every pitch hard even as he paced himself to throw four or five pitches even harder when he most needed to, but Vance also was very deceptive in his windup and delivery. Dazzling Dazzy threw both his pitches with exactly the same motion, and—most famously—wore a tattered long-sleeve undershirt whose flapping as his right arm came around on the pitch made it more difficult for the batter to pick up the ball.[fn]Bill James and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium on Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches (NY: Fireside Books, 2004), pp. 410–11, and Richard Goldstein, Superstars and Screwballs: 100 Years of Brooklyn Baseball (NY: Plume Books, 1992), 142.[/fn]
WHEN STRIKEOUTS WERE RARE
In dramatic contrast to recent years, when strikeouts ratios have never been higher, strikeouts were at their lowest sustained level in the modern history of the game during the Roaring ’Twenties. In 2014, major league pitchers set a strikeout record, kayoing 37,441 batters and averaging 7.73 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9 average). That broke the record of 36,710 strikeouts notched in 2013, which broke the record of 36,426 set in 2012.[fn]All statistical data in this article are from the indispensible website for baseball research, Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn] There was no year between 1919 and 1930, however, in which the major league K/9 average was as high as even three strikeouts per nine innings.
To put it another way, pitchers were striking out fewer than one batter every three innings, despite the fact that this was also the decade that Babe Ruth busted loose, giving swinging for the fences the good baseball seal of approval (although John McGraw, Ty Cobb, and a host of other “traditionalists”—including sportswriters who favored the practice of “scientific” baseball—surely did not approve).
The 1920s decline in strikeouts to 2.8 per game for each team from an average of 3.9 in the last decade of the Deadball Era can be attributed to various factors.[fn]Strikeouts in the years 1918 and 1919 were not included for the Deadball Era in this decade comparison because the exigencies of World War I caused major league baseball to play less than a 154-game schedule both years. Strikeouts in the Federal League—whose records count for the major leagues—in 1914 and 1915 were also excluded.[/fn] Major league baseball’s institutional banishing of the spitball and other deviously treacherous pitches were probably most important to depressed strikeout ratios, as was the practice after the tragic hit-by-pitch death of Ray Chapman in 1920 of umpires ensuring that baseballs were removed from the game when grass and dirt stains made them too difficult to see.
Moreover, it must be remembered that—in contrast to starting pitchers these days completing less than 3 percent of their starts and managers using an average of three relievers a game in which their starter does not go the distance—in the 1920s complete games averaged about 47 to 52 percent of starts and teams faced an average of only 1.5 relief pitchers in games the opposing starter did not finish. Finally, even though more batters took pleasure in adopting the Babe’s slugger mindset, most (Ruth being an exception) were still embarrassed about striking out too often, and most were more concerned with putting the ball in play than swinging for the fences with two strikes.
No year since 1899 in which a full 154-game (or 162-game) schedule was played has had as few Ks in the official scorebooks as the 6,624 batters who went down on strikes in 1924. Babe Ruth led the major leagues with 46 home runs and 391 total bases. Brooklyn first baseman Jack Fournier led the National League with 27 round-trippers. In all, there were four players in the NL and two in the AL who hit more than 20 home runs, and there were an additional eight players with 15 or more triples—still the long-ball currency in the big leagues.
In the midst of the Ruth-instigated Lively Ball Era, the power numbers in 1924—896 home runs, 1,175 triples, and 25 percent of all hits going for extra-bases—although down somewhat from the previous three years, suggested that big league hitters were swinging away at the plate. Yet major league pitchers averaged a record low 2.7 batters rung up for every nine innings of work since the pitching rubber was set at 60-feet, six-inches in 1893. Only 7 percent of the 95,391 plate appearances in the major leagues in 1924 resulted in a walk back to the dugout by a strikeout victim. Ruth’s 81 strikeouts were by far the most in baseball. The Cubs’ George Grantham came closest to the Babe’s mark, striking out 63 times, and just five players struck out as many as 60 times.
Only six pitchers struck out more than 100 batters in 1924, four of them in the American League. The leading K-practitioner in the junior circuit was Washington’s 36-year old Walter Johnson with 158 strikeouts in 278 innings giving him a 5.1 K/9 average. The preeminent strikeout pitcher of his era, and in the debate about whether his fastball was the fastest of any pitcher ever at least until the coming of Sandy Koufax, this was the last of twelve seasons in which The Big Train led his league in strikeouts. In his prime, Johnson had strikeout averages of 7.6 and 7.4 in the two seasons he fanned 300 batters—1910 and 1912, when he was much younger at 22 and 24. Finishing a distant second in strikeouts to Johnson in the American League in 1924 was Boston’s Howard Ehmke with 119, and the Yankees’ Bob Shawkey (114) and Herb Pennock (101) were third and fourth. Shawkey was the only qualifying pitcher in the league to approach Johnson in K/9 average that season, with 4.9 strikeouts per nine innings; Ehmke averaged 3.4 and the lefty Pennock averaged 3.2 in the only season of his Hall of Fame career in which he fanned as many as 100 batters.
THE DAZZY VANCE PHENOMENON
While Johnson’s 158 Ks came in the twilight of his career, baseball’s premier strikeout pitcher in 1924 was Brooklyn’s Dazzy Vance in his breakout season. Not much younger than Johnson at 33 years old, and long beset by arm problems, Vance had resurrected his going-nowhere career the two previous years with back-to-back 18-win seasons, leading the National League in strikeouts both times—with 134 and 197. But in 1924, he went 28-6, led the league in wins, earned run average (2.16) and strikeouts, with a phenomenal—for the time—262 in 308.1 innings pitched. His strikeout average of 7.6 per nine innings approached nearly three times the major league average for the year, and exceeded Johnson’s by almost 50 percent.
Vance by himself accounted for nearly 8 percent of all punch outs by National League pitchers, and he struck out 104 more batters—the equivalent of three complete games and 7.2 innings of a fourth—than the major league pitcher with the next most, Walter Johnson. Second in the National League to Vance’s 262 Ks in 1924 was his teammate Burleigh Grimes with 135, and third was Cincinnati’s Dolf Luque with all of 86 Ks. A grizzled veteran of eight full seasons pitching in the major leagues but actually (at 30) two-and-a-half years younger than Vance, Grimes had the advantage of being grandfathered in as a practitioner of the spitball when the pitch was outlawed, which probably helped him in the K-Zone.
The fact that the Dodgers (known at the time as the Robins, after manager Wilbert Robinson) had the National League’s top two strikeout pitchers goes a long way to explaining how Brooklyn was suddenly competitive in 1924, finishing second with a 92–62 record, a game-and-a-half behind the New York Giants, after coming home sixth with a 76–78 record each of the two previous years. Paced by 397 Ks courtesy of Vance and Grimes, Brooklyn’s 638 strikeouts in 1924 accounted for 19 percent of the National League total. The fourth-place Reds were second with 451 strikeouts, 187 shy of the Dodgers.
Getting 15 percent of their outs by way of the K, compared to less than 10 percent for the seven other NL teams, meant needing fewer outs in the field—about two per game, on average—reducing the opportunities for hits to sneak through or fall between fielders, and defensive miscues. This was important for Brooklyn because the Dodgers were not a good defensive team and had limited range; their 197 errors were the third-most in the league, consistent with their fielding percentage being the third-worst, and their .684 defensive efficiency average of making outs on balls put into play was well below the league average of .687.
The 1924 Dodgers actually did not make a run to derail the Giants’ quest for a fourth straight pennant until late in the season. Brooklyn was as far as 14 games off the pace on August 9, but finished the season with a 36–12 run to force their New York City rivals from Manhattan into a fierce fight. The Dodgers spent most of September in a virtual dead heat with the Giants, typically half-a-game to a game-and-a-half behind, including one day when they were nominally tied, trailing by just .003 percentage points. Brooklyn’s late-season surge was powered by Dazzy Vance. From the beginning of August till the end of the season, Vance made 14 starts, completed 12, won 11, and fanned 120 batters in 120.2 innings.[fn]See splits data for Dazzy Vance at Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn] He also struck out six in a single four-inning relief appearance—his only time out of the bullpen that year—in which he was the winning pitcher. All told, Vance struck out 26 percent of the batters he faced in the final two months of the season.
More significantly, Ks accounted for more than a third (33.7 percent) of his outs. Vance’s pitching was so exceptional in 1924 that he was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player ahead of Rogers Hornsby, whose batting average was a staggering .424 that year. Hornsby was only two-for-fourteen in the three starts—all complete game victories—that Dazzy had against the Cardinals.
Dazzy Vance led the National League in strikeouts and K/9 average each of the next four years, three times striking out more than the American League’s strikeout king for the season. The one year he did not, in 1926 when he had the third-most strikeouts in the big leagues, Vance was limited to only 22 starts and 169 innings because arm problems caused him to get a late start on the season, see limited action and pitch poorly in the first six weeks, and resulted in his being unable to pitch for ten days or more on five separate occasions.
Still, his 140 strikeouts were 13 more than the National League runner-up in the K race, Chicago Cubs’ right-hander Charlie Root, who threw 102 more innings. Even with a sore arm, Vance was the major league’s most proficient pitcher when it came to strikeouts, disposing of 7.4 batters by way of the K per nine innings—an average 10 percent better than the major league leader in strikeouts that year, Lefty Grove. Major league pitchers averaged 2.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 1926.
DAZZY’S 1924 STRIKEOUT DOMINANCE IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
Dazzling Dazzy’s dominance in the K-Zone in 1924 has no equal in two respects. First, his 262 strikeouts were nearly two-thirds more than the 158 racked up by his K-Zone rival—Walter Johnson—which is the largest difference in any season ever between baseball’s strikeout king and the runner up (see Table 1).
Within his own league, Vance had nearly double the 135 strikeouts recorded for second-best in the National League by his teammate, Burleigh Grimes. And second, no other pitcher’s K/9 ratio in any given season has approached being 50 percent better than his closest rival for strikeouts-per-nine innings (see Table 2).
Dazzy fanned 49 percent more batters per nine innings than the Big Train in 1924. Johnson would have needed 78 more Ks for the number of innings he pitched (277.2), or approximately two additional strikeouts per start, to match Vance in strikeout proficiency. Grimes, whose strikeouts per nine innings were about half of Vance’s, would have needed to fan 127 more batters (approximately 3.5 per start) to keep pace with Dazzling Dazzy in K/9 average in the National League for the 310.2 innings he pitched. The next year, Vance’s average of strikeouts-per-nine innings was 41 percent better than runner-up Lefty Grove, giving him three consecutive seasons in which his K/9 average was at least one-third higher than the pitcher with the second-best mark (33 percent better than Walter Johnson in 1923).
Prior to Vance, the Philadelphia Athletics’ eccentric Rube Waddell and the Washington Nationals’ statesman-like Walter Johnson had been the most overpowering pitchers. There were others, of course. The Giants’ Christy Mathewson led the National League in strikeouts five of six years between 1903 and 1908, but only once in K/9 average. The Philadelphia Phillies’ Grover Cleveland Alexander (not yet “Old Pete”) also led the NL in Ks in five of six years, between 1912 and 1917, and twice in strikeouts per nine innings. But neither was as feared with the fastball as the Rube and the Big Train.
When Waddell kayoed 349 batters in 1904, which would stand as the most since 1893 for 61 years, he had 46 percent more strikeouts than the New York Highlanders’ Jack Chesbro, and his strikeout average of 8.2 per nine innings was 25 percent higher than his teammate Chief Bender’s. Waddell’s strikeout average was double the 4.1 Ks per nine innings for American League pitchers in 1904, and more than twice the major league average of 3.8, but still not close to Vance having a K/9 average in 1924 that approached three times the average for major league pitchers. In Walter Johnson’s best strikeout year of 1910 when he fanned 313 (21 percent more Ks than runner-up Ed Walsh), his K/9 average of 7.6 was almost double the major league average of 3.9, but only 15 percent better than Smoky Joe Wood’s 6.6 for the Boston Red Sox.
Lefty Grove displaced Vance as the premier power pitcher in the game in the late 1920s, and historically his fastball’s fame has eclipsed that of Vance. But for all his acclaim in blowing batters away with a fastball some said was better than Walter Johnson’s in his prime, and notwithstanding his leading the American League in strikeouts in each of his first seven years in the Big Time, Grove never struck out more than 32 percent more batters than the league’s runner-up (183 in 1928, to 139 by the Yankees’ George Pipgras). Grove led both leagues in strikeouts only four times, never had the best K/9 average in the major leagues (although he did in the American League five times), and only three times averaged as many as six strikeouts per nine innings. Despite completing two-thirds of his starts when he was in his prime with the Philadelphia Athletics, only once in his career did Grove reach 200 strikeouts in a season. Vance cracked the 200-K barrier in three different years, all when strikeouts were hard to come by for pitchers.
Next came Bob Feller, also known as Rapid Robert, whose fastest stuff was in rhetorical (as opposed to direct) competition with that of Johnson and Grove. Feller’s most dominating performances in the K-arena relative to his peers were 1938 and 1939 when his K/9 average was 26 percent better than the runner-up both years. In 1946, his most dominating year in the K-Zone, Rapid Robert fanned 348 batters—one shy of Waddell’s 1904 record—in 371.1 innings, and yet his average of 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings, while nearly double the American League average of 4.3, was just a smidgen shy of Detroit southpaw Hal Newhouser, who fanned 275 in 292.2 innings.
It is likely that the return of wartime veterans, many of whom had not faced major league pitching for as many as three years, made it easier for Feller to exceed his previous high strikeout total (261 in 1940) by such a large margin in 1946; strikeouts in the two leagues increased by 20 percent that year compared to the war years, and were 10 percent higher than they had been in 1941—the year before his patriotic impulse caused Feller to enlist in the Navy.
Those 348 strikeouts might have come at considerable cost to the 27-year-old Feller, however, because although he led the league in strikeouts each of the next two years, Rapid Robert never again kayoed as many as 200 in a season. Indeed, the 1,640 strikeouts Feller accrued in eight years from his rookie year in 1936 to 1946 (during which time he missed three full seasons and most of a fourth serving in World War II) accounted for 64 percent of his career total, and he continued pitching for another ten seasons. More significantly, Feller’s K/9 average in the years through his 348-strikeout 1946 season was 7.8, when the major league average was typically between 3.4 and 3.6 Ks per nine innings.
Feller’s K/9 average during his prime years would likely have been even better had he not had such difficulty controlling his overwhelming fastball and sharp curve. In each of his first seven full seasons in the big leagues, Feller walked at least 100 batters, including 208 in 1938, 194 in 1941, and 153 when he came within one of Waddell’s single-season strikeout record in 1946. Vance, by contrast, had very good control in an era when more batters walked than struck out, only once walking as many as 100 in a single season (which was not 1924). Had he been able to command his fastball with greater accuracy, Bob Feller, and not his 1955 teammate Herb Score, probably would have been the first starting pitcher to strike out at least one batter for every inning pitched.[fn]With 245 strikeouts in 227.1 innings in his rookie season, Herb Score became the first major league pitcher to strikeout at least one batter an inning. To prove it was no fluke, Score did it again in his second season (a K/9 average of 9.5 in 1956, compared to 9.7 the year before), and might have made it three in a row, going on who knows how many, were it not for a devastating line-drive to the face off the bat of the Yankees’ Gil McDougald early in the 1957 season.[/fn]
VANCE STILL UNMATCHED IN THE RISE TO DOMINANCE OF POWER PITCHERS
Beginning with Sandy Koufax in the 1960s, major league baseball has not been lacking in clearly identifiable, renowned power pitchers. The era of the power pitcher that can be traced back to Koufax has seen a sufficient number of pitchers with high K/9 averages that none has been able to outdistance his peers to the degree Dazzy Vance did in 1924. Although his 197 strikeouts in 1960 were only the third-most in baseball, the fact they were accrued in only 175 innings made Koufax the first ERA-qualifying pitcher to average better than 10 Ks per nine innings; the National League average was 5.5 that year. When Koufax surpassed Waddell’s 349 tally with 382 in 1965, the Cleveland Indians’ Sam McDowell had 325 of his own and actually had a higher K/9 average (10.7) than Koufax (10.2).
The pitcher who has come closest to Vance’s 1924 record for outdistancing his runner-up in K/9 average was the California Angels’ Nolan Ryan in 1973. The 1973 Ryan Express topped Koufax by one with 383 and might well have fanned more than 400 had this not been the first year in the American League that pitchers did not have to hit for themselves because of the new designated hitter rule. Ryan’s K/9 average of 10.6 that year was exactly double the major league average but, at only 36 percent better than runner-up Tom Seaver’s 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings in the National League, still far short of Dazzling Dazzy’s 1924 standard of K-Zone dominance.[fn]Ryan is the only pitcher to have outpaced his closest rival in K/9 average by at least 30 percent in four different years, also doing so in 1977 (by 34 percent over Bert Blyleven), in 1987 (32 percent over Mark Langston) and in 1989 (34 percent over Langston). Vance, as already noted, did so three years in a row from 1923 to 1925.[/fn]
Ryan worked 326 innings in 1973 and completed two-thirds of his 39 starts. This is significant because a strong argument can be made that, in addition to the rapid evolution to a fundamentally different hitting philosophy in which the risk of striking out has become an acceptable trade-off for the potential benefit of what a power swing might bring, a precipitating factor in so many pitchers in the last thirty years having such high K/9 averages is the dramatic decline of the complete game. In 1924—the year of Dazzling Dazzy in the K-Zone—major league pitchers completed nearly 49 percent of their starts; Vance himself finished 30 of his 34 starts. Bob Feller, for his part, completed 36 of his 42 starts in 1946 when he fanned 348 batters, while starting pitchers overall completed 42 percent of their starts. When Koufax struck out his 382 batters in 1965, complete games accounted for 23 percent of all starts, but he finished 27 of his 41. And when Ryan established the new—still current—American League record in 1973, American League pitchers, liberated from having to be removed for a pinch hitter in close games, completed nearly a third of their starts, compared to only 23 percent in the National “non-DH” League.[fn]Ryan is the only pitcher to have outpaced his closest rival in K/9 average by at least 30 percent in four different years, also doing so in 1977 (by 34 percent over Bert Blyleven), in 1987 (32 percent over Mark Langston) and in 1989 (34 percent over Langston). Vance, as already noted, did so three years in a row from 1923 to 1925.[/fn]
But when New York Mets’ rookie Dwight Gooden earned the nickname “Dr. K” by becoming the first qualifying starting pitcher to have a K/9 average of better than 11 with 276 strikeouts in 1984, he pitched only 218 innings because he completed just seven of his 31 starts, which was still much higher than only 12 percent complete games in the National League that year. Doctor K’s 1984 K/9 ratio was just 18 percent higher than that of Nolan Ryan—the only other starting pitcher that year who averaged better than a strikeout an inning. By now pitching for the Houston Astros, Ryan completed just five of his 30 starts and averaged just over six innings per start. First with NL Houston and then with AL Texas, Ryan led his league in strikeout average every year between 1987 and 1991 (and the major leagues four times), seeming to defy age as this streak began when he was already 40 years old, but he finished only 17 of his 156 starts, about the same as the 11 percent complete games in the league he pitched in during those years.
As the twentieth century began, major league pitchers were completing only 4.8 percent of their starts, and in 2014 that figure was down to less than 2.5 percent. Of the most proficient K/9 pitchers since Ryan, Randy Johnson became the first starting pitcher to average better than 12 strikeouts per nine innings in 1995 with the Seattle Mariners; set the record for the highest strikeout average in history at 13.4 in 2001 with the Arizona Diamondbacks; fanned more than one batter an inning every year from 1991 to 2004; and averaged 10.6 strikeouts every nine innings over his entire 22-year career—during which he completed 17 percent of his starts lasting just under seven innings per start. During his sixteen-year career, Dazzy Vance finished 62 percent of the games he started and averaged about eight innings a start.
Today’s prevailing pitching philosophy, made possible by the diminished importance of complete games that would leave pitchers of Vance’s, Feller’s, Koufax’s and even Ryan’s generation aghast, reliance on closers to save close games, and specialized relievers in large bullpens, puts a premium on getting the most out of a starting pitcher for as long as possible in a game—which is now defined by pitch counts. Power pitchers are expected to bring the heat in every inning. An appreciable drop in velocity is usually enough to trigger the bullpen into action and could mean the starting pitcher is close to the end of his day. With high-quality relief on the way, managers are satisfied when their starting pitchers can give six or seven high-quality innings. The same is true even for teams with less than high-quality relief.
Indicative of this era of dominant power pitchers with high strikeout rates, 14 of the 88 pitchers who qualified for their league’s earned run average title in 2014 by throwing at least 162 innings averaged at least one strikeout per inning; five of those 14 led the way with averages of better than 10 strikeouts per nine innings; two pitchers missed a K/9 average of 10 by less than one strikeout. Clayton Kershaw led the majors with 10.8 strikeouts-per-nine innings, but outpaced Chris Sale’s 10.76 K/9 average by less than one percent, was only 17 percent better than Ian Kennedy whose 9.3 average was the tenth-best in baseball, and 20 percent better than Jon Lester, who was number fourteen on the list of starting pitchers striking out at least one batter an inning. It’s safe to say, then, it seems certain that for the foreseeable future there will be no pitcher who will dominate in the K-Zone relative to his peers—or can be even expected to dominate—the way Dazzy Vance did in 1924.
BRYAN SODERHOLM-DIFATTE is a frequent contributor to the “Baseball Research Journal” and presenter at SABR conferences. Read more SABR articles from Bryan by clicking here. He also writes the blog Baseball Historical Insight.