This article was written by James P. Maywar
This article was published in the 1981 Baseball Research Journal
Strikeout artists always seem to be crowd pleasers, even when their overall statistics may not be as good as other pitchers. Inevitably, discussions of pitchers will include references to those with the “blazing fastball” or “sweeping curve” who could intimidate the opposing batters. But who, among the hundreds of hurlers that have elicited cheers of appreciation from admiring fans, were the most impressive at striking out the opposition?
The “top ten” strikeout pitchers on my list include Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller, Rube Waddell, Dazzy Vance, Sam McDowell, J. R. Richard, Lefty Grove, Tom Seaver, and Hal Newhouser. Their selection was based on their five best “Strikeout Differential Proficiency” seasons. (SDP is the difference between the number of strikeouts per nine innings achieved by an individual pitcher, and the major league average for that year.) This technique allows Lefty Grove to be compared favorably to Tom Seaver, even though Seaver averaged at least two strikeouts per game more than Grove.
Five Best Strikeout Differential Proficiency Seasons
Based on this method, Nolan Ryan emerges as the best strikeout pitcher of all time. During the 1972,73,74,76, and 77 seasons, he averaged 10.3 strikeouts per game compared to the major league average of 5.1 for those years. His total strikeouts for these five seasons was 1747, for an average of 349.4 per year! Only one other pitcher, Sandy Koufax, has ever been able to surpass that figure for even a single season. Ryan set the major league record in 1973 with 383 strikeouts.
The competition for second place was much stiffer, as Sandy Koufax narrowly edged Feller, Waddell and Vance. During the 1960, 61, 62, 63, and 65 seasons, Koufax maintained an excellent average of 9.8 strikeouts per game as compared to the League average of 5.5 He holds the National League strikeout record with a figure of 382, achieved in 1965.
Bob Feller, Rube Waddell, and Dazzy Vance are in a tie for third; exceeding their contemporaries by 4.2 strikeouts per game. They all led the majors in strikeouts in four of the five seasons being considered, reaching personal highs of 349 in 1904 (Waddell), 348 in 1946 (Feller) and 262 in 1924 (Vance). These three, along with Ryan and Koufax, are the only pitchers able to maintain Strikeout Differentials of more than four over their contemporaries for five seasons.
We are all aware of how Feller established himself as an outstanding Major League hurler as a teenager, served in the Navy during World War H (perhaps losing an opportunity to challenge Ryan as the leading strikeout pitcher), and then returned from the War to strike out 348 batters in 1946. But, for an entirely different story, consider the fact that Dazzy Vance did not have his first full major league season until the age of 31 (1922), and then proceeded to lead the National League in strikeouts until 1928 at the ripe old age of 37!
If the top five pitchers represent a variety of eras (none of their best strikeout years overlap), the next five favor the more recent decades. Sam McDowell ranks just behind Koufax during the 1960’s with 9.7 strikeouts per game and a career high of 325 in 1965, the same year that Koufax struck out 382.
Tom Seaver was the National League’s top strikeout pitcher during the early seventies, achieving his best year in 1971, when he had 9.1 strikeouts per game and a season total of 289.
As Seaver’s strikeout differential began to diminish, he was immediately replaced by J. R. Richard. Richard has put together two consecutive seasons of 300 or more strikeouts, and has averaged 8.3 strikeouts during his best five years.
Lefty Grove’s season strikeout totals are the least impressive of anyone on the list (in only one of the five years did he strike outmore than 200 batters). However, he was still able to lead the American League in both total strikeouts and strikeouts per game for every season from 1926 to 1930.
Rounding out the top ten is the only other pitcher to have a five-year average of three strikeouts or more than his contemporaries, Hal Newhouser. “Prince Hal” reached his peak in 1946 with 275 strikeouts, and 8.5 strikeouts per game.
Many of these pitchers, as may be expected, had control problems when they first arrived in the majors. In 1971, for example, Richard walked 6.9 batters per game. Others who experienced similar problems were Feller (6.8 in 1936), Vance (6.3 in 1915), Koufax (6.1 in 1955), and Grove (6.0 in 1925).
However, it is worth noting that during their best strikeout years, most of these pitchers had developed reasonably good control. In fact, five (Seaver, Vance, Koufax, Grove and Waddell) have walk differential proficiencies that were better than their respective contemporaries.
A logical question is what happened to Walter Johnson, the career leader in strikeouts? The explanation is that while the Big Train had some very impressive season totals, his edge over the rest of the League was not as good as such hurlers as Vance and Grove, who had less spectacular yearly figures.
There may be other criteria that would yield a different list of names as being the most impressive strikeout pitchers of all times. However, it is safe to say that in a realm in which the “K” is King, these ten certainly represent much of the royalty.