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The Greatest Strikeout Pitcher in History

 

 

 

Would you be intimidated by this man?

Would you be intimidated by this man?

Babe Ruth became the Sultan of Swat not because he hit so many home runs, but because he hit so many more home runs than everyone else. As Ruth’s shots began leaving American League parks, he quickly became the best player in baseball. Because of Ruth’s influence, other players began trying to hit home runs too, and the game forever changed. After tying Tillie Walker with 11 home runs while doing a ton of pitching for the 1918 Red Sox, Ruth went crazy. Check out the chart below.

Year

Ruth HR

Runner-Up

His

HR

Gap

1919

29

Three players

10

190%

1920

54

George Sisler

19

184%

1921

59

Two players

24

146%

1923

41

Ken Williams

29

41%

1924

46

Joe Hauser

27

70%

1926

47

Al Simmons

19

147%

1927

60

Lou Gehrig

47

28%

1928

54

Lou Gehrig

27

100%

1929

46

Lou Gehrig

35

31%

1930

49

Lou Gehrig

41

20%

1931

46

Lou Gehrig

46

tie

Three years of dominance preceded a Ken Williams title in 1922. After two more, Bob Meusel won the 1925 title. And then Ruth dominated again until Lou Gehrig tied him in 1931.

But this isn’t a piece about Babe Ruth. It’s about the game’s greatest strikeout pitcher. Clearly, it’s about Nolan Ryan. After all, he has the most career strikeouts (5714), the most career strikeout titles (11) and the most strikeouts in a single season since the mound was moved to 60’6” (383). He’s clearly the greatest strikeout pitcher in baseball history. Well, maybe not that clearly. In fact, I’m going to make the argument here that Ryan wasn’t the greatest ever. That pitcher was Rube Waddell, 46th on the all-time list. Yes, Rube Waddell. So how much do you have to squint to find a guy with fewer Ks than Charlie Hough the best? Depends what your eyes are like. Waddell might be because he dominated the league in whiffs in much the same way Ruth did in dingers.

Like Ruth, Waddell was known for his eccentricities. He assisted fire departments for fun. He’d occasionally move his infielders off the field in exhibitions to strike out the side. And his second wife he’d known for only three days before they were wed.

And also like Ruth, and more importantly, Waddell could draw fans to the ballpark because of his unique talent. After getting to know him for half a season in 1902, Philadelphia fans couldn’t get enough of Rube and his A’s. Attendance more than doubled in 1903 to 420,000, a league-leading total.

So let’s look at Waddell’s dominance as we did with Ruth’s.

Year

Rube K/9

Runner-Up

His

K/9

Gap

1902

6.840

Jack Powell

3.755

82%

1903

8.389

Bill Donovan

5.482

53%

1904

8.201

Chief Bender

6.584

25%

1905

7.859

Cy Young

5.894

33%

1906

6.469

Chief Bender

6.004

8%

1907

7.335

Jimmy Dygert

5.194

41%

1908

7.309

Jimmy Dygert

6.184

18%

Not exactly Ruthian, but domination nonetheless.

Now let’s look at his overall influence on the American League by tracking K/9 on a league-wide basis every three years from Rube’s first K title.

Year

AL K/9

1902

2.5

1905

4.2

1908

4.0

1911

4.2

1914

4.1

1917

3.3

1920

3.0

1923

2.9

1926

2.8

1929

2.9

1932

3.3

1935

3.3

1938

3.6

1941

3.6

1944

3.4

1947

3.8

1950

3.7

1953

4.0

1956

4.7

1959

5.0

1962

5.3

1965

6.0

Well that’s curious. It took about 60 years for teams to begin to emulate Waddell. And that’s just one reason it could make sense to rank Waddell over Ryan. See, teams realized that Babe Ruth was great and that he sold tickets, so players emulated his home run hitting style. In spite of Waddell being the best pitcher in all of baseball from 1902-1907, and in spite of Waddell clearly selling tickets, pitchers didn’t emulate him. Why? Maybe it’s because they couldn’t. Even the great Walter Johnson, the all-time strikeout leader for over 60 years, from 1921-1983, couldn’t match Waddell’s level of production, setting down just 5.3 per nine compared to 7.0 for Waddell.

We know today that the best thing a pitcher can do is strike a hitter out. By tracking batting average on balls in play (BABIP), we see that most pitchers don’t have much control over what happens to baseballs after they’re hit within the confines of the field. What they do have is control over whether or not hitters make contact. You might argue that Waddell isn’t in the top-100 in the game’s history in K/9, so he can’t be the best. You know who ranks high on the list? At the time of this writing, Oliver Perez is 8th and Eric Bedard is 19th. We have to compare Waddell to his peer group, not guys pitching in the game’s absolute highest strikeout climate. So let’s examine the career K/9 of the ten best pitchers by WAR from Waddell’s time.

Pitcher

K/9

Rube Waddell

7.039

Ed Walsh

5.271

Christy Mathewson

4.712

Eddie Plank

4.496

Eddie Cicotte

3.833

Vic Willis

3.719

Cy Young

3.429

Kid Nichols

3.341

Jack Powell

3.324

Joe McGinnity

2.793

Clark Griffith

2.539

Waddell is more than 33% better than his chief rival, Ed Walsh. And he’s almost 50% better than Christy Mathewson!

But how about a more direct comparison to Nolan Ryan? Ryan won eleven strikeout titles – every year from 1972-1979, save 1975, and then from 1987-1990. To get a sense of his dominance, we’re only going to look at the seasons when Ryan was best.

Year

Ryan K/9

Runner-Up

His

K/9

Gap

1972

10.426

Andy Messersmith

7.532

38%

1973

10.574

Jim Bibby

7.736

37%

1974

9.929

Bert Blyleven

7.975

25%

1976

10.351

Dennis Eckersley

9.030

15%

1977

10.264

Frank Tanana

7.645

34%

1978

9.972

Ron Guidry

8.156

22%

1979

9.014

Ron Guidry

7.654

18%

1987

11.480

Mike Scott

8.467

36%

1988

9.327

Sid Fernandez

9.096

3%

1989

11.319

Tom Gordon

8.448

34%

1990

10.235

Bobby Witt

8.960

14%

1991

10.561

Randy Johnson

10.192

4%

So Ryan struck out more, he struck out more per nine, and he won more strikeout titles. Sure, but let’s look at his gaps over second place – from largest gap to smallest – and see how he and Waddell stack up.

Waddell

Ryan

82%

38%

53%

37%

41%

36%

33%

34%

25%

34%

18%

25%

8%

22%

18%

15%

14%

4%

3%

And now let’s look at Ryan in comparison to his contemporaries – the ten best pitchers from his peer group.

Pitcher

K/9

Nolan Ryan

9.548

Roger Clemens

8.552

Bob Gibson

7.222

Steve Carlton

7.134

Tom Seaver

6.849

Bert Blyleven

6.702

Fergie Jenkins

6.383

Greg Maddux

6.058

Gaylord Perry

5.945

Phil Niekro

5.566

Rick Reuschel

5.111

Ryan is less than 12% better than Clemens and less than 33% better than Gibson. It seems there’s a clear difference between Ryan and Waddell and their peers. One more chart should do it. This examines the percentage gap between our two contestants and their contemporaries – how much better they were in K/9.

Waddell

Ryan

34%

12%

49%

32%

57%

34%

84%

39%

89%

42%

105%

50%

111%

58%

112%

61%

152%

72%

177%

87%

Waddell decimates Ryan by this comparison. He outdistances his peer group by far more than Ryan does.

So all of this evidence means, obviously, that Rube Waddell is the greatest strikeout pitcher in baseball history – which makes him a fine candidate for the HoME.

It’s not so obvious to you? Okay, I’ll give you that I suppose. But it’s an interesting argument. And on at least one level they’re completely tied – neither ever gave up a home run to Babe Ruth.

Miller

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Discussion

3 thoughts on “The Greatest Strikeout Pitcher in History

  1. Great piece. I’m a big fan of Rube.

    Posted by Lucas | August 16, 2013, 11:11 am

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  1. Pingback: 1926 HoME Election Results | the Hall of Miller and Eric - August 23, 2013

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