Normalized strikeout rates for the top 200 pitchers of all time

I found a straightforward way to redo the normalized strikeout rate study. Check out my previous post on the subject for the rationale.

For those who care, here is the updated method:

  • Instead of taking a single league-average K/9 rate, I took 5 numbers for each player’s career–the league average from his first season, his final season, as well as the points 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 through his career. I then averaged those numbers and used that as the league average for that given player. This is of course not entirely precise, but is really a very good approximation.
  • I made a lookup table in Excel, which made this exercise a lot easier. I then just listed one set of numbers for the league-average K/9 rate in each season, and then for each player did 5 lookups to get his 5 numbers.
  • By using this method, it was easy to put the top 200 pitchers (by innings pitched) into the table. I could easily do more, as well.

Click through for the results.

Here are the top 25 pitchers all time in normalized K/9 (among the top 200 in innings pitched):

Rank Player K/9        Avg   K/9   Normalized K/9
1    Rube Waddell      7.04  3.22  2.19
2    Dazzy Vance       6.20  3.22  1.93
3    Nolan Ryan        9.55  5.58  1.71
4    Randy Johnson    10.61  6.28  1.69
5    Lefty Grove       5.18  3.22  1.61
6    Walter Johnson    5.34  3.34  1.60
7    Bob Feller        6.07  3.88  1.56
8    Pedro Martinez   10.04  6.44  1.56
9    Amos Rusie        4.64  2.98  1.56
10   Tommy Bridges     5.33  3.52  1.51
11   Chief Bender      5.10  3.44  1.48
12   Hal Newhouser     5.40  3.76  1.44
13   Bill Donovan      4.71  3.30  1.43
14   Ed Walsh          5.27  3.74  1.41
15   Bobo Newsom       4.98  3.54  1.41
16   Roger Clemens     8.55  6.16  1.39
17   Curt Schilling    8.60  6.22  1.38
18   Jack Stivetts     3.81  2.76  1.38
19   Tim Keefe         4.57  3.34  1.37
20   Mark Baldwin      4.33  3.18  1.36
21   David Cone        8.28  6.16  1.34
22   Tom Hughes        4.66  3.50  1.33
23   Christy Mathewson 4.71  3.54  1.33
24   Red Ames          4.79  3.62  1.32
25   Bob Gibson        7.22  5.46  1.32

There aren’t a lot of surprises here, except maybe that Rube Waddell and Dazzy Vance are way out in the lead.

There are only 10 pitchers who were at least 50% above league average for their careers–and as strikeouts get more frequent, that’s getting harder and harder to do. It seems unlikely we’ll see another pitcher join the upper ranks of this list any time soon.

Now here are the bottom 25 guys–remember, though, that these pitchers would good enough to make the top 200 list for most innings pitched, so they couldn’t have been horrible–they just got it done a little bit differently.

Rank Player              K/9   Avg   K/9 Normalized K/9
1    Lew Burdette        3.15  4.92  0.64
2    Frank Dwyer         1.80  2.80  0.64
3    Tom Zachary         2.07  3.02  0.69
4    Ted Lyons           2.32  3.38  0.69
5    Bob Forsch          3.65  5.18  0.70
6    Bob Caruthers       2.86  4.02  0.71
7    Al Spalding         0.77  1.04  0.74
8    Slim Sallee         2.67  3.60  0.74
9    Vern Law            3.68  4.92  0.75
10   George Bradley      2.05  2.72  0.75
11   Freddie Fitzsimmons 2.43  3.22  0.75
12   Mel Stottlemyre     4.25  5.58  0.76
13   Jim Slaton          3.99  5.22  0.76
14   Clark Griffith      2.54  3.30  0.77
15   Doyle Alexander     4.08  5.24  0.78
16   Mike Torrez         4.15  5.32  0.78
17   Claude Osteen       4.19  5.34  0.78
18   Mike Morgan         4.55  5.78  0.79
19   Jim Perry           4.32  5.46  0.79
20   Tommy John          4.29  5.40  0.79
21   Joe Niekro          4.39  5.48  0.80
22   Danny MacFayden     2.65  3.30  0.80
23   Al Orth             2.54  3.10  0.82
24   Bert Cunningham     2.36  2.84  0.83
25   Eppa Rixey          2.70  3.24  0.83

This group is also mostly pitchers from long ago, which surprised me a bit since, as I mentioned above, it’s easier to be below average now since the average is so much higher. (Compare, for example, Bob Forsch and Al Spaulding, who have nearly identical normalized K rates despite a 5-fold difference in their raw K rates.)

I guess the main issue is that there’s a smaller spread in talent these days. 100 years ago, pitchers used a lot of different styles. These days, just about all pitchers have a power arm to some degree and the strikeout is an essential part of successful pitching. It could also be that teams these days select for pitchers with good K-rates, knowing that a guy who can’t consistently strike out batters doesn’t have a chance at long-term success. This may result in a smaller standard deviation of K rates around the average today.

Anyway, as reader kds suggested, I will re-run this analysis using strikeouts per plate appearance to see how much difference that makes.

If anybody wants the numbers for a specific pitcher, let me know and I’ll pull them off my spreadsheet.

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Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
10 years ago

I guess the thing I would really like to see is how many standard deviations above/below the mean these pitchers were for their time. I think that would, in many ways, be more informative – simply because Rube Waddell is #1 on this list, but his K/9 is barely above the league average in Randy Johnson’s time. While he was over 100% above the mean, I don’t think we can directly say, “Had he played in Randy Johnson’s time, he would have had 13.7 K/9.” While standard deviations wouldn’t allow us that kind of certainty, either, I think they would… Read more »

CursedClevelander
CursedClevelander
10 years ago

I wonder what the highest individual season is for normalized K rate? Waddell in 1902 had a 6.8 K/9 in a league context of 2.5 K/9, which is an astounding normalized rate of 2.72.

Lee Panas
10 years ago

This is a very interesting study. I appreciate the work that goes into something like this. Like Dr. Doom said, I’d also like to see the standard deviations. I believe pitchers from earlier eras have a bit of an advantage without them. That probably is true for a lot of historical comparisons. I think there used to be a wider distribution of talent in all areas in the early days.

Bells
Bells
10 years ago
Reply to  Andy

Actually Andy, it’s possible that more players will tend to push SD down, as Lawrence sort of hints at below (I actually teach a stats class at university and use that Steven Jay Gould clip about the .400 hitter in the standard deviation class). More spread of quality will push SD up, as it was 100 years ago, because the deviations from highest to lowest quality player are big with a less robust farm/development system (hence .400 hitting, or maybe much higher than average k/9 rates). But more players, in the modern day, means more competition, and training methods have… Read more »

Lawrence Azrin
Lawrence Azrin
10 years ago
Reply to  Lee Panas

Steven Jay Gould, the renowned paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and big baseball fan, theorized that as a particular species matures, evolution reduces the difference of the extremes between a particular characteristic in a species. In the same way that we don’t have animals the size of dinosaurs roaming the land anymore, we no longer have .400 hitters and pitchers throwing 400 innings a year. I realize that this is a rather, well, strained analogy. Let me express it another way: as the average level of talent goes up, it is more difficult for the very best baseball players to stand out… Read more »

nightfly
10 years ago
Reply to  Lawrence Azrin

I see what you’re getting at. The average talent level does go up, as year-round training and better nutrition lead to superior athleticism, which is then focused on a sport at a younger age, organized and coached more efficiently. You read stories of some older ballplayers discovered on a coal mine team or on some barnstorming tour through the south in winter. Now, promising talent is identified so early, and information about them is so readily available, that such stories are increasingly improbable. The fabled “open tryout” has gone from a romantic, rags-to-riches opportunity to a sign of complete desperation.… Read more »

Lawrence Azrin
Lawrence Azrin
10 years ago
Reply to  nightfly

nightfly, To support your last sentence, Bill James in one of his Historical Abstracts pointed out the difference between MLB at the turn of the twentieth century and now with this anecdote: Between 1900 and 1905, there were at least three documented cases of a spectator purchasing a ticket for an MLB game, and ending up playing in that game. That would never happen nowadays. Well, it _couldn’t_ , since their MLB contract would first have to be approved by the Commissioner’s Office, but the larger point that you made is that potential baseball talent is much more efficiently funneled… Read more »

CursedClevelander
CursedClevelander
10 years ago

BTW, here’s a Hardball Times article from a while back which covers some similar material: http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/strike-zone-dominance-in-context-dazzy-and-pedro/

Might be interesting to compare their Top 10 with the one above.

It also attempts to answer my question above, and rates Vance’s 1924 as the best K season ever in context, right ahead of the aforementioned Waddell 1902 season (min. 200 IP).

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
10 years ago

Wow. That was a really great article at THT. Very interesting to incorporate BBs, as well. Pretty close to what Andy’s done here, though.

Lawrence Azrin
Lawrence Azrin
10 years ago

I don’t want to say “I told you so” about Dazzy Vance’s 1924 season being amongst the best strikeout seasons ever.

OK, I admit it, I _do_ want to say “I told you so”: see my comment previously in the post:

Normalized strikeout rates of the all-time greats, comment #21

JoshG
JoshG
10 years ago

Where is Jamie Moyer on the list? He’s got a reputation as a low strikeout guy in a high-K era so I’m surprised he’s not on the list for lowest rates

oneblankspace
oneblankspace
10 years ago

I would like to know where on the list of the top 200 one would find the NK9 of 1.00.

Doug
Doug
10 years ago

You have the wrong Tom Hughes linked in the article.

I’m guessing you are intending this Tom Hughes.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hugheto01.shtml

ajnrules
10 years ago

Weird…Bert Blyleven, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, and Fergie Jenkins were ahead of Clemens and Mathewson on the earlier list with 4,000 IP, but they didn’t make it on the top 25 on this list. Could their pitching in both a low strikeout and a high-strikeout era affect their normalized rates that much with the new methodology?

Tristram12
Tristram12
10 years ago

Wait a minute. Jim Slaton is in the top 200 pitchers of all time, ranked by IP? I would not have guessed that.

Great work Andy. Love seeing the old guys and new guys mixed together. May not be exact, but it sure feels right to me. You never hear about Christy as a strikeout guy, but there he is at number 23.

Seth
Seth
10 years ago

Where does Sandy Koufax rank on here?

kds
kds
10 years ago
Reply to  Andy

Thanks, Andy. Is it in a spreadsheet you could link to? THT article used K/PA but only had data through 2004, so the numbers should be the same for guys who retired before 2005.

bstar
10 years ago

Andy, are you going to do a similar study for relievers? I just want my boy Billy Wagner to have his moment in the sun and let everyone (who doesn’t already) know how historically nasty he really was.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
10 years ago
Reply to  Andy

Definitely! I was thinking the same thing. I would be really curious to see Wagner’s numbers, in particular.

birtelcom
birtelcom
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

B-ref has “OPS Against” stats going back to 1950. The best OPS Against career numbers among all pitchers with at least 500 career IPs:

Mariano Rivera .552
Billy Wagner .558
Sandy Koufax .594
Hoyt Wilhelm .595
Frankie Rodriguez .597
J.R. Richard .600

Rivera and Wagner are in a class by themselves here (also in both ERA and ERA+).

bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  birtelcom

Unfortunately, birtelcom, Wagner fell ~100 IP short of qualifying for the all-time ERA+ title.(1000 IP, he had I believe 902).

Wags for the HOF!!! Wait, the poor guy sadly has no chance….****snuffs out Billy Wagner altar candle****.

John Autin
Editor
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

Not sure if Wags would have had a shot in any case, but his postseason struggles probably sealed his fate.

bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Yeah, that and retiring at age 38 with a full tank of gas still left. he gave some odd reason like, “I want to see my kids more.” Some people, geez.:-)

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
10 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Personally, I think the biggest Problem for Billy Wagner is that people seem to measure relief pitchers pretty much strictly by their number of saves. Wagner didn’t accumulate enough, so he’s out. He was behind Hoffman and Rivera in his own time, so there’s no way he’s getting in based on that. It’s a shame, really, because he was such an effective pitcher.

bstar
10 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Exactly. No chance. But that’s what I meant about retiring with a full tank of gas—-he hadn’t lost anything, with a 13.5 K/9 and a career-low 1.43 ERA at age 38. Had he wanted, it seems he easily could have pitched as long as L Smith, T Hoffman, etc. and pushed that save total past 500 at least.

Paul E
Paul E
10 years ago
Reply to  bstar

I was at Citizens Bank ballpark on 9/7/05 when Biggio went yard off Wagner with a three-run bomb that sealed the game in the top of the ninth for the Astros. I half-jokingly said to my friends at the moment, “there goes the wild card”….sure enough, Astros take the wild card by 1 game and make it all the way to a WS sweep by ChiSox.
But, yeah, Wagner was great and fun to watch. And an absolute talent with plenty left in the tank up to retirement

Steven
Steven
10 years ago

Mel Stottlemyre: One of the few consistently good Yankees during their 1965-1975 pennant drought. It’s a shame he couldn’t have pitched a little longer.

Mark in Sydney
Mark in Sydney
10 years ago

I wonder what this is going to mean for the future? I suspect that there is an upper limit to how hard an unassisted human can throw. At least do it over the course of 200 innings per season. And ML batters can catch-up to the hardest throwers these days. In order to get more Ks, are the next-gen aces going to go down the Pedro mix of large pace variation (“What the heck is he going to throw now?”)? Or are they going to go the Mariano route of one pitch, really well thrown (“Here comes that cutter again!”… Read more »

John Autin
Editor
10 years ago
Reply to  Mark in Sydney

I think SO rates are more dependent on the hitters than the pitchers. Certainly, there’s a much wider range of SO rates among hitters — last year, Drew Stubbs whiffed more than 5 times as often as Juan Pierre, while the range among qualified pitchers was less than 3 times.

SO rates are high now mainly because the majority of hitters try to work deep counts and try to hit for power. If SO rates decline, it will likely be mostly because of a change in that dominant approach.

Ed
Ed
10 years ago
Reply to  Andy

Bill James made this point years ago. While we tend to think that the outcome of an at-bat is controlled by the pitcher, it’s actually the hitter who has more control. I think the example he used was homeruns. There are players who hit 40 home runs and players who hit 0 homeruns. But there aren’t pitchers who do the same.

Mike L
Mike L
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

This goes also to the point of the style of hitting has changed, and particularly how it has changed since Ruth. Intuitively, the more the batter chokes up, the harder it is to strike him out. The longer you wait on an individual pitch, the more critical velocity and movement are to the outcome, and the more likely the outliers (pitchers with exceptional stuff/speed) are likely to separate themselves.

John Autin
Editor
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

FWIW, a spread of 40 HRs between qualifying pitchers is not uncommon. Last year, Bronson Arroyo allowed 46, while Charlie Morton yielded just 6 in 172 IP. Arroyo’s HR/9 was about 7 times as high as Morton’s.

John Autin
Editor
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

Random junk: The lowest qualifying HR/9 in the expansion era is .085 by Dave Righetti in 1981, 1 HR in 105.1 IP.

The HR was hit by Gorman Thomas, who also had 2 doubles in the same game off Righetti. Those were the only XBH Thomas ever got off Rags in 25 ABs.

Ed
Ed
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

John – There are only 23 instances in which a pitcher has given up 40 or more homeruns in a season. Not sure how many times that resulted in a spread of 40 HRs between qualifying pitchers but I’m guessing very, very few. Far fewer than the reverse (i.e., a spread of 40 homeruns between qualifying hitters).

John Autin
Editor
10 years ago
Reply to  Ed

I concede the point. I thought there were more pitcher 40-HR seasons.

Blyleven did have a 40+ spread over several qualifiers in 1986, though.

Cameron Lane
Cameron Lane
10 years ago

This seems like a very good system for normalization, especially for something so easy to calculate. But the one possible flaw i see is that because you are only taking numbers from 5 years an exceptional year for a pitcher or for the league can really skew the numbers one way or another. I can’t think of a way to prevent this off the top of my head but otherwise it seems like a great system.

admin
admin
10 years ago
Reply to  Cameron Lane

Raphy’s going to post an even better method that avoids that problem and covers a lot more pitchers.

John Autin
Editor
10 years ago
Reply to  admin

FWIW, I now have a spreadsheet giving normalized K rates based on the entirety of the pitcher’s career — i.e., it divides his career K rate by the average of the MLB K rate during his career. I have this for all pitchers with 1,000 IP (roughly 1,000 pitchers). Still not perfect, since it’s not weighted — a high MLB K rate for a given year has the same impact on a given pitcher regardless of whether he threw 1 inning or 300 IP in that season. It took me a while to make Excel 2007 do my bidding. The… Read more »

John Autin
Editor
10 years ago
Reply to  admin

The top 20 in my list (min. 1,000 IP):

Player, Factor
Rube Waddell, 2.24
Dazzy Vance, 2.06
Cy Seymour, 1.91
Sandy Koufax, 1.83
Nolan Ryan, 1.78
Smoky Joe Wood, 1.77
Randy Johnson, 1.76
J.R. Richard, 1.69
Amos Rusie, 1.69
Pedro Martinez, 1.67
Walter Johnson, 1.67
Lefty Grove, 1.66
Bob Feller, 1.65
Dizzy Dean, 1.62
Doc McJames, 1.59
Van Mungo, 1.58
Kerry Wood, 1.58
Lefty Gomez, 1.58
Sam McDowell, 1.58
Lee Smith, 1.57
Tommy Bridges, 1.57

John Autin
Editor
10 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

I forgot to mention that my data is based on SO per batter faced, not per inning.

Lawrence Azrin
Lawrence Azrin
10 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Intuitively, this list looks and “feels” better than the other career lists I have seen here. By lowering the minimum to 1,000 IP, you include quite a few of the legendary hard throwers, of all eras and career lengths.

The only names I go “huh?” to are Cy Seymour and Doc McJames. Well, I guess no matter what the minimum is, someone’s going to just barely meet it doesn’t belong. Doc McJames is a sad story, he died at age 27 after being thrown off a horse in 1901.

Voomo Zanzibar
10 years ago

I want to point out a statement made in the Sunday New York Times this past week (Feb 19th). In an article about culture and baseball in 1968, Tim Wendel states that Bob Gibson was saddened by the death of MLK (April 4th). “Perhaps as a result, Gibson did not start the season well. But when Kennedy was gunned down after winning the California primary, Gibson responded by pitching his first shutout and went on to put up a season for the ages…” From a human perspective, to speculate that Hoot pitched poorly or well as a response to political-cultural… Read more »

Doug
Doug
10 years ago
Reply to  Voomo Zanzibar

Wonder what Wendel would say about these seasons (just to pick a few at random).

Ned Garvin, 1904 BRO-NYY, 5-16, 159 ERA+
Hal Newhouser, 1942 DET, 8-14, 162 ERA+
Darold Knowles, 1970 WSA, 2-14, 174 ERA+

Or, maybe Ted Lyons retired in 1946 because his 1-4 record showed that, at 45, he just couldn’t get it done anymore (actually, Lyons completed every game he started that year, and had a 174 ERA+ – he retired after being named the White Sox manager).

Jeff Allen
Jeff Allen
10 years ago
Reply to  Voomo Zanzibar

Wait, is Wendel implying that Gibson was so thrilled by Kennedy being shot that he pitched incredibly well? That’s… kind of a horrible thing to say.

Mike L
Mike L
10 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Allen

I think what he’s saying is that Gibson brought renewed focus after Kennedy’s assassination. It’s good writing if not especially accurate

Voomo Zanzibar
10 years ago

Here’s the article:
(And, to be fair, the article is pimping a book soon to come out. Perhaps the book digs a little deeper)

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/sports/in-1968-sports-helped-to-temper-a-year-of-rage-and-upheaval.html

Lawrence Azrin
Lawrence Azrin
10 years ago
Reply to  Voomo Zanzibar

Not a bad article; for those of you not around in 1968, the Tigers great season really did help the city of Detroit (somewhat), by giving people something to rally around. Taken out of context, it’s easy for us to ridicule his point about Bob Gibson starting “poorly” because of MLK’s assassination I’m going to guess that he was just looking for an easily understood stat to move his narrative along, without digging deeper. Still, Voomo Zanzibar is right in that if the writer is going speculate about the cause/affect of the start of Gibson’s season, he should have actually… Read more »

John Autin
Editor
10 years ago
Reply to  Lawrence Azrin

Bill Freehan advanced this same theory (about Detroit, not Gibson) in his 1969 diary, “Behind the Mask.”

Which is a great read, by the way, especially if you’re a Tigers fan. Not a “Ball Four”-style expose, it’s just a diary of their ’69 season (the year after the championship) with reflections on his own career and the state of the game.

Michael
Michael
10 years ago

Andy:

I would love to see how you did the spreadsheet. Any chance you could Email it to me?

Ernesto
Ernesto
10 years ago

The thing that jumped out to me was Bob Forsch, with a 3.65 k/9 rate, and a normalized rate that is 5th lowest of all-time for the top 200 pitchers, yet he managed to throw 2 no-hitters. His 1983 no-no he must have been fireballing, as he racked up 6 k’s, but his 1978 gem only yielded 3.

Seems pretty lucky for a guy with that rate to have 2 no-hitters.

Chris A.
Chris A.
10 years ago

Why do I not remember David Cone as a high strikeout pitcher? As a Jays’ fan, my memories of him must be dominated by his two tours of duty in Toronto and his stint in KC in between, and he wasn’t a great strikeout artist during those seasons.

John Autin
Editor
10 years ago
Reply to  Chris A.

Cone averaged 7.3 SO/9 for his two Toronto stints, which was below his career average but still well above the AL average for that era. His high SO game with Toronto was 11:
http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS199506280.shtml

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