Strikeouts are at an historic level in the major leagues. In 2013 American League pitchers struck out a league-record 7.65 batters per nine innings; the National League record of 7.69 was set in 2012. (The NL dropped to 7.49 this past season, a number that’s been topped only by the two previously mentioned.)
It wasn’t that long ago (at least in the mind of this 55-year-old) that these numbers not only weren’t “average,” they were off the charts. No pitcher who qualified for the ERA title reached 7.69 strikeouts per nine innings in the National League in 1974 or 1977, nor in the American League in 1980 or 1981 (after Nolan Ryan left the league; Ryan was the only AL pitcher who topped that mark in 1972, 1973, 1977 and 1979).
Len Barker led the AL with 6.83 K/9 in 1980; 56 pitchers topped that mark in the major leagues in 2013, or 69% of those who qualified for the ERA title. The lowest K/9 rate for a qualifying pitcher in 2013 was Jeremy Guthrie’s 4.72; in 1980, 48 of the 89 qualifying pitchers in the majors — more than half — had lower rates.
In the 1970s and early ’80s there were pitchers who were successful, at least for a limited time, despite extremely low K/9 rates. This article focuses on what I will characterize as “super-low” strikeout rates — below 3.0 K/9.
First some context…pitchers with super-low strikeout rates were quite common through the 1940s and weren’t uncommon until the late 1950s, as league-wide K/9 rates didn’t reach 5.0 until 1958 in the NL and 1959 in the AL (you can see the year-by-year numbers for the National League here and the American League here). Then when the strike zone was expanded by definition from 1963-68, strikeouts soared, with the AL reaching 6.0 K/9 four times during that period. (The NL didn’t hit 6.0 until 1969, when the strike zone had shrunk and the mound was lowered, but the league had expanded by 20%.)
From 1962 through 1971, only one pitcher who qualified for the ERA title (and from now on when I say “pitcher,” that’s what I mean) was below 3.0 K/9 in a season: knuckleballer Joe Niekro, then a youngster with the first-year San Diego Padres, who had 2.52 K/9 and an 8-18 record (although his adjusted ERA was right around league average). Niekro went on to win 221 games in his career, but in his best seasons his K/9 was always above 4.
The first pitcher since 1960 to have a good season with a super-low strikeout rate was Yankee right-hander Steve Kline, who went 16-9 with a 2.40 ERA in 1972 and a K/9 rate of just 2.21, still the lowest for a pitcher with an adjusted ERA better than league average since Sandy Consuegra in 1954. Kline’s K/9 rate was half what it had been as a rookie in 1970 and one-third less than what it was in 1971. He succeeded thanks to allowing just 11 home runs and two stolen bases in 236-1/3 innings, walking 1.7 batters per nine innings, getting 26 ground-ball double plays behind him and allowing a BABIP of .242 (ridiculously low, but not as ridiculous as it sounds today; the league BABIP in the 1972 AL was .267, compared to .298 in the 2013 AL). He ranked third in the league in BB/9 and fourth in HR/9, a powerful combination. Kline wasn’t able to continue his success (which we’ll find to be true for most super-low strikeout pitchers), spending just two more years in the majors with a record of 9-17.
The only other super-low strikeout pitcher in 1972 was Carl Morton (2.67), who was 7-13 with a 3.92 ERA for Montreal.
Starting in 1973, strikeouts went into decline. In the American League that was partially explained by the arrival of the designated hitter, pulling weak-hitting pitchers out of the lineup. The K/9 rate in the ’73 AL (5.10) was down 7.3% from the previous year and 14.4% from 1968, and it dropped further from there. The National League, even with pitchers continuing to bat, saw a decline in K/9 at the same time, dropping 4.2% in 1973 and another 5.2% in 1974. The AL K/9 rate stayed below 5.0 from 1974-83 (except for the expansion season of 1977 when it hit 5.0) and didn’t rise above 1973 levels until 1985. In the NL, the K/9 rate stayed at or below 1973 levels through 1982. Both leagues saw significant spikes in K/9 in 1986 and have never gone back to where they were before that.
During the 12 seasons from 1973 through 1984, there were 69 pitcher/seasons with a K/9 rate below 3.0 (the complete list is coming up in a bit). Keep in mind these weren’t just low strikeout rates — these were super-low strikeout rates. And some of these pitchers had excellent seasons…they just didn’t have very many of them. Here are some comments:
Al Fitzmorris: The Royals’ righty went 13-6 in 1974 followed by a 16-12 mark in 1975, with adjusted ERAs better than league average both seasons. In fact, his adjusted ERA in 1974 was 36% better than league average, still the best for any super-low-strikeout pitcher since Sandy Consuegra in 1954. Fitzmorris had another good season (15-11, 3.06 ERA) in 1976, when he pulled his K/9 rate up to 3.3, but won just seven games in the majors after that.
Clyde Wright: The Angels’ lefty was a low-strikeout pitcher when he was good, going 22-12 in 1970 with a K/9 of 3.8 and 18-11 in 1972 with a K/9 of 3.1. But when he dipped into super-low-strikeout territory, his record suffered, losing 19 games in 1973 and 20 in 1974. He had just one, ineffective, season in the majors after that.
Dave McNally: McNally’s K/9 rate plunged in 1973 (it had been as high as 6.7 when he won 22 games in 1968), but he still won 17 games with an adjusted ERA better than league average. He was helped by having 50 outs by non-batters (31 ground-ball double plays, 12 caught stealing and 7 pickoffs). His K/9 went back up to 3.9 in 1974, when he went 16-10, then he abruptly retired during the 1975 season after getting off to a poor start.
Jim Perry: Perry was a below-average strikeout pitcher as a youngster but improved later in his career; in his back-to-back 20-win seasons for the Twins in 1969-70 his K/9 was above 5 both years. As an older pitcher Perry slipped into the super-low zone but remained effective. In 1973 he had a winning record and a league-average adjusted ERA, then in 1974, at age 38, he went 17-12 with a 2.96 ERA while striking out 2.54 batters per nine innings. In 1975 he was hit hard and knocked out of the majors.
Jim Barr: Barr’s strikeout rates were always below average, but he spent three years in the super-low zone. In 1975 and ’76 he won a total of 28 games for the Giants with adjusted ERAs considerably better than league average and extremely low home run rates both years.
Bill Lee: Boston’s “Spaceman” had a 7.8 K/9 as a rookie in 1969, but his strikeout rate plummeted once he became a full-time starter in 1973. He had three good seasons with super-low strikeout rates, going 17-9 for the 1975 AL champion Red Sox, 10-10 with a 3.46 ERA for the 1978 Bosox and 16-10 with a 3.04 ERA for the 1979 Expos. Lee was helped in 1975 by having 50 outs recorded by someone other than the batter: 29 ground-ball double plays, 11 caught stealing and 10 pickoffs.
Larry Christenson: Christenson had a 4.6 K/9 ratio when he went 11-6 as a 21-year-old rookie for the 1975 Phillies, but the next year his K rate went super-low as he went 13-8 with an adjusted ERA just slightly worse than league average. That 1976 season proved to be out of character; when he won 19 games in 1977 his K/9 was 4.8 and it eventually went as high as 6.
Randy Jones: Jones won a Cy Young Award in 1976 with a K/9 of 2.65. It didn’t hurt that he got 34 ground-ball double plays behind him, allowed just 1.4 walks per nine innings and had a miserly .241 BABIP. That matched his BABIP from the previous year, when he was runner-up in the Cy Young voting and led the league in ERA with a 3.3 K/9. Jones’ K rate had been 5 or better in his first two seasons in the majors. Plagued by arm trouble after 1976, he had only one more good season, and it came with a super-low strikeout rate in 1978 when he got a whopping 55 non-batter outs (36 ground-ball double plays, 13 caught stealing and 6 pickoffs) while allowing just six home runs in 253 innings. (ADDED 12/4/13: I just acquired a 1977 Padres media guide, which includes this tidbit about Jones — the average length of his 25 complete games in 1976 was 2:03, with a 1:38 win over Montreal and a 1:31 win over the Phillies, both of them shutouts at home so the home team didn’t bat in the ninth.)
Dock Ellis: Ellis had a K/9 of 7.1 in his first full season in the big leagues in 1969 and was above 5.0 in his best seasons with the Pirates in 1971-72. But his rate took a significant drop in 1974, and when he was traded to the American League in 1976 he slipped into the super-low zone. He still had a terrific year for the Yankees, going 17-8 with a better-than-league adjusted ERA, even though he walked more batters than he struck out. He was helped by an extremely low .251 BABIP (the league figure that year was .280) and a low home run rate. Ellis was traded twice in 1977 and wound up doing a good job for the Rangers (where his K/9 increased to 4.8), but after two more ineffective seasons he was out of the majors.
Ken Holtzman: Holtzman had a 7.0 K/9 as a rookie with the Cubs in 1966 and stayed above 6 through 1971. But when he was traded to the American League in 1972 his K rate dropped, and in 1976 it took another big tumble, all the way to 2.41. He still managed to be reasonably effective, going 14-11 with an adjusted ERA just slightly worse than league average, but he won only nine major league games after that season and was out of baseball at age 33.
Doyle Alexander: Alexander was a low-strikeout pitcher when he began his major league career but was super-low in 1976, when he went 13-9 with an adjusted ERA around league average, aided by a bizarrely low BABIP of .239. He went on to have an exceptionally long career for someone who started with such a low strikeout rate, pitching another 13 seasons in the majors, as his strikeout rate gradually improved, peaking at 5.5.
Dave Rozema: Rozema made the Tigers in 1977 as a 20-year-old and had an impressive rookie season, going 15-7 with a 3.09 ERA and leading the AL in fewest walks allowed per nine innings. But his K/9 rate of 3.8 did not bode well for his long-term prospects, and in ’78 he slipped into super-low strikeout range. His adjusted ERA was still considerably better than league average, although his record slipped to 9-12. After pitching more than 200 innings in each of his first two seasons, Rozema never threw as many as 150 innings in a season again, but he remained reasonably effective when he did pitch through 1985 and saw his K/9 rate gradually increase, peaking at 5.4.
Jack Billingham: Billingham had above-average strikeout rates as a young pitcher but took a big drop in 1973 and was a low-strikeout pitcher by 1975. He went super-low in 1978, as a teammate of Dave Rozema’s on the Tigers, putting up a 15-8 record with a league-average adjusted ERA. His K/9 rose slightly in 1979 when he had last effective season before being driven out of the majors in 1980. (In addition to Billingham and Rozema, the Tigers had another successful low-strikeout pitcher in that era: Mark Fidrych had a K/9 of 3.5 in his fabulous rookie season in 1976, helped by extremely low walk and home run rates, a .250 BABIP, and 16 caught stealing.)
Jerry Augustine and Lary Sorensen: These late-’70s Brewers teammates had multiple super-low seasons. Augustine wasn’t terribly effective in 1977 or 1978, although he did have a winning record in ’78. Sorensen was better, going 18-12 with a 3.21 ERA in ’78 at age 22, then posting winning records with adjusted ERAs slightly better than league average in ’79 and ’80. After spending 1981 in the National League and seeing his K/9 rise to 3.3 with the chance to face the occasional pitcher, he returned to the AL and super-low-strikeout status in 1982 and was strafed. Another Brewers pitcher in the super-low strikeout club was:
Mike Caldwell: Caldwell reached the majors in 1971 but had only one decent season (14-5, 2.95 ERA for the 1974 Giants with a 3.9 K/9) before coming out of nowhere to finish as runner-up for the Cy Young Award in 1978. He went 22-9 that year, 16-6 in 1979, and his K/9 rates were merely low those years. Beginning in 1980 he spent four straight years in the super-low zone, and while he had winning records all four years, his adjusted ERAs were worse than league average as he gave up a lot of hits and home runs. After a poor year in 1984 (with another super-low strikeout rate but not enough innings to qualify for the ERA title) he was out of the majors.
Paul Splittorff: The Royals’ lefty had K/9 rates of 5 or better in his first two full seasons but was a low-strikeout pitcher after the DH rule was implemented. His three super-low-strikeout seasons included his best, when he was 19-13 with a 3.40 ERA in 1978, although that was helped by a career-low .247 BABIP that was 33 points below the league average.
Ross Grimsley: The lefty’s K rate was about league average when he won 18 games for the Orioles in 1974, but his rate later went super-low. His 2.18 K/9 in 1977 remains the lowest for a pitcher with a winning record since Sandy Consuegra in 1954 (him again), then in 1978 with the Expos he had 20 wins and a 3.05 ERA with a 2.87 K/9 (that .249 BABIP helped). His decline from there was quick, as he put up a 5.35 ERA in 1979 and won only seven games after that.
Bob Stanley: Stanley went 16-12 with an adjusted ERA better than league average in 1979 and a K/9 rate of just 2.33. An extreme ground-ball pitcher, he got 35 ground-ball double plays turned behind him. This came on the heels of a 15-2 season with a 2.60 ERA in 1978, when his K/9 was 2.41 but he did not pitch enough innings to qualify for the ERA title because he was used primarily in relief. Stanley was one of the rare pitchers who actually saw his K rate steadily increase over time, peaking at 5.9 in 1986.
Tommy John: John never topped the 6.2 K/9 of his rookie year, but he was at 4.6 or higher every year until his famed elbow surgery in 1974. After the surgery he had two seasons with K rates of 5 or better before going to the Yankees, when he became a low-strikeout pitcher. He won 21 games with a K/9 of 3.6 in 1979, then in 1980 he became the last pitcher to win 20 games with a super-low strikeout rate, helped by the league’s lowest home run rate and 46 non-batter outs (as well as only two stolen bases against him all year). John had three more super-low strikeout seasons (although only the first of them could be considered a good season) and pitched his final major league game just after his 46th birthday in 1989. John and Mike Caldwell are the only pitchers since 1960 to have four seasons in which they qualified for the ERA title and had a K/9 rate below 3.
Bob and Ken Forsch: Never a big strikeout pitcher, Bob Forsch saw his K/9 rate plunge into super-low territory for three straight seasons (1981-83), the first two of which were good: 10-5 in 1981, 15-9 for the 1982 World Series champion Cardinals, with adjusted ERAs better than league average both seasons. He had only one season you could consider good after that, even though his K rate went back up, but he stayed in the majors through 1989, and his 168 career wins are the most for any pitcher with a career K/9 rate below 4.0 in baseball’s expansion era (since 1961). Older brother Ken had a K/9 rate as high as 6.7 early in his career but later had two super-low seasons, with winning records and better-than-league adjusted ERAs in each.
Rick Honeycutt: Technically Honeycutt had just one super-low strikeout season, 1981, but he deserves special mention for 1983. In 174-2/3 innings with the Rangers that year he had a 2.42 ERA with a K/9 of 2.89 (good control, a low home-run rate and a phenomenal 50 non-batter outs in just 25 starts helped considerably). But in August he was traded to the Dodgers, and he struck out enough batters in the NL to raise his overall K/9 for the season to 3.1. However, he had pitched enough innings in the AL to qualify for, and win, the ERA title for that portion of the season in which he had a super-low strikeout rate.
Geoff Zahn: Zahn was a career low-strikeout pitcher who went super-low twice. In 1981 he didn’t have a good year (leading the AL in home runs allowed didn’t help), but in 1984 he had an adjusted ERA considerably better than league average and led the AL with five shutouts. He didn’t allow a single stolen base against him all season. Zahn was 39 when the season ended and pitched just seven more games in the majors. When he had his best record, going 18-8 for the 1982 Angels, his K/9 was 3.2.
Scott McGregor: Never a high-strikeout pitcher, the Oriole lefty barely slipped into the super-low zone in 1983 when his K/9 was 2.98. He went 18-7 with a 3.18 ERA for the World Series champions (and pitched effectively in three postseason starts), then followed that up with a so-so year and several poor ones.
Mark Thurmond: Thurmond went 14-8 with a 2.97 ERA for the 1984 National League champion Padres but spent another six years in the majors without a winning record and became a full-time relief pitcher.
Here now are all the pitchers who had super-low strikeout rates from 1973 through 1984:
In the nine seasons from 1985 to 1993 there were only eight pitchers who had a K/9 rate below 3. A few of them had good seasons:
- Ron Romanick went 14-9 with a league-average adjusted ERA for the 1985 Angels. He won just five games in the majors after that.
- Andy Hawkins was 18-8 with a 3.15 ERA for the 1985 Padres. His K/9 had been 4.7 the previous season and was 5.0 the following year, so his super-low rate in ’85 was an aberration.
- Jeff Ballard put up an 18-8 mark with a better-than-league adjusted ERA in 1989 for the Orioles after entering the season with a 10-20 major league record. He went 8-23 over the next two seasons.
- Bill Gullickson is the last pitcher to have a winning record with a super-low strikeout rate, going 14-13 for the 1992 Tigers. He also led the league in home runs allowed that year and had a below-league-average adjusted ERA. Gullickson won 20 games for the 1991 Tigers, making him the last pitcher to win 20 with a K/9 rate of less than 4. He had a 7.7 K/9 as a 21-year-old rookie in 1980 but quickly became a below-average strikeout pitcher.
In the 11 seasons from 1994 to 2004 there were only two super-low strikeout pitchers, the last of which was Kirk Rueter for the 2004 Giants. Rueter didn’t have a good record that season, and he finished his career with an adjusted ERA worse than league average, but he did finish with a lifetime mark of 130-92 to give him the highest winning percentage (.586) for any pitcher in the expansion era with at least 70 wins and a career K/9 rate of less than 4.0. (It should be said, though, most of his best seasons came with K/9 rates of 4.6 or higher).
And in the past nine seasons (2005-13)? The lowest K/9 rate was Chien-Ming Wang‘s 3.14 with the 2006 Yankees, when he won 19 games with an adjusted ERA 25% better than league average. He also had the league’s lowest home-runs-allowed rate and got 53 non-batter outs (33 ground-ball double plays, 11 caught stealing and 9 pickoffs). He won 19 again the next year, but his K/9 jumped to 4.7.
Even including the era when super-low strikeout pitchers were not uncommon, it’s been hard for a pitcher with low strikeout rates to maintain a successful career of any length. I used Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index to search for pitchers since 1960 who meet these criteria:
- At least 100 career wins and
- A winning record and
- A career adjusted ERA of league-average or better
There are 183 of them. Here’s the breakdown by career strikeout rate:
- 4 with K/9 of 9+ (Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax)
- 15 with K/9 of 8-8.99
- 28 with K/9 of 7-7.99
- 48 with K/9 of 6-6.99
- 55 with K/9 of 5-5.99
- 28 with K/9 of 4-4.99
- 5 with K/9 of <4.00
Of those bottom five low strikeout pitchers, Paul Splittorff had the most wins (166), Larry Gura the best winning percentage, Bob Stanley the best adjusted ERA and Bill Lee the lowest K/9 (3.30). The other pitcher is Geoff Zahn. Zahn barely qualified, with a career record four games over .500, and Splittorff barely qualified with an adjusted ERA less than 1% better than league.
So it’s tough enough as a low-strikeout pitcher. But as a super-low-strikeout pitcher? Forget it. Since 1960, only nine pitchers have reached double figures in LIFETIME wins with a career K/9 below 3. The wins leader among them, by far, is Lary Sorensen with 93 — and he finished with a losing record and an adjusted ERA worse than league average. Only Jerry Bell had a winning career record, a better-than-league adjusted ERA and a career K/9 less than 3 — and he won a total of 17 games.
Have we seen the last of starting pitchers who strike out fewer than three batters per nine innings? People may have felt that way in the late 1960s and were proven wrong, but at this point it’s hard to imagine another super-low strikeout pitcher ever getting regular action.