July 12, 2001
The Daily Prospectus
5,715For the most part, we sort records into "breakable" and "unbreakable." Cy Young's record for career wins? Unbreakable, because pitchers don't get that many decisions anymore. Hank Aaron's record for career home runs? Very breakable, as players become stronger and the conditions for hitting home runs remain good. Other than the career runs scored record, which Rickey Henderson should break in September, the career record for saves, held by Lee Smith, is probably the one most in danger, barring a sea change in how relievers are used.
When Nolan Ryan retired a few years back, his record of 5,714 strikeouts looked to be unbreakable. He retired more than 1,500 whiffs ahead of his closest competition, and more than 3,000 strikeouts ahead of any active pitchers. Ryan's amazing late-career kick had put the record seemingly out of reach.
Now, though, I wonder if Ryan's record is as unreachable as it once appeared. Watching Randy Johnson on Tuesday night, I got to thinking about how far he's come over the past few years. As I mentioned back in April, he's overcome a late start to establish himself as a probable Hall of Famer, and at age 37 is on pace for his third straight 300-strikeout season and a possible fourth Cy Young Award. Johnson's strikeout rate and ability to pitch a ton of innings allow him to pile up strikeouts faster than any pitcher in the game.
One way of determining Johnson's chance of catching the Ryan Express is to use the Career Assessments method (formerly known as the Favorite Toy), a system developed by Bill James to estimate an active player's probability of reaching a milestone. The tool factors in the player's established pace, age, and distance from the marker to calculate the chance that the player will get the opportunity to be the lead story on "SportsCenter" for months at a time.
At the beginning of this season, Johnson needed 2,674 strikeouts to tie Ryan. The system uses a conservative estimate of 2 1/2 years remaining for Johnson, and, because of this, ends up estimating that he has no chance (or more precisely, a -.17 chance) of breaking the record.
While the premises behind the system are all accurate, and conservative by design, a record like Ryan's is only going to be broken by someone who operates outside the system's assumptions. As an example, no system, projecting Ryan at age 37, would have expected him to reach 5,000 strikeouts. It was his amazing longevity, coupled with his effectiveness, that gave him the opportunity.
Ryan and Johnson are similar in many ways. Each is a hard thrower who didn't get established as a rotation regular until they were 25, and each showed dramatic improvement in his control as they got older. Let's compare their career strikeout progressions side by side:
Age Ryan Johnson
Before Johnson was ready for a major-league job, Ryan had established a 468-strikeout advantage, and Johnson has been playing catchup since then. By the end of this season, though, he will have wiped out most, if not all, of that start. Johnson has been gaining on Ryan steadily over the past few years, ever since a bad back forced him to cut short his 1996 season. Ryan's innings-pitched advantage, as a starter in the 1970s vs. the 1990s, accounts for the rest of his strikeout advantage over Johnson at age 37.
Johnson should continue to gain on Ryan for the next couple of seasons (Ryan's age-38 and age-39 years). When Ryan was 40 in 1987, he struck out 270 men to kick off a four-year run of leading his league in strikeouts, and that's the part that's hard to match. From 40 through 43, Ryan struck out 1,031 batters, which would be an impressive four-year figure for Kerry Wood or Pedro Martinez now, much less in their fifth decade.
You never know with pitchers, which is why the Career Assessments' conservative nature makes sense. But a record like this isn't going to be set by a typical performer, and Johnson is anything but typical. He has already shown the ability to improve and adjust his performance twice, once to become a dominant pitcher (by commanding the strike zone) and once by adjusting his routine to deal with his ongoing back pain. I think Ryan's record is more accessible than most people do, and wouldn't be surprised to see Johnson make a late-career run at it.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.