September 25, 1998
Strikeout-to-Hit Ratio: Measuring Pitcher Dominance
As if you needed another reason to watch the Cubs this weekend...
I was sitting next to the TV Tuesday night, on one of my regular long-distance chats with co-author Joe Sheehan discussing everything from the Giants' wild-card hopes to whether the major leagues should establish a salary cap on new draft picks. The talk led to a discussion of our strat league, where I began to lament the strength of one our competitors' bullpen.
"Kenny's got Mariano Rivera, Ugueth Urbina, and Mike Jackson," I said.
"Ouch!" (Joe thumbs through NL stats.) "Geez, Urbina has got 90 strikeouts and just 37 hits! That must be some sort of record."
If the conversation had segued into some other topic right there - and most of our talks have all the focus of "Catcher in the Rye" - we might not have learned some interesting things.
But it didn't. Courtesy of my Franklin Baseball Encyclopedia - which can run some pretty nifty Leader Boards - we decided to see whether that was some sort of record.
The concept of a strikeout-to-hit ratio has been almost completely ignored, but it might actually have some value as a measure of just how dominant a pitcher can be. When you think of a pitcher who's unbeatable, you think of terms like "overpowering" and "unhittable".
Well, strikeouts are a great measure of a pitcher's ability to overpower a hitter, and what measures being "unhittable" like the number of hits given up? Put them together, and the strikeout-to-hit ratio measures a pitcher's stuff - his ability to take his defense out of the game and keep hitters flailing - in a very elegant fashion.
Mind you, we're completely ignoring a huge element of a pitcher's success - his control. Nolan Ryan, though a fine pitcher, was never as valuable as Greg Maddux is - but Ryan is the very epitome of a "power pitcher", and his strikeout-to-hit ratios are much more impressive than those of Maddux.
So what constitutes a good strikeout-to-hit ratio? Well, any pitcher that gets more strikeouts than hits is definitely a power pitcher; the NL average last year was 0.768, and the AL average was just 0.679. Those are both historically high numbers; in 1930, for example, the NL average was just 0.290 (!), and even as recently as 1980, the NL averaged just 0.573 K's for every hit allowed.
But what represents a truly dominant K/H ratio? Well, here's the list of the top 13 performances of all time (min. 50 IP).
These are the only thirteen times that the 2-1 barrier has been broken, and as you can see, the list is almost entirely made up of contemporary reliever. Ryne Duren broke the barrier in 1958, and it would be 29 years before anyone else reached over the line - but in the last three years alone, we've seen the 2.3 mark reached four times. Partially, this list is a testimony to Troy Percival's incredible run of pitching as a rookie and again as a sophomore, evidence of Armando Benitez's amazing promise, and a nice tribute to Rob Dibble, who as late as 1994 had the 3 highest ratios of all time. But keep in mind that the presence of so many contemporary pitchers on this list also reflects on the ways that hitting has changed as well as pitching.
Where does Urbina rank on this list? Well, as I write this, Urbina is up to 93 K's with just 37 hits, which would rank him third all time. If he strikes out five more batters by year's end without surrendering a hit, he would move ahead of Percival with the best K/H ratio of all time.
Incidentally, Billy Wagner has 95 K's and 45 hits this year (2.111 ratio), Trevor Hoffman has 85 K's and 41 hits (2.073), and even Percival has 84 K's and 41 hits (2.049). This truly is the era of the flamethrowing reliever.
Of course, you've probably noticed that the list doesn't have any starting pitchers; this isn't very surprising, given the difficulty of sustaining 101-mph fastballs for seven innings every five days. Here, then, is the list of the most dominant seasons every by a starting pitcher.
This list isn't nearly as dominated by active pitchers, due to two factors: 1) the period of 1963 to 1968, when pitching so dominated the game that the mound had to be lowered, and 2) Nolan Ryan. Ryan's statistical accomplishments top all sorts of lists, but this is one of the most impressive: he has the two highest K/H ratios of all time, separated by 19 years. Hideo Nomo's brilliance as a rookie has faded into his struggle to even stay in the Mets' rotation, but it was a truly remarkable season. Joining Ryan on this list multiple times are Randy Johnson (certainly no surprise), and Sudden Sam McDowell, who has been largely forgotten because of the brevity of his brilliance, but who probably deserves to be remembered as well as Sandy Koufax as the pitcher that hitters hated to face the most during the mid-to-late '60's.
So is there anyone pitching this season who threatens to make this chart? Just out of curiosity I decided to see where Kerry Wood would rank. What I found shocked me:
Kerry Wood: 233 K's, 117 H, 1.991 Ratio.
If Wood doesn't pitch again during the regular season - certainly a very real possibility - he would have the highest K/H ratio of all time. If he does pitch again, he would need to strike out at least twice as many batters as hits allowed to maintain the top spot. If he strikes out one more batter than that (as in, 9 K's with 4 hits, or 7 K's with 3 hits), he would be the first starting pitcher to crack the 2/1 barrier. I realize that there are more pressing issues in Cubland this weekend - like a three-way playoff chase, or guarding Wood's future - but you might want to keep this in the back of your mind if Wood does make an appearance on Sunday.