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Sometime in the past few years, certain circles of modern sabermetric/internet baseball community became performatively disinterested in the no-hitter, which is one of those things I understood the appeal of but never really felt edgy enough to get on board with myself, like punk rock or those cool haircuts where you only shave the sides of your head.

The perfect game is still the pinnacle of single-game pitching achievement, but second place now belongs to the ultra-high strikeout game: pitchers who chase 18, 19 or even 20 strikeouts in a single nine-inning start.

Believe it or not, the 19-strikeout game is even rarer than a perfect game, though, near as I can tell, not for the same reasons.

There have been 21 perfect games since 1900, with the first coming in 1904—even though perfect games are more frequent now than they once were (six since 2009, nine since 1998), the perfect game as an achievement is more or less as old as Major League Baseball as we know it.

That’s not true of the 19-strikeout game, which first occurred in 1962, in a 16-inning start in which Tom Cheney struck out 21 Orioles. Steve Carlton was the first to strike out 19 batters in nine innings, a feat he accomplished in 1969, and including that start, only 10 times has a pitcher struck out 19 or more batters in nine innings.

Striking out 19 batters in a game was probably just not possible during the Deadball era, or really anytime in the pre-expansion era. Hitters just didn’t strike out enough—in 1947 the leaguewide K/9 ratio was 3.7. Last year it was 7.8.

So it’s rare, but looking at the list of 19-strikeout games, they’re not really all that good.

Which is more than a little surprising. The goal of pitching is to miss bats, and you’d think that anyone who does that enough to strike out 19 guys in one game would have sufficient stuff to avoid getting hit all over the yard otherwise. But only five of the 15 total 19-strikeout games were shutouts, while three times—Carlton in 1969, Nolan Ryan in 1974 and Randy Johnson in 1997—a pitcher struck out 19 batters and lost the game. Carlton and Johnson recorded negative WPAs in their starts.

You might think that this is because the kind of outing that would result in 19 strikeouts and only eight outs by balls in play would involve chase pitches and flirting with the edges of the zone, and therefore walks. But that’s not the case. The only pitchers to walk more than three and strike out at least 19 in a single game were Cheney, who pitched 16 innings, and Nolan Ryan three times, all in extra innings.[1]

Randy Johnson struck out 19 and walked none on June 24, 1997, but he allowed 11 hits—including two homers—and four earned runs. Ryan struck out 19 and walked two on August 12, 1974, but also allowed seven hits. From the inauguration of the 19-strikeout game until the 1980s, striking out 19 guys didn’t necessarily mean you’d pitched particularly well—it just mean that you’d pitched a lot. And usually that you were Nolan Ryan.

In more modern times, that’s changed. Four of the five complete-game shutouts with 19-plus strikeouts have come in the past 25 years, but even then, all six of the 19-strikeout games in the past 25 years have involved the starter throwing 122 pitches or more. Four of them got into the 140s, which would make such an undertaking nearly unthinkable in modern times. Strikeouts being as common as they are, it’s possible for someone to strike out 19, 20 or even 21 batters in a game, but not while allowing 10 baserunners—it’d have to be something like Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game, a relatively tidy outing in which he threw 82 of his 124 pitches for strikes, faced 29 batters and allowed one hit and one hit batter.

In other words, striking out 19 or 20 batters might not have meant pitching a great game historically, but you’d have to pitch a great game in order to get there under modern usage constraints.

Even so, it does seem to take a great pitcher to get to 19 strikeouts in a game, even if the game itself is only just okay. Leaving out Cheney’s 16-inning outlier, here’s the list of pitchers to strike out 19 batters in a game: Nolan Ryan (four times), Randy Johnson (three times), Roger Clemens (twice), Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Luis Tiant, David Cone and Kerry Wood.

Ryan, Johnson, Clemens, Carlton and Seaver are first, second, third, fourth and sixth on the all-time strikeouts list. Tiant and Cone were both upper-echelon pitchers for more than 10 years[2], and Kerry Wood could’ve been if not for, well, you all know.[3]

Which makes sense for more than the obvious reason. Getting to the top of the career strikeout ladder requires not only quality but quantity. Filthy, bat-missing stuff, but also stamina and durability. And if it’s possible for a one-game achievement to require both stuff and durability, an extreme high-strikeout game is it.



[1] One of those games included this gem of a line from Ryan: 13 IP, eight hits (including a home run), three earned runs, 10 walks and 19 strikeouts, which is probably the most Nolan Ryan pitching line ever.

[2] Cone won a Cy Young and led the league in strikeouts twice. Tiant had two ERA titles and led the AL in K/9 ratio once.

[3] Dusty Baker will pay one day for his crimes against Wood and Prior.

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GBSimons
4/22
"they're not really all that good."

All but two of those games had Game Scores of 82 or above, all the way up to 105 (excluding Cheney's 16-inning outing). I'd call those pretty good, with two exceptions.
jfranco77
4/25
Well.... this is true, BUT...

-start at 50
-add 1 point for each out (so you're already at 69)
-add 1 point for each K (so you're already at 88)

Yes, they'll lose points for hits and walks and runs, but starting from at least 88, it's hard to post a really bad score.
jfranco77
4/25
A timely article, given that Tanner Roark (of all people) went out and struck out 15 this weekend.
BrewersTT
4/25
Is Dusty at it again? Roark was left in for 121 pitches. And Stephen Strasburg gave up a game-tying homer on pitch #114 yesterday, after controlling the game up until that inning.