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“To the extent reliever performances get unequivocally awesome, it occurs only over time; but, excepting full-season or full-career stat lines, we don’t really have the infrastructure to easily put performances like Giles’ in context. … I don’t know how rare 23 Ks over nine innings is. If I had to guess, I’d say… it’s a record? If it is, it’s such a buried record that nobody has bothered to ask him about it.” Me

Let's unbury this record.

We all know that pitchers have struck out 20 batters over the course of nine innings before. Those pitchers are, every child knows from school, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens (twice!), Kerry Wood and Max Scherzer. The nine innings stretched from the start of one game to the end of the same game, and are thus visible and recorded cleanly. Twenty strikeouts in a game is, I guess, the

  1. Longest hitting streak
  2. HR in a season
  3. Strikeouts in a game
  4. HRs, career
  5. Consecutive no-hitters[1]
  6. ERA in a season
  7. Homers in a game
  8. RBIs in a season
  9. Stolen bases in a season
  10. Hits, career
  11. Strikeouts in a season
  12. Saves in a season
  13. No-hitters in a career

third most well-known record in baseball, if we’re saying “well-known” equals people knowing the record and knowing at least one of the holders of it. So that’s our starting point: 20 strikeouts over nine innings.

1. The record is broken!
Well, it wasn’t a record yet. Maybe somebody had struck out 20 over the course of nine consecutive innings, but nobody knew it, because this is two decades before Roger Clemens’ first 20-K start. On May 18, 1965, Dick Radatz entered a game in relief, struck out the side in the 10th inning, struck out the side in the 11th, and then lost the game in walkoff fashion with one out in the 12th.

Radatz at this point had been the best reliever in the game, a fourth-year “closer” who had never started a game but had twice led the league in saves (again, nobody probably knew this at the time), made a couple All-Star teams, and earned MVP votes in all three of his previous seasons. He struck out at least 10 batters per nine in each of his first three seasons; the only other pitcher in baseball to strike out 10+ per nine in any of those seasons was Sandy Koufax, who did it once. Radatz was 6-foot-6, which made him the second-tallest player in the majors in 1965; by listed weight, he was the heaviest pitcher in the game, and Mickey Mantle—who struck out 12 of the 19 times he faced Radatz—called him the Monster[2], a nickname that stuck. “His fastballs arrived at 95 miles an hour, and he commonly pitched multiple innings in a game in relief,” according to the obituary that ran in the New York Times. He was the Dellin Betances of his day.

So after the walk-off loss, Radatz strikes out 15 in his next 6 2/3 innings, covering five appearances, including an eight-out save in which Radatz strikes out seven and allows only a single hit. Over nine innings, he struck out 21, allowed two runs on six hits and two walks.

Oddly, he was never good again.

2. The record is tied!
Fourteen times, actually. The next pitcher to do it was a starter, Nolan Ryan, who overlapped a six-inning, 13-K start and a 17-K complete game in just such a way to reach 21. (He would get to 21 again, in 1989.) Ron Davis, a fine reliever, reached 21 in 1981; he still trails Ron Davis Radiators in a Google Search. The list of players who got 21:

Before 1999:

  • Nolan Ryan, 1973
  • Ron Davis, 1981
  • Nolan Ryan, 1989
  • Roger Clemens, 1996
  • Pedro Martinez, 1997

After 1999:

Why split it up? Well, before 1999 those pitchers were tying a record. Afterward, they weren’t.

3. The record is broken again!
We’re used to big strikeout rates now, but in his time Billy Wagner was on another level. Through Y2K he had three of the four highest K/9 rates in history, and in 1999 he pushed up against 15 per nine. He wasn’t, and isn’t, properly appreciated for it; for a fair share of his career he even owned a record that nobody knew about. On April 11th, 1999, he came in for a save, struck out Brent Mayne and Stan Javier looking, got the final out on a flyball and then went on to strike out 20 more batters in his next eight appearances. To be the best of my Googling, this right here is the first time that Wagner’s achievement has been mentioned on the internet.

(He was, to be fair, aided by a no-out appearance in the middle of it in which he allowed all five batters he faced to score, and his cumulative line wasn’t all that sparkly over those nine innings: six hits, four walks, five runs on 178 pitches.)

The next year, the record was tied. Here are the 22-K stretches, before and after 2011:

Before 2011:

After 2011:

4. The record is broken, once more!
You already know there’s a 23 on the board, because that’s what the whole Ken Giles Thing was about yesterday. Giles wasn’t the first. Kenley Jansen was the first, when he struck out 23 batters in nine innings from Sept. 1 to Sept. 30 in 2011. He allowed five hits, no walks, needed only 141 pitches and faced only 33 batters. (Giles faced 38.) That’s 70 percent of batters he faced who struck out. (Kerry Wood struck out 69 percent of batters in his game, which might have been the greatest game ever pitched.) It’s still probably not the most dominant nine-inning stretch a reliever has ever had.

For that, I’ll cautiously throw my vote to Aroldis Chapman, one of three pitches (along with Giles and Betances, 2015-2016) to match the 23. Chapman’s stretch, from June 26 to July 23 of 2012, included no runs scored, just two hits and two walks, only 135 pitches, and only 31 batters faced. He struck out 74 percent of the batters he faced. He inspired the first ever episode of Effectively Wild!

In the absence of a more definite way of determining the best relief-pitching performances, I am tentatively calling this the greatest nine-inning stretch of regular-season relief pitching ever.

It is not, however, a record.

5. The record is broken! It can hardly be broken many more times, now can it!?
If the whole point of what I wrote yesterday was that baseball greatness is slipping past us almost without notice, and that the most exciting performances in modern baseball have no means of being recognized, this fifth and final stage should prove it. You’re aware, no doubt, that Edwin Diaz is doing some things. He’s got 16.8 K/9 this year, which is the third-best ever (minimum 30 innings). People have written about him—Aaron Gleeman did, and Jeff Sullivan did, for starters. One problem with writing too much about him is that we don’t really know what Diaz is yet, a small-sample supergod who’ll regress to merely awesome, or the greatest pitcher in major-league history. Most likely the former. But after 30 innings of a career, who can really say?

But records of this sort aren’t hindered by sample sizes. They’re defined by them. And what we could have been saying about Edwin Diaz, with 100 percent confidence and definitiveness, is that he just broke the record for the most strikeouts over nine consecutive innings. And, again, I believe I’m the first person who has ever mentioned it.

One reason you haven’t heard of it is that this isn’t just “hidden” by covering multiple appearances, but because it covers parts of multiple appearances. On June 28th, Diaz entered the game with runners on in the seventh. He got a flyball to get out of the jam, then a flyball for the first out of the eighth. And then:

  • He struck out the final two batters he faced, both looking.
  • On 6/30, struck out both batters he faced, both swinging
  • On 7/1, struck out the side (Jones/Machado/Davis) in his one inning of work
  • On 7/3, struck out the side (Machado/Davis/Schoop) in his one inning of work
  • On 7/6, went 1 1/3 innings, striking out three. Snaps streak of 11 straight outs on strikeouts.
  • On 7/8, entered to face one batter; didn’t strike him out.
  • On 7/10, struck out two batters in 2/3 innings.
  • On 7/16, struck out two batters in one inning.
  • On 7/19, struck out the side in one inning.
  • On 7/20, struck out the side in one inning.
  • On 7/22, struck out the first batter he faced (and then continued pitching).

Nine innings, 24 strikeouts. It’s impressive enough, sure, but think about what this means for a minute: We are three batters away from 27 strikeouts in nine innings. That’s the sort of thing that only exists in Matt Christopher books. Edwin Diaz is either going to hold this record for a very long time, or somebody is soon going to strike out 25 batters over nine innings.

We have reached the future. Edwin Diaz’s nine innings are either our flying cars or our sentient AIs. Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t. Maybe it’s progress, maybe it’s the start of the sport’s death spiral. Either way, it’s not to be ignored.

Thanks to Rob McQuown and John Choiniere for research assistance.

[1] not a real record, but somebody—maybe you!—would have complained

[2] “I struck him out in Yankee Stadium with the bases loaded and boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, he started cussing and Monster came out about the tenth word. He was cussing so loud that the press heard it."

[3] The active record-holder for starting pitchers.

Thank you for reading

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How about calculating Game Scores for all these 9-inning stretches?
Diaz's run gave him a Game Score of 78. He allowed 7 hits, a walk and 2 ER in those 9 IP.
Sincerely, bravo. And a big thank you, too.

A tangental bit I found interesting is your view of the most well-known records. No doubt everyone has been exposed to different hype. The levels of awe observed over records during this baby-boomer's baseball fanhood would rank:

HR in a season
Hits, career
HRs, career
Longest hitting streak
Longest games played streak
Most wins in a season since the 1930s
ERA in a [modern] season
Stolen bases in a season
Stolen bases in a career
RBIs in a season
No-hitters in a career
Strikeouts in a career
Saves in a season
Consecutive shutout innings
Strikeouts in a game
Homers in a game
Consecutive no-hitters[1]
Strikeouts in a [modern] season

"modern" is 20th or 21st century
Consecutive games with a HR - 8
Most grand slams in a season - 6

As someone who grew up with the Yankees of the 80s, these records are both very high up the list of memorable numbers for me.
Right now Giles is on a stretch of 5.2IP with 17Ks, with one groundout being covered up by the bonus K he picked up in his last appearance. If he gets Gattis behind the plate again, he could conceivably push this record up to 28 or 29....
I'm just here for the Matt Christopher name-drop.