Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Sam McDowell and Pedro Martinez combined to collect 28 strikeout titles in their careers. Ryan has the second most with 11 and Johnson comes in third, with nine. With five, McDowell is tied for the ninth most, and Martinez falls outside the top 10 with three titles to his credit. Aside from this, Ryan, Johnson, McDowell and Martinez are linked by a more artificial means of recognizing strikeout excellence: from 1916-2012, the only pitchers to have five or more games in a season with at least 14 strikeouts were these same four (they accomplished the feat 10 total times, with Johnson accounting for six). In 2013, that quartet welcomed a new member when Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish had five such outings, captured his first league strikeout title and assembled a truly noteworthy strikeout season of his own.
The first of Darvish's five 14-strikeout games came in his first start of the season, when the second-year pitcher fanned 14 and lost a bid for a perfect game with two out in the ninth (if Darvish had fanned Marwin Gonzalez instead of allowing a single, his 15 K's would have been the most in any of the perfect games thrown). The fifth such effort came in mid-August and saw the right-hander set a career high with 15 K's while flirting with a no-hitter (he lost that bid in the eighth). Three of the five saw Darvish issue no walks (making him the third player since 1916 -- after Roger Clemens in 1997 and Johnson in 2001 -- to have three games in one season with 14 or more K's and no walks), and all five of the outings saw Darvish fail to record a complete game. Those five historic efforts saw Darvish throw 38 1/3 innings and tally 71 strikeouts for an otherworldly rate of 16.67 K's per nine innings. In his other 27 appearances, Darvish wasn't too bad either, reaching double digits in K's seven times and amassing 206 strikeouts in 171 1/3 innings. Rolled together, the Rangers' ace (who became the first American League pitcher since Johnson in 1995 to lead the Majors in both strikeouts and K's per nine) fanned 277 in 209 2/3 innings, for 11.89 strikeouts per nine innings. Both the raw total of whiffs and the rate of strikeouts were enough to engender the kind of perusals through the record-keeping that makes baseball so much fun.
• With 277 strikeouts, Darvish amassed the 49th-highest total in the Majors since 1893 and the 13th-highest total for an AL pitcher since the designated hitter was put into effect by the league in 1973. The 277 K's stands as the second-highest total in Rangers franchise history, behind the 301 assembled by Ryan in 1989.
• Only 24 right-handed pitchers since 1893 have achieved a higher season total than Darvish's 277 in 2013. His 277 were the most for a righty since Curt Schilling fanned 316 in 2002.
• Darvish's 277 strikeouts represented the highest total since 1893 for a second-year pitcher, with Darvish passing Dwight Gooden's 268 in 1985.
• With Darvish adding 277 K's to his rookie-year total of 221, his two-year tally of 498 represented the third-highest total since 1893 for a pitcher through his first two seasons. Only Gooden (544) and Herb Score (508) had more.
• Darvish's 11.89 strikeouts per nine innings represented the ninth-best rate for a qualifying pitcher since 1893, behind six seasonal rates by Johnson and one each from Kerry Wood and Martinez.
Greats racking up strikeouts at rapid rates
|Pitcher||Year||K/9||MLB SP K/9||K/9+|
Clearly, Darvish's superlative 2013 campaign offered myriad opportunities to connect with baseball's past and with some of the more recognizable strikeout names littered throughout the game's timeline. One name not yet referenced belongs to a right-handed hurler who dominated National League strikeout leaderboards for the better part of a decade while doing his work for Brooklyn: Dazzy Vance.
From 1922-31, Vance collected seven strikeout titles, paced the NL in K's/9 eight times and also led the Senior Circuit in K:BB ratio eight times. Those seven strikeout titles tie Vance with Lefty Grove and Bob Feller for the fourth most in history, and Vance's eight crowns in K's/9 place him in a tie with Rube Waddell for the third most. The future Hall of Famer's greatest season came in 1924, when he not only led the NL in strikeouts, but also paced the circuit in wins and ERA (claiming the Triple Crown), complete games, ERA+, WHIP, hits per nine, strikeouts per nine and K:BB ratio. He fanned 262 batters that season -- the most since Walter Johnson had compiled 303 K's in 1912 -- and claimed an extraordinary 7.65 strikeouts per nine innings. It may seem odd to describe 7.65 as extraordinary, coming so soon after highlighting Darvish's rate of 11.89 in 2013, but in the context of how the rates of Vance and Darvish looked against their respective peers, extraordinary might not be strong enough.
In 1924, NL starters (including Vance) finished the season with 2,646 strikeouts in 8,590 2/3 innings, for a strikeout rate of 2.77 K's per nine. For perspective, the lowest rate for a qualifying pitcher in 2013 was a 4.72 by Jeremy Guthrie, and in the AL as a whole, starting pitchers (including Darvish) finished the year with 11,458 K's in 14,323 2/3 innings, for a rate of 7.20 strikeouts for every nine innings thrown. In terms of K/9 separation, Vance's 1924 season looks sensational when referenced against Darvish's 2013.
When Vance posted his 7.65 K's per nine in 1924, that rate was the highest the Majors had seen since 1911, when Rube Marquard fanned 7.68 batters/nine, and it wouldn't be surpassed until Feller led the Majors with a 7.78 mark in 1938. Those three figures -- once benchmarks -- all now fall out of the top 500 for qualifying pitchers since 1893. It's a new game when it comes to strikeouts, and in 2013, Darvish was the new sovereign in this state of affairs. He adds to a rich legacy, one powered and kept alive with spectacular numbers and indelible memories, and in 2013, Darvish's season was brimming with both.
Roger Schlueter is senior researcher for MLB Productions. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.