You probably want to know where in the world this article is coming from. Well, I was running a simulation in Out of the Park Baseball, leading the Marlins to their 10th straight World Series championship, when something caught my eye: an auto-generated pitcher threw a complete game while allowing four earned runs. That alone would probably never happen in today’s version of Major League Baseball, but that wasn’t the best of it.
Along with those nine innings and four earned runs given up that resulted in a win (and likely makes Jacob deGrom want to launch a chair across a room), he also allowed 10 hits, which, assuming no extra innings, is automatically more than a 9.0 H/9…and struck out 16 batters.
Now, striking out 16 or more in a game is rare in itself; in Major League Baseball’s 152-year history, just 135 games — 23 aided by at least one extra inning — have seen a starting pitcher strike out at least 16 batters, the latest one by Walker Buehler in 2019. Sixteen of those games were by the great Nolan Ryan. Another 13 were orchestrated by Randy Johnson, all in 9-inning performances (one of his 20 strikeout games went to extras, but he only pitched nine innings). In comparison, there have been 309 — 310 in some’s eyes — credited no-hitters in Major League history, and Ryan (twice) and Max Scherzer are the only ones to throw a no-hitter while striking out more than 16.
Similarly, a starter going more than seven innings while allowing four or more runs and allowing slightly more (or a lot more) than a hit is becoming a rarity in the era of dominant bullpens. Since the start of the 2015 season, starters have gone seven innings with 10 hits and four earned runs allowed just 33 times, and just 18 times since the 2017 season. Just to show how much baseball has changed, 107 of these lines appeared from 2010 to 2014. Not one of the 140 lines from 2010 to now had a complete game, and just two pitchers had 10 strikeout games in that time frame. Such performances in the 21st century have been and will continue to be, limited to starts by veterans where heavy bullpen rest is needed.
The level of dominance of a 16-strikeout game is rare, but it is rarer when that dominance is coupled with what most would call a “bad start.” Because I had believed that it had never happened before, I decided to fire up Baseball Reference’s Stathead Game Finder to find starting pitcher lines with this exact criteria:
- Complete game
- 4 or more earned runs allowed (yes, I am aware of the subjectivity of an earned run)
- 10 or more hits allowed
- 15 strikeouts or more
And out of the 220,752 games played in baseball history (at the time of this writing), this kind of performance has happened three times in Major League history. Three.
|Randy Johnson||1997-06-24||SEA||OAK||L 1-4||CG, L||9.0||11||4||4||0||19||2||68||4.00||-0.021|
|Mickey McDermott||1951-07-28||BOS||CLE||W 8-4||CG(16), W||16.0||11||4||4||1||15||0||98||2.25||0.568|
|Tom Hughes||1901-07-31||CHC||CIN||L 4-5||CG, L||13.2||13||5||5||6||15||0||72||3.29|
Considering two of them were in extra innings where hits and strikeouts are bound to be inflated — McDermott didn’t even reach a 9.0 H/9! — the one glaring performance that stands out is by Randy Johnson in 1997, the day he set an American League record for strikeouts by a left-handed pitcher.
Now, one could argue that Johnson’s performance wasn’t that bad. There is no way to determine the quality of hits off of Johnson in 1997, but a .563 BABIP and a 1.78 FIP, the former number the highest he endured that season and one of the highest marks in his career, gives a slight indication to the quality of some of those 11 hits. Exactly 100 of his 142 pitches were strikes (25 swinging), a 70.4% strike percentage, and 25 batters faced a two-strike count.
That all said, Mark McGwire hitting an 896-foot* bomb (guessimate) all the way to Vancouver still doesn’t bode well:
Mammoth home run aside though, this is still a pretty dominating performance with a (potential) load of bad luck. In today’s era of baseball, could we see performances like this in the big leagues? Can a starter pitch enough for a game to be considered a quality start and have what would be considered a quality game, but actively not be credited with a quality start? Let find out.
Obviously, a pitcher having such a day in a complete-game effort is almost impossible in today’s game of baseball. Just two starters have thrown a complete game while giving up at least four runs since 2016, and Bartolo Colon is the only one to do it with all four runs being earned. In that same time frame, just 100 games saw a starter throw a complete game while allowing a run, period – a majority of them by Ivan Nova and other crafty veterans.
So, for this purpose, I have condensed the criteria a little bit. When searching for non-quality but also kind-of-quality games (mouthful, I know) through the last five seasons and the approximate 20.9 percent of the 2021 season, I followed this criteria. It is not an exact ratio of nine innings, 10 hits, 15 strikeouts, but I tried to get it close.
- 6 or more innings (originally wanted seven, but it hasn’t happened in history)
- 4 or more earned runs allowed
- 7 or more hits allowed
- 11 or more strikeouts (Baseball-Reference Stathead)/16.5 or higher K/9 (Fangraphs)
Stathead gives us 11 performances of this caliber, with six of them going an extra third of an inning or more. By using Fangraphs’ tools, we are able to narrow this down to six.
|Felix Pena||2018-08-21||LAA||ARI||L 4-5||GS-6||6.0||7||4||4||2||12||1||0||91||62||52|
|Corey Kluber||2017-07-29||CLE||CHW||W 5-4||GS-7||6.1||9||4||4||1||12||1||0||98||72||50|
|CC Sabathia||2016-08-17||NYY||TOR||L 4-7||GS-6, L||6.0||9||7||7||1||12||1||0||98||70||37|
|Luis Castillo||2019-08-27||CIN||MIA||W 8-5||GS-6, W||6.0||7||5||5||2||11||1||0||109||74||47|
|Aaron Sanchez||2019-05-12||TOR||CHW||L 1-5||GS-6, L||6.0||9||5||5||2||11||2||0||103||66||43|
|Mike Clevinger||2018-07-09||CLE||CIN||L 5-7||GS-7, L||6.0||7||5||5||3||11||1||0||107||71||46|
None of these games touch the dominance of Johnson’s performance — nor do they touch the 51.4% strikeout rate he had — but they are still impressive to look at. The rate stats are certainly all small sample size, but they do give a glimpse into what happened that day that allowed such a weird performance. For example, Aaron Sanchez’s six-inning, five-earned run, eleven-strikeout performance does not impress me as much as Luis Castillo’s performance because of the lower strikeout rate and the exponentially-higher FIP.
Unlike the Randy Johnson performance, we can go to Baseball Savant and find out exactly what happened in these games. CC Sabathia allowed seven runs in that performance against the Blue Jays, but, a master of soft contact in the last half of his career, had allowed just five hard hits (29.4%) and one (albeit very costly) barrel to Melvin Upton Jr. The contact he allowed in that game amounted to a .200 xBA throughout the game, an indicator of some awful luck. Similarly, Luis Castillo allowed just four hard-hit balls and a barrel (26.7 HH%) for a .192 xBA, but all but one of those hard-hit balls came in one three-run inning. Both of them also generated 19 and 17 swinging strikes, respectively.
Meanwhile, Aaron Sanchez allowed 11 hard-hit balls in his outing, a 68.8 percent hard-hit rate that game, and had a .312 xBA against. That includes the five straight smoked baseballs that accounted for all five of the runs he gave up. Even then, he was able to get 18 swings-and-misses and strike out 37.9% of batters he faced.
But the most impressive game on this list belongs to Felix Peña, who, on August 21, 2018, struck out 46.2% of the 24 hitters he faced, allowed just THREE hard-hit balls, but because of a two-run homer, a not-so-hard hit single, and a bloop single, and only allowed an average .161 xBA, he had four runs attached to him. The .600 BABIP does not do Peña’s performance justice at all.
Whatever the case may be, from Johnson to Peña, these are weird pitching performances. It is one thing to have a bad start and be out in five innings or less, but it’s another thing to get tagged for four runs and still, from a strikeout standpoint, be able to dominate. It is a unique combination of great pitching and either awful batted ball luck or every ball put in play that’s not a strikeout being a missile, which simply does not happen that much. It is also the calm reminder to baseball fans that an at-bat, an inning, a ballgame, can fall apart on things relatively out of a pitcher’s control, and why new-age scouts look for those that miss bats and not necessarily induce soft contact.
These weird performances will continue to happen, and they are obviously a fun watch. But who will have that Randy Johnson type of start of pure dominance but not again? The answer is likely no one.
To strikeout 16 in a game would require dominance rarely seen in the 21st century. Unless a pitcher is having a two-true-outcome performance, where any hitter that doesn’t strike out is getting on-base via base hit, there is no way a pitch count will remain low enough to convince a manager to keep him in. The veterans that are allowed to do this are not striking out 16 batters — sans deGrom, Cole, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander, maybe — and the stars that would strike out 16 batters in a lengthy performance are likely not giving up a bunch of hits, batted ball luck or not.
So while the Felix Peña and CC Sabathia-like performances will stick around, Randy Johnson will always have that one legendary performance where he completely shut down a team for nine innings…except for the times that he didn’t. And the mini ones that we will see in the 21st century will be fun to follow too.
(I now have to come up with a name for these kind of performances and search for them every day now like an aspiring stat chaser, huh?)