If Clayton Kershaw continues his torrid strikeout pace for the final two months of the season, he has an outside shot at becoming baseball’s first 300-strikeout pitcher since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling both whiffed over 300 for the 2002 Arizona Diamondbacks. That was the Big Unit’s fifth consecutive season joining one of the more exclusive clubs in baseball. Since 1900, there have only been 33 such seasons by a pitcher. (If you are willing to count pre-1900’s seasons, there have been 64 300-strikeout seasons, with Matt Kilroy leading the charge. He struck out 513 batters in 583 innings in 1886 while also allowing 218 earned runs). Johnson and Nolan Ryan each have six 300-strikeout seasons to their name. Sandy Koufax and Schilling each have three. Pedro Martinez also has a pair. If you’re keeping score, those five pitchers count for half of the 300-strikeout seasons in the entire modern history of the game.
Johnson’s 2001 season may be the greatest strikeout season of all, followed closely by Martinez’s 1999 season with the Boston Red Sox.
In 2001, Johnson struck out 372 hitters. Taking the pre-1900 pitchers out of the equation, that ranks third all-time behind Ryan (383 in 1973) and Koufax (382 in 1965). That season, Johnson led the National League in ERA, strikeouts (obviously), ERA+, FIP, WHIP, H/9, and K/9. Opponents batted just .203 against him. Johnson made 35 starts and struck out double digits in 23 of them. He had a 20-strikeout game and three 16-strikeout games. All things considered, Johnson got just about as close to being a fielding independent pitcher as you can get. He recorded 49.7% of his outs via the strikeout.
What makes this 2001 season more special is the fact that Johnson diall this in the height of the Steroid Era. Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs that year, but he did not hit one against Johnson in his four starts against the San Francisco Giants. Bret Boone (yes, really) drove in 141 runs, Sammy Sosa hit 64 bombs, and Johnson’s own teammate Luis Gonzalez found a late-career power surge to hit 57. Overall, the entire league combined for 5,458 home runs — well over one per game — and nearly five runs per game. The league ERA was 4.41. Today, with an actual drug testing program, there are only five teams with an ERA higher than that.
Johnson’s 2.49 ERA led the league by nearly half a run. His FIP of 2.13 led the league by nearly a full run. He edged Mike Mussina 2.13 to 2.92 in that category. His ERA was 88 percent better than the league average for crying out loud. This season should go down in history as one of, if not the best pitcher seasons of all time. For me, it should be viewed as the most dominant strikeout season in the history of the game.
Look at Nolan Ryan’s 1973 season in which he set the single-season strikeout record. That year, Ryan led the league in only strikeouts and walks. Not taking anything away from an all-time great season, but it does not hold a candle to Johnson’s 2001 year, especially when you throw in the fact that the league hit almost 2,400 fewer home runs, and had an ERA of 3.74. Only four players hit more than 40 home runs in 1973, led by Willie Stargell with 44.
Koufax’s 1965 season does give Johnson a run for his money. That year, the second-to-last great Koufax season, he led the league in complete games, ERA, wins, strikeouts, FIP, and WHIP, among a few other categories. Still though, his ERA+ was 160, meaning 2001 Johnson was still 28 percent better than Koufax in his prime. Koufax was still pitching before the rules of the game were adjusted slightly to favor the hitter. In 1968, seven pitchers finished the season with an ERA below 2.00, led by Bob Gibson‘s modern era record of 1.12.
If there’s a contender to unseat Johnson as the greatest strikeout season of all-time, it has to be Martinez in 1999. Johnson set the all-time single season K/9 record in 2001 at 13.4. Martinez sits in second place from 1999 with a strikeout rate of 13.2. In terms of pure dominance, Martinez may have Johnson beat that year. In 1999, Pedro posted a 2.07 ERA, which was good for the tenth-best ERA+ of all-time — 243. His FIP was a microscopic 1.39. He did follow that year up with what may be deemed the best season by a pitcher ever (at least as deemed by the advanced metrics), posting a 1.74 ERA with a 291 ERA+ in 2000, but Martinez struck out only (ONLY) 284 that year. It’s worth nothing that in Pedro’s 1999 campaign, he made 17 of his 29 starts against teams with losing records. To be fair, however, his ERA was 1.78 against winning teams. Johnson made 18 starts against losing teams and 16 against winning teams in 2001.
The debate for greatest strikeout season, when considering all of the advanced metrics, comes down to 2001 Randy Johnson and 1999 Pedro Martinez. I’ll take Johnson thanks to his extended postseason run and the fact that he was slightly more durable than Martinez in 1999 and pitched closer to the height of the Steroid Era. To pick between the two is like deciding which of your two kids you love more. Martinez followed up his 1999 regular season with 17.0 shutout innings in the postseason. Not to be outdone, Johnson made five more starts and struck out 47, leading the Diamondbacks to their only World Series title. He won three games in the Series, pitched a complete game shutout, and shared MVP honors with Schilling. Both Johnson and Martinez arguably had even better seasons following their best strikeout seasons. Martinez posted that aforementioned 291 ERA+ in 2000 and Johnson upped his to 195 in 2002 while striking out 334 hitters.
Considering that Martinez and Johnson turned in arguably the two most dominant strikeout seasons when considering the external factors of the era in which they played, it is fitting that they entered the Hall of Fame together this summer. It’s never easy to look at over 100 years of baseball history and pick a definitive “best season ever.” Johnson and Martinez are definitely in the running, but if you are partial to Koufax or Ryan, there are not many people who will quibble with you. One thing we can all agree upon however, is that the honor does not belong to J.R. Richard and his 303 strikeout, 141 walk season in 1978.
So, let the debate begin. Who had the best strikeout season of all time?