Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Nuke's Debut

Whenever I watch Bull Durham recently, I'm always struck by this bit of dialog after Nuke's minor league debut between the manager, Joe, and his bench coach, Larry:
Joe: He walked 18.
Larry: New league record!
Joe: Struck out 18.
Larry: Another new league record! In addition he hit the sportswriter, the public address announcer, the bull mascot twice...
Eighteen walks and eighteen strikeouts. That's 126 pitches minimum, just accounting for those 36 batters. When you consider foul balls, basehits, groundouts, flyouts and the other pitches he might need to get through an at-bat, you really start to wonder just how/why he would be left in the game for so long.

Actually, with stats like that, you can really start to wonder if it's even realistic. According to the Wikipedia page, and some of the sources it uses, writer/director Ron Shelton played minor league ball with one Steve Dalkowski (nickname, "White Lightning"), who he modeled Nuke LaLoosh after. Dalkowski supposedly threw the ball "well over" 100 MPH, with some people claiming speeds as high as 110 or 115 MPH, and was just as wild. One claim, in this Sports Hollywood piece (which the Wikipedia article uses as a source), says that Dalkowski once struck out 24 batters in a minor league game while walking 18. Another claim says that he struck out 18 and walked 18 while pitching a no-hitter in high school. The minor league stats provided for Dalkowski say that he struck out 1,396 batters and walked 1,354 in only 995 innings pitched (and, in one season, struck out 262 and walked 262 in 170 innings pitched). The Baseball Reference stats are a bit less precise.

Personally, I take the claims about Dalkowski's velocity and some of his other outlandish feats with a big grain of salt. They just seem too ridiculous to me, and completely unverifiable. The minor league stats, though, are a little more palatable, if for no other reason than BR seems to corroborate some of the numbers.

But "White Lightning" isn't the point of this post. Instead, I wanted to take a look at the major league performances that were closest to Nuke's stat line. In other words, what pitcher combined for the most strikeouts and walks in a single game? Obviously, we're not going to find any 36 walk-plus-strikeout games like Nuke's, but it's a pretty good bet that we'll find a 25 or even 30 bb+k game.

I spent forever trying to figure out an easy way to do this with the Retrosheet database that I have, but I just couldn't do it. Thankfully, I remembered that Baseball Reference's Play Index is out there for everyone to use. I queried it to find all pitchers, since 1954, who struck out and walked 8 or more batters each in a given game, and then sorted that list by the total strikeouts-plus-walks. In all, there are 103 pitchers in the Retrosheet era who have done that, and 83 of them have done it in 9 or fewer innings. Nolan Ryan did it 16 times just himself, with four of those in the top 10 performances.

The top 1011 are:

Nolan Ryan.....June 14, 1974...13....10...19....29
Nolan Ryan.....Sept 10, 1976...9.....9....18....27
Bob Veale......Sept 30, 1964...12.1..8....16....24
Sandy Koufax...May 28, 1960....13....9....15....24
Nolan Ryan.....Sept 28, 1974...9.....8....15....23
Stan Williams..May 17, 1961....11....12...11....23
Sam McDowell...July 4, 1964....7.2...11...12....23
Steve Barber...Aug 13, 1961....11....11...11....22
Jim Maloney....Aug 19, 1965....10....10...12....22
Randy Johnson..June 24, 1993...9.....8....14....22
Nolan Ryan.....Aug 19, 1977....9.....9....13....22

In those 1011 games, the pitchers' teams won 7 games and lost 4. Of the full 103 games, the pitchers' teams went 65-37-1. Clearly, the strikeouts more than offset the walks in these types of games. The most impressive of these games, of course, is Nolan Ryan's 9-inning, 9-walk, 18-strikeout game from September 1976. In only 9 innings, Ryan either walked or struck out 27 batters, for an average of 3 per inning. The Sam McDowell game in July 1964 , where he walked and struck out 23 batters in 7.2 innings, also averages out to 3 per inning, though the 11 walks seem to make it a little less impressive. Johnson's appearance from June 1993 is the most recent game on the list for quite a while. You have to drop all the way down to #41, where you'll find a Daniel Cabrera, 9-walk, 10-strikeout performance on April 12, 2006, to find a more recent game.

Finally, since Nuke LaLoosh's 18-strikeout, 18-walk game was in his debut, I thought it'd be a good idea to see what pitcher had the most walks-plus-strikeouts in their major league debut (or their near-debut). There are only two players who meet the criteria, but they are both fairly well known. Witt's line is especially interesting.

Herb Score.....Apr 15, 1955....9.....9....9.....18 (ML debut)
Bobby Witt.....Apr 17, 1986....5.....8....10....18 (career game #2)

There are no Nuke LaLoosh (or even Steve Dalkowski) type games in the Retrosheet era of Major League Baseball, but there are still some interesting games out there. I can't imagine seeing another 9-walk, 18-strikeout performance again, but, as baseball proves repeatedly, there's always room for surprises. I do feel pretty comfortable in saying that we will never see an exact copy of Nuke's game in the major leagues. He's just going to have keep that one for himself.

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