Pitchers can succeed without striking batters out, but a failure to whiff shifts more of the burden to the defense. Based on what we know about pitchers and their controllable skills, limiting the number of balls in play increases the likelihood of a good outing. Strikeouts might not guarantee an out due to the dropped third strike rule, but they result in outs virtually 99 percent of the time.
Successful pitching lines lacking strikeouts are strange to the eyes. They’re even stranger when high-strikeout hurlers post them. You’d think a pitcher like Colby Lewis could easily record one punchout in seven innings of work, but in a May 10 start, he held the Athletics to one run over 7 1/3 innings. And he didn’t record a strikeout.
In honor of Lewis’ odd line — 7 1/3 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 0 K — I decided to research two items: the best non-strikeout games in the Retrosheet era, and the highest percentage of non-strikeout starts in a season.
The Best Non-K Games
The first step in evaluating the best non-strikeout games is determining the stat to use. I went with game score, a toy created by Bill James that gauges a starting pitcher’s performance based on his line. It isn’t an end-all metric by any stretch, but it’s usually a decent proxy and, like WPA, tends to tells a pretty accurate game story. A score of 50 equates to an average start. The average game score (GSC) for non-strikeout games is 34, well below what is considered to be an average outing.
Lewis recorded a 63 GSC in his strikeout-less outing, which is funny when compared to his previous start: He posted a 64 GSC on May 5 while striking out 11 hitters.
Is his 63 GSC on the high end of non-strikeout games?
According to Retrosheet it isn’t even close. Since 1950, there have been 18 games in which a pitcher finished with an 80+ GSC while failing to strike out a single batter. Given the game score formula, the maximum in a nine-inning game is 87, so the pitchers below came as close as possible to maxing out without achieving the highest score.
Ken Holtzman, 8/19/1969: 84 GSC, 9 IP-0 H-0 R-3 BB-0 K
Neil Allen, 7/20/1986: 83 GSC, 9 IP-2 H-0 R-0 BB-0 K
Barry Moore, 4/30/1967: 83 GSC, 9 IP-1 H-0 R-2 BB-0 K
Paul Minner, 7/1/1951: 82 GSC, 9 IP-2 H-0 R-1 BB-0 K
Doyle Alexander, 9/2/1984: 82 GSC, 9 IP-2 H-0 R-1 BB-0 K
Frank Lary, 8/3/1955: 82 GSC, 9 IP-2 H-0 R-1 BB-0 K
Holtzman’s game, in case you missed it, was a no-hitter without a single strikeout.
Highest Non-K %
The pitchers below posted the highest percentage of starts without a strikeout in a season, while making at least 25 starts: no, two K-less games in two starts doesn’t count!
What about in the post-strike wild card era?
Nate Cornejo 2003: 9/32, 28%
Kirk Rueter 2003: 7/27, 26%
Kirk Saarloos 2005: 6/27, 22%
Bob Wolcott 1996: 6/28, 21%
Scott Erickson 2002: 6/28, 21%
Mark Redman 2006: 6/29, 20%
Steve Trachsel 2007: 6/29, 20%
Colby Lewis might have posted a strange line, but his game was far from the best non-strikeout start in history. Pitchers with Lewis’ high strikeout rate don’t produce multiple K-less games, so don’t expect to see him listed among the pitchers on those last two lists when this research is inevitably updated.