Not On This Day, Twenty-Seven Years Ago

'86 record breaker - topps

Let's watch a short video of the Mariners failing in historic fashion.

On a date relatively close to this one, not really quite but somewhat close to twenty-five years ago, the Mariners were historically awful. Witness Roger Clemens, doughy wunderkind and RBI Baseball Star decimate the hometown nine, via highlights delivered to your home or office via MLB's new partnership with YouTube. (Note: via iTunes, you can also buy the entire game for $1.99 here, along with some other great games from the past.)

1986 was the pinnacle of Young Clemens, as he led the Red Sox to a game of the championship and won both the AL MVP and Cy Young awards. His game against the M's turned out to be the fourth consecutive complete game to start off the season, all wins.

The Mariners were Mariners at this point in 1986, sporting a 7-12 record and batting a collective .207 on the young season. But despite those facts, Clemens wasn't facing a terrible lineup:

SS Spike Owen
LF Phil Bradley
1B Ken Phelps
DH Gorman Thomas
3B Jim Presley
RF Ivan Calderon
2B Danny Tartabull
CF Dave Henderson
C Steve Yeager

There's some talent there, and it's easy to see in retrospect why Bill James was legitimately excited about the Mariners heading into the 1986 season. "One gets the feeling," he wrote in the 1986 Bill James Baseball Abstract, "that somewhere between one and three of these kids is going to turn out to be a Hall of Famer." Sadly, it wasn't to be, but there was an undeniable amount of talent in the starting nine that night. Three of the batters had an OPS above .800 at a time when the AL average was .737. All, with the exception of retiring vets Thomas and Yeager, would be major league fixtures for years.

Watcing the video, one is struck by a few different things.

  • Perhaps it's just me, but some of the M's hitters seem to swing incredibly violently. Spike Owen seems to have confused himself at the plate with a normal-sized human being, and Jim Presley looked like he might have strained his double chin.
  • Ken Phelps stands so far away from the plate that I wouldn't be shocked to see umpires accidentally call time for him.
  • Speaking of Ken Phelps, it's wonderful that he foiled Clemens' bid for 21 strikeouts by grounding to shortstop with two outs in the ninth. Classic Phelps.
  • Alvin Davis, the team's star, had the night off. Despite his reputation as a slugger, Davis had the second lowest K% among the regulars, at 12.1%. Break for Clemens.
  • If he were to play in the Internet Age, Gorman Thomas would easily be one of my favorite players. He scored the M's only run of the game on a solo home run to center, which encapsulates his career pretty perfectly.
  • Three M's earned Golden Sombreros on the night, and one (Phil Bradley) qualified for the platinum level.
  • Meanwhile, Mike Moore, also encapsulating his own career, threw 7.1 innings of three-run ball and never had a chance to win.

How amazing is Roger Clemens's feat? It's difficult to quantify, but let's put it in perspective. Let's say that a random pitcher is allowed to face 1986 Gorman Thomas over and over again, until he gets 27 outs. Gorman Thomas has 377 plate appearances in his final season, and makes outs in 260 of them. Of those 260 outs, 105 are strikeouts, meaning that 40% of his outs are whiffs.

In such a scenario, the probability that a random pitcher would strike out at least 20 out of 27 Gorman Thomases is .000347. Pitch against him every day for an entire 162-game season, and that pitcher still has less than a 5.5% chance of earning 20 Ks in a game. Pitch against him every single day of his 1,436-game career, and the pitcher's odds elevate to a whopping 39.25%.

After April 29, 1986, only two pitchers have struck out twenty in a game; the first was Clemens himself, in 1996 against the Tigers, and Kerry Wood, who did it two years later against the Astros. But which of these was the most impressive? One would assume that it would be 1986, seeing as strikeout numbers have been steadily increasing over time.

Sadly, readers, this is where I fail you. My knowledge of binomial statistics can supply the odds of a number of trials at a rate p happening x times out of k, but I don't know how to extend the calculations to situations where p varies from trial to trial (like the strikeout rate of individual batters). Besides, to do even this is to oversimplify to a garish degree; there are all sorts of external factors that might dramatically affect p for all batters. For instance, the entire team may have come out of a demoralizing team meeting, or were suffering at the will of a master heckler, or perhaps all just ate the fish for the pregame meal. But the strike zone in the video footage isn't awful, and none of the Mariners vomit on live television, so we may have to assume that Clemens was just being extra Clemens that night.

Let's look at what we do know: the strikeout rate of the batters each pitcher faced. For this I used the yearlong statistics of each batter, which is again a generalization, but one I am willing to live with. Running the numbers, we get the following results:

Pitcher Year Opp Opp K%
Roger Clemens 1986 SEA 0.325
Roger Clemens 1996 DET 0.326
Kerry Wood 1998 HOU 0.295

Yes, Kerry Wood mowed down an Astros club with two Hall of Famers and six batters averaging under 20% strikeout rates. Kerry Wood was twenty-one years old. It was the fifth start of his career. Kerry Wood is currently ranked just ahead of Mike Witt in Baseball Reference's Fan ELO rater. It's pretty awful having to think about Kerry Wood.

And while Clemens's two accomplishments look equal, his performance against the Tigers was actually more difficult, because the average in this case belies the spread of strikeout rates. In the Tigers Clemens faced five batters with sub-20% strikeout rates, while the Mariners only sported two.

So the Mariners did not face the most dominating strikeout performance by a pitcher of all time, just the third most. Still, they had it happen to them first, so But even then, there's one person who bore even more indignity: Brad Ausmus. He was on the 1996 Tigers and the 1998 Astros.

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