When Steve Carlton was the Strikeout King

By Blaidd Drwg

Really Goosh? How?
Really Goosh? How?

I recently decided to buy back a small piece of my youth and purchased a 1984 Topps complete set. It was fun reliving the memories of the 1983 season and my 10 year old self putting together the set. Living in NJ in 1983, there was excitement over the big rookie in NY that took the league by storm – Darryl Strawberry. His rookie card is in that set, along with another NY rookie who wouldn’t really make an impact until the next season – Don Mattingly. There are also cards of a very young Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken, Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg, a very old Pete Rose and my all-time favorite name Doug Gwosdz (pronounced GOOSH, had the nickname “Eyechart”).

One of the cards that caught my eye was a highlights card that had Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan and Gaylord Perry on it. I had forgotten this, but 1983 was the year that Walter Johnson’s 55+ year old record for strikeouts in a career fell, and 3 pitchers managed to pass the total of 3,509. Here is the way things stacked up going into the 1983 season:

Player Age Strikeouts
Walter Johnson n/a 3,509
Nolan Ryan 36 3,494
Gaylord Perry 44 3,452
Steve Carlton 38 3,434
The card that inspired the post.
The card that inspired the post.

Obviously Nolan Ryan was the one who was going to break the record first give he was just 15 behind Johnson going into the season. Ryan was starting to look like it might be near the end for him – he had been good but not great for a couple of seasons, so 4,000 strikeouts looked like it might be his upper limit. Perry was a bit of a longshot to catch Johnson because of his age and general ineffectiveness over the previous few seasons. Carlton, despite 1983 being his 38 year old season, had come off this 1982 season:

  • Cy Young Award
  • 295 IP
  • 23 Wins
  • 19 CG
  • 286 K
  • 5.5 WAR

Ryan passed Johnson first and then Carlton and then Perry. Something strange then happened at the end of 1983. Here is how Ryan and Carlton pitched that season:

W-L ERA IP SO
Carlton 15-16 3.11 283.2 275
Ryan 14-9 2.98 196.1 183

Carlton again led the league in IP AND SO, at age 38! So despite being the first pitcher to pass Walter Johnson, Nolan Ryan was not the all-time strikeout leader at the end of 1983:

Player Age Strikeouts
Steve Carlton 38 3,709
Nolan Ryan 36 3,677
Gaylord Perry 44 3,534
Walter Johnson n/a 3,509

Carlton was not nearly as good at age 39 in 1984 (nor for the rest of his career) and Ryan was about as good as he had been the previous 4 seasons, allowing Ryan to finish up 1984 as the all-time strikeout leader, a spot from which he never looked back, adding 1840 strikeouts to his career total after age 37. Since Johnson’s record was initially broken, 5 other pitchers passed the 3,509 total. For one brief season, Steve Carlton was baseball’s all-time strikeout king.

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