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Young players are frequently overmatched in their first exposure to major league pitching, which makes it all the more impressive when a player starts his career with a long stretch of plate appearances without a strikeout.

I researched the longest such streaks in MLB’s boxscore era (1919 onward). The second part, covering 1950 until 2011, will be in a post later this week.

I divided the results into two posts for a couple reasons. First off, we only have play-by-play for games from 1950 and later, so for these earlier games, we can’t say exactly how many K-less plate appearances players had in most cases. Secondly, there was a marked increase in strikeout rates that began in the 1950′s and has continued pretty much unabated since. After 1950, long streaks without a strikeout became increasingly rare (in fact, only a couple streaks from 1950 and later would be long enough to make the list below).

The “1st Gm” column is the date of the player’s 1st MLB PA (not necessarily his MLB debut). The “Last K-less Gm” is the date of the game before¬†the player had his first MLB strikeout. The “Games” column is the number of games the player had with at least 1 PA before striking out the first time.

Because we don’t have play logs for the games, I can’t say exactly how many PAs each player had before his first strikeout. Instead, I gave a range of possible values based on the number of PAs the player had in the 1st-strikeout game. I ranked the players by the minimum number of strikeout-free PAs they had–the first number in the PA column below. This first number assumes that the player struck out in the first PA of the game following the K-less streak. The second number in that column is the maximum number of PAs, which assumes that the strikeout didn’t occur until the final PA of the game.

I also included the number of walks before the first strikeout and the player’s team, just for kicks. Here’s the list:

Rk Player  1st Gm Last K-less Gm Games PA BB Tm
1 Riggs Stephenson
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1921-04-13 1921-05-08 21
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90-93 12 CLE
2 Johnny Peacock
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1937-09-23 1938-06-27 28
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77-80 4 BOS
3 Bill Drescher
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1944-04-19 1945-07-22 24
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69-72 5 NYY
Willie Jones
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1947-09-10 1947-09-28 18
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69-70 7 PHI
5 George Maisel
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1921-04-13 1921-05-07 17
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67-71 2 CHC
6 Doc Marshall
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1929-09-28 1930-05-05 16
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65-70 2 NYG
7 Fred Hutchinson
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1939-07-25 1940-09-29 26
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64 2 DET
8 Wally Gilbert
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1928-08-18 1928-09-05 15
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63-66 2 BRO
9 Bill Burgo
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1943-09-22 1943-09-30 14
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62-66 3 PHA
10 Tommy Holmes
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1942-04-14 1942-04-28 14
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59-63 2 BSN
Tom Jordan
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1944-09-04 1946-06-28 22
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59 1 CHW
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com
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: View Play Index Tool Used
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Generated 1/30/2012.

Riggs Stephenson

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doesn’t just hold the record for most PAs without a K to start his career, he also holds the record for most walks before his first K, with 8. And he leads both lists by large margins, too. He had at least 10 more K-free PAs than anyone else to start his career (this includes the post-1950 players), going at least 90 PAs before his first strikeout. And he walked 12 times in that span, too; I can’t find any other player with more than 8 walks before his first strikeout.

Most of these guys made this list because they are “put the ball in play” types; in other words, they didn’t strike out mainly because they didn’t work many deep counts. Thus, they also didn’t walk much. So it’s especially impressive for Stephenson to have 12 walks, since that means he must have seen a fair number of deep counts and still avoided the strikeout in each one.

Johnny Peacock

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struck out 73 times in 1938 career plate appearances (< 4%), which is about 3 full season’s worth of PAs. In the 2011 season alone, 178 players had more strikeouts than Peacock had in his career. But don’t think that the crazy-low strikeout rate made Peacock a better player; strikeouts for hitters just don’t mean much. For instance, Mark Reynolds
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had 196 strikeouts in 620 PAs (32%) last year, and he had an OPS+ of 119, which is 21 points higher than Peacock’s career-high OPS+ of 98. Granted, a backup catcher like Peacock isn’t expected to hit as well as a bad-glove 3B like Reynolds, but the point remains that the stingy strikeout rates of many of these players did not lead to offensive success.

Willie Jones

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was a two-time-All-Star third baseman nicknamed “Puddin’ Head.” That’s really all I need to say about him.

Fred Hutchinson

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is a fascinating case. He had 64 plate appearances combined between the 1939 and 1940 seasons, his first two in the majors, and struck out 0 times. Then, in the 1941 season, he got just 2 trips to the plate and struck out both times. After the 1941 season, he didn’t play again in MLB until 1946 (he was serving in World War II); after he returned, he had several good years, including 1951, when he made the All-Star Team.

Oh, and did I mention that Hutchinson was a pitcher? That’s right, a pitcher avoided a strikeout for his first 64 major-league PAs. That’s just amazing. For his career, Hutchinson hit .263 / .334 / .326, which isn’t exactly good (75 OPS+) but is phenomenal for a pitcher. He had 30 career strikeouts in 734 PAs, for a rate of just 4%. Even by the standards of that low-strikeout era, that’s excellent. For instance, it’s a lower K% than the most well-known contact hitter from that era, Joe DiMaggio

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(who struck out in 5% of his career PAs).

Probably the greatest player on this list is Tommy Holmes

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, who actually led MLB in home runs in 1945 with 28 (seriously, 28 HRs led the league that year). That was a Brady Anderson
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-like year for Holmes, who only reached double digits in homers in one other season (and that was just 13), but he was a valuable player in many other seasons as well. Which is more than most of these other players can say.

Bill Burgo

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had 4 career strikeouts, in 174 PAs. That’s the record for the most career PAs with 4 or fewer career strikeouts (since 1919 at least).

Tom Jordan

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had just 2 career strikeouts, in 101 PAs. That’s over 50 PAs per strikeout! Amazingly, Jordan doesn’t hold that record. Assuming a minimum of 1 career K (since we don’t want to divide by zero), Jordan ranks just fourth. First is the wonderfully named Mike Schemer
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, with 1 career K in 115 PAs, and third is Dixie Carroll
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, who had 1 strikeout in 59 PAs. But it’s the second-place player who is the most impressive: Joe Sewell
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, with 114 Ks in 8329 career PAs. That’s a rate of 73 PAs per strikeout. For his entire, 14-year, Hall of Fame career! Funnily enough, Sewell didn’t come close to making the list above, despite his strikeout allergy; he actually K’ed in his 2nd MLB game.

For fun, I looked up the record for most career PAs without any strikeouts. The recordholder since 1919 seems to be George Hockette

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, who had 30 career PAs and no Ks. Like Fred Hutchinson, Hockette was a pitcher. A couple of infielders who had cups of coffee in the ’70s tied for second, with 29 PAs each: Mike Eden
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and Dave Oliver
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.

Tune in later this week for the second part, which includes a surprising name near the top of the list.

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3 Responses to The Longest Streaks without a Strikeout to Start a Career, 1919-1949

  1. The Longest Streaks without a Strikeout to Start a Career, 1950-2011 | JunkStats
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    says:

    [...] The Longest Streaks without a Strikeout to Start a Career, 1919-1949 [...]

    Reply
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  2. Burly
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    says:

    What the hell, Joe Sewell. He once had a season (1925) in which he struck out four times in 699 plate appearances. In fact, he had three different seasons in which struck out only four times in more than 600 plate appearances. He struck out a total of 114 times in his major league career, a little less often than once ever 73 plate appearances.

    On the other hand, Sewell once had a season in which he was caught stealing 16 times in only 19 attempts. He is one of the less well known Hall of Famers.

    Reply
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    • J
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      says:

      Yeah, Joe Sewell was crazy… There’s nobody else like him in baseball history. Not the greatest HOFer but when you’re as absurdly good at one baseball skill as he was, I think there’s a place for you.

      Reply
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