Randy Johnson. Tim Lincecum. AJ Burnett. Johan Santana. Pedro Martinez. Roger Clemens. Those are the names you hear about when it comes to "strikeout" pitchers. But no one knows about how the strikeout pitcher evolved over time.
Back in the old times, baseball was dominated by the perfection of the hit-and-run, the steal, base running and hit location. As far as pitcher goes, all you had to do to be successful was be able to locate your pitches well and be able to mix effectively.
Now, that is not even close to enough. You're not even considered a hitter if you can't hit home runs. A shortage of homers by a player can run him out of a job. As far as pitcher goes, you're going to need a fastball in the mid 90s or it will be incredibly hard to be successful and you're going to not only be able to locate, but be able to mix pitches and be a guy who can strike batters out easily.
The first recorded strike out leader was in 1871, when Al Pratt of the Cleveland Forest Cities struck out 34! It seems amazing to us baseball fans now that 34 punch outs can lead the league. It's even more amazing, considering Lincecum had 36 strikeouts in his first five appearances!
In 1874, Dan Collins of Chicago led with 18, a feat several pitchers accomplished in single appearances this year! Nobody even had 100 strikeouts in a season, until 1876, when Jim "Pud" Devlin led with 122 for the Louisville Grays ball club. Tommy Bond led the next year with a grand total of 170, a grand total not to be broken until the next year, when Bond notched 182, a new record.
That record stood until 1879, when John Montgomery Ward became the first 200-strikeout pitcher, when he struck out 239 batters. Much of this is due to the length of the major league season and the dead ball. Their were around 100 games played for a team each year. Also, the ball was quite hard to hit, which made strikeouts more likely an option.
After Ward's record was shattered by Larry Corcoran the next year, both Tim Keefe (New York Metropolitans) AND Jim Whitney (Boston Beaneaters) shattered the record. Keefe racked up 361 and Whitney racked up 345. That record was broken twice the next season, this time by Charlie Radbourn and Guy Heckler. Records would be shattered over the years.
The first famous strikeout pitcher was Amos Rusie. "The Hoosier Thunderbolt" threw so hard, when he beaned future Hall of Famer Hughie Jennings in the head, Jennings almost died. Rusie never broke any records, but was the first known to just strike out 13-20 batters a game—on demand.
In 3769 and two thirds innings, he struck out 1704—a number modern fans would scoff at. However, he managed to win five strikeout championships, a pitching triple crown and compile a 245-174 record. That is not something to be scoffed at.
Let's fast-forward to 1920, the end of the dead-ball era. Grover Cleveland Alexander led with just 173. More notably, in the American League, Stan Coveleski led the charge with a mere 133 punch outs. So you see, the dead ball played a huge factor in the league leaders in strikeouts.
Lets forward to say-1974? Nolan Ryan led the league with 367. He is, in my opinion, and hopefully many others - the best strikeout pitcher in baseball history. However, I don't think he was that great of a pitcher. Back in the olden days, the pitchers had to know more about the fundamentals of baseball, be able to induce the ground ball and all in all, they had to be a master of their craft.
Now, they just have to have power, it seems. Believe it or not, Nolan Ryan himself wasn't that great a pitcher. A .526 winning percentage and 292 losses don't really say he's the best ever, like some say.
Let's analyze this year. Tim Lincecum led the National League and Major League Baseball with 265, 61 ahead of runner up Johan Santana (pictured, No. 57). In the American League, the leader was AJ Burnett, with 231. Burnett isn't even a great pitcher. Sure, he was 18-10. Sure, he led the league. However, he's very decent to lead the league in anything, with a career record of 87-76.
Burnett was leader once, while Hall of Famer Chief Bender never led the league in an incredibly successful 16-year career. In fact, Bender was in the top five in the American League in strikeouts three times. Burnett will never be half the pitcher Chief was. While the evolution of the strikeout pitcher is phenomenal, the strikeout is kind of a useless statistic.