Matthew Carruth made a post at Fangraphs recently regarding the correlation between swinging strikes a pitcher gets on his fastball and his K-rate and that between called strikes on the fastball and K-rate. Not surprisingly, it's the pitchers who can make hitters miss who tend to rack up the strikeouts. But what about those pitchers who like to live on the corners? The control artists who somehow manage to rack up strikeouts while, to the untrained eye, throwing what amount to BP fastballs? Surely these exceptions exist. We've all seen them, been baffled by them, been tricked into thinking we could hit Major League pitching by them. They have to exist, don't they?
Of course they exist. And there's one who stands above them all.
To find the pitchers who most excel at the called strikeout, we turn to Retrosheet's pitch sequence data to categorize each strikeout. Starting in 1988, we have most of this data available: from 1988 to 1999, 4.5% of strikeouts are left uncategorized, and the data from 2000 on is complete. Over this time, 70.4% of categorized strikeouts came on swings and misses, much like Mr. Carruth would have expected. 26.9% came on called strikes, and 2.1% came on caught foul tips. A handful came on other events, such as missed or fouled bunt attempts or swing attempts on pitchouts to protect a hit and run. This gives us an average ratio of called strikeouts to swinging strikeouts of .382.
It should come as no surprise that the pitcher with the most called strikeouts since 1988, in our partial sample, is Randy Johnson with 1231. He has, after all, struck out more hitters than anyone in the game over that period, and it's not even close. Roger Clemens is in a similar position of having a vastly greater amount of strikeouts than anyone below him on this list; he comes in at #3 on this list with 1202. The guy between them, with a full 1539 Ks fewer than the Unit and 728 Ks fewer than the Rocket, is Greg Maddux, with 1227 called strikeouts. Keep in mind that the 4 strikeout difference between Johnson and Maddux is nothing compared to the 4.5% of strikeouts from the late '80s and '90s that are missing from these calculations, and if we look at the number of uncategorized strikeouts each had and their called-strikeout rates, there's a 78% chance Maddux actually has as many called strikeouts as Johnson since 1988, and a 73% chance he has more. So we can say with reasonable confidence that Greg Maddux has more called strikeouts than any pitcher since 1988.
After these three above 1200, only two pitchers had more than 800 called strikeouts: Mussina at 902 and Glavine at 810. By sheer volume and ratio combined, Maddux is the clear king of the called strikeout, at least since 1988. The only pitchers who can touch his total are far behind him in called:swinging ratio, and the only pitchers who are in a league with Maddux in C:S ratio are nowhere near his total.
By C:S ratio alone, however, there are a handful of pitchers better than Maddux at keeping bats on shoulders that could have otherwise likely hit the ball. Maddux' ratio of .656 is still the 7th best among pitchers with at least 1000 strikeouts, but the top spot this time belongs to John Burkett. Burkett pitched for 5 teams in 14 full seasons and racked up 1766 strikeouts as a 2-time All Star. In our sample, Burkett struck out .838 batters looking for every 1 he struck out swinging, a full .100 better than the next pitcher on the list (Mark Garnder, with a ratio of .737 in 1256 Ks). From Gardner, there's another big drop to Mike Morgan at .676 in 1090 Ks, and then he, Rick Helling, Bartolo Colon, and Estoban Loaiza are pretty tightly packed in Maddux' range. Like I said, no one of Maddux' notability here. Burkett's 758 called strikeouts are actually 6th, right after Glavine, in our sample, but no one else here has even half of Maddux' called strikeout total.
If we set the cutoff at 2000 Ks to focus on the true strikeout pitchers, Maddux is the clear winner again. The closest to his .656 ratio is Mussina at .524. Glavine, at .507, is the only other pitcher here with at least half as many called strikeouts as swinging strikeouts. For comparison, Clemens' ratio is .458 and Johnson's is .363. Clearly, this generation hasn't seen another strikeout artist in the mold of Greg Maddux.
While Greg could certainly miss his fair share of bats (he's still 6th since 1988 in swinging strikeouts), there is no one else in recent memory who could fool hitters in the zone like he could. With his devastating late movement and complete command of every pitch he threw, hitters were damned if they did and damned if they didn't with Maddux on the mound. With his ability to make hitters walk back to the dugout without so much as a wave at the ball, he's raised more money for kangaroo courts across the NL than anyone in the history of the game, a record as untouchable as Cy Youngs 749 complete games, inflation be damned. In short, he's the best there ever was. Since 1988.