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For the record: Ron Villone becomes Randy Johnson

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Remembering one of the most random acts of pitching dominance ever witnessed.

Ron Villone #41

Since the start of the 1920 season, there have been 105 occasions in which a pitcher struck out 16 hitters in one nine-inning game. In that same amount of time, there have been 199 individual no-hitters, making the 16-strikeout game nearly twice as rare as one of baseball’s most sought-after accomplishments. The 1920 barrier is a convenient one to use, since it starts the live ball era, but really, the 16-strikeout game didn’t become a thing for nearly 35 years afterward, save for one by Dizzy Dean and three by Bob Feller in the 1930s.

Over the last 65 years or so, it’s happened with a little more consistency, with the exception of one major spike. You might suspect that spike happened in the last few years, as the leaguewide strikeout rate has exploded, but that isn’t the case. It actually happened about 20 years ago.

From 1969-84, there were 20 16-strikeout performances. There were another 20 from 1984-96. Then, 20 more happened in a span of just five seasons, from 1997-2001. But this spike couldn’t really be pinned to an increase in leaguewide strikeout rate. Sure, it was higher during this period than it had ever been, but it was still nowhere near today’s levels. What really happened, it seems, is that a number of the game’s all-time greatest strikeout artists all reached a peak around the same time, and did so just before things like pitch counts and innings limits became much of a concern. It wasn’t that pitchers all over baseball were suddenly racking up enormous strikeout totals — it was a few guys doing it at unprecedented levels. Those 20 16-strikeout performances from 1997-2001 were turned in by just seven pitchers.

Untitled

Pitcher No. of 16-K games
Pitcher No. of 16-K games
Randy Johnson 8
Pedro Martinez 4
Roger Clemens 2
Kerry Wood 2
David Wells 1
Curt Schilling 1
David Cone 1

You could argue top of this list features three of the five best pitchers of all-time, and the second half of the list features: Someone who would currently be in the Hall of Fame if he wasn’t a total shithead; the author of one of the most famous pitching performances of all-time; and two of the more under-appreciated pitchers of their era. With the possible exception of Wells, they were all famous for their ability to strike people out. You might notice, however, that only seven guys are listed here, and I promised you eight. The eighth one is who we’re here to talk about, because frankly, there’s no way he should be in this group.

His name is Ron Villone.

*****

Like I said, 16-strikeout games are rare. Going back to 1920, the Cincinnati Reds have had only two pitchers accomplish the feat in a nine-inning game. One was Jim Maloney, who fanned 16 batters in 8.1 shutout innings against the Milwaukee Braves on May 21, 1963. Maloney finished 19th in MVP voting that year, leading the majors in K/9 and turning in his first of four-straight seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA. His career came to an end far too soon, but in terms of his peak, Maloney was an all-time Reds great, and exactly the kind of pitcher you’d expect to have an historic strikeout performance on the mound.

Villone was, uh, not.

Don’t get me wrong, Villone could miss bats. He was the 14th overall pick by the Seattle Mariners in 1992 for just that reason, after the left-hander struck out 89 batters in just 59.1 innings in his final season at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In the time between when he was drafted and when he signed, he briefly pitched in the Cape Cod Baseball League, where he struck out 32 batters over his first two starts. Soon after starting his pro career, he was moved into the bullpen, where his strikeouts continued to go up. In 1995, his first year in the majors, Villone struck out 63 hitters in just 45 innings.

His strikeout numbers could have made him one of the more exciting relievers in the majors, but Villone had a command problem. His first big league season, he walked 6.8 batters per nine. The following year, he walked 5.2 per nine. He was traded during each of his first two seasons — first from Seattle to San Diego, then from San Diego to Milwaukee. Once with the Brewers, Villone’s strikeout numbers fell below seven per nine, and remained there after he was traded once again, this time to Cleveland after the 1997 season. To make matters worse, Villone’s imploding strikeout figures didn’t coincide with drop in walks. From 1997-98, he walked more batters (58) than he struck out (55), while also giving up more than a hit per inning.

It took until April 5, 1999 for Villone to find a new team, when the Reds signed him and stashed him in Triple-A. There, he continued to work out of the pen, but when he was finally brought to Cincinnati in mid-May, he began to take on more of a long relief role. He tossed at least three innings in three of his first five appearances with the Reds, and held opponents scoreless in every one of them. That impressed the team enough that, when a hole opened in the rotation in June, Cincinnati asked Villone to fill it. Starting for the first time since he was in the low minors about five years prior, Villone wound up making 22 starts for the Reds in 1999, and finished with a 4.23 ERA (110 ERA+).

The team kept him there in 2000, but this time, it backfired. Villone entered the All-Star break with a 5.98 ERA, 51 walks and just 39 strikeouts in 87.1 innings. The Reds moved him back to the bullpen, only to return him to the rotation in late August. By then, even though Cincinnati was in second place, the division and wild card races were mostly out of reach. Even as the team played well through September, it wasn’t enough to make the final series of the season, a trip to division champion St. Louis, anything more than a formality.

On the final Friday night of the season, with nothing to play for, the Reds gave the ball to Ron Villone.

*****

Since 1920, there have been 105 occasions in which a pitcher struck out 16 or more batters in a nine-inning game. Those performances have come from a total of just 55 pitchers. In other words, if a pitcher has done it, he’s just as likely to have done it multiple times as he is to have done it only once. That’s because striking out this many hitters in such quick fashion requires a very specific skill — one you either possess or you don’t. Plenty of guys could throw a no-hitter, given a variety of combinations of ability, luck, opponent and defense. To strike out this many hitters, however, requires swing-and-miss stuff that is almost never going to just flare up one day without warning, then disappear forever.

Almost, that is. Here is a plot of all 93 career starts Villone made, organized by strikeout total.

Before Sept. 29, 2000, Villone had never struck out more than eight batters in a big league game. He wouldn’t exceed eight strikeouts in a game at any point after. How he managed, then, to strike out 16 Cardinals in nine one-run, two-hit innings in a meaningless game is beyond me. I could find no video of the game, nor could I find out how hard he was throwing or what breaking balls he used that day.

All we have, it seems, is the Baseball-Reference game log. It shows Villone striking out the side in the first, then mowing down two more in the second, none in the third, two in the fourth, three in the fifth, none in the sixth, two in the seventh, two in the eighth, and two in the ninth. He threw 150 pitches that day, and got swinging strikes on 23 of them. The one run he allowed scored on an error, the only one of his five walks to hurt him.

How’d he do it? Not even he could tell you. In an archived MLB roundup on the Los Angeles Times’ website, he responded to that question by saying, “If I knew, I’d go to Vegas. I’m just thinking about getting ground balls.”

*****

After that, Villone was traded again. To Colorado, then to Houston. He signed with Pittsburgh, then inked back-to-back deals to return to Houston and Seattle. He was traded again to Florida, then signed with the Yankees, Cardinals, and Nationals. He suited up for 12 different big league teams, the second-most all-time. He kept his swing-man duties until 2004, after which he returned to exclusively pen work. He pitched his final season for Washington at age 39, making 63 appearances and finishing with a 4.25 ERA. In total, the former first round pick lasted 15 seasons in the majors.

Simply reaching an MLB mound requires an immense amount of talent that you or I couldn’t even wrap our brains around. They’re pitchers who dominated every level of amateur ball they played at, who were untouchable the entire time they were growing up. A few guys remain that dominant when they reach the majors. Most, though, have it slip away, never to return. For the first seven years of his professional career, Villone was chasing the past version of himself that was pure electricity. I wonder what it was like for him to finally feel that way again.