Matt Kilroy : The REAL Strikeout Leader

On April 19, 1886, Baltimore manager Billy Barnie sent a young 19-year-old kid to the mound against the Brooklyn Grays. Baltimore was a good baseball town, but the Orioles were a struggling team and needed an infusion of talent to compete in the American Association. Now that the silly expansion and the Union Association were over and done with, there weren’t any more flakes or hapless teams running around baseball. Baltimore was a last-place team in 1885 and not even the promise of cheap beer in the grandstands would attract fans if the losing kept up.

Matt Kilroy signed with Baltimore after a very successful 1885 season in the Southern League for Augusta. Ok, successful was an understatement. He won 29 games in 52 starts, had an ERA of 0.97 (read that again), fanned 363 batters in 447 innings, and had a K/W ratio of 6.85.

Barnie got to him first, and snapped him up. Kilroy wouldn’t turn 20 until June, but this wasn’t unusual. Age didn’t matter, neither did seasoning in the minors. If you could play ball, you played for the team that paid you the most.

Kilroy and the Orioles won that game 2-0 and things were looking up. Looks were deceiving, though.

Unfortunately for Barnie and the Orioles, it was another cruel season in 1886. They could not win on the road, and limped home in last place again with a 48-83 record. Until Barnie signed veteran Jumbo McGinnis, who was cut by the St. Louis Browns, the other starters besides Kilroy compiled an 8-35 record.

Baseball was recognizable as the baseball we know in 1886, but the rules were still being sussed out. Just recently, pitchers were given the go-ahead to throw fully overhand. In 1884, when the UA was active and the AA was a 12-team circuit, there was a great increase in strikeouts as unworthy players couldn’t handle even the most average major league pitcher. By 1886, order was restored somewhat in terms of the number of teams and players in the higher levels of baseball.

Foul balls and foul bunts were not strikes, but it took six balls to earn a walk. A batter still had the right to call a high pitch or a low pitch, and failure to comply would be a ball. Also, pitchers didn’t stand on a mound; they did their work in a 7-foot square (‘the box’) that was just 50 feet from home plate at the front. Pitchers could move around the box before delivering the ball. They just couldn’t step over the line.

Kilroy was a young kid with a thunderbolt for an arm. Most pitchers in that era used guile and changing speeds to get batters out. Kilroy didn’t care – he just reared back and threw. With six balls for a walk, and a 50-foot distance, batters were no doubt intimidated by him. Even though Baltimore was a poor team, (they were the worst offensive team in the AA and also were poor fielders in terms of dWAR), Kilroy succeeded beyond their wildest hopes and dreams.

The youngster took to the box 68 times, basically every other game. He won 29 out of 65 decisions, completed 66 games (there was a tie or two there), and threw 583 innings. He was on the leaderboard in most categories, finishing second in innings pitched to Toad Ramsey of Louisville, another young hard-throwing phenom.

What’s amazing is that Kilroy struck out 513 batters on the season. Ramsey was second with 499.

Why isn’t Kilroy recognized as the All-Time strikeout leader?

It’s due to a patent misunderstanding of 19th century baseball. Yes, the rules were different. The pitching distance was different and it was harder to get a walk. But, fouls were not strikes and you still had to throw a pitch in the zone the batter called. I’d say those advantages evened out. There were three outs in an inning, and nine innings in a game.

With Kilroy (and Ramsey), a new breed of pitcher was on the rise. Young pitchers who could throw hard, and only knew pitching overhand (and not sidearm, as the old rules dictated).

Kilroy didn’t last that long. Not many pitchers did. Even the hall-of-fame pitchers from that era had short-ish careers. The next year rule changes had the effect of limiting strikeouts greatly, and by 1890 Kilroy was using guile and changing speeds to get batters out. That was his final full year; his arm was spent before he turned 25, something that was normal before the advent of modern diagnosis and surgery.

But what Kilroy did was incredible. Only in 1884 did strikeouts approach that total, and that was because there were 28-30 teams competing for a limited pool of quality players. (That’s like every organized major, minor and independent professional league being a major league today, in reality.)

So propers to Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Kerry Wood, and all of the other flame throwers of the 20th and 21st century. You definitely have the K/9 inning leadership. But when you approach 500 whiffs in a season, let’s talk.

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