Wanna top Wood's 20-K game? Good luck

May 6th, 2020

What’s the most dominant game that a pitcher can pitch?

The knee-jerk reaction is probably to say, "a perfect game." But today’s date, May 6, evokes the anniversary of an ever-so-slightly imperfect game that might actually have the best case of all.

Twenty-two years ago today, 20-year-old Kerry Wood scraped the ceiling of pitching performance with a record-tying 20-strikeout, one-hit masterpiece against the Astros at Wrigley Field. It was the fifth start of Wood’s career, and he woke up that day with a 5.89 ERA and 12 walks over his first 18 1/3 innings as a big leaguer. Wood’s first pitches at Wrigley portended more of the same; they came in a disastrous warmup that he cut short, figuring if he had anything that day, he’d better save it for the game.

Then, Wood unleashed perhaps the most devastating set of pitches ever seen from a Major League mound. When Wood struck out Derek Bell swinging to end the Cubs’ 2-0 win over the Astros in a crisp two hours and 19 minutes, he had tied Roger Clemens’ all-time record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game and refused to yield even a single walk. Houston’s only baserunners came when Ricky Gutierrez’s grounder glanced off third baseman Kevin Orie’s glove for a third-inning single (a play that Cubs fans begged to be ruled an error as Wood’s masterpiece progressed) and when Wood plunked Craig Biggio with a curveball in the sixth.

“We knew we were in trouble in the first inning,” Gutierrez recalled.

By one metric, Wood’s Wrigley afternoon is the most dominant nine-inning performance of the Modern Era -- ranking above no-hitters and perfect games alike. That metric is game score, a statistic created by sabermetrician Bill James that puts a handy number on just how stifling a pitcher was on any given day. A pitcher’s score starts at 50, then rises as the hurler accumulates the good stuff (strikeouts and innings) while avoiding the bad stuff (hits, walks and runs allowed). The formula goes:

• Start with 50 points (the average start)

• Add one point for each out recorded (or 3 points per inning)

• Add two points for each inning completed after the fourth frame

• Add one point for each strikeout

• Subtract two points for each hit allowed

• Subtract one point for each walk allowed

• Subtract four points for each earned run allowed

• Subtract two points for each unearned run allowed

Now you’re probably getting an idea of why Wood’s game score still tops the list. He did all of the good stuff, and none of the bad. Broken down, Wood’s apex game looks like:

50 + 27 (complete game, 27 outs) + 10 (five innings complete after the fourth) + 20 (strikeouts) - 2 (one hit allowed) = 105 game score

(The statistics James used to calculate game score came from a pitcher's box-score line, which in the 1980s didn't include hit-by-pitches, and still doesn't today. Even if one applies the one-point penalty for walks to Wood's HBP, his score would only drop to 104, and still into a tie for first place.)

It’s worth pondering if Wood’s 105 will ever be eclipsed, because as the years go by, that number is beginning to look more and more like one of the highest bars set in the MLB record book. Think about the ingredients needed to even get close:

1) Go the distance: Without those 37 points added from a complete game, thereby putting a pitcher at a base score of 87 before strikeouts, hits, walks and runs, a candidate’s only real shot is to do something like strike out all 24 batters he sees over an eight-inning shutout performance (50+24+8+24 = 106). And if he’s literally that perfect through eight, a manager might lose his job if he doesn’t put the pitcher back out for the ninth.

The 2019 season saw just 45 complete games -- down from 166 per year at the start of the decade -- and starting pitchers averaged roughly five innings per outing.

2) Go the distance … and keep the runs column clean: The four points subtracted for even a single earned run allowed is an automatic deal-breaker if you’re chasing Wood. The two-point penalty for an unearned run essentially is too, unless that run comes around to score completely via errors or hit-by-pitches. So you need a shutout, and last year, MLB pitchers combined for just 26 shutouts of any kind -- regardless of the number of strikeouts, hits and walks. Can you name the three pitchers who tied for the MLB lead with a whopping two shutouts apiece?

3) Strike nearly everyone out: While a complete game gets a pitcher’s score within 18 points of Wood’s 105, even a stellar 15-strikeout, no-walk no-hitter leaves a pitcher at just 102. One has to go for broke in the strikeout department -- and be economical while doing so.

There’s a reason why MLB has only seen five 20-strikeout, nine-inning performances. As MLB.com’s Andrew Simon explored a year ago this week, almost no one has hit the average checkpoint of even 15 strikeouts through seven innings since Max Scherzer’s 20-K night in 2016. And, even if you’re on pace, you’ll have to convince your manager to run up your pitch count; Wood needed 122 pitches to plow through the Astros in 1998, a season in which Cubs skipper Jim Riggleman let the rookie eclipse 120 pitches in eight different starts. Last year, Trevor Bauer was the only pitcher to go 120-plus in even half that many games.

Scherzer is Wood’s closest competitor over the past 22 years -- not for his 20-K game, but rather his 17-strikeout, no-walk no-hitter in the 2015 season finale against the Mets. Scherzer finished that day with a game score of 104 (50+27+10+17), coming oh-so-close. While there are only 16 100-plus-point game scores on record since 1904, MLB has actually seen a flurry of them in recent years -- including Justin Verlander’s 14-strikeout, one-walk no-hitter against the Blue Jays last September, and his former teammate Gerrit Cole’s 16-K, one-hit shutout against the D-backs in May 2018. Those might be the two most dominant regular-season games across the Majors in the past two seasons, and yet each one translated to a game score of “only” 100 -- still six points shy of surpassing Wood.

We’ll certainly know if a pitcher ever does pass Wood, because he set the bar so high that the only possibilities left including something historic -- like a 20-strikeout no-hitter, or a record 21- or 22-K day to allow for the possibility of a stray hit or walk. Cole, Scherzer or Verlander might be capable of that, but even then it would require their absolute peak abilities on a given day.

Wood’s breakout day at Wrigley wasn’t just special in the moment; it might grow in stature even more as it withstands the test of time. And to think … if the ball off Orie’s glove had indeed been ruled an error, Wood’s game score might actually be insurmountable.