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The best pitching performances In baseball history

Looking back on the best pitching performances in history as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout game.

Chicago White Sox v Chicago Cubs Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Historic, legendary, once-in-a-lifetime. These are words thrown around often when describing individual performances in the game of baseball, which has existed professionally for over 110 years. Some times these words are warranted, other times they are merely hype. This means record breaking performances are always closely watched and reported on generously.

These records are almost always objective numbers, but what about a subjective question that can’t be answered by sheer numbers alone, like whose pitched the single best nine inning game in major league history? If you have ever thought of or asked that question you’re in luck, because that’s what I aiming to do with this article.

Subjectively and objectively we can classify perfect games among the best games ever pitched simply because you retired all 27 batters in a row without incident. But perfect games mean far less when half or three quarters of the outs are recorded on defensive plays than they do when you strikeout half or three quarters of the batters you’ve faced.

The truly great pitchers in baseball history won games and recorded outs by keeping the ball out of play. When the name of the game is making contact, those who prevent it are no doubt the best of the best. You can add no-hitters in there as well, since often times a unusual error or a incidental hit batter are what keeps them away from a perfect game and thus shouldn’t be discounted or ignored. Other factors in pitching the best game possible include limiting walks to keep teams from manufacturing any runs or creating any threats.

May 6th, 1998 was a rainy day for baseball as a packed crowd in Wrigley Field came to see a young prospect named Kerry Wood who was making his fifth major league start for the Chicago Cubs. Hype had surrounded Wood since being drafted fourth overall in the first-year player draft just three years prior to his debut, though he had disappointed fans and teammates alike with a rough first three starts.

He came back in his fourth start and pitched a seven inning, one run gem, recording nine strikeouts and only two walks, which reignited the excitement around his rookie season. However, no one had any idea what was about to happen that day, not even Wood himself knew, as he said in an interview that he’s pretty sure none of the warm up pitches he threw prior to the game were strikes.

Wood went on to pitch a complete game one hit shutout recording 20 strikeouts and facing only two batters above the minimum of 27. Many argue that the base hit he allowed to Astros’ shortstop Rickey Gutierrez in the third inning which rolled off of and just past Cubs’ third basemen Kevin Orie’s glove should have been ruled an error as it does look like a playable ball. Whether or not he would have been able to throw Gutierrez out had he made the grab will likely never be answered but doesn’t err in Orie’s favor, lending doubt that it wouldn’t have resulted in a hit. Besides that the only other baserunner was Craig Biggio when he was hit by a pitch in the sixth inning from a curveball that slipped from Wood’s grip.

The large quantity of strikeouts, including 54 of his strikes that were non-contact strikes out of the total of 84 strikes, plus the lack of baserunners when added to the utter filthiness one can witness when rewatching that start, makes Wood’s 20 strikeout game as the unquestionable best nine inning game ever pitched. Regardless of how you believe that base hit was scored, that’s the objective numbers and subjective opinion of most of baseball pundits.

The fact that the Houston Astros lineup he faced that day had two future Hall of Famers and several other high quality players that combined for 19 All-Star appearances in their careers, making it arguably the best Astros lineup in franchise history at that time, only adds to that argument. It’s a tad late, I know, but given this past Sunday was the 20-year anniversary of the 20-strikeout game that Wood tossed at just 20 years of age, I thought it would be fitting to dive into the pitching performances that rank just behind Wood’s outing among the best in the history of the game.

1. Kerry Wood May 6th, 1998, Chicago Cubs vs Houston Astros

9 IP, 1 H, 20K (68.85 S%)

(See above)

2. Sandy Koufax September 9th, 1965, Los Angeles Dodgers vs Chicago Cubs

9IP, 14K Perfect Game (69.91 S%)

Sandy Koufax’s 14-strikeout perfect game on September 9th, 1965 against the Cubs as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers easily comes in second. Not only did Koufax pitch with no more than a one run lead the entire game, he also struck out the last six batters he faced including three pinch hitters in the ninth inning to avoid losing his perfect game bid. Unfortunately detailed pitch-by-pitch data was not tracked at that time, but we know he threw 113 pitches, of which 79 were strikes, and only three of the 27 batters he faced reached a three ball count. This proves how dominant Koufax was that day and that is why he’s pitched the second best game in baseball history.

3. Max Scherzer, October 3rd, 2015, Washington Nationals at New York Mets

9IP 17K No-hitter (73.39 S%)

Almost as impressive as Wood’s 20 strikeout game and Koufax’s perfect game is Max Scherzer’s second of two no-hitters he threw in a dominant first season as a Washington National in 2015. He missed a perfect game by one error, an errant throw by Yunel Escobar that allowed Kevin Plawecki to reach base. You can watch the error here, and as you can see it was really a silly play that had it been repeated Escobar would have made that play 99 times out of 100.

Besides the error through no fault of his own, Scherzer was unbelievably dominant, racking up 17 strikeouts out of a possible 27 total outs, meaning 63 percent of his outs were strikeouts. Additionally he only had a two run lead at any point in the game, completing it with a modest 109 pitches thrown with 42 non contact strikes out of the 80 total strikes he threw. Furthermore, the only blemish was that error so in reality it would have been a perfect game, and in my opinion even better than Koufax’s perfect game. Given that, it easily puts him at the third-best nine inning game ever pitched.

4. Clayton Kershaw, June 18th, 2014, Los Angeles Dodgers vs Colorado Rockies

9IP, 15K No-hitter (73.83 S%)

Clayton Kershaw has been the best pitcher of this generation, so it’s not surprising that he’s appearing on this list. His almost-perfect game ranks right up there with Scherzer’s, both of whom were victim of some untimely infield defense. Kershaw like Scherzer had his perfect game bid ruined by a ball between the shortstop and third basemen, both of which occurred on errant throws. The error that cost Kershaw his perfect game was committed by serial error-on-the-throw committer Hanley Ramirez whose not even a real shortstop.

Kershaw threw a total of 107 pitches with 79 being strikes. 40 of those 79 strikes were non-contact strikes. The two fewer strikeouts coupled with the fact that at the start of the fourth inning Kershaw had a seven to nothing cushion to work with are why it falls behind Scherzer’s similar no-hitter. Even still, it’s a very high quality game that in reality should be a perfect game and that’s why it’s number four on the list.

5. Randy Johnson, May 18th, 2004, Arizona Diamondbacks at Atlanta Braves

9IP 13K Perfect Game (74.35 S%)

Randy Johnson was a strikeout machine throughout his career, so a high strikeout perfect game on his resume is no shocker. On this day Johnson dominated hitters with his still-somewhat-high velocity fastball and an unbelievably good slider that buckled hitters like you haven’t seen before. Johnson’s strikeout totals don’t do the filthiness that he displayed that day justice, so I encourage you to seek it out and watch it sometime to see it for yourself. Johnson proved at 40 years of age that he was still an elite pitcher capable of mowing down a lineup just as he did at his peak.

He never pitched with more than a two-run lead, but he knew that was all it was going to take with the stuff he had on the mound in that outing. Johnson finished with 117 pitches, 87 of which were strikes. Even more impressive is combining his 26 whiffs with the 15 called strikes is only six strikes less than his total of contact strikes of 46. Johnson’s perfect game late in his career will go down as one of the best pitched games in baseball history and that’s why it lands number five on the list.

These were just a few of some of the best pitched games in history. Many other games could have been included on this list such as Matt Cain’s 14-strikeout, perfect game he tossed as a member of the San Francisco Giants in 2012, or the 16-strikeout, two-walk no-hitter that Nolan Ryan threw at 44 years of age in 1991. By almost any metric the five games on my list are likely better even if by a minuscule amount than any other previous pitching performance.

With the increasing trend of strikeouts and the fact that only one game on this list occurred before the 1990’s should lend credence that we’ll likely see more of these types of games in the future, which is promising for those of us who enjoy them. Now that I’ve ranked my top five 9-inning performances in history, what are yours?