By Scott A. Rowan
The most dominating pitching performance in baseball wasn’t delivered by Nolan Ryan, who had seven no-hitters, or Sandy Koufax, who had four. Nor did it come from legendary pitchers Roger Clemens, Cy Young, Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson, Bob Feller, Christy Mathewson, or Bob Gibson. The best pitching performance in baseball history came from a 20-year-old Chicago Cubs pitcher taking the mound in just his fifth major league game.
Kerry Wood became known as Kid K on May 6, 1998, when he announced his presence to the world with the most dominating pitching performance in the history of baseball. According to the Bill James’ pitching statistic known as “Game Score,” Wood had the No. 1 most-impressive showing for a pitcher ever that day, striking out 20 Houston Astros batters in a 6–0 win and giving up one hit, one balk, one hit batter, and no walks. Within 24 hours of the final out, the National Baseball Hall of Fame called to ask for parts of his uniform to enshrine at Cooperstown. Wood had been in the big leagues for only 24 days when he became a part of baseball history.
Wrote ESPN.com columnist David Schoenfield:
I’ll never forget walking into the office that May afternoon in 1998 and having excited co-workers ask, “Did you see what just happened?” His pitches were moving like whiffle balls thrown in the middle of the Columbia River Gorge, except they were moving at 95 miles per hour. The Astros had no chance.
They managed one infield single and Wood hit a batter, so it wasn’t a perfect game or even a no-hitter. But by the Bill James Game Score method, it was the best game ever pitched. Game Score rewards pitchers for strikeouts and subtracts points for runs, hits and walks. There have been just nine starts of nine innings in which a pitcher scored 100 or better. Ryan (twice), Johnson, Curt Schilling, Warren Spahn and Brandon Morrow scored 100; Ryan (with a 16-strikeout, two- walk no-hitter) and Sandy Koufax (his 14-strikeout perfect game) scored 101. Kerry Wood’s game? 105.34.
The formula for figuring out a pitcher’s Game Score is as follows: begin with 50 points, then add one point for each out recorded (three points per inning), add two points for each inning completed after the fourth inning, and add one point for each strikeout. Then subtract two points for each hit allowed, four points for each earned run allowed, two points for each unearned run allowed, and one point for each walk. The highest possible result is 114.
After San Francisco pitcher Matt Cain recorded a perfect game on June 13, 2012, ESPN researched the numbers to find the best pitching performance in baseball history using the Game Score statistic as their guide. Wood’s 105 was the best, followed by a three-way tie at 101 between Cain’s 2012 perfect game, Ryan’s 1991 perfect game, and Koufax’s 1965 perfect game.
Wood’s one-hitter was benefitted by his awe-inspiring 20 strikeouts, lifting his performance above any of the perfect games in history (at least using the Game Score formula). USA Today writer Peter Barzilai took it a step further, pointing out that Wood’s performance was not just statistically better than anyone else’s, but that he also faced a much better team than Cain, Ryan, or Koufax did in their performances. Barzilai reminded readers:
Wood faced an Astros team that finished 102–60 and led the NL in runs. Cain faced an Astros team that [was at the time] 26–36, eighth in the NL in runs and whose lineup had six hitters 25 or younger. Ryan faced a Blue Jays team that finished 91–71 and was 11th in the AL in runs. Koufax faced a Cubs team that finished 72–90 and was seventh out of 10 teams in NL in runs.
Wood was named Rookie of the Year in 1998, but the celebration was short-lived. The stress of his pitching forced him to miss the entire 1999 season following elbow surgery. Baseball fans everywhere could only wonder what Kid K could have been. While Wood recovered and had a 14-year career, he was never fully the same. Cubs fans were forced to question if something was wrong with the team’s use of strong-armed pitchers when, just a few years later, pitcher Mark Prior joined Wood in the starting rotation only to have his career cut short because of arm problems as well. Like Wood, Prior dominated the league during his rookie season in 2003 and was selected an All-Star. In April 2007, Prior had shoulder surgery; although doctors claimed at the time that it wasn’t a career- ending move, they were wrong. Prior never pitched in the major leagues again.
Cubs fans will always recall the magical 2003 season, when Wood was voted to the first of his two All-Star Games (the other came in 2008), where he appeared alongside Prior making his lone All-Star appearance.
Added Schoenfield in his ESPN.com column:
[Wood] does have one important lasting legacy, beyond that 20-strikeout game: In part because of what happened to Wood (and teammate Mark Prior and others), teams are more careful with how they handle young starters. You won’t see 20-year-old kids throwing 130 pitches in a game, no matter their ability. One reason we’re seeing so many good young pitchers now and declining levels of offense is that pitchers are healthier and not flaming out in the minors or early on in their major league careers. Sure, maybe teams are too cautious with this approach, but I’d rather see that than what happened with Wood. He undoubtedly won’t view himself as an unfortunate trailblazer, but rather as a pitcher who grinded his way through 14 major league seasons, giving his best.
And during one game in 1998, Wood’s best proved to be better than anyone else’s ever.
David Schoenfield, “Kerry Wood and the greatest game pitched,” ESPN.com, May 18, 2012, http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/24585/kerry-wood-and-the– greatest-game-pitched.
Peter Barzilai, “Where does Matt Cain’s perfect game rank?” USA Today, June 14, 2012, http://content.usatoday.com/communities/dailypitch/post/2012/06/matt-cain-perfect-game-sandy- koufax-kerry-wood/1#.UXrmMytoSP
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