The second-greatest game in history? A couple of thoughts

If you weren’t watching Matt Cain last night, you missed out. There was so much packed into just the last 3-4 innings that even if he hadn’t completed the perfect game, it would have been a blast to watch. Gregor Blanco’s spectacular play, Cain’s changeup to get Jed Lowrie in the seventh… it was really terrific stuff.

I figure I’m not really going to have anything to add to last night that somebody hasn’t already written. There’s a bunch out there, you should go read it (starting here, but I’m biased). But it got me to thinking about a topic that I wrote about during the spring — the greatest single-game individual performances in history.

One of the candidates was Sandy Koufax in his perfect game in 1965. Koufax held (and now shares) the record for the most strikeouts in a perfect game with 14. That means that he also is tied for the second-highest game score in history, at 101. Game score is not perfect, but it’s a pretty good quick-and-dirty measure of how good a game a pitcher had. The only other 101 (again, before last night) was posted by Nolan Ryan in 1991, when he struck out 16 and walked two in a no-hitter. Kerry Wood holds the record with 105, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

So, two things.

One is, I think you can make a case that Cain’s game really is the second-greatest performance in history. Although offense is down somewhat these days relative to a decade ago, it’s still not really a pitching-dominated era. The average runs per team per game in 1965 was 3.99. In 1991 it was 4.31. In 2012 so far it’s 4.30.

Taking nothing away from Koufax, who is an all-time great and was brilliant on that night, you basically can’t construct a better pitching environment in the last 90 years or so than Dodger Stadium in 1965. It was an extreme pitchers’ park in an extreme pitchers’ era, and Koufax threw his gem against a team with one of the poorer offenses in the league. A great, special, historic accomplishment, but at a lower degree of difficulty than either Cain or Ryan managed. “Merely” one of the 5-10 greatest nights by any pitcher.

Ryan, meanwhile, pitched his 1991 no-no in old Arlington Stadium, which was not a bad place to hit but isn’t the kind of haven that the new place in Arlington is. Cain’s perfecto came at AT&T Park, which is one of the better pitchers’ parks these days. Slight advantage, Ryan. Ryan faced a team that went on to win the World Series, but it wasn’t a potent offensive club. In fact, the 2012 Astros are averaging ever so slightly more runs per game than the ’91 Jays did (4.26 to 4.22… I was surprised too, but that’s why you look things up). Slight advantage, Cain.

It’s sort of a matter of taste between the two, but I think I’d take the perfecto with very nearly as many Ks over the game with two more Ks and two more walks. But when this is the question you’re asking, second- or third-greatest game ever, that really says it all. There’s sometimes some chatter about becoming desensitized to no-hitters or whether they’re becoming devalued, and in general I just think that’s silly. But even if it were true, last night’s game was not “just another no-hitter.” It was a game for the ages.

The second thing to come from it, though, for me, is an increased appreciation for Wood’s 20-K game in 1998. When I wrote the piece on the greatest individual game, I talked to a wide variety of people in baseball — players, front office folks, broadcasters, analysts, etc. And while there was no clear consensus, the Wood game received more votes and mentions than any other.

The only baserunner was on an infield hit, a roller in the hole on the left side. Wood didn’t walk anybody. He struck out 20, tying the all-time record, and becoming the only person with that many Ks and fewer than three baserunners. He needed only 122 pitches to do it. He did it at a hitters’ park against an excellent team, an Astros club that won 102 games, led the league with 5.4 runs per game and posted a season-long OBP of .354. And he did it in the midst of one of the greatest offensive eras in history.

It may not be the toughest environment you could construct for a pitcher, but it’s in the conversation. And even so, Wood dominated like no one has before or since. ‘Kid K’ hung it up this year, and many tributes were written to him a few weeks ago when he did. But here’s one more: that game keeps looking better the longer you look at it.

 

-M.

1 Comment

I’m glad you blogged about this topic. I was actually going to ask you a question on twitter which you basically answered perfectly. I didn’t get to see the game but I watched the condensed version on MLB.tv (I know it’s not the same.) It looked fantastic but I kept thinking how inept and inconsistent the Astros have been this season. Thanks for the numbers. I appreciate the comparison. I went to bed bummed that Lance Lynn’s performance was overshadowed by R.A. Dickey’s outing and awoke to see something amazing happened while I was asleep.

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