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Best Pitching Performances of Baseball's Modern Era

On Sunday, June 14th Max Scherzer pitched his first career complete game, a 16-strikeout masterpiece that only yielded a walk and a bloop single. Six days later, he pitched another complete game, this time with 10 strikeouts, and a single base runner that came via a hit batter. From an aesthetic standpoint, the latter game may have been Scherzer’s finest, as he earned his first career no-hitter, while also joining the club of those who lost a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning. However, his former performance may have been simply one of the most dominant efforts of all time.

Using the Bill James-inspired Game Score, we can see that Scherzer’s June 14 game earned a 100 score, which turned out to be only the 12th 100+ game score achieved in a 9-inning game. On the other hand, his no-hitter was good for only a 97. If you are not familiar with Game Score, you can check out the methodology here. In short terms, it rewards pitchers for their positive contributions in a game, while also subtracting points for the negative aspects.

Anything close to 80 represents a well-pitched game, and as we climb up to the high 80’s and 90’s, the level of dominance and control becomes better represented. While Game Score is by no means a perfect stat, it provides a nice glimpse of just how much a pitcher devastated the opposition on a particular game.

Five of the first 12 100+ scores came at least 20 years ago, with pitching legends like Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, and Nolan Ryan earning the distinction. In fact, Ryan did it three times (!!). This means that the bulk of masterful outings has come in what we can call our contemporary era. While the rise in strikeouts has helped, there is no denying that there are few things more fun than seeing a pitcher plow through an opposing lineup.

Today we look at the 7 best game scores of this era, and provide a glimpse of how the pitchers achieved them.

Curt Schilling – April 7th, 2002 – 100

Just a few months after earning World Series MVP honors, Curt Schilling started the season on a tear with 7 shutout innings versus the Padres. He upped his game 5 days later in Milwaukee, where he stymied the Brewers to the tune of a complete-game 17-strikeout effort, with only 2 walks and a hit allowed. The 2-0 win was, by far, the best performance of Schilling’s career, even if it happened against a terrible Milwaukee team that would fire its manager after only 15 games and end up the season with a 56-106 record. Schilling, who finished his notorious career without pitching a no-hitter, only allowed a hit on that day to the wonderfully named Raul Casanova.

Randy Johnson – May 18th, 2004 – 100

Schilling’s co-MVP of the 2001 Fall Classic also joined the fun with a 100 score of his own, but went a bit further by doing it with a perfect game. At that moment, it was only the 15th perfecto in baseball’s modern era (post-1900), and the first since 1999. Johnson completed his masterpiece on 117 pitches, with 13 strikeouts and only one 3-ball count putting the perfect game in jeopardy. The difference between Johnson’s and Schilling’s 100 scores was that the Big Unit did it against a quality team, with the Braves including Chipper and Andruw Jones in the lineup of what would eventually be yet another division title. While this game was the only one in Johnson’s career in which he reached the century mark, he is second on the all-time list in games of a 90+ score, as his total of 20 is only behind Nolan Ryan’s 31.

Brandon Morrow – August 8th, 2010 – 100

This game was covered on our revision of those who lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth, but at least Morrow can boast of owning one of the best pitching performances in history. Morrow required 137 pitches to complete the game, which probably wasn’t the best idea considering his permanent injury concerns. However, it was just too tempting to let him chase history. Morrow only allowed two walks before Evan Longoria’s history-breaking single in the ninth. However, the 17 strikeouts parlayed with the fact that they came against an eventual division winner make it all the more impressive.

Max Scherzer – June 14th, 2015 – 100

It starts with the caveat that again the Brewers have a terrible team, and are probably headed towards 100 losses and the potential of an offseason fire sale. However, it doesn’t take away just how easy Scherzer made it look. He retired the first 18 batters before Carlos Gomez’s Texas leaguer to lead off the seventh, and then issued a walk to Scooter Gennett in the eighth. Outside of that, the righty struck out 16, and didn’t require a single high-effort play from his defense. While many scoffed at the Nationals giving him $210 million over 7 years, the deal now looks like it’s working perfectly for Washington.

Matt Cain – June 13th, 2012 – 101

The pitcher that started the trend of Giants yearly no hitters was Cain, who twirled a memorable perfect game in 2012. Between Gregor Blanco’s spectacular catch in center field and the dramatic third out thrown by Joaquin Arias, Cain got 14 strikeouts on 125 pitches. Only two batters reached 3-ball counts, as Cain was in complete control for most of the night. The big caveat comes in that Cain achieved this against a dreadful Astros team that only had a young Jose Altuve as an above-average hitter. The Giants went on to win the World Series, while the Astros went on to lose 107 games.

Clayton Kershaw – June 18th, 2014 – 102

In Kershaw’s young illustrious career, his dominance hasn’t really translated to that many high game scores. Before his 2014 no-hitter versus Colorado, he had only recorded a couple of games above 90 (for the record, the active leader of 90+ games is Justin Verlander, with 5). On this night at Dodger Stadium, the offensively-challenge-outside-Coors Rockies couldn’t do anything against Kershaw, who was only a fielding error away from a perfect game. He only needed 107 pitches to finish the game, striking out 15 in the process. Despite his early-season struggles in 2015, it is hard not to envision the lefty getting at least a couple more no-nos in his resume. His 102 is the highest game score in a no-hitter in history.

Kerry Wood – May 6th, 1998 – 105

In what is probably the biggest Chicago Cubs highlight in over 100 years, phenom Kerry Wood pitched what can be considered the most unhittable game in history. While Ricky Gutierrez’s infield single prevented it from being a real no-hitter, Wood was on a mission that night, and tied the major-league record with 20 strikeouts in a 9-inning game. After entering the seventh with 12 K’s, only to strike out 8 of the 9 batters he faced. This was Wood’s fifth career start, and it came against a loaded Houston team that still had Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. The 105 score belongs among baseball’s unbreakable records.

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