Did Clayton Kershaw Throw The Greatest Game Ever?
Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw had the best game yet in his seven year career Wednesday night, June 18, 2014. In nine innings, Kershaw threw fifteen strikeouts and walked zero over the course of nine innings. It would have been a perfect game had Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez not made a throwing error. While I understand the traditional importance of no-hitters and perfect games, the error proves how meaningless the terms are outside of being cool moments. When evaluating a pitcher, one should look at everything the pitcher can control and as little else as possible. Hanley Ramirez’s error does not change everything Clayton Kershaw did. Kershaw could not control that error. By this logic, the ideal greatest game error would be twenty-seven strikeouts with zero walks, but the odds of that game occurring are very slim. This type of idea leads back to the old game score system created by Bill James.
Basically, game score adds points for each out recorded, each strikeout, and each inning after four innings, while subtracting for each hit, each earned run, each unearned run, and each walk. Each pitcher starts out with fifty points and then the additions and subtractions are then carried out as the game progresses. For a more detailed explanation, just check out the Fangraphs or Wikipedia pages on how to calculate a score in-depth. It is an old and relatively rudimentary system, but one that I find fair to pitchers. The system has a maximum/best possible score of 114, something that has never and will never likely be achieved. Clayton Kershaw’s game score last night was 102, the second highest recorded score in history (for fairness purposes I am excluding outliers who pitched more than nine innings, such as Joe Oeschger 26 inning performance). This illustrates what a magnificent performance it truly was. There have been twenty-three perfect games in the history of Major League Baseball and Kershaw’s no-hitter was better than each and every one of them. If you are wondering how that is possible, it basically boils down to strikeouts. Mark Buehrle and Dallas Braden only had six strikeouts in their perfect games, with the remaining outs either being ground outs or flyball outs. When it comes to measuring pitcher performance, not all outs are created equally, as the pitcher should try and eliminate the need for the field to make a play to get an out, going back to the best hypothetical game is the twenty-seven strikeout game.
If we were just discussing good or great games, I would not be as concerned with walks, but when you are attempting to measure all-time great games, walks become a big concern, as they leave a runner on base with the pitcher unable to change that fact by themselves (unless the runner is picked off the bag). That lone walked man on base could eventually score in a no-hitter after a few flyballs to the outfield, allow the score of the game to change, which is why walks are measured in these types of all-time great performances. Just as the goal of a batter is to get on base, the goal of a pitcher is to ensure runners do not get on base. At the risk of being repetitive, when the ball is hit it is up to the fielder to ensure the runner does not get on base, whereas a strikeout is the pitcher himself ensuring that the runner does not get on base.
The greatest game ever pitched happened May 6, 1998, as Kerry Wood posted a game score of 105, the closest to perfect ever recorded in major league history. Unlike Kershaw’s no-hitter or the twenty three perfect games, Wood did allow one infield single to Ricky Gutiérrez, which fans argue to this very day that the hit should’ve been an error charged on Kevin Orie (and there is a good case there for that). Wood struck out twenty, allowing no walks in the process, during his demolition of the Houston Astros. This brings up one big imperfection with game score, it does not take into account the team the player pitched against. Numerous perfect games and no-hitters were pitched against Tampa Bay Rays teams that finished with poor records. Clayton Kershaw pitched against the 2014 Colorado Rockies, who have a slightly above average league offense. Troy Tulowitzki is having an insane season, especially at home, posting an OPS+ of 184, which makes him the frontrunner for National League Most Valuable Player so far. His OPS+ is likely to drop some as the season progresses, but we are at a point where it is no longer small sample size, rather Tulowtizki having an all-time great season for a shortstop. While Kershaw failed to strikeout Tulowitzki, Tulowitzki failed to reach base on a hit or walk. Outside of Tulowitzki, Morneau and Blackmon are having good seasons, but the rest of the lineup is average to say the least. The 1998 Houston Astros won 102 games, having five players with an OPS+ over 120, two of which were Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Wood struck out Craig Biggio once, Moises Alou three times, Jeff Bagwell three times, and Derek Bell twice among the other Astros batters. Wood faced tougher competition and struck them out more often, while allowing the same amount of walks Kershaw did, zero.
Three games closely follow Kershaw’s game score of 102: Matt Cain’s perfect game, one of Nolan Ryan’s no-hitters, and Sandy Koufax’s perfect game. All three games received a game score of 101. Ryan’s game and Koufax’s game both faced similarly-level talent as Kershaw’s no-hitter, while Matt Cain’s perfect game came against a horrendous rebuilding Houston Astros team. There are obviously other ways to measure how well a pitcher performed other than game score, because as I have stated, it is a fairly basic way of measurement. If one wants to use some other form of measurement to try and rank Kershaw’s performance higher or lower, that is understandable, but for discussion’s sake I am trying to keep this fairly simple and easy to understand.
So, did Clayton Kershaw throw the best game in baseball history? No, I do not see any way to spin it as that as you can go with Wood as the best nine inning performance in the history of baseball or you can go with some deadball pitchers who pitched 20+ innings, which inflated their game score. One may also try and argue that Koufax’s perfect game or Nolan Ryan’s no-hitter came against better talent, but it really is splitting hairs there. Is it fair to say that Clayton Kershaw just pitched the greatest no-hitter in the history of Major League Baseball? It is absolutely fair to state that it is the greatest no-hitter in the history of baseball because of the number of strikeouts, zero walks, the game score, and the level of talent Clayton Kershaw was up against. Regardless of where one wants to rank his performance on the all-time great chart, last night we witnessed true greatness by a pitcher.