WASHINGTON – It’s a classic case of addition by addition.
Playing in his first game since suffering a fractured wrist on July 26, Markakis was all over the place. Facing Nationals ace Max Scherzer in the second inning, he lined a single to center field. In his next trip against the three-time Cy Young winner, Markakis laced a double to center and came around to score the Braves’ first run of the game. In the fifth, he came up with the bases loaded and just barely missed hitting a grand slam, instead settling for a 385-foot sac fly that sent Nats outfielder Victor Robles all the way to the wall in left-center and extended Atlanta’s lead to 3-0.
“I was just up there trying to get comfortable again,” said Markakis, who was hitting .284 with a .787 OPS at the time of his injury. “Your first game back after seven weeks against a pitcher like that is not the easiest feat, so I was pleased. Didn’t see as many pitches as I’d like to, but when I did see my pitch, I tried not to miss it.”
He didn’t miss much of anything in the outfield either.
With Atlanta and rookie starter Mike Soroka leading 2-0 in the bottom of the fourth, following a leadoff double by Adam Eaton, Nats MVP candidate Anthony Rendon lifted a fly ball to the gap between left and center. Markakis, a right fielder by trade who was playing left field for the first time this year, converged on the ball along with center fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. and confusion ensued. In the end, it was Markakis who ended up laying out and making an acrobatic, albeit avoidable, backhanded grab that kept Washington scoreless and almost resulted in him getting trampled by Acuna. An inning later, Markakis was on the ground again, sliding to his knees in shallow left to deprive Robles of a leadoff single.
In typical Markakis fashion, neither play was a work of art (nor was the ball that got under his glove in the seventh and was graciously ruled a double). But considering that Markakis has now played a grand total of four games in left field over the last 12 years, the Braves will gladly live with it. Just like they’ll gladly live with having Markakis back in the lineup.
In the seven weeks since Markakis suffered that broken wrist, the Braves’ outfield has been something of a mess. Austin Riley, who came out of nowhere to win Rookie of the Month in May, came crashing back to earth and then landed on the injured list with a sprained knee in early August. Opening Day center fielder Ender Inciarte, who missed two months with a lumbar strain and returned shortly before Markakis got hurt, hit the IL again in mid-August with a balky hamstring. Riley and veteran reserve Adam Duvall, a pair of right-handed hitters, have been good against southpaws but can’t be trusted against righties, and lefty swinger Matt Joyce has been the opposite. If not for Acuna, who’s played all three positions (not at the same time) and is threatening to join the exclusive 40-40 club, Atlanta’s outfield might have collapsed on itself and turned into a certifiable black hole. Or something like that. Now, with Markakis back, the Braves’ universe is measurably more copacetic.
“My god,” said manager Brian Snitker following Markakis’ re-entry into Atlanta’s atmosphere. “It’s just something else. One live BP, and two of the hardest hit balls he’s probably had all year. And made a couple really nice plays in left. The guy’s a ballplayer. It’s huge for our lineup and our team to have him back in there.”
To be clear, the “huge” that Snitker refers to is more about the future than the past. Despite the disarray in the outfield, the Braves did just fine, thanks, without their veteran outfielder. In fact, their 30-14 record during Markakis’ absence was tops in the National League and 2.5 games better than the mighty Dodgers. Over that stretch, they managed to extend their division lead by three games over a Washington team that was as hot as any in the league. But that was then and this is now: In order for the Braves to accomplish their goals, from overtaking LA for top seed in the NL to winning a playoff series for the first time in nearly 20 years (2001 was the last time) to going all the way, they’ll need all hands on deck. On Friday, they added one more very capable pair of hands.
“It was awesome to have Kakes back,” said Soroka. “I know he really wanted to come back and make an impression, and I think he did that right off the bat. That gave us a little life.”
More importantly, it gave Atlanta an even better chance in October.
What the MLB deal with players means for 2020 season and beyond
Following round-the-clock negotiations since the coronavirus outbreak postponed the beginning of the season, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association struck a deal Friday that outlined how the sport would proceed in the coming months. The players gained certainty that even in a lost season they would be granted full service time. The league received significant financial hedges and control over how baseball would resume play.
It was a significant agreement with enormous implications that go beyond 2020. Let’s unpack the full breadth of its consequences.
What does this agreement cover?
Almost every issue of significance to the sport as it tries to navigate this confusing moment in history: the resumption of play and scheduling, service time, player pay, amateur talent, arbitration, debt service and the luxury tax, among other issues.
Why was it necessary?
With MLB’s original Opening Day scheduled for Thursday (March 26), the league faced a deadline on how it would handle player contracts. Paragraph 11 of the uniform player contract allows commissioner Rob Manfred to suspend deals in the case of a national emergency, which President Donald Trump declared March 13. Had the agreement not been agreed upon by the players Thursday and ratified by owners Friday, Manfred could have invoked Paragraph 11. Neither he nor the players wanted to display such myopia in the midst of a health crisis, so the incentive for both sides to compromise was strong.
So when is baseball coming back?
While that remains unclear, the agreement, obtained by ESPN, illustrates how baseball might go about returning to the field.
Before anything else, it addresses resumption of play and says both parties will work in good faith to “complete the fullest 2020 championship season and postseason that is economically feasible.” The agreement outlines three necessities to start the 2020 season, though it offers significant caveats that allow Manfred — in consultation with the union — to override them.
1. No governmental edicts on mass gatherings that would prevent teams from playing in their home stadiums;
2. No travel restrictions in the United States or Canada;
3. The determination, after talking with health experts and the union, that playing does not expose players, staff or fans to health risks.
The caveats are the key to this seminal part of the agreement: Manfred, it says, can consider the use of neutral sites instead of home stadiums as well as the possibility of playing in front of no fans. Though not ideal, games with no fans in areas that are not coronavirus hot spots provide the clearest path toward games being played.
Let’s say the curve flattens, medical facilities are no longer overrun and a national recovery begins. What is the first step?
There are three obvious ones that should happen simultaneously: map out a schedule that covers the regular season and postseason, bring players to training camps, and execute a detailed plan that does its best to ensure the safety and health of every team.
What does a potential schedule look like?
That remains completely TBD. The agreement illustrates just how open-minded both parties are to achieving a shared goal: as much baseball as possible.
MLB is willing to amend roster rules to ensure a shortened Spring Training 2.0 — games could begin as soon as two weeks after players report back to camps to prepare for the season — doesn’t leave teams hurting for innings because starting pitchers aren’t stretched out. Players are willing to schedule more doubleheaders to squeeze in as many games as possible. Both were fine with the regular season stretching into October and the postseason into November. A neutral-site World Series in a warm-weather location? Sure. Expanded playoffs of a new, and potentially unique, variety? Yup.
“Players want to play,” said Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLBPA. “That’s what they do. And being able to get back on the field and being able to play, even if that means their fans are watching at home, is something they’ve all expressed a desire and interest to do and to do as soon as possible.”
The best-case scenario seems to be that players head to camp in mid-May and target a return in early June. That might be wishful. But it’s where they are for now. And if they do, then a 130-game schedule is not out of the realm of possibility. It’s quite optimistic, though, and anywhere from 80 to 100 games would be a huge win.
Is keeping players healthy really possible?
Tough to say. In Japan, where Nippon Professional Baseball had postponed its March 20 opening day until April 24, star pitcher Shintaro Fujinami tested positive for the coronavirus Thursday along with two of his Hanshin Tigers teammates. The rest of the team is in quarantine, and the Tigers canceled practices through at least April 1. NPB secretary general Atsushi Ihara said the league still planned to open on the 24th.
Would MLB do the same? What if an outbreak happened inside a clubhouse in July? Or during a pennant race? Or in the postseason? As much as these are hypotheticals, they are also questions MLB must ask itself before returning. The agreement does give at least a sliver of insight into the possibility, saying that Manfred can suspend or cancel games after the season starts provided “there is a change in circumstances.”
Why does everyone so badly want to play?
Well, for one, because baseball rules.
Beyond that, every day without a game is a day without money flowing into the league’s coffers and players’ pockets. The coronavirus could wipe out billions of dollars in revenue after a record-setting financial year, and while players are not guaranteed a percentage of those revenues because MLB does not operate on a salary-capped system, salaries typically ebb and flow with the financial health of the sport.
Especially acute to the sport’s financial standing are cash-poor franchises that already have considered laying off or furloughing employees. Manfred secured promises this week from all teams that they would continue to pay their employees through at least April. Job cuts could arrive in May, if there is no season scheduled, and nobody in the sport wants that. The fear among employees across the sport already is palpable, and if baseball desires to be a healing agent for the nation — and it does — saving jobs is a good start.
Since the schedule is more or less up to this pathogen about which we still don’t know very much, what do we know?
Players cared deeply about the doomsday scenario. Service time, which awards players for days spent in the major leagues and goes toward determining free agency, arbitration eligibility and pension, was their focal point — particularly service time in the event of a lost season.
For days, the union insisted that major league players receive full service regardless of the outcome. When MLB relented — thus guaranteeing Mookie Betts, J.T. Realmuto, George Springer, Trevor Bauer and Marcus Stroman, among many others, the right to be free agents this winter — the deal went from probable to near-certainty.
Only players who logged an entire season of major league service last year will receive the full year in the doomsday scenario. If a season is played, a full year of service can be earned even if the season is shorter than the typical 172 days to reach that milestone.
So players got service time. Are they getting paid now, too?
Their salaries for 2020 will be prorated. If teams play an 81-game schedule, players will get 50% of their full, agreed-upon money. If they play 120 games, they will receive 74%. Performance-bonus clauses will be prorated too.
If the season is canceled, the only payment players will receive is the $170 million advance teams guaranteed players to be distributed in April and May. The money is essentially a down payment on salaries for 2020. Should games be played, it will be factored into paychecks. If no games are played, the players get to keep the $170 million without repayment.
The agreement adds that players cannot sue for their salaries — an important distinction even though Paragraph 11 almost certainly would have held up in a grievance setting.
Who among the players wins biggest in this scenario?
All major league players who have reached arbitration and thus do not have contracts with a different salary whether they are in the major leagues or minor leagues. They will receive $5,000 a day in April and May — or about $150,000 a month.
Where does the remainder of the money go?
There are three other classes of players, as defined by the MLBPA’s plan to split the advance.
A young star like Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals has what is called a split contract, which calls for him to be paid $629,400 in the major leagues and $289,150 in the minor leagues. Players with split deals for more than $150,000 in the minor leagues will receive $1,000 a day — or around $60,000.
Stud rookie Bo Bichette of the Toronto Blue Jays is on a split deal, with a minor league salary that’s in the $91,800 to $149,999 range. He’ll get $500 a day — half of what Soto is making and 10% of a veteran.
Top prospect Cristian Pache, whom the Atlanta Braves added to their 40-man roster this winter, is on the minimum for a split deal: $46,000. Those on split deals under $91,800 will be paid $275 a day, or somewhere in the neighborhood of $16,500.
Those who lose the worst are non-roster invitees and current free agents. Non-roster players who signed minor league deals hoping to get added to a 40-man roster for Opening Day don’t get a penny, though the union is considering ways to financially assist such players. And current free agents are prohibited from signing thanks to the roster freeze that went into effect upon the owners’ ratification of the agreement.
So much else!
• The arbitration system will be adjusted to consider lessened counting statistics because of the shorter season, and salaries secured during the 2021 offseason through arbitration won’t be used in the precedent-based system going forward.
• The MLBPA gave up the right to challenge Manfred’s enforcement of the debt-service rule, which is supposed to limit teams’ debt to 10 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. Translation: Teams may borrow money to stave off financial problems, and MLB and the players are fine with that.
• When determining which teams have exceeded luxury-tax thresholds, the league will base it on what full-season salaries were supposed to be, not prorated salary payment. The taxes paid, however, will be on a prorated basis. And if there is no season, there will be no taxes owed, implying every team would reset to the lowest competitive balance tax threshold.
• Depending on when the season starts, players believe the All-Star Game could be eliminated.
The what could be what?
As if this whole situation wasn’t already bad enough for the Los Angeles Dodgers. First they could lose Betts without him playing a single non-spring training game in a Dodgers uniform (if the season is canceled, that is). Now they might get rid of the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium, too? If the season starts July 1, stopping it 11 days later for the Home Run Derby and an exhibition game doesn’t exactly make a ton of sense.
Around the Home discusses the different possibilities the MLB can do with a shortened season.
Poor Los Angeles, right?
There’s a solution here, you know. Not one that would make up for possibly losing Betts or the All-Star Game or both but one that at least lessens the sting. If baseball is played this year, it’s almost assuredly going to have a neutral-site World Series. What better place than Dodger Stadium? Los Angeles loves baseball. The stadium is a gem. The weather is perfect. It makes too much sense not to happen.
Back to the agreement. So there are draft changes?
Of all the points in the deal, this one caused the most consternation, because amateurs historically get short shrift in these agreements. Owners want to suppress amateurs’ salaries. And no amateurs are part of the MLBPA, so their interests often do not dovetail with those of a union of professionals.
MLB has the right to move the 2020 MLB draft back from June 10 to as late as July 20, with a signing date as late as Aug. 1. A concrete date hasn’t been set yet. The rounds have been reduced from 40 to as few as five, though Manfred has the option to increase that number at his discretion — and might do so if games are being played and revenue is coming in. MLB also can shorten the 2021 draft to as few as 20 rounds and move it to the same dates.
In both years, the payment of draft bonuses will be delayed significantly. While signing-bonus slot values will remain the same as the 2019 draft — typically, they increase 3% to 4% annually depending on revenues — the maximum up-front payment in 2020 and 2021 will be $100,000 within 30 days of an approved contract. Fifty percent of the remaining value will be paid on July 1 the next year, then the balance on July 1 two years later.
Undrafted players cannot get more than $20,000, even if a team is under its allotted draft pool, in both the 2020 and 2021 drafts. This would be especially onerous in a five-round draft, and executives and agents agree there would be significant financial jockeying by teams starting in perhaps the third round. For example, consider a fourth-round pick with a slot value of around $500,000. A club could call a player and tell him it will pay him $200,000 if he agrees to sign at that pick. If the player doesn’t accept that amount, he runs the risk of going undrafted and maxing out at 10% of that. It’s a difficult gamble to take — and while teams could use that extra $300,000 to pay a higher-round pick, they also have the option of not spending the money at all.
For both the 2020 and 2021 drafts, MLB has the right to organize voluntary showcases for players — essentially a combine. Players on MLB’s Top 300 Medical Information Program — used to pool medical info for clubs on top prospects — may not provide exclusive data or video to one team without also offering it to MLB to be shared with all teams.
To curb the selling of draft picks, the agreement nullifies teams’ ability to trade competitive-balance selections, previously the only ones that could be traded, in the 2020 or 2021 drafts. In the 2020 MLB season, if every team plays fewer than 81 games, the commissioner has the right, after negotiating with the MLBPA, to change the draft order for the 2021 draft.
Why change the draft?
The reason is to save money and pave the way for a new draft system, which MLB was hoping to achieve in the next collective bargaining agreement. In 2019, the total value of bonus pools was $266,480,400. The slot values of the first five rounds were $238,094,400. That’s a savings of $946,200 per team for 2020 and 2021.
There won’t be a mess of $125,000 bonuses handed out after the 10th round, which ran up total expenditures for teams but didn’t count against their draft pool. While clubs are still paying their scouts, travel budgets will be far lower than in 2019.
What was the reaction to the draft changes?
Agent Scott Boras, a longtime advocate for draft rights, lashed out, telling The Athletic: “It’s unconscionable the owners in this climate would reduce the collectively bargained money given to drafted players in the top rounds. I don’t mind them reducing the rounds. That’s not the issue. It’s reducing the payments to those players. To cut their bonuses in this climate and use a pandemic situation in our country as a means to do that, I really find it unconscionable.”
Sound though Boras’ point might have been, it registered as tone deaf to a wide grouping of people around the league, particularly with millions of Americans suddenly unemployed and the crux of his point that amateurs wouldn’t be getting a raise.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Clark said. “The players were committed to preserving entry in some form, which was quite different than what was being represented from the other side. Eventually we reached a compromise. It wasn’t perfect.”
Which teams can take advantage of undrafted free agents?
Two types of teams: legacy franchises and ones with robust player-development systems. This could be a jackpot for the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, both of whom are industry leaders in player development and have enough brand value to entice players to sign with them. With the $20,000 maximum, other teams could entice undrafted players with simple opportunity. The sales pitch: If the money is the same everywhere, come to the team that’s going to make you better. In other words, make the best of a bad situation.
How does this affect amateur baseball?
For amateur players, it is just a lot of bad news. Those inclined to sign and turn pro in the 2020 draft might receive similar money to last year, and it will be paid over a two-year period without interest. The loss is marginal but real. The college junior set to sign for $300,000 after the fifth round, who turned down some money out of high school in anticipation of this day, gets hit the hardest. It’s either $20,000 this year or probably the same as a senior next year, due to reduced negotiating leverage. Not to mention the fact that college coaches might prefer to spend some of their 11.7 scholarships on incoming freshmen who can contribute for three years rather than keep a senior.
It will be a boon for college baseball because of the surfeit of talent. Fewer high school prospects will turn pro. College juniors can return to school. Same for seniors, if granted extra eligibility. It might get ugly trying to make a new roster amid all of a college coaching staff’s prior assumptions and commitments, but there will be more talent across the board.
The Division I council will vote on Monday about roster relief. Programs could get extra spots to handle the change. Redshirting and junior colleges will be the way to manage this influx of players to college baseball, and it’s possible independent leagues or Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball could be an option, as they have occasionally been in the past.
“Juco baseball is going to be amazing next year,” one longtime scout said.
How will players be scouted this year? Weren’t all the games canceled?
It’s unclear exactly how this will play out, with so much uncertain regarding the gathering of people in public places. If games can be played, college players will go to summer leagues — the Cape Cod League being the top option — and high schoolers will play in a number of showcases and tournaments as they normally do over the summer. A potential MLB combine would also be a part of this showcase schedule. MLB has run similar summer events for prep players, only for players a year before they’re eligible to be drafted. There’s obviously a chance none of these things happen.
How would teams draft players if they don’t play any games between now and draft day?
Clubs are confident in their evaluating ability, and scouting for the draft is a year-round endeavor. The southern half of the country was playing for about a month before everything stopped, and there are reams of data and high-speed video, along with a full summer and last spring’s worth of data already collected. Teams could draft multiple rounds confidently with no additional games played or data and video collected, as they’d all have less information in a somewhat uniform way. Both scouting-driven processes and analytical-model-driven processes thrive on information, but there is a point where the marginal benefit is pretty small.
How does this tie into MLB’s grander plan?
With the proposal by the league to eliminate as many as 40 minor league teams, the league would cut player-development costs by outsourcing talent to college. Effectively, low-tier pro prospects won’t be signed out of high school and develop in the minor leagues as teenagers, using club resources the whole time. Rather, they will go to college to develop, the cream will rise, clubs will have more certainty about their draft investment in that college player and he’ll get to the major leagues more quickly from the day he’s drafted. The return on investment is undoubtedly higher and the development costs to MLB clubs lower. MLB and the NCAA hadn’t collaborated much in the past until December’s agreement to hold the draft in Omaha the day before the College World Series starts.
Moral hazards in college baseball exist. Winning in the short term for a college coach to get a contract extension or move to a bigger program means, broadly, that some things not in the long-term interest of some players and MLB clubs that might pick them — more sliders thrown, more pitches per game, more bunts, different swing mechanics, fewer reps — are a reality of the college game. But MLB teams now regularly dip into the college ranks to find coaches, so the incentive gap has narrowed.
It also could lessen opportunities for players from disadvantaged or multisport backgrounds who need high-level reps to improve. Gone would be later-round draft bonuses or developmental spots in top college programs. If these things were thought of as a marketing cost to increase the popularity of the game, akin to MLB’s RBI Program, it might be more palatable to owners. The same goes for eliminating small-town minor league teams.
What about the minor leagues this season?
The agreement doesn’t address the status of the minor league season since less than 10% of minor league players are part of the MLBPA. Around baseball, there is significant skepticism that it will look anything like it has in recent years.
Major league teams clearly need a grouping of Triple-A and Double-A players to be ready in case of injuries, but that’s also baseball in 60 cities — cities with their own questions about health and safety and the ability to operate with no fans. Two player-development directors this week talked about minor league baseball turning into a complex-only operation — lots of back-field and intrasquad games among the lower-level minor leaguers and perhaps games at spring sites between organizations’ Triple-A and Double-A teams.
Short-season ball is for all intents and purposes dead in 2020 because the influx of amateur talent into organizations this year will be minuscule. Now it’s simply a matter of how the league chooses to handle those players already with teams.
What about the international signing period?
Manfred has the right to delay the 2020-21 signing period, which was set to begin on July 2, until as late as Jan. 15, 2021 through Dec. 15, 2021. There isn’t a concrete bonus deferral for the international realm like the draft, but this big of a potential delay could act as a version of one. Should MLB delay the beginning of the new signing calendar, there would be a dead period from July 2, 2020 to the beginning of the 2020-21 class. The league also can push back the 2021-22 signing period to Jan. 15, 2022 through Dec. 15, 2022.
The bonus pools for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 signing periods will be the same as 2019-20. Teams will not be allowed to trade pool space — they could previously trade for up to 50% on top of their original pool — for both periods.
What will this mean for teams in the international realm?
Most of the 2019-20 money is spent and most of the 2020-21 money is already committed. Teams could try to renegotiate deals for the next signing period, though that would be seen as a deep breach of trust by the trainers who develop most of the talent in Latin American countries.
How about for players and trainers?
It is a potential disaster for two different economies. The first is for players. A not-insignificant percentage of elite players’ families take out high-interest loans against their expected bonuses. This can happen for players as young as 13 years old, who can receive multimillion-dollar commitments from teams that want to sign them at 16. If loan payments come due and the families do not have the money to repay them, the compound interest could potentially wipe out a significant portion of the bonus money they do receive. Further, when Latin American teenagers sign with major league teams, they almost never spend their first season in the United States — and, thus, are not subject to U.S. tax laws on the bonus. Top players from the 2020-21 class who sign in January 2021 could be asked to play in the states and would find their bonuses taxed accordingly.
The greatest expense for players is paying the buscónes, or trainers, who house them, feed them and train them from as young as 10 years old. Often a child will drop out of school and start at a local academy. If he shows promise, the trainer there will shop him to more well-known trainers, who give the local trainer a percentage of the player’s eventual signing bonus. In total, players typically pay 30% to 50% of their bonuses to buscónes. Academies, though, can run on thin margins, particularly those with a significant number of players. One person intimately familiar with Dominican baseball estimated the potential six-month float could cause half the academies in the D.R. to shut down. Academies time their expenses to a July 2 signing period, and changing that could devastate them.
All of this fits with what now feels like an eventuality: an international draft come 2022. The timing, actually, lines up perfectly: If MLB pushes back the 2020-21 signing period, its end will coincide with the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement. The consequence would be a potential double class — those from the 2021-22 group whose signings were pushed back and those who were set to be 16 by July 2, 2022 — but that could be addressed with a higher bonus pool for that first year or a resetting of the signing age.
This is a lot to digest. How do we close this thing out?
By closing team workout facilities, which they’ve finally done. The hope now is that they’ll reopen soon, that this agreement wasn’t for naught and that baseball — real, regular-season baseball, the kind that, regardless of crowd, is compelling nevertheless — will be a reality sooner than later.
Tim Kurkjian’s baseball fix – Of Cy Young, Big Klu and Le Grande Orange
You love baseball. Tim Kurkjian loves baseball. So while we await its return, every day we’ll provide you with a story or two tied to this date in baseball history.
ON THIS DATE IN 1867, Cy Young, after whom the pitching award was named, was born Denton True Young in Gilmore, Ohio. His nickname came from his cyclone-like motion in his delivery. He won 511 games, almost 100 more than anyone in major league history. He won 20 games 15 times and 30 games five times. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937. He was named on 153 of 201 ballots. With 511 wins. And you thought the voting was harsh today.
Denny McLain was born on this date in 1944. He won the Cy Young in 1968 and 1969. He is the only pitcher to win the MVP unanimously (1968), and he is the only MVP pitcher to have his catcher (Bill Freehan) finish second in the MVP voting that same season. McLain won 55 games in those two seasons, but he won only 131 in a career that ended at age 28.
Billy Beane, the president of baseball operations for the Oakland A’s, and a likely Hall of Fame executive one day, was born on this date in 1962. I played basketball with him at spring training. He was so good. And so competitive. He almost got into a fight in a pickup game.
Ted Kluszewski died on this date in 1988. Big Klu was one of the strongest men to ever play the game; he would cut off his uniform sleeves to show off his guns. He hit 49 homers in 1958. Luke Easter, a star with the Indians in the 1950s, was murdered on this date in 1979 at age 63. Terry Moore, a great defensive outfielder for the Cardinals, died on this date in 1995.
And the always lovable redhead, Rusty Staub, nicknamed “Le Grande Orange” from his days with the Expos, died on this date in 2018. Staub is the only player to have at least 500 hits for four different franchises: the Astros, Expos, Mets and Tigers. He, Ty Cobb, Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez are the only players to homer as a teenager — and as a 40-year-old. Staub was an expert with fine wines, and he was a tremendous cook: He sometimes would take his pots and pans on road trips. He was a very warm, wonderful man.
“I knew Rusty had beaucoup power,” said Gene Mauch, one of Staub’s managers in Montreal, “before I knew what beaucoup meant.”
Other baseball notes from March 29
In 1975, the Yankees released Mel Stottlemyre, one of the greatest pitchers in franchise history. Stottlemyre is the last pitcher to get five hits in a game. He went 5-for-5 and threw a two-hit shutout against the Senators on Sept. 26, 1964.
And in 1984, the Yankees traded Graig Nettles to the Padres. Nettles was a great Yankee, one of the best defensive third baseman of all time. He also gave beloved teammate Mickey Rivers the nickname “Chance” not because Rivers was a big gambler, but because Nettles said Rivers was the least likely person to be named the chancellor at a university.
The best pitching performance ever for all 30 teams
Editor’s note: This original version of this story ran on June 27, 2018. As part of ESPN’s Strikeout Saturday on March 28, 2020, David Schoenfield updated his evaluations, particularly of who’s most likely to beat each team’s best-ever pitching performance.
On May 4, 2018 Gerrit Cole pitched one of the best games you will ever see. He fired a 16-strikeout shutout against the Diamondbacks, allowing just one hit and one walk. As a remarkable side note, Cole didn’t strike out any batters in the first or ninth innings, so 16 of the 21 outs from the second through the eighth were strikeouts. His final two pitches were 99 mph. Cole called it “probably my best” start of his career. Umm, no “probably” needed there.
I wondered: Was this the best start in Astros history? Cole’s Game Score was 100, a rare achievement. There have been just 15 such games in outings of nine innings or fewer since 1908, so while Cole’s game didn’t receive the notoriety of a no-hitter or perfect game, it was more impressive in many ways, less reliant on the fortune of where a ball was hit and more dependent on his pure dominance.
With Cole’s game in mind, I thought it would be fun to research the best starts for every franchise. This wasn’t as simple as just finding the best Game Score for every team. With the way Game Score is calculated, the more innings you pitch, the higher your Game Score can go, so most franchise records are from games from decades ago, when pitchers would pitch deep into extra innings. You also have to consider the opponent and the era — strikeouts are more plentiful now, although complete games are scarce.
Two final notes before I reveal my selections:
• I considered only regular-season starts. Postseason is another beast altogether given the importance of every game (though my editor says to be prepared to go there come October). There is one franchise, however, for which the highest nine-inning Game Score in a postseason game matches the best in the regular season.
• This list goes back to only 1908, which is as far back as the invaluable Baseball-Reference Play Index goes. So whenever I might say “history,” I really mean since 1908.
Strikeout Saturday schedule on ESPN
• 12 p.m. ET: Roger Clemens becomes the first MLB pitcher to fan 20 in a nine-inning game — vs. Seattle Mariners on April 29, 1986
• 2 p.m. ET: Kerry Wood Ks 20 in a one-hit shutout at Wrigley Field vs. the Houston Astros — May 6, 1998
• 4 p.m. ET: Randy Johnson dominates the Cincinnati Reds with a 20-strikeout performance — May 8, 2001
• 6 p.m. ET: Max Scherzer notches 20 strikeouts vs. his old team, the Detroit Tigers — May 11, 2016
Pitching line: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 4 BB, 17 SO (Game Score: 100)
There’s no better pitcher to start this list with than Ryan, the king of the no-hitter. He was so dominating in the second of his seven career no-hitters that Tigers slugger Norm Cash walked up to the plate in the ninth inning with a table leg instead of a bat — admitting that no matter his weapon of choice, he had no chance. That sounds like a tall tale from 1922 or something, except we have video evidence:
For argument’s sake: Dean Chance won the Cy Young Award in 1964 when he went 20-9 with a 1.65 ERA, throwing 15 complete games and 11 shutouts — even though he didn’t join the rotation for good until the end of May. On June 6, he threw 14 scoreless innings against the Yankees, striking out 12 and allowing just three hits, good for a Game Score of 116 (although he ended up with a no-decision).
Most likely to beat it: Now that Shohei Ohtani is healthy again, we can dream of that game in which everything comes together and he pitches a 16-strikeout no-hitter.
Noteworthy: Not surprisingly, Ryan is also the king of the Game Score. He has four games of 100-plus. The only pitcher with more (since 1908) is Walter Johnson, who had seven, but all of his were in outings of 12 innings or more. Three of Ryan’s four 100s were nine-inning outings and the fourth was 10 innings. Put it this way: There have been just 15 nine-inning Game Scores of 100 or more, and Ryan has three of them.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 13 SO (Game Score: 98)
This was the season Scott could have been arrested for doing unnatural things to a baseball. He won the Cy Young Award with a 2.22 ERA and 306 strikeouts in 275 1/3 innings, the most strikeouts in a season in the 1980s. This no-hitter was especially memorable because it also clinched the division title, pushing it to the top among the best performances in Astros history.
For argument’s sake: Gerrit Cole (with his one-hitter with 16 strikeouts in 2018) and Justin Verlander (his 14-strikeout no-hitter last September) have both topped Scott with a Game Score of 100, but I’m sticking with Scott’s no-hitter to clinch the division. Verlander’s 100 beat his previous high of 95, done twice with the Tigers, but it came against a bad, strikeout-prone Toronto lineup.
Most likely to beat it: With Cole now in pinstripes, Verlander is the guy, but if 100 isn’t good enough to beat Scott, it may take a perfect game with double-digit strikeouts to surpass him.
Noteworthy: In reviewing these performances, it’s important to remember the context of the era. Scott averaged 10.0 K’s per nine innings in a league where the average was 6.0. Cole has averaged 13.1 in a league over the last two years where the average is 8.7. Scott was 67 percent better than the league average; Cole has been 51 percent better.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 14 SO (Game Score: 99)
Witt was one of the most prized draft prospects of the 1980s when the Rangers selected him third overall in 1985 out of Oklahoma. He had a 16-year career, but never completely harnessed his blazing fastball and walked 100-plus batters in a season six times. For one glorious day, however, everything came together. The only baserunner came on Greg Gagne’s bunt single in the sixth inning — on an apparent blown call by umpire Gary Cederstrom with Witt covering first base.
“Obviously, by replays, the man is out at first,” Witt said after the game. “I think he missed the call. But there’s nothing I can do about it now.”
For argument’s sake: Witt’s game is the best nine-inning Game Score in A’s history (one point better than Catfish Hunter’s perfect game in 1968), but how about Jack Coombs in 1910: 16 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 6 BB, 18 SO, Game Score of 128.
Noteworthy: In the divisional era since 1969, two pitchers recorded 13 games in one season with a Game Score of 80 or higher: Vida Blue in 1971 and Nolan Ryan in 1972. Blue’s best game that magical MVP/Cy Young season was an 11-inning scoreless effort in which he struck out 17 batters with no walks. From April 13 through July 21, Blue made 22 starts and pitched 196 2/3 innings. He was 21 years old.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 17 SO (Game Score: 100)
Morrow’s 17-strikeout masterpiece was almost a no-hitter as well. The only hit was Evan Longoria‘s two-out infield single in the ninth off the glove of a diving Aaron Hill.
For argument’s sake: Blue Jays fans are no doubt sentimental about Dave Stieb’s no-hitter in 1990 after he had come close to one several times earlier in his career.
Most likely to beat it: Nate Pearson hasn’t yet reached the majors, but he may be the best pitching prospect in the minors. With his blazing fastball, wipeout slider, plus changeup and control, he’s the one minor leaguer I’d be willing to put “100” potential on.
Noteworthy: Morrow’s 100 is the best Game Score in Blue Jays history, including extra-inning games. He doesn’t hold the club strikeout record, however, as Roger Clemens fanned 18 in a 1998 shutout (with a Game Score of 99).
Pitching line: 26 IP, 9 H, 1 R, 4 BB, 7 SO (Game Score: 153)
OK, baseball was a much different game in 1920, when it was still routine for starting pitchers to remain in the game regardless of inning. Still, this game was beyond extreme, even for 1920: Oeschger and Leon Cadore both went the distance in a 1-1 tie, with Oeschger recording the highest Game Score in history (Cadore’s 140 is second-highest). With a conservative estimate of three pitches per batter, we’re talking nearly 300 pitches for each guy, and probably more. Oeschger (pronounced “Eshker”) himself estimated he threw 250 fastballs that day and Cadore “at least 300 curves.” The New York Times report didn’t mention the two hurlers until the ninth paragraph, more impressed that the game simply went a record 26 innings.
For argument’s sake: If you prefer a nine-inning effort, Warren Spahn’s 15-strikeout, two-walk no-hitter in 1960 registers as one of those rare 100 games. Spahn had just 18 double-digit strikeout games in his career, and this one did come against a bad Phillies team in September.
Most likely to beat it: Mike Soroka doesn’t have the high-octane fastball that usually goes with the highest Game Scores, but if he can improve his strikeout rate to go with his ability to induce soft contact, he could put up some big efforts.
Noteworthy: We’ve mentioned the Boston Braves and Milwaukee Braves, but the top game in Atlanta Braves history actually belongs to Kevin Millwood, with a 98 when he spun a one-hitter with 13 strikeouts in 1998. Greg Maddux’s best Game Score was 96, John Smoltz’s was 93 and Tom Glavine’s a mere 90. Phil Niekro’s best was 91, which he did three times.
Pitching line: 10 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 10 SO (Game Score: 94)
For a few years there, the little lefty from Mexico was one of the best in the game. He followed this game up with a one-hit shutout, Game Score of 92, for the rare back-to-back 90s.
For argument’s sake: Ben Sheets fanned 18 in 2004 while matching Higuera’s 94 in nine innings, but did allow a run in that game.
Most likely to beat it: Brandon Woodruff averaged 10.6 K’s per nine last season and had an 86 against the Phillies in an eight-inning effort in which he allowed one hit and one run with 10 K’s.
Noteworthy: The Brewers have the weakest slate of “great” games of any franchise other than possibly the Rockies, with just 11 games of 90 or better since they were born as the Seattle Pilots in 1969. Even the two 1998 expansion teams have more. Maybe this isn’t surprising. Really, Higuera is the only great starter in Brewers history and he got injured. Sheets was a four-time All-Star, but only had one monster season. Mike Caldwell had a big 1978. Mostly, though, it’s been a bunch of blah.
Pitching line: 11 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 8 SO (Game Score: 103)
This is one of my favorite games on the list, in part because DeLeon didn’t dominate in the strikeout column. Still, he threw a mere 109 pitches, and here’s the thing: He got a double play, so he actually faced the minimum 33 batters. He’s the only pitcher to go exactly 11 innings and face the minimum number of batters.
For argument’s sake: In the eighth start of his career, Shelby Miller allowed a leadoff single to Eric Young of the Rockies and then retired the next 27 in a row, finishing with 13 strikeouts and the highest nine-inning Game Score in Cardinals history at 98.
Most likely to beat it: Jack Flaherty had four games with an 80-plus Game Score in 2019 — only Verlander and Cole, with five apiece, had more.
Noteworthy: What about Bob Gibson, you ask? Gibson’s best Game Score was 100, although it took him 13 innings to get there. His best for nine innings was 96. His 17-strikeout game in the World Series was a 93. Of course, I’d love to see what he could do in today’s high-strikeout era. He might strike out 17 every start.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 20 SO (Game Score: 105)
On a gray afternoon at Wrigley Field, a baby-faced 20-year-old Texan took the mound for his fifth career start and threw what many regard as the greatest game ever pitched. It wasn’t a perfect game; it wasn’t even a no-hitter. It was maybe better. Wood tied Clemens’ record with 20 strikeouts in a game and allowed only an infield hit in the third inning on a slow dribbler to third base. He overpowered a strong Houston team that would win 102 games that year with a blazing fastball and curveball that had the Astros flailing like schoolkids at a wiffle ball. It wasn’t fair.
“We had heard the hype,” Astros shortstop Ricky Gutierrez told the Chicago Tribune earlier this year. “We saw him warming up. But then came those first three guys. He mows them down. Biggio. Bell. Bagwell. It was like, ‘Wow!'”
Wood finished with a Game Score of 105, the highest ever for a nine-inning game. Max Scherzer has the second-highest at 104. The highest for a perfect game is 101. Wood threw 122 pitches, 84 for strikes, 24 of those swing-and-misses. Bell swung at the final curveball and missed by a mile. Brad Ausmus played for the Astros that day and for the Tigers when Clemens fanned 20. He was the opposing manager when Scherzer fanned 20. “I’ve never seen a pitcher with that type of stuff for nine innings. Ever,” he said of Wood. “It was the best stuff I’ve ever seen in a game. There’s not a close second.”
Relive when Kerry Wood tied the MLB record with 20 strikeouts against the Astros on May 6, 1998.
For argument’s sake: Most of the longstanding franchises have several extra-inning performances that score in the 100s. The Cubs have only two that top Wood’s 105, but the best one was pretty impressive: Lefty Tyler threw 21 innings in a 2-1 victory in 1918, back when Wrigley Field was still known as Weeghman Park, good for a Game Score of 126.
Most likely to beat it: Yu Darvish doesn’t throw as hard as he once did, but in the second half last season he suddenly turned into a strike-throwing machine and over his final 17 starts had 148 K’s and just 12 walks in 106 ⅓ innings.
Noteworthy: Jake Arrieta had a couple of dominant performances with the Cubs, with a 13-strikeout one-hitter in 2014 and his 12-strikeout no-hitter against the Dodgers in 2015 that registers a 98.
On May 8, 2001, Randy Johnson became only the third player in MLB history to strike out 20 batters in a game.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 13 SO (Game Score: 100)
Johnson had a 20-strikeout game for the Diamondbacks against the Reds in 2001, but I’ll give the nod to his perfect game against the Braves since it had the higher Game Score and that Reds lineup featured Donnie Sadler hitting leadoff and Alex Ochoa in the cleanup spot. By the way, here’s how much the game has changed since 2004: The NL averaged 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings that year; in 2018, it’s averaging 8.6. What kind of strikeout numbers would Johnson put up now?
For argument’s sake: Curt Schilling also had a 100, firing a 17-strikeout one-hitter with two walks against the Brewers in April 2002.
Most likely to beat it: Robbie Ray has averaged 12.1 K’s per nine over the past three seasons. Unfortunately, he’s also averaged 4.4 walks per nine, so is rarely efficient enough to pitch deep into games (he has one career complete game). New starter Madison Bumgarner has two 98s in his career with one-hit shutouts, but I’m not sure that Bumgarner still exists.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 14 SO (Game Score: 101)
All yours, Vin Scully:
For argument’s sake: This was a tough one because Koufax doesn’t have the highest nine-inning Game Score in Dodgers history. That belongs to Clayton Kershaw, with his 15-strikeout no-hitter against the Rockies in 2014 (that game wasn’t a perfect game because of an error). My reasoning: (1) Strikeouts were easier to come by in 2014 than 1965 (7.8 K’s per game versus 5.9); (2) the Rockies’ lineup against Kershaw was pretty weak with guys like Brandon Barnes, Wilin Rosario, Josh Rutledge and Kyle Parker (plus, the Rockies always struggle to hit on the road).
On the other hand, the Cubs had two players making their major league debut the night of Koufax’s gem. On the third hand, every pitch mattered in that game because it was a 1-0 win as Cubs pitcher Bob Hendley threw a one-hitter. And on the fourth hand, the Dodgers have a third 100 game: Nap Rucker, in 1908, had a 14-strikeout no-hitter to match Koufax at 101 — and that was when strikeouts were really rare (3.4 per game).
Most likely to beat it: Walker Buehler had a 15- and 16-strikeout games last season, although allowed home runs in both efforts. Still, he could join Koufax and Kershaw in the 100 club.
Notable: Given their rich history of power pitchers, the Dodgers lead all teams in total number of 90-plus games as well 90-plus games of nine innings:
1. Dodgers, 126
2. Giants, 102
3. White Sox, 99
4. Indians, 96
5. Reds, 84
Nine innings (or fewer)
1. Dodgers, 91
2. Giants, 64
3. Red Sox, 55
4. Cardinals, 54
5. Indians, 54
6. White Sox, 54
Pitching line: 16 IP, 8 H, 0 R, 4 BB, 10 SO (Game Score: 112)
This was one of the more famous pitching duels of all time, as Marichal, 25 years old and on his way to a 25-win season, and 42-year-old Warren Spahn both went the distance before Willie Mays finally won it with a home run in the bottom of the 16th. Giants manager Alvin Dark was going to hit for Marichal in the 13th, but Marichal barked that he wasn’t coming out if his 42-year-old opponent was still in the game. SABR research indicates Marichal threw 227 pitches in the game. Since Marichal’s 16-inning performance, only one other pitcher has gone that deep: Gaylord Perry, another Giants starter, who did it in throwing a shutout in 1967 (also recording a Game Score of 112).
Oh, Marichal also made his next scheduled start on four days of rest — then made his next two starts after that on three days of rest. He’d pitch 68 innings that month.
For argument’s sake: Matt Cain’s 14-strikeout perfect game in 2012 registers an impressive 101, but it came against a putrid Astros team that would lose 107 games. Another option would be Carl Hubbell’s 18-inning shutout in 1933 with 12 strikeouts — also on July 2 — for a 132.
Most likely to beat it: Nobody in the current rotation, and the top prospects in the system are all position players.
Notable: The Baseball-Reference Play Index goes back to 1908, and it’s not surprising that the two pitchers with the most games of 10-plus innings are two deadball hurlers: Pete Alexander (57) and Walter Johnson (55). Third on the list with 37 such games is Perry. The only other post-World War II starters with at least 20 such games are Spahn (23), Robin Roberts (23) and Jim Palmer (20).
Cleveland Indians: Luis Tiant (July 3, 1968, versus Twins)
Pitching line: 10 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 19 SO (Game Score: 99)
Tiant is most remembered for his days with the Red Sox, when he had the big mustache, the funky windup, and threw a lot of junk. That all came after he’d hurt his arm and recovered after the Twins released him. When he first came up with the Indians in 1964, however, he was one of the hardest throwers in the game. Yes, 1968 was the Year of the Pitcher, when nobody could hit — Tiant’s .167 average allowed that season is the second-lowest ever for a starting pitcher — but this 19-strikeout, no-walk gem is still mighty impressive.
For argument’s sake: Len Barker’s perfect game with 11 strikeouts in 1981 came against a pathetic Blue Jays team that hit just .226 that year. If you want to go way back, Addie Joss threw a perfect game in the final days of the 1908 pennant race.
Most likely to beat it: Shane Bieber had a 94 last year with a one-hit, 10-K shutout against the Blue Jays, and a 92 with a 15-K shutout against the Orioles.
Notable: The Indians have a long history of dominant pitchers, including Allie Reynolds, Herb Score, Sam McDowell, young Dennis Eckersley and Kluber. Hall of Famer Bob Feller tops that list, but his best Game Score was a mere 96, with a 13-strikeout one-hitter. Mostly, he walked too many batters (in two of his no-hitters, he issued five walks, and he had three in his third), but he also played in an era with many fewer strikeouts. In 1946, when he struck out 348 batters in 371 ⅓ innings, he averaged 8.4 K’s per nine innings — nearly double the AL average of 4.3.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 12 SO (Game Score: 99)
King Felix’s perfect game was almost over after the first batter, but Eric Thames — yes, that Eric Thames — made a great running catch to rob Sam Fuld of a hit. After that, Hernandez dominated, inducing a career-best 26 swing-and-misses. Rays manager Joe Maddon, unhappy with plate umpire Rob Drake’s strike zone, tried to disrupt Felix’s rhythm during a seventh-inning tirade in which he was ejected and took his time leaving the field. It didn’t work. Hernandez fanned Sean Rodriguez looking with a 2-2 slider to end it and raised both arms to the skies.
For argument’s sake: Erik Hanson was a tall right-hander with a big 12-to-6 curveball and he also had a 99, allowing two hits with 11 strikeouts over 10 innings against the Bash Brother A’s in 1990 … only to get a no-decision when Dave Stewart pitched an 11-inning shutout.
Most likely to beat it: You probably have to go with prospect Logan Gilbert, the team’s first-round pick in 2018 who averaged 11.0 K’s per nine in the minors in reaching Double-A in his first professional season.
Notable: Felix’s perfect game was a 1-0 victory for the Mariners. Get this: He had three 1-0 complete-game shutouts that month. In fact, four of his five shutouts that season were 1-0 wins. The only other pitchers with four 1-0 shutouts in a season since 1969 are Fergie Jenkins in 1974 and Bert Blyleven in 1976. Long live the King.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 7 SO (Game Score: 94)
Brown doesn’t get enough credit for a great career, including an amazing five-year run from 1996 to 2000 in which he had a 2.51 ERA and averaged 7.3 WAR per season. This performance was nearly a perfect game, ruined when he hit Marvin Benard with a pitch with two outs in the eighth. With his power sinker, he recorded 17 ground-ball outs.
For argument’s sake: Edinson Volquez’s no-hitter last season with 10 strikeouts and two walks is the best Game Score in Marlins history at 95.
Most likely to beat it: Sandy Alcantara has explosive stuff, although he lacks control and it hasn’t translated to big strikeout totals yet. He did, however, toss two shutouts last season, including a two-hitter with eight K’s against the Mets that registered a 90.
Notable: Since the Marlins debuted in 1993, they’ve thrown six no-hitters.
Pitching line: 15 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 7 SO (Game Score: 112)
Not Seaver, not Gooden, not Cone, not deGrom, but … who? Gardner is the most obscure pitcher on this list. He was a 20-year-old rookie making his fifth career start when he drew the second game of a doubleheader on the next-to-last day of the season. He and Phillies veteran Chris Short locked up in a scoreless duel, both going 15 innings in a game that eventually ended in a 0-0 tie after 18 innings. Gardner went 4-8, 5.12 for the Mets in 1966, was traded to the Cubs in 1967, developed arm problems and won just 14 games in the majors over eight seasons with six clubs.
For argument’s sake: David Cone’s 99 on the final day of the 1991 season, when he fanned 19 Phillies with a three-hit shutout, is the highest nine-inning Game Score in Mets history.
Most likely to beat it: Surprisingly, Jacob deGrom‘s highest career Game Score is just 91, done twice, in 2015 and 2016. He has just one career shutout. Still, you know everything could come together for one magical game.
Notable: The Mets have 50 nine-inning performances with a Game Score of 90 or higher, more than many teams that have been around much longer, in part because Shea Stadium and now Citi Field have been good pitchers’ parks. (Shea Stadium was a great park for strikeout pitchers, probably due to bad lighting.) Nobody electrified crowds like the young Dwight Gooden. He’s the only pitcher in MLB history with at least 16 strikeouts in consecutive games, doing it as a 19-year-old rookie in September 1984. The first of those games was a Game Score of 93, the best of his Mets career.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 17 SO (Game Score: 104)
Scherzer joins Nolan Ryan as the only pitchers with at least two nine-inning Game Scores of 100 or more. This one came on the final Saturday of the season against a Mets team that eventually would reach the World Series and is second only to Kerry Wood’s 105 for a nine-inning game. It would have been a perfect game except for Yunel Escobar’s throwing error in the sixth inning. Scherzer’s other 100 came earlier that season with a 16-strikeout one-hitter. His other no-hitter in 2015 comes in at 97, while his 20-strikeout game in 2016 is a mere 87 because he allowed two runs.
For argument’s sake: Scherzer’s 104 is the best game in Expos/Nationals history, regardless of length. Bill Stoneman’s 98 in 1971 is the best in Expos history.
Most likely to beat it: Scherzer is starting to show the little pains and dings that come with age, but he still led the NL in strikeout rate last season.
Notable: Scherzer has just missed two perfect games, losing another one when he hit Jose Tabata of the Pirates with two outs in the ninth. Dennis Martinez did throw a perfect game for the Expos in 1991 and Pedro Martinez was perfect for nine innings against the Padres in 1995, only to give up a hit in the 10th inning.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 2 H 0 R, 0 BB, 15 SO (Game Score: 98)
Remember that one awesome season for Bedard? He led the AL in fewest hits per nine innings in 2007 and most K’s per nine and had a day to remember in Arlington, a tough park to rack up a big game. The Orioles cashed in and traded him to the Mariners after the season for Adam Jones and Chris Tillman, and Bedard had trouble staying healthy after that.
For argument’s sake: Mike Mussina matched Bedard’s 98 with a one-hit, 15-strikeout game in 2000, walking two batters. The highest extra-inning score belongs to Jerry Walker, who spun a 16-inning shutout in 1959 for a 111. He was only 20 and had started the All-Star Game that year; perhaps not coincidentally he came down with arm problems in 1960. He did have a long career as an executive with the Tigers, Cardinals and Reds.
Most likely to beat it: Grayson Rodriguez is the team’s top pitching prospect. He averaged less than five innings per start in Low-A, so he’s a long ways away, but he is a strikeout machine.
Notable: Here’s an example of how the game has changed. Jim Palmer won three Cy Young Awards, threw 211 complete games and tossed 53 shutouts, but had just 13 double-digit strikeout games in his career — and in just one of those 13 did he allow zero runs. His best nine-inning Game Score was 90.
Pitching line: 15 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 15 SO (Game Score: 109)
We dig deep into Padres history to pull out this one. Kirby was one of the few bright spots on those awful early Padres teams, a hard-throwing, cocky right-hander who would have had better numbers on a good team. Using a basic pitch count estimator, we can guess Kirby threw about 210 pitches in this game. Alas, he left with a no-decision as the Astros won in 21 innings.
For argument’s sake: Andy Benes fired a one-hitter with 13 strikeouts in 1994, for a 97, the best nine-inning outing.
Most likely to beat it: The Padres have multiple possibilities here with the likes of Chris Paddack and prospects MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patino. And don’t sleep on Dinelson Lamet, who averaged 12.9 K’s per nine in his return from Tommy John surgery last season.
Notable: The Padres have never thrown a no-hitter and, maybe not surprisingly, have a dearth of big games to consider as well. They’ve had just 22 in the 90s in their history and just 16 that weren’t extra-inning games.
Pitching line: 15 IP, 9 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 18 SO (Game Score: 114)
Short matched up against Mets rookie Rob Gardner in a memorable late-season duel, the only game on our list featuring two pitchers from the same contest. Gardner allowed fewer hits, but Short had 11 more strikeouts and thus the higher Game Score — the highest in Phillies history.
For argument’s sake: If you don’t like these extra-inning games, then you can choose one of three 98s in Phillies history: Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay in their no-hit games or Steve Carlton with a one-hitter in his magical 1972 season.
Notable: Of course, the game most Phillies fans would cite is Halladay’s no-hitter in the 2010 division series. If you skipped the intro, note that we didn’t include postseason games. But just for fun, here are the highest nine-inning Game Scores in postseason history:
Roger Clemens, Yankees, 2000 ALCS: 98
Tim Lincecum, Giants, 2010 NLDS: 96
Roy Halladay, Phillies, 2010 NLDS: 94
Don Larsen, Yankees, 1956 World Series: 94
Ed Walsh, White Sox, 1906 World Series: 94
Lincecum’s game came the day after Halladay’s no-hitter.
Pitching line: 12.2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 8 SO (Game Score: 107)
The only pitcher on this list to lose his game, Haddix was perfect through 12 innings, the only pitcher in major league history to do that. Lew Burdette, however, would scatter 12 hits for the Braves, and it remained 0-0 in the bottom of the 13th. Felix Mantilla led off for the Braves and reached on third baseman Don Hoak’s throwing error, breaking up the perfect game. After a sacrifice bunt, Haddix intentionally walked Hank Aaron. On Haddix’s 115th pitch, Joe Adcock hit a high slider over the fence in right-center to win the game. Aaron didn’t realize the ball had cleared the fence and Adcock passed him on the basepaths, so the final score was declared 1-0 with Adcock credited with a double instead of a home run. After the game, Haddix didn’t care about history. “All I know is we lost,” he said. “What is so historic about that?”
For argument’s sake: Vern Law threw an 18-inning game in 1955, also matched up against the Braves and Burdette, producing a Game Score of 118. It was a pretty unique game in that only one pitcher had thrown 18 innings since 1933 and that nobody would do it again.
Most likely to beat it: Umm …
Notable: Despite their long history, the Pirates’ best Game Score for nine innings is just 95 (Francisco Cordova and Woodie Fryman). Only the Brewers have a “best” game that ranks worse.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 16 SO (Game Score: 101)
Ryan spent the final five seasons of his career with the Rangers, and that’s really when he became a legend, pitching his sixth and seventh career no-hitters, leading the American League with 301 strikeouts at age 42 (and again at 43) and posting some of the most dominant single-game performances the game had ever seen. This was Ryan’s final no-hitter, striking out Roberto Alomar swinging with pure heat to end it, and the highest Game Score of the seven.
For argument’s sake: The record for most strikeouts in a game technically isn’t 20 — that’s just the nine-inning record. The record for a game of any length belongs to Tom Cheney, with 21 in 1962 for the Washington Senators, the birth team of the Rangers. Cheney went all 16 innings to beat the Orioles 2-1, with a Game Score of 115. He was a hard thrower who had finally gained some control and started off hot in 1963, only to hurt his elbow in July. He’d win just one more game in the majors.
Most likely to beat it: Corey Kluber has had four 90s in his career, including a high of 98 in 2015, when he fanned 18 in just eight innings. He’ll have to prove peak Kluber still exists.
Notable: In 1990, Ryan had games of 101 (15 K’s in 10 innings), 99 (14-strikeout no-hitter) and 99 (one-hitter with 16 K’s). Put it this way: Ryan had three 99s in one season in outings of 10 innings or fewer. Nobody else has three in a career. He was one of a kind.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 11 SO (Game Score: 95)
The only hit Archer allowed in a 1-0 victory was a sixth-inning ground ball into right field by Colby Rasmus. He finished the Astros off in just 98 pitches.
For argument’s sake: Matt Garza owns the only no-hitter in Rays history, with a six-strikeout, one-walk performance against a good Tigers team in 2010 (Game Score was 92). He even faced the minimum, getting a double play after the second-inning free pass.
Most likely to beat it: Blake Snell made The Leap in 2018 when he won the Cy Young Award. He had a frustrating 2019 with a couple stints on the injured list, but no lefty can match his raw stuff.
Notable: The Rays were born in 1998 and have 14 90-plus games since then, good for eighth in the majors:
Red Sox, 22
The Royals have the fewest over those 20-plus seasons with just one 90.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 14 SO (Game Score: 99)
This is one of the biggest surprises on the list, in part because it’s not even Nomo’s no-hitter from 2001 (which scored a 95). This game came at Fenway in the heart of the steroids era and Nomo induced 26 swing-and-misses while allowing only a leadoff double in the fourth inning.
For argument’s sake: There are some who say that Pedro Martinez’s one-hitter with 17 strikeouts against the Yankees in September 1999 was one of the greatest games ever pitched. Indeed, it was 120 pitches of Pedro genius against the hated Yankees, during one of the best seasons a pitcher ever had — 23-4, 2.07 ERA, 313 strikeouts in 213 1/3 innings. Alas, the one hit he allowed was a home run to Chili Davis. As unhittable as Martinez was that night, he did give up a home run. Still, Pedro deserves video honors:
Most likely to beat it: Chris Sale set a career high with a 93 last season, but he’s now out until 2021 due to Tommy John surgery.
Notable: I mentioned the Ryan stat of three 99-plus games in one season. Pedro is the only other pitcher with three career 98s in games of 10 innings or fewer. One was the game above. The other two came in 2000, a 15-strikeout two-hitter and a 13-strikeout one-hitter.
Pitching line: 15 IP, 7 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 14 SO (Game Score: 115)
Vander Meer was a flame-throwing lefty who won 119 games in his career and led the NL three times in strikeouts, but is most famous for throwing back-to-back no-hitters in 1938, the only pitcher in major league history to do so. There’s certainly a case to be made for the second no-hitter given its unique circumstances, although he walked eight in that game, which also happened to be the first night game ever played at Ebbets Field. So I’ll go with another Vander Meer performance at Ebbets Field against a strong Brooklyn lineup.
For argument’s sake: Jim Maloney was a hard-throwing right-hander in the ’60s with several memorable games, including two no-hitters (one of which was 10 innings and featured 10 walks and 12 strikeouts). On June 14, 1965, he had a no-hitter through 10 innings with 17 strikeouts. Alas, the game was 0-0 and Johnny Lewis led off the 11th with a home run. Maloney allowed one hit, finished with 18 strikeouts — and lost 1-0. Game Score: 106.
Most likely to beat it: Luis Castillo has the stuff, but his efficiency is the issue. He topped out at 7 ⅔ innings last season and has yet to throw a complete game in the majors.
Notable: Maloney is tied for 10th for most Game Scores of 90-plus with 12 in his career.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 16 SO (Game Score: 95)
The most impressive aspect of this performance is it came at Coors Field and is easily the best game in Rockies history. Gray threw 113 pitches and induced 23 swinging strikes, although it came against an admittedly weak Padres lineup.
For argument’s sake: The Rockies have just four other 90 games in their history, with German Marquez tossing a 94 last season (one-hit shutout over the Giants), Jeff Francis and Darryl Kile (in 10 innings) throwing 91s and Chad Bettis a 90.
Most likely to beat it: Gray and Marquez are both here and capable of big strikeout totals.
Notable: To be fair, only two opponents have thrown a 90 at Coors — Hideo Nomo’s no-hitter for the Dodgers in 1996 (91) and Pat Rapp with a one-hitter for the Marlins in 1995 (91). While Kile’s game is the only 90 for the Rockies on the road, their opponents have thrown 15 90s against them away from Colorado.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 13 SO (Game Score: 93)
The Royals have a surprisingly weak history of big games. Then again, they had 17 losing seasons out of 18 from 1995 to 2012, so maybe it’s not surprising, and the back-to-back World Series teams weren’t built around a power-pitching rotation. So let’s go with a game from the best pitcher in Royals history (47.2 WAR versus 40.8 for Bret Saberhagen).
For argument’s sake: Danny Duffy had a 95 when he fanned 16 and allowed one hit in eight innings against the Rays in 2016. That’s the franchise record for strikeouts and Game Score in nine innings (or fewer).
Most likely to beat it: One of the kids coming up through the farm system — Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar or Brady Singer, although none of them exactly dominated in the minors in 2019.
Notable: Zack Greinke never had a 90 game with the Royals. In his Cy Young season of 2009, his best was an 89, with a one-hit shutout (but just five K’s).
Pitching line: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 12 SO (Game Score: 97)
Bunning’s 12-strikeout no-hitter is the highest nine-inning Game Score in Tigers history and also impressive considering it came in a season when the AL average was just 4.9 strikeouts per game (compared with 8.4 this season).
For argument’s sake: Virgil Trucks threw two no-hitters in 1952. The second of those was against a Yankees team with Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra that went on to win the World Series. He fanned eight and walked one for a Game Score of 94.
Most likely to beat it: One of the kids coming up through the farm system — Casey Mize, Matt Manning or Tarik Skubal, who all dominated in the minors. In nine starts in Double-A, Skubal fanned 82 in 42 ⅓ innings, or 17.4 per nine.
Notable: A right-hander named Ed Summers was one of the first practitioners of the knuckleball — or “dry spitter” as it was sometimes called in his day — and he threw 18 scoreless innings in a 0-0 tie in 1909 for the highest Game Score (126) in Tigers history.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 14 SO (Game Score: 98)
Again, you have to consider the context of the era: The only pitcher with more strikeouts in a game in the 1920s than Johnson’s 14 was Dazzy Vance. There were only 11 double-digit strikeout performances the entire season in 1924 (eight of those by Vance). So a one-hitter with 14 K’s in 1924 was pretty awesome.
For argument’s sake: OK, if you want a game from Minnesota Twins history and not Washington Senators history, Eric Milton matched Johnson’s 98 with a 13-strikeout no-hitter in 1999, although it came against an Angels lineup that featured just one regular and a bunch of September call-ups.
Most likely to beat it: Jose Berrios has yet to throw a 90 in his career and had just three double-digit strikeout outings in 2019, but he can be electrifying when he has that curveball working.
Notable: As mentioned in the Angels comment, Johnson holds the record with seven 100-plus games, all in outings of at least 12 innings. If we count games only in a Twins uniform, the most 90 games belong to Bert Blyleven, with five. Surprisingly, Johan Santana had just two, including a 95 when he struck out 17 in eight innings.
Pitching line: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 13 SO (Game Score: 98)
Peters had an interesting career, getting four September call-ups and not establishing himself in the majors until he was 26. He led the AL twice in ERA and over a five-year span from 1963 to 1967 went 77-49 with a 2.50 ERA. He also hit 19 home runs in his career and frequently was used as a pinch-hitter. And on one July day, he stifled the Orioles with the best nine-inning Game Score in White Sox history. The only hit: a single up the middle by the opposing starter, Robin Roberts.
For argument’s sake: Philip Humber is the most unlikely pitcher to throw a perfect game, perhaps getting a little help on the final strike:
His Game Score was 96. Mark Buehrle’s perfect game was a 93, and he also received a little help from teammate Dewayne Wise for the first out in the ninth inning:
Most likely to beat it: Lucas Giolito fired a 93 with a three-hit, 12-strikeout shutout over the Twins in August, but flamethrowing Michael Kopech is set to return from Tommy John and he still hit 100 mph in spring training.
Notable: The White Sox have the third-most 90-plus games, trailing only the Dodgers and Giants. Deadball Era Hall of Famer Ed Walsh leads the way with 13 while the underrated Billy Pierce had seven in the 1950s, including a game in which he pitched 16 innings in 1959 (the season the White Sox won the pennant).
Pitching line: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 13 SO (Game Score: 98)
Yes, this was the game when Carl Everett broke up the perfect game bid with a two-out, two-strike single in the bottom of the ninth. Mussina does join Nolan Ryan, however, as the only pitcher to hold (or share) the best nine-inning Game Score for two franchises. Oh … can we put this man in the Hall of Fame already?
For argument’s sake: David Wells shares the 98 with Mussina with his perfect game, in which he struck out 11. David Cone is right behind, with 97 in his perfect game. Ron Guidry’s famous 18-strikeout game in 1978, the club record, was a 95, as he walked two and allowed four hits. I give the edge to Mussina for doing it at Fenway against his team’s archrival and in a 1-0 game (the Yankees didn’t score until the top of the ninth).
Most likely to beat it: Welcome to New York, Gerrit Cole.
Notable: Remember, we’re not counting postseason games here, otherwise Don Larsen’s perfect game would be at the top of the list. But here’s a fun fact: The Yankees are the only franchise where the best postseason Game Score matches the best in the regular season (for nine innings) — and it’s not Larsen’s perfect game, but Roger Clemens’ 15-strikeout one-hitter against the Mariners in the 2000 ALCS. That 98 is the best Game Score in postseason history.
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