Game Score is a Bill James invention, a little statistic that gives you a quick and easy, single-number look at how well a pitcher pitched. My sense is that it has always supposed to be little more than a bit of shorthand fun … but I think it has turned out to be one of Bill’s more delightful inventions. The numbers just FEEL right.
In Game Score, a 50 is just about an average game.
In Game Score, a 100 is pretty much perfection. It’s a crazy hard thing to get a 100 Game Score. No pitcher in the history of the baseball postseason has thrown a 100 Game Score. There have only been 63 Game Scores of GREATER than 100 in all of baseball history, and only three of those happened in nine-inning games:
1. Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout, 0-walk game (105 Game Score).
2. Nolan Ryan’s 16-strikeout, no hitter in 1991 (101 Game Score).
3. Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965 (101 Game Score).
All the other greater-than-100 Game Scores were extra inning performances — Joe Oeschinger’s 26-inning, 1-run game in 1920 has the highest Game Score ever at 153. Well, the man pitched 26 innings … give him his due. Carl Hubbell’s 18-inning shutout against the Cardinals scored a 132. Gaylord Perry’s 16-inning shutout against Cincinnati scored a 112. Juan Marichal’s 16-inning shutout against Milwaukee scored a 112. Those Giants have had some long shutouts.
Harvey Haddix’s 12 2/3 inning, one-hitter — which began with 12 perfect innings — scored a 107.
So, 100 is just about perfect. In fact, Randy Johnson’s perfect game in 2004 scored precisely 100. So did Nolan Ryan’s no-hitters in 1972 and 1973.
A 90 or better is pretty close to legendary. Roger Clemens’ 20-strikeout game scored 97. Tom Seaver’s 19-strikeout game scored 96. Clay Buchholz’s no-hitter scored 93.
An 85 or better is sensationally good. Edwin Jackson’s 8-walk no-hitter was an 85. Complete game shutouts usually score in the 80s, though there are exceptions. Milt Gaston’s rather remarkable shutout in 1928 — when he allowed 14 hits and struck out only two — only scored a 59. In the last five years, there have been 275 complete-game, 9-inning shutouts thrown. Of those, 233 scored at least in the 80s. The lowest Game Score was Pat Misch’s shutout against Florida in 2009. He allowed eight hits, walked three, struck out only two and scored a 70 Game Score, which is still very good.
The best Game Score of 2010 was Brandon Morrow’s complete-game one hitter where he struck out 17. That scored exactly 100 on the scale. Roy Halladay’s perfect game scored 98. Dallas Braden’s perfect game scored score 93. Armando Galarraga’s imperfect game scored 88.
Again, I don’t think Game Scores are supposed to be considered gospel; but they are fun ways to compare some of the great pitched games (and, frankly, a fun way to compare some of the lousy ones — Scott Kazmir’s 5-inning, 11-hit, 13-run game this year scored a minus-8 for instance). And figuring them is pretty easy.
— Start with 50 points.
— Add a point for each out, and two more for each inning completed after Inning 4.
— Add one point for each strikeout.
— Take away two points for each hit, 4 points for each earned run, 2 points for each unearned run and 1 point for each walk.
That’s it. That’s the whole thing. It really is an elegant little formula.
OK, so all of this is just another way to put into perspective the two remarkable pitching performances we saw the last two days. In the long history of postseason baseball there had only been had only been 11 Game Scores of better than 90. Remarkably two of those performances were by Randy Johnson in the 2001 postseason. He had a pair of 91s, one of them against Atlanta in the NLCS (9 innings, 3 hits, 11 Ks, 1 walk) and one of them against the Yankees in the World Series (9 innings, 3 hits, 11 Ks, 1 walk — eerie).
The best ever postseason Game Score was recorded by Roger Clemens against Seattle in 2000 — he threw a 9-inning one-hitter with 15 strikeouts. That scored a 98. After that you had Dave McNally’s 11-inning shutout against Minnesota in the 1969 ALCS and Babe Ruth’s 14-inning, one run performance against Brooklyn in the 1916 World Series. Both of those scored 97.
Then there was Don Larsen’s perfect game (a 94) and Ed Walsh’s 9-inning, 2-hit, 12-strikeout game against the Cubs in the 1906 World Series (also a 94).
Which brings us to 2010. On Wednesday, Roy Halladay threw that no-hitter against the Reds. What was most remarkable to me about the no-hitter was the same thing that was so remarkable about Halladay’s perfect game early in the year — his overwhelming brilliance choked the life out of the baseball drama. That is to say: Once he got going, as a baseball fan I never had any doubt that he would throw the no-hitter. No doubt at all. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat wondering if the Reds would get a hit. I knew they wouldn’t.
Halladay’s no-hitter was so dominating that when he walked Jay Bruce, my only thought was: “Oh, that’s too bad. Now he will only throw a no-hitter instead of a perfect game.” And that was in the fifth inning. And that was two or three innings AFTER I felt sure that the Reds would not get a hit.
In my lifetime, only Halladay has given me that sense of certainty. Pedro Martinez at his peak is the best pitcher I ever saw. Greg Maddux at his peak was my favorite pitcher, the closest thing to an artist I ever expect to see on a baseball diamond. Roger Clemens’ dominance, Randy Johnson’s dominance, Dwight Gooden’s dominance in 1984 and ’85, Johan Santana’s dominance in the middle part of this decade, Steve Carlton’s dominance, Tom Seaver’s dominance, Ron Guidry’s dominance … they all had their own special character.
But only Halladay — for me, anyway — pitches with what I call “retroactivity.” When Halliday is on, like he was against the Reds, it honestly feels like I’m watching him on replay, in a Ken Burns documentary, like the thing has already happened and it’s already famous like the Thrilla in Manilla or the Texas-USC game. I feel like I’m watching it for the fifth or sixth time. It’s a bit like a new song that sounds like you have already heard it a hundred times before.*
*In case you were wondering, the new Ben Folds-Nick Hornby album is out. I have been waiting for it for months and months — I’m a huge fan of both Folds as musician and Hornby as writer — and I have been DYING to see how this collaboration would work. I bought the thing on release day. And, well, I’m not going to lie to you: It’s not as good as I hoped … maybe it will work better for me after a couple more spins. Maybe I’ll give it a full review then.
But I can tell you there’s one great song on there — a song called “Belinda” about a one-hit wonder singer who is asked nightly to sing the popular love song he wrote for someone he left many years ago.There’s a song within the song which Ben Folds tried to make sound like an old song that would sound unnaturally familiar. I think he did a pretty remarkable job of that. The song within the song sounds like something you heard years ago even though, of course, you did not. Somehow, some way, that connects to Halladay for me.
Halladay’s genius against Cincinnati drew a 94 Game Score … same as Larsen’s perfecto. Halladay struck out eight, walked one, broke bats, broke Cincinnati hearts, left them all in helpless heap and scored the second-highest postseason Game Score of the last 40 years.
And one day later … Tim Lincecum outscored him. Watching Lincecum for me sparks very different emotions from watching Halladay. Everything about Lincecum is fresh, new, unpredictable, alive. Halladay’s greatness (and I love this about him) feels like it is in grainy black and white, like we are watching Christy Mathewson or Three Finger Brown or Pete Alexander. Lincecum’s greatness is in 3D, it pops off the screen, it drops your jaw.
At one point in Thursday’s mind-blowing game, Lincecum struck out on Brooks Conrad on some sort of ridiculous super pitch — Conrad seemed to literally swing through the ball (he foul tipped it). Bob Brenly called it a change-up. I shouted, “Come on Bob, that wasn’t a change-up. That was a curveball.” And so I rewound the thing and watched it. And I said, “Oh wait, maybe he was right. Maybe it was a change-up.” I rewound again and watched and said, “No, that wasn’t a change-up. That was a slider.” I rewound again and watched and said, “No, wait, I think that WAS a curveball.” I rewound again and finally settled on it being a slider. But really it was some sort of shape-shifting pitch. It could be whatever you wanted it to be.
That’s the sort of pitch Lincecum throws several times a game — the sort of pitch that made Satchel Paige say: “I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in a while I toss one that ain’t been seen by this generation.” Lincecum threw 10 or 15 generation pitches on Thursday, sliders that burned out and disappeared like they were entering the earth’s atmosphere, change-ups that sputtered and coughed on the way to the plate like old Buicks, fastballs that seem to skip double-dutch just as they arrive at the plate. Maybe the skateboard-dude persona adds a little to the act. Maybe the crazy motion that convinced too many scouts to pass on him in the draft adds a little to the act.
Whatever … watching Lincecum pitch is like watching Magic Johnson in his prime, like watching Gale Sayers when he was healthy, like watching John McEnroe when he was in shape and at the top of his game. There’s the greatness part, and then there’s something a little extra, this buzz of hope that you will see something that you have never seen before. Lincecum struck out 14, walked 1, allowed two hits and so electrified the San Francisco crowd I could feel AT&T Park shaking from 1,500 miles away. I have never seen that before. Not quite that.
Lincecum’s 96 Game Score ranks fourth all-time in postseason play. It also scores higher than Halladay’s no-hitter. There will be some people who don’t like the way Game Score weighs strikeouts and walks, who think no-hitters and perfect games should ALWAYS score higher than non-no-hitters and non-perfect-games and I get that. But there is another side to the issue. There are people who believe that these are the only things a pitcher has any real control over: Strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed. There is a lot of fascinating statistical evidence on the subject.
Not that it matters. I don’t know which was the better-pitched game. It’s hard to pick against a no-hitter. But it’s also hard to pick against a 14-strikeout shutout. It’s hard to pick against searing, inevitable dominance. It’s also hard to pick against buoyant, overpowering pitching joy.
In the end, they were two of the greatest postseason performances ever in the postseason. There has been a lot of Year of the Pitcher chirping all year, and I’m not sure I ever really bought in. There have been dozens and dozens of better years for pitchers in baseball history. Put it this way, pitchers had a lower ERA every single year between 1954 and 1986 than they did this year.
Still, unquestionably, there was a shift this year. Pitchers did record their lowest ERA since 1992. We did have two perfect games. We did have a whole bunch of no-hitters and near no-hitters. We did have a serious drop in batting — hitters hit only .257 and slugged only .403, and you have to go back to before the strike to find hitting numbers that low. There are countless off-the-cuff explanations for this which you can find all over the Internet.
But it’s fun when you can move beyond the explanations and just enjoy the moment. We are in an era of some pretty remarkable pitchers — Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Ubaldo Jiminez, Josh Johnson, Adam Wainwright, C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Matt Cain, David Price, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, Jered Weaver, Zack Greinke, Francisco Liriano and so on, I’m not going to name them all.
And in this remarkable era, we got to see perhaps the two best, Halladay and Lincecum, on back-to-back days throw playoff games for the ages. Not bad. Not bad at all.