Friday April 15th, 2016

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Thursday afternoon featured two of the young season’s top pitching performances, a pair of complete-game shutouts that would stand out in any season. In Philadelphia, rookie Vince Velasquez allowed just three hits while striking out 16 Padres in the Phillies’ 3–0 win, while in St. Louis, Jaime Garcia spun a one-hit, 13-strikeout gem in a 7–0 win over the Brewers. Together, the pair combined to do something that hadn’t been done in the majors since 2004: have starts with game scores of at least 97 on the same day.

By itself, the occurrence of two complete-game shutouts in one day isn’t remarkable, even though such outings have become an endangered species. Last year featured just 51 such shutouts, accounting for a hair over one percent of all games, and there have been 377 over the past six seasons, just 1.3% of all games; to find a year with a percentage of at least 2.0, one has to go back to 1998. Still, the coincidence of compete-game shutouts on the same day happened four times over the final six weeks of the 2015 season, including twice in one week mid-August.

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Game scores of 97 are far more rare. Years ago, Bill James introduced the stat, a quick-and-dirty formula that credits and debits various outcomes in a pitcher’s line score for comparative purposes, with 50 being average. Starters gain points for each out, strikeout and inning completed after the fourth while losing points for each hit, walk, run and homer. With rising strikeout rates pushing game scores higher, last year there were nine outings with scores of at least 97, though prior to Thursday, there had been just 16 such gams since the start of the 2012 season. Eight of those came via no-hitters, including two by Max Scherzer as well as perfect games by Matt Cain and Felix Hernandez; the rest were one-hit shutouts save for Corey Kluber’s 18-strikeout game, eight-inning, one-hit effort.

Meanwhile, there were just nine such games from 2001 to ‘11, which made the likelihood of two pitchers scoring 97 on the same day so much smaller. In fact, it had happened just twice in this millennium:

• On May 25, 2001, the Red Sox’s Hideo Nomo and the Cubs’ Kerry Wood tossed one-hit shutouts with 14 strikeouts, against the Blue Jays and Brewers, respectively (Wood walked two, the bum).

• On May 18, 2004, the Diamondbacks’ Randy Johnson threw a 13-strikeout perfect game at the Braves, while the Giants’ Jason Schmidt one-hit the Cubs, also striking out 13 while walking just one.

Prior to that, you have to go back to 1971 to find a date with two such games, but that one—and all of the others before it found in the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index—came in extra-inning affairs, generally with the two pitchers in question going head-to-head until the cows (or at least the winning run) came home. So we’re in particularly rarefied air with these two pitchers, and both games are worth closer looks.

Acquired from the Astros in the 5-for-2 Ken Giles blockbuster last December, the 23-year-old Velasquez was making just the ninth start of his major league career. He had sparkled in his Phillies debut on April 9, scattering three hits and three walks while striking out nine in six shutout innings against the Mets in New York, but even that couldn’t have prepared anyone for the extent to which he dominated the Padres. He came out of the gate throwing nothing but heat, striking out Jon Jay, Cory Spangenberg and Wil Myers in the first inning on a total of 16 pitches (the most he threw in any inning all day).

Via Brooks Baseball, his first 17 pitches and 25 of his first 27 were four-seam fastballs, only two of which dipped below 94 mph; seven of them were above 96. Seventy-six of his 113 pitches were heaters, with an average velocity of 95.5 mph and a top speed of 97.8, but more impressive than that were the results: Velasquez got 56 strikes with the pitch, including 20 swings and misses. According to MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, Scherzer was the only pitcher to do so last year, in his October 3 no-hitter against the Mets. Eleven of the swings and misses on Velasquez’s four-seamer were for strike three, with two other batters (including Myers) striking out while looking at it. He got five more swings and misses from among his 30 curves, including the other three of his punchouts, and generated two swings and misses with his changeup, which he threw just four times. You can see a montage of his strikeouts here.

 

 

After yielding a pair of two-out singles to Jabari Blash and Alexi Amarista in the second inning, Velasquez allowed just one of the final 23 batters he faced to reach base safely (Amarista, with a fifth-inning single). He struck out nine of the final 12 batters he faced, and didn't walk a batter all afternoon. In fact, he went to a three-ball count just once, against Myers in the first.

Now, it bears noting here that Velasquez did this against a struggling team. The Padres not only came in with just a 3–6 record, they had been shut out four times in the first nine games, including each of their first three against the Dodgers. Thirty-two of their 37 runs thus far were scored during their three games in Colorado, 29 of them in a two-game outburst, and they had already been shut out once in the series (on Tuesday by Charlie Morton and three relievers). Via the Play Index, they’re the first team since 1913 to be shut out five times in their first 10 games; nine teams have been shutout four times in such spans, with the 2013 Marlins as the most recent.

Prior to Velasquez, 10 Phillies pitchers had previously spun games with scores of 97 or better, the last of which was Cole Hamels in his no-hitter against the Cubs last July 25. The last Phillies pitcher to strike out 16 was Cliff Lee against the Braves on May 6, 2011. Velasquez’s outing was just the eighth since 1913 in which a pitcher whiffed 16 while allowing no walks or runs:

Player Date Team Opponent IP H SO
Luis Tiant 7/3/68 Indians Twins 10 6 19
Dwight Gooden 9/12/84 Mets Pirates 9 5 16
Roger Clemens 9/18/96 Red Sox Tigers 9 5 20
Kerry Wood 5/6/98 Cubs Astros 9 1 20
Roger Clemens 8/25/98 Blue Jays Royals 9 3 18
Randy Johnson 8/28/98 Astros Pirates 9 7 16
Max Scherzer 10/3/15 Nationals Mets 9 9 17

That’s impressive company. What’s more, the only pitchers from that list who were younger than Velasquez (23 years, 312 days) at the time of their gems were Gooden (19 years, 305 days) and Wood (20 years, 329 days).

With the win, the Phillies evened their record at 5–5. While they’re not likely to maintain that level, they have to be thrilled with what Velasquez, 2014 first-round pick Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff have done so far in their rotation. In two starts totaling 14 innings, the 23-year-old Nola has 17 strikeouts without a walk while allowing five runs, and including his 13 starts last year, he owns a 3.53 ERA with 8.3 strikeouts and 1.9 walks per nine at the big league level. The 25-year-old Eickhoff, who arrived via the Hamels deal with the Rangers, has 12 strikeouts in 12 innings while allowing two runs. In 10 starts including last year, he owns a 2.43 ERA with 8.7 strikeouts and 2.1 walks per nine. The Phillies are likely to cap these pitchers’ workloads at some point this season, but they offer plenty of hope for the future.

As for Garcia, he produced the Cardinals’ 11th game score of 97 or better since 1913, the last of which was by Shelby Miller, whose one-hit, no-walk, 13-strikeout effort against the Rockies on May 10, 2013 scored a 98. Like Velasquez, he painted his masterpiece against a team whose offense was less than robust; the rebuilding Brewers came in having scored just 28 runs through their first eight games. His bid at perfection was broken up in the third inning when Keon Broxton reached base on a strike three wild pitch, but he kept his no-hit bid intact for 5 2/3 innings before Domingo Santana singled. The only other baserunner he allowed came in the eighth, when Martin Maldonado drew a leadoff walk and was erased via a double play three pitches later.

 

 

Garcia struck out 13 for the day and he was even more economical than Velasquez, needing just 104 pitches and maxing out at 14 pitches in the first and seventh innings. Via Brooks Baseball, he mixed two- and four-seam fastballs (35 and 32 of those, respectively) with 18 changeups, 14 sliders and two curves; three pitches classified by cutters—a pitch that doesn’t appear to be in his arsenal—may be subject to reclassification, so those totals might shift. He drew five swings and misses from the changeup, four apiece from the four-seamer and slider. The last of those was the coup de grâce on eight of his K’s, three swinging and five looking; in fact, eight of his 13 strikeouts were looking.

Garcia’s outing was the first one-hit shutout by a Cardinal since Adam Wainwright did so against the Diamondbacks on May 20, 2014. It was Garcia’s first shutout since May 6, 2011, a two-hitter against a Brewers team that was struggling at the time but would wind up winning 96 games and the NL Central before falling to the Cardinals in the NLCS. That outing, which included one walk and eight strikeouts, produced Garcia’s previous career-high game score of 90, and it came in Garcia’s last full, healthy season. He’s made just 58 big league starts since the start of 2012, with no more than 20 in a season. Garcia returned from surgery to repair thoracic outlet syndrome last year and posted a 2.43 ERA in 20 starts.

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His win boosted the Cardinals’ record to 5–4 and provided a shot in the arm to a team whose rotation had been battered for a 5.36 ERA through their first eight games. That unit bears watching since the team’s depth has been compromised by the losses of Lance Lynn and Marco Gonzales to Tommy John surgery, the latter just on Wednesday.

As noted before, high game scores owe plenty to high strikeout rates, so it’s worth noting that even excluding Thursday’s action, pitchers have struck out 8.4 per nine innings this year, up from 7.8 per nine last year; in terms of per plate appearance, they’ve risen from 20.4% to 22.0% so far. If that keeps up, it may not be long before we see another pair of pitchers cross paths as Velasquez and Garcia did on Thursday.

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