The Strike Zone

Wacha, Gray, Cole gems rank among best from young starters in posteason history

Gerrit Cole, PiratesGerrit Cole's terrific outing in NLDS Game 2 hasn't even been the best rookie outing of that series. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Last Friday, 23-year-old Gerrit Cole helped the Pirates rebound from Game 1 A.J. Burnett's implosion to help even the Division Series against the Cardinals. On Saturday, the A's 23-year-old Sonny Gray matched zeroes with Justin Verlander for eight innings to do the same against the Tigers. On Monday, 22-year-old Michael Wacha no-hit the Pirates into the eighth inning to help Cardinals stave off elimination. Already, this postseason has included some of the best pitching performances from young starters in the Wild Card Era. With Cole set to take the mound again in Wednesday's NLDS Game 5, it's worth a look to put these starts in context.

Using Bill James' Game Score -- which credits or debits points for every inning, hit, run (earned and unearned), walk and strikeout -- in conjunction with the Play Index, we can boil each start down to a single number roughly indicative of quality to use as a means of ranking each outing. Among starters 23 and under (i.e., those who have not yet reached their 24th birthday, as opposed to those who have not yet completed their age 23 season), here's a table of the top 15:

RkPlayerAgeDateSeries GmTm-OppIPHRERBBSOGSc
1Josh Beckett23.15010/12/03NLCS G5FLA-CHC9.020011193
2Livan Hernandez22.23410/12/97NLCS G5FLA-ATL9.031121590
3Josh Beckett23.16310/25/03WS G6FLA-NYY9.05002984
4Mark Prior23.02610/3/03NLDS G3CHC-ATL9.02114782
5Sonny Gray23.33210/5/13ALDS G2OAK-DET8.04002981
6Madison Bumgarner21.09110/31/10WS G4SFG-TEX8.03002680
7TMichael Wacha22.09810/7/13NLDS G4STL-PIT7.31112979
Madison Bumgarner23.08510/25/12WS G2SFG-DET7.02002879
Barry Zito23.15310/13/01ALDS G3OAK-NYY8.02111679
10John Lackey23.35410/12/02ALCS G4ANA-MIN7.03000778
11Matt Moore22.1049/30/11ALDS G1TBR-TEX7.02002677
12Josh Beckett23.1389/30/03NLDS G1FLA-SFG7.02115973
13Ismael Valdez22.04410/4/95NLDS G2LAD-CIN7.03201672
14Josh Beckett23.15910/21/03WS G3FLA-NYY7.332231071
15TGerrit Cole23.02610/4/13NLDS G2PIT-STL6.02111568
Jeremy Bonderman23.34410/7/06ALDS G4DET-NYY8.35221468
17Jaret Wright21.30110/26/97WS G7CLE-FLA6.32115767
18Ubaldo Jimenez23.25710/6/07NLDS G3COL-PHI6.33114564
19Jon Lester23.29410/28/07WS G4BOS-COL5.73003363
20Cole Hamels23.28010/3/07NLDS G1PHI-COL6.73334759

The ages are expressed in the form "years.days" so Beckett, for example, was 23 years and 150 days old when he twirled a two-hit shutout against the Cubs in the 2003 NLCS. The starts of Gray, Wacha and Cole all rank at least 15th or higher on the list. Space doesn't permit me to run through each one in detail, but a few quick notes on the pitchers in the top 10.

1, 3, 12, 14: Josh Beckett

The 23-year-old had a postseason for the ages as he helped an upstart Marlins wild-card entry upset the Giants, Cubs and Yankees en route to the teal team's second title in a seven-year span. Of Beckett's five October starts, four of them are represented above, with at least one from each round; numbers 12 and 14 above actually came in losing causes. The top-ranked start helped Florida, which was down 3-games-to-1 in the NLCS, stave off elimination in the game preceding the infamous Bartman game, while the third-ranked start finished the Yankees off in the World Series.

Not included here is Beckett's crucial four-inning relief stint on two days' rest in Game 7 of the NLCS. All told, he finished that postseason with a 2.11 ERA in 42 2/3 innings, an average Game Score of 72 for his five starts and a World Series MVP trophy.

2: Livan Hernandez

From the Marlins' first championship run in 1997 comes the infamous start by the rookie Cuban defector. Aided by home plate umpire Eric Gregg's extra-extra-wide strike zone, Hernandez set what still stands as an NLCS record with 15 strikeouts; what's more, he outpitched the great Greg Maddux, who whiffed nine in seven innings while allowing two runs. Via Game Score, this stands as the best Wild Card Era start by a rookie.

4: Mark Prior

Before the Cubs ran into Beckett and Bartman, they rode the arms of Prior and Kerry Wood past the Braves. Prior is represented here by his postseason debut, in which he too outdueled Maddux (six innings, two runs). Wood was 26 by the time of that postseason run; his 1998 NLDS Game 3 start against the Braves ranked 21st on the list at 58, just below the cutoff for the table.

5: Sonny Gray

Two great factoids from Gray's gem: This was the first postseason game in history in which each starter had at least nine strikeouts and didn't allow a run, and Gray was the second starter in franchise history with at least eight shutout innings, nine strikeouts and no more than four hits allowed; the first was Chief Bender of the Philadelphia A's in the Game 2 of the 1905 World Series -- just the 10th World Series game ever played.

6, 7T: Madison Bumgarner

As a 20-year-old rookie who joined the Giants rotation in late June, Bumgarner gave his team a sizable midseason boost, and came up even bigger in the postseason. His six-inning, two-run performance against the Braves in Game 4 of the NLDS helped the Giants clinch their first postseason series since 2002, and just missed the cut above with a 56 Game Score, tied for 22nd. His eight innings of three-hit shutout ball in Game 4 of the World Series pushed the Rangers to the brink of elimination; they clinched on the next night.

Bumgarner was still young enough to make the list during his team's 2012 title run as well, with seven innings of two-hit shutout ball in Game 2 against the Tigers. He matched zeroes with Doug Fister until the Giants scraped out a run in the bottom of the seventh, during which Bumgarner was lifted for a pinch-hitter.

7T: Michael Wacha

Via Elias, Wacha's 7 1/3 no-hit innings rank as the longest by a rookie in postseason history, topping the 5 1/3 spun by the Giants' Jeff Tesereau in the 1912 World Series against the Red Sox. Including his Sept. 24 start against the Nationals, he was also the first pitcher since Dave Stieb in 1988 to throw at least seven innings of no-hit ball in consecutive starts.

7T: Barry Zito

Alas, Zito holds a somewhat dubious spot on this list, as it's the highest score among these whippersnappers in a losing cause, and the only one in the top 10. The one run he allowed, on a fifth-inning solo homer by Jorge Posada, was one more than the Yankees' Mike Mussina yielded in seven innings (with Mariano Rivera throwing the other two, naturally). Mussina was aided in large part by Derek Jeter's uncanny shovel-pass assist to nail Jeremy Giambi at the plate — yes, THAT play — in the seventh inning.

10: John Lackey

As a rookie, Lackey joined the Angels in late June and pitched well enough down the stretch to earn a postseason spot. After throwing three scoreless innings in relief against the Yankees in the ALDS, he extended his postseason streak to 10 shutout innings against the Twins in the ALCS and ran it to 12 before being chased in the third inning of Game 2 of the World Series against the Giants. Nonetheless, he bounced back to start both Games 4 (on two days' rest) and Game 7, grinding out five innings in each while helping the Halos win their lone championship; the former one came on his 24th birthday, while the latter one, where he allowed one run, would have tied the aforementioned Kerry Wood start for 21st had he been young enough to qualify.

There's plenty more that could be said about the remainder of the table -- Moore's outing came with just one regular season start under his belt, Wright's largely forgotten effort in Game 7 of the World Series against the Marlins, and so on — but it's worth placing these starts in the larger perspective instead.

Going beyond the Wild-Card Era to incorporate the Divisional Play Era as well (1969 onward), Beckett and Hernandez stand as the fifth- and 10th-highest postseason game scores for pitchers of any age, and 1-2 for the 23-and-under set. Gray's start is tied for 69th and eighth in those two groups; Wacha is 90th and 11th and Cole is 355th and 34th. Some of that may not sound impressive until you realize it's from among 2,000 starts. Viewed that way, Gray's start is in the top 3.5 percent for all starting pitchers during that span, Wacha is in the top 4.5 percent and Cole is in the top 18 percent.

Including all postseason play dating back to the inception of the World Series in 1903 -- a total of 2,768 games -- Beckett's gem is tied for eighth all-time, with Hernandez tied for 14th. Among the 23-and-unders, Beckett ranks second and Hernandez third; Gray is tied for 14th, Wacha is tied for 20th and Cole is tied for 56th.  The only pitcher 23-and-under to outdo Beckett and Hernandez: Babe Ruth at 21 years, 246 days in Game 2 of the 1916 World Series. The Bambino threw a record 14 innings while allowing just one run against the Cubs en route to a Game Score of 97.

Will Cole, Gray or Wacha add to the list? We'll find out as soon as Wednesday when Cole takes the mound in a double-elimination Game 5 against the Cardinals.

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