Putting Clayton Kershaw’s dominant no-hitter in historical context
Clayton Kershaw didn't just throw a no-hitter Wednesday night; he turned in one of the most dominant pitching performances in major league history. Calling his performance a no-hitter merely puts it on a list with 276 other games in which a pitcher didn't allow a hit over nine or more innings. What Kershaw did by retiring 27 of 28 batters, the exception coming on a Hanley Ramirez throwing error, and striking out 15 of them belongs on a much shorter list.
To begin with, using Game Score, a method of evaluating starting pitching performances created by Bill James in 1988, Kershaw's outing was the second-best nine-inning pitching performance in major league history. Here's the all-time* top five:
*Game data only goes back to 1914, but given the importance of strikeouts in game score and the manner in which strikeout rates have increased over the game's history, we can say with reasonable confidence that no nine-inning pitching performance prior to 1914 would have cracked this list.
Another way to look at Kershaw's outing is to look just at his three true outcomes: Strikeouts, walks/hit batsmen, and home runs, the three plate appearance outcomes that do not involve the fielders. If we do that, we find that Kershaw's outing Wednesday night was just the 18th since 1914, of any length and with any amount of hits, in which a pitcher struck out 15 or more batters without allowing a walk or home run or hitting a batter (the last of which Wood did in his 20-strikeout start). It was the first game of that kind since 2007, and just the fourth such game this century. Of those games, just 13 (including Kershaw's) saw the pitcher in question hold the opposition scoreless, and just ten of those (including Kershaw's) saw the pitcher in question complete nine or more innings. Here are those ten games sorted by fewest hits allowed.
The problem with using strikeouts as our primary qualifier, of course, is that strikeout rates have steadily increased over the game's history, and that increase has only accelerated in recent years. To have a sense of how Kershaw's no-hitter ranks historically, then, we need to put his strikeouts in context.If you believe that the results of balls in play are as much a matter of luck as skill on the part of the pitcher, you might be inclined to consider the above-listed games by Bedard, Martinez, and perhaps Clemens' 18-strikeout game as comparable to Kershaw's performance Wednesday night.
To do that, we need to make a list of games to compare to Kershaw's. Let's start with Cain and Koufax from the top list and Bedard, Martinez and Clemens' 18-strikeout performance from the above list. To that I'll add all of the the nine-inning no-hitters and one-hitters from prior to this decade in which the pitcher struck out ten or more men without a walk, hit by pitch, or extra-base hit. There were just 17 such games from 1914 to 2009, including Koufax's perfect game. That gives us a list of 21 starts to compare to Kershaw's. Here's that list, with Kershaw included, ranked by strikeout total as a percentage of the league-average strikeouts-per-nine figure. Remember, none of these pitchers walked or hit a batter or gave up a run or extra-base hit:
K+ is strikeouts minus league K/9
Kershaw is 13th on that list, which may seem disappointing in light of his all-time rank in game score, but, remember, these are the most dominant starts of the last 100 years. Kershaw is 13th on that list, tenth among pitchers who gave up one or fewer hits, and sixth among pitchers who threw no-hitters.
Unfortunately, we don't have full line scores for every no-hitter in history, but we do for every perfect game. Kershaw was essentially perfect for 28 batters, having pitched around Ramirez's error. Including Armando Galarraga, who was perfect for 28 batters with his only hit resulting from an admitted blown call at first base, there have been just seven games in which a pitcher effectively retired 28 or more batters in a row. Here they are in reverse chronological order:
|Armando Galarraga||6/2/2010||9||28||3||1B (blown call)|
|Christy Mathewson||6/13/1905||9||28||2||E8, E5 (picked off)|
If we add those eight games plus Terry Mulholland's Aug. 15, 1990 start, in which he pitched around an error to face the minimum 27 men, and Nap Rucker's Sept. 5, 1908 start, in which the only three runners reached base on errors (we don't know exactly how many batters he faced as we lack play by play data for that game), to the 23 official perfect games in major league history and rank them by strikeouts as a percentage of league average, we get this list:
However you slice it, it's clear that Kershaw's performance Wednesday night was something far more special than a mere no-hitter. When put in context, it's not quite as high on the all-time list of pitching performances as game score might have us believe, but it was still something very special, the likes of which we're not likely to see again any time soon.