MLB's Most Electrifying Pitching Performances of the Last 10 Years

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 7, 2020

MLB's Most Electrifying Pitching Performances of the Last 10 Years

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    Max Scherzer's 20-strikeout game wasn't even his best performance of the decade.
    Max Scherzer's 20-strikeout game wasn't even his best performance of the decade.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    The last 10 seasons of Major League Baseball were marked in large part by dominant pitching. To wit, the league's average velocity and strikeout rate rose pretty much annually.

    So when we endeavored to pass time during the coronavirus pandemic by picking out the most electrifying pitching performances of the decade, we naturally had quite a few options from which to choose.

    Ultimately, we settled on 12 that must be seen to be believed. This is partially because of their results, but also because of other little nuggets of statistical goodness—mainly concerning strikeouts and swings-and-misses—contained within them.

    Let's count 'em down in order from least jaw-dropping to most jaw-dropping.

12. When Shelby Miller Fastballed His Way to a Near-Perfect Game

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    Less than a year after he made his major league debut in September 2012, Shelby Miller had his coming-out party for the St. Louis Cardinals on May 10, 2013.

    Opposite the Colorado Rockies at Busch Stadium, Miller's night got off to a, well, rocky start when he allowed a leadoff single to Eric Young Jr. But he then sat down the next 27 batters he saw, including 13 by way of the strikeout.

    Notably, all 13 of Miller's punchouts came via his four-seam fastball. Only two other pitchers (Reynaldo Lopez and Vince Velasquez) matched that feat during the 2010s. That speaks to how well Miller was spotting his heater, which was also sitting at an average of 94.0 mph.

    Though he's still only 29, Miller's career has fizzled out over the last four seasons. But if nothing else, he'll always have that one start that even he said he would "remember the rest of my life."

11. When R.A. Dickey's Knuckleball Simply Couldn't Be Hit

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    Clayton Kershaw might have won four National League Cy Young Awards between 2011 and 2014 had it not been for a certain pitcher with a single devastating pitch in 2012.

    That was R.A. Dickey, who won the 2012 NL Cy Young through a 2.73 ERA and NL highs for innings (233.2) and strikeouts (230) with the New York Mets. His primary weapon was a knuckleball that, at an average of 83.4 mph, was much faster than an ordinary knuckler.

    The peak of Dickey's season came when he pitched back-to-back one-hitters—the first pitcher to do so since Dave Stieb in 1988—against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 13 and the Baltimore Orioles on June 18.

    The degree to which Dickey's knuckler was dancing in the former can't be overstated. Out of the 106 total pitches he threw, the Rays swung through 23 knucklers. During the 2010s, that was a high-tying mark for whiffs on a "breaking" pitch in a single game.

10. When James Paxton Had an Unhittable Fastball

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    With respect to the no-hitter James Paxton threw on May 8, 2018, he was actually at his best in his previous start.

    Facing the Oakland Athletics at Safeco Field on May 2, the then-Seattle Mariners ace logged seven shutout innings and struck out 16 of the 27 batters he faced. Even now, that's still four more batters than he's struck out in any other start.

    Moreover, this is as pure a case of a pitcher blowing hitters away as you'll ever see. Out of the 31 swings-and-misses Paxton got that night, only one was on a curveball. The other 30 came courtesy of a fastball that sat at 96.3 mph and a cutter that averaged 89.6 mph.

    "I had probably the best fastball I've had in my career today," Paxton said, per Greg Johns of MLB.com. "It was jumping. We were using the top of the zone and guys were swinging right through it."

9. When Danny Duffy Hosted a Swing-and-Miss Extravaganza

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    Danny Duffy wasn't a major award winner or an All-Star even once between 2010 and 2019, but the Kansas City Royals southpaw certainly had his moments.

    At least among his individual achievements, none was greater than his takedown of the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on August 1, 2016. He allowed one hit and one walk over eight shutout innings, and he truly earned his career-high 16 strikeouts.

    Out of the 110 pitches Duffy threw, a whopping 35 of them—a total only Kershaw, who we'll get to later, matched during the 2010s—resulted in swinging strikes. To boot, those whiffs were well-distributed between a four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter and curveball that were all lively that night.

    In the words of Royals manager Ned Yost, per Bill Chastain and Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com: "I've seen a few that good. But not many. He was just electric tonight."

8. When Brandon Morrow Had His Finest Hour

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    Throughout the 2010s, only three pitchers authored a start in which they struck out at least 17 batters while allowing no more than one hit: Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Brandon Morrow.

    On account of his lack of individual accolades, Morrow is the ugly duckling of that group. But there was nothing ugly about the then-Toronto Blue Jays ace's performance against the Tampa Bay Rays at the Rogers Centre on August 8, 2010.

    Morrow came just one out shy of pitching a no-hitter as Evan Longoria broke it up with a seeing-eye single with two outs in the ninth. Yet a one-hitter with 17 strikeouts is no small deal, particularly when 14 of said strikeouts come via whiffs on a mid-90s heater and a filthy slider.

    Morrow's game score—a Bill James specialty for quantifying a pitcher's effectiveness in a given start—was an even 100. Only five other pitchers reached that mark between 2010 and 2019.

7. When Corey Kluber Created His Magnum Opus

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    Speaking of starts with at least 17 strikeouts and no more than one hit, what Kluber did on May 13, 2015, trumps even what Morrow did five years prior.

    On that day, the then-Cleveland Indians ace went up against the St. Louis Cardinals at Progressive Field and faced only 26 batters through eight innings. The two who reached did so via a hit and a hit-by-pitch. The other 24 all made outs, including 18 by strikeout.

    Kluber's 26 batters faced is easily the fewest a pitcher has ever needed to notch at least 18 strikeouts in a single game. And he got those strikeouts with everything at his disposal, from a 94.3 mph fastball to a 90.0 mph cutter to an 84.7 mph breaking ball.

    At the rate Kluber was mowing 'em down, it's only fair to wonder if he might have achieved the first-ever 21-strikeout game if he'd been allowed to pitch the ninth.

6. When Justin Verlander Pitched His Best No-Hitter

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    Since 1901, Justin Verlander is one of only four pitchers who've pitched at least three no-hitters. Of the bunch, the most recent is surely the best.

    On Sept. 1 last season, Verlander took the ball for the Houston Astros against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre. By the time the game was over, he'd allowed only one walk and struck out 14 en route to a career-best game score of 100.

    As per usual for his two-plus years as an Astro, Verlander only needed his fastball and slider to shut the Jays down. The former was sitting at 94.5 mph, while the latter came in at 87.6 mph with sharp movement.

    As for having his name etched alongside Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax and Bob Feller, Verlander could only say, per Jimmy Hascup of USA Today: "I'd be lying if I said I didn't know the list of guys that have thrown three instead of two gets pretty small, some of the guys I idolized. It's a special moment."

5. When Gerrit Cole Reached His Postseason Pinnacle

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    As his record-setting rate of 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings can attest, Gerrit Cole's 2019 season was arguably the nastiest by any pitcher in history.

    And that isn't even counting his most overpowering performance, which came opposite the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 2 of the American League Division Series at Minute Maid Park on Oct. 5. The Astros ace struck out 15 of the 27 batters he faced in 7.2 innings of shutout ball.

    True to form, Cole's fastball was operating near triple digits at an average of 97.9 mph. Factor in how he also had his slider and curveball working, and it's no wonder he racked up 33 swinging strikes.

    Those whiffs stand atop the leaderboard for playoff games throughout the 2010s. Cole's 15 strikeouts, meanwhile, put him in a rare club with only six other pitchers who have racked up that many punchouts in a postseason game.

4. When Roy Halladay Had a Postseason Debut for the Ages

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    As rare as Cole's 15-strikeout game in 2019 was, it doesn't get much rarer than the feat the late, great Roy Halladay pulled off during his postseason debut in 2010.

    On the hill for the Philadelphia Phillies for Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Oct. 6, Halladay mowed down the Cincinnati Reds for only the second no-hitter in postseason history after Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

    Though Halladay had pitched a perfect game of his own earlier in 2010, his no-hitter was no less an example of the skills that forged his Hall of Fame career. His selection of pitches was finite, but their array of speeds and movements seemingly wasn't.

    Plus, the '10 Reds were no pushover. During the regular season, their Joey Votto-led offense was the best in the National League.

3. When Tim Lincecum Upstaged Roy Halladay

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    In theory, the only thing better than a no-hitter is a perfect game. But in reality, Tim Lincecum didn't need to accomplish either to upstage Halladay in his own postseason debut.

    It was on Oct. 7, 2010 that Lincecum toed the rubber for the San Francisco Giants for Game 1 of their NLDS matchup against the Atlanta Braves. When it was over, he had a shutout on only two hits and a walk with 14 strikeouts.

    Though Lincecum's fastball was sitting at a relatively modest 91.7 mph, its explosive action combined with the physics-defying movements of his curveball, slider and changeup to create a perfect storm for whiffs. All told, he collected 31 of them.

    Lincecum ultimately earned himself a game score of 96. Among postseason starts, that's higher than Larsen's perfecto and Halladay's no-no, behind only Roger Clemens' 15-strikeout game from 2000.

2. When Clayton Kershaw Had the Decade's Second-Best 'Perfect' Game

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    Of the five perfect games pitched in the 2010s, Matt Cain's and Felix Hernandez's were the best by game score. Alas, those highlights are either hiding in or completely missing from YouTube.

    Fortunately, the images from Clayton Kershaw's near-perfect game against the Colorado Rockies on June 18, 2014 are alive and well. That was the one in which the Los Angeles Dodgers ace pitched a no-hitter during which the only baserunner reached on an error by Hanley Ramirez.

    Otherwise, Kershaw picked up 15 of his 27 outs on strikeouts. He was working at 93.2 mph with his fastball, yet his slider and curveball did much more of the heavy lifting. They registered 14 of his strikeouts, a mark nobody else reached with breaking balls during the 2010s.

    Per his game score of 102, Kershaw's no-hit, no-walk masterpiece stands as the third-best performance in history after Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout gem from 1998 and...well, the next item on this list.

1. When Max Scherzer Had the Decade's Best 'Perfect' Game

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    Between his three Cy Young Awards, seven All-Star selections and World Series ring, it's fair to say Max Scherzer had a nice decade in the 2010s.

    The hard part is pinpointing when the Washing Nationals ace was at his absolute best as the options include a 20-strikeout game from 2016 and two no-hitters from 2015. But all things considered, his no-no against the New York Mets on Oct. 3, 2015 simply has too much to offer.

    Apart from an error by Yunel Escobar, Scherzer sat down every batter he faced and finished with 17 strikeouts. Those included 16 swinging strikeouts, 14 of which came via a fastball that averaged 94.6 mph with explosive action through the hitting zone.

    All that was worth a game score of 104, which stands second to only Wood's finest hour as the best pitching performance anyone has ever seen.

              

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Videos courtesy of Major League Baseball, via YouTube.