The Case for Kerry Wood's 20-Strikeout Gem as MLB's Best Pitching Performance

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 6, 2020

** FILE ** In this May 6, 1998 file photo, Chicago Cubs rookie Kerry Wood pitches to the Houston Astros during the fifth inning of a baseball game in Chicago. Ten years later, Wood still has vivid memories of his greatest game when he struck out 20 batters in his fifth major league start, joining Roger Clemens as the only pitchers to accomplish the feat. (AP Photo/Fred Jewell, File)
FRED JEWELL/Associated Press

Please join us in wishing a happy anniversary to the greatest pitching performance in Major League Baseball history.

On May 6, 1998, the Chicago Cubs started a 20-year-old rookie named Kerry Wood—who had all of four major league starts to his name—against the Houston Astros at Wrigley Field. By the time it was over, Wood had allowed only two baserunners and racked up 20 strikeouts in his first career shutout.

Have there been other 20-strikeout games? Why, yes. There were two before Wood, and there have been two since.

Have there been other shutouts? Well, obviously. And Wood's was neither a no-hitter nor a perfect game, and therefore not that special.

And yet, it really doesn't get any better than what Wood did 22 years ago today.

For starters, Wood's gem from '98 is well-known among the baseball intelligentsia (i.e., the nerds) for boasting the highest game score among performances of nine innings or fewer:

  • 1. Kerry Wood, 1998: 105
  • 2. Max Scherzer, 2015: 104
  • 3. Clayton Kershaw, 2014: 102

Though "game score" was pioneered by the godfather of sabermetrics, Bill James, don't let that scare you. It's a relatively simple concept in that it sizes up pitchers' starts based on how many innings they logged and how many strikeouts, hits, home runs, walks and runs they recorded.

The nine innings and 20 strikeouts that Wood put in his pitching line were a big help to his game score. Also helpful, though, was that he allowed only one hit and zero walks—his other baserunner reached on a hit-by-pitch—in the process of allowing zero runs.

Neither Roger Clemens in 1986 nor Randy Johnson in 2001 nor Max Scherzer in 2016 was able to pitch a shutout despite making it to 20 strikeouts in those games. And though Clemens achieved a clean sheet in his second 20-strikeout game in 1996, he allowed five hits.  

Moreover, those four assignments were easier than the one that Wood faced in '98.

That year's Astros went on to win 102 games largely on the strength of their offense, which ended up leading the National League with a 109 OPS+. Though future Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were certainly their household names, Derek Bell and Moises Alou were no slouches in their own right.

Apart from Wood, only Scherzer faced an above-average offensive team when he gathered 20 strikeouts:

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference

Even still, there ought to be an asterisk there. Though the Detroit Tigers finished 2016 with a 106 OPS+, they went into their matchup with their former ace cold with just a .721 OPS through their first 32 games.

Likewise, the '98 Astros also struck out less often than the other 20-strikeout opponents. They ended that season with a 17.4 strikeout percentage, compared to 18.6 for the 1986 Seattle Mariners, 20.4 for the 1996 Tigers, 18.8 for the 2001 Cincinnati Reds and 21.3 for the 2016 Tigers.

At the least, this is enough to qualify Wood's masterpiece as the best of the five 20-strikeout games. And while he didn't officially pitch a no-hitter, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that he came very close.

After all, the one and only hit that Wood allowed came on a weak ground ball by Ricky Gutierrez that went off the glove of Cubs third baseman Kevin Orie in the third inning:

If that play had happened in, say, the eighth inning instead of the third, the official scorer might have been inclined to rule it an error. For his part, Orie wished he or she had.

"[Wood] deserved it. I'll go up there and tell them to give me an error," he said at the time.

Though Wood still would have missed out on a perfect game if Gutierrez's hit had been ruled an error, he would have gotten a rare no-hit, no-walk game as consolation. There have only been 42 of those in major league history. Wood's might have made it 43, and it naturally would have been the only one with 20 punchouts.

Harder to quantify, of course, is just how good Wood's stuff was that day. This was a decade before the pitch-tracking era began in 2008, much less the arrival of Statcast in 2015. 

Yet there were reports at the time that Wood was cracking 100 mph with his fastball. As Bagwell recalled to MLB.com's Alyson Footer, that caught the Astros totally by surprise:

"I was like, 'OK, he throws pretty hard, he looks all right, 93, 94 [mph]...he has a curveball, maybe a slider.' And then [Biggio] stepped in the box. And I saw the first fastball. And I go, 'Where did that extra five, six miles an hour come from?' And it was all downhill from there."

The breaking stuff that Wood had, meanwhile, was downright fiendish. That was true right up until his 20th and final strikeout, which came courtesy of three devilish breaking balls to Bell:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Kerry Wood's 20th K sequence. 😳 https://t.co/o0LlTGoVvu

As former Houston outfielder Dave Clark told Footer: "Derek buckled and was just like, 'What the heck is this?'"

With stuff like that, it's little wonder that Wood didn't need to prey on a handful of vulnerable Astros hitters in order to get to 20 strikeouts. He struck out every batter he faced at least once.

After dispatching the Astros in just his fifth career start, Wood kept right on dominating en route to winning the NL Rookie of the Year for 1998. The rest of his career story, unfortunately, isn't as rosy. He missed 1999 with Tommy John surgery and, albeit with All-Star turns in 2003 and 2008, continued to battle injuries through the end of his career in 2012.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons why the legend of his 20-strikeout game is still going strong after 22 years.

Anyone who endeavors to watch the highlights will see a pitcher with flat-out unreal stuff, and anyone who considers the results is liable to come away thinking that no pitcher has ever had a better day.


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