By Marc Normandin
Clayton Kershaw's no-hitter was one of the best-pitched games in recent memory. He struck out 15 batters in just 107 pitches, completing the full nine-inning slate with only a Hanley Ramirez error keeping the lefty from a perfect game.
Just how good was it, though? It's hard to compare starts across eras, since the way pitchers recorded outs has changed over time, with strikeouts continually on the rise and bullpen specialists developing to lessen starters' workloads. One good way to measure Kershaw's game against others of this era is with Game Score, a "toy" created by baseball icon Bill James.
Don't worry if you're not into advanced statistics, as Game Score only uses the most basic numbers from a game. You start with 50 points, and you add one point for every out the pitcher records. Every strikeout is another point, and two points are awarded for each inning completed, starting with the fifth. Points are also subtracted for walks, hits, and runs as well, but when talking about the best starts, you won't see many of those.
Part of the beauty of this is that it filters out some of the uglier no-hitters. A.J. Burnett threw a no-no, but he walked nine batters doing it. Plenty of pitchers have accomplished the feat thanks almost entirely to their defense, some giving up runs thanks to their wildness. You won't see any of that here.
So, we've got our simple yardstick for seeing just how good Kershaw's game was. We'll look at just the last 21 seasons, since the start of the wild card era in 1994. The designated hitter was not only around but had been established decades before, and 28 of the now-30 teams in the league existed, as did the six-division format. That's as fair as we can make it in modern times if we want a chunk of baseball history to look at. With that, here are the 10 best starts of the wild card era, according to Game Score.
10. Bobby Witt, June 23, 1994 -- Game Score: 99
Witt isn't a pitcher you would think of when considering the top starts of the last few decades, but one appearance sticks out and bests the single-game work of dozens of hurlers you'd remember first. While pitching for the A's, Witt threw a complete game against the Royals while allowing just one baserunner, on a hit by shortstop Greg Gagne. Witt struck out 14 of the 28 batters he faced and held the Royals scoreless, bringing his ERA for the season down from 6.15 to 5.57. (Hey, I told you that you wouldn't think of Bobby Witt.)
9. Roger Clemens, Aug. 25, 1998 -- Game Score: 99
Now that's more like it. Clemens' greatest start of the '90s came during his second season on the Blue Jays, and it helped him along to his second straight Cy Young Award. While his entire campaign was amazing, with Clemens leading the AL in ERA (2.65), wins (20), strikeouts (274) and ERA+ (174), this was his greatest start that year. Clemens gave up three hits, the most of anyone in this top 10, but he struck out 18 batters without allowing a run or walk.
8. Hideo Nomo, May 25, 2001 -- Game Score: 99
Nomo threw two no-hitters in his career -- one with the Dodgers and one with the Red Sox -- and incredibly, this isn't either of them. In his first no-no in 1996, Nomo walked four batters and struck out eight at Coors Field for a Game Score of 91. His second came in 2001, his only season in Boston, and featured 11 strikeouts against three walks in his first start of the year, good for a Game Score of 95. This May 25 start was ever-so-slightly better, as he struck out 14 batters and walked none, giving up just one hit for the fewest baserunners of any of these three games, along with the most strikeouts. Nomo is a prime example of why just picking the top no-hitters doesn't tell the whole story.
7. Felix Hernandez, Aug. 15, 2012 -- Game Score: 99
The tiebreaker for Hernandez over the rest of the 99 crew is that he threw a perfect game in his outing. King Felix punched out 12 hapless Rays batters without allowing a hit, walk, run or error, and he did it in a tidy 113 pitches. In typical Mariners fashion of the time, Hernandez needed to be that good to secure the W, as the lineup behind him only managed to squeak out one run of support.
6. Curt Schilling, April 7, 2002 -- Game Score: 100
Schilling had to throw 127 pitches to get the complete game here, and he allowed a hit and a pair of walks, but he struck out 17 Brewers in the process. For Game Score purposes, a hit is worse than a walk, so this gave Schilling a slight edge over Clemens' 18-K effort.
5. Randy Johnson, May 18, 2004 -- Game Score: 100
It wouldn't be a list of the last few decades if the Big Unit didn't match Schilling start for start while with the Diamondbacks, would it? This came after Schilling was dealt to the Red Sox, but all that means is Johnson got the final word in their unspoken rivalry by throwing a perfect game against the Braves on their home turf in Atlanta. Johnson "only" struck out 13 Braves, but he did everything else as well as anyone else on the list, and earned that triple-digit Game Score, the top effort from a Cooperstown-caliber 22-year career, for it.
4. Brandon Morrow, Aug. 8, 2010 -- Game Score: 100
You might not think of Morrow as being part of this group, but his 2010 had its moments, none better than this start against the Rays in which he threw nine innings, struck out 17 batters and allowed just three baserunners, two by walk and one on a hit. Morrow threw almost 100 strikes in the game, as his pitch count got all the way up to 137. Like with Felix, he needed to be this great, as the Jays only scored the one run for him.
3. Matt Cain, June 13, 2012 -- Game Score: 101
Cain's perfect game against the Astros was magical, even if it came against a particularly inept iteration of that squad. He had to throw 125 pitches, but he was thoroughly dominating, striking out 14 batters along the way in a game where the Giants had no need of that much excellence. Cain had a 10-run lead to work with, and the perfect game was essentially rubbing in how much better the eventual world champions were than the last-place Astros.
2. Clayton Kershaw, June 18, 2014 -- Game Score: 102
Kershaw's no-hitter edges out even Cain's perfect game, however. Kershaw faced one over the minimum, thanks to Hanley Ramirez's error at shortstop, but he struck out 15 of those 28 batters on 107 pitches, far and away the most efficient outing of this entire group. Like with Cain, there was no extra pressure to pitch this well, as he had an eight-run lead. He certainly pitched with what looked like ease, whether it was thanks to the lead or because Clayton Kershaw is a treasure we're all meant to gaze upon.
1. Kerry Wood, May 6, 1998 -- Game Score: 105
How do you beat out Kershaw's no-hit efficiency? Strike out a record-tying 20 batters, and do it while giving up just one hit and no walks. Sure, Wood hit a batter and had a balk, but he was the first pitcher to ever strike out 20 batters in a regulation National League game and remains so to this day. (Randy Johnson's 20 whiffs in 2000 came in an extra-inning game.)
Is 10 not enough for you? Spots 11 through 22 on the list all come in at a Game Score of 98, the most incredible of which is Pedro Martinez's 17-strikeout game against the Yankees on Sept. 10, 1999. Martinez is the only pitcher in the top 26 starts from 1994 onward to allow a run and still make the leaderboard, and it's because he was otherwise perfect. He allowed a solo homer to Chili Davis but still struck out 17 of the eventual world champion Yankees without allowing another baserunner.