Twelve years ago, Cubs fans watched as a young, flame-throwing rookie tied the major league record for strikeouts in a single game with 20.
Last July, White Sox fans watched as a crafty lefty reached baseball immortality against the Tampa Bay Rays, throwing a perfect game.
Not long after the latter, I was asked which performance I thought was more impressive; Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeouts, or Mark Buehrle’s perfect game.
My immediate answer, despite being a die-hard North Sider, was Buehrle. I mean, it’s hard to argue with perfection, right? He joined just 17 other pitchers in the history of the game to have thrown a perfect game. Think of all the baseball games played every year, and there’s only been 18 perfect games since 1880.
Just recently, as Spring Training heats up, the debate crept back into my head, so I thought I’d examine it more closely.
Mark Buehrle’s Perfect Game; July 23rd, 2009
When you think of a Mark Buehrle outing, you think of a quick game. The average game time of a Mark Buehrle start in 2009 was about two hours and 40 minutes, and that’s probably a bit inflated because of one 14-inning game. He works quickly, and they say that keeps the defenders on their toes. It’s not an impossibility for a Buehrle start to take less than two hours. The perfect game was two hours and three minutes long.
You think of a guy who doesn’t strike out a lot of people. He pitches to contact, hoping the batters get themselves out. In 2009, he never had more than six strikeouts in any of his starts. One of those was the perfect game. This also allows him to go deep into games. The average length of a Buehrle start in ’09 was 6.1 innings, so he’s usually pitching into the 7th inning. Needless to say, these kinds of guys are invaluable to a team, and maybe more importantly, a bullpen. Since he became a full-time starter in 2001, he’s never thrown less than 200 innings.
Of course, part of a perfect game is not walking anyone. In all of 2009, he only walked 45 batters, three of which were intentional. He averaged 1.9 walks per nine innings, fourth in the AL. Obviously he didn’t walk any that day against the Rays.
Another part of the perfect game is defense. Everyone will remember DeWayne Wise’s leaping catch in center field on Gabe Kapler leading off the top of the ninth. Obviously you need your defenders to be perfect behind you, and they may need to make some spectacular plays from time to time.
The bottom line is, Mark Buehrle threw a perfect game, but I think it was more a case of all the stars aligning for him at once. Though there is something to be said for Buehrle’s influence on the whole thing. He’s got another no-hitter on his resume, and has made a couple of other bids at perfection. In fact, in the never next start after the perfect game, he went 5.2 innings before allowing a baserunner. He now owns the record for most consecutive batters retired at 45.
Like I said, it’s hard to argue with perfection. But I’ll try anyway.
Kerry Wood’s 20 Strikeout Game; May 6th, 1998
When you think of a young Kerry Wood, one word comes to mind: Fastball.
You also think of that nasty curveball. A fantastic young pitcher. A lot of expectations.
May 6th, 1998 was the coming out party for the young rookie. Striking out 20 in a game had only been done by two other pitchers, and they were both pretty darn good. Roger Clemens did it twice, and Randy Johnson struck out 20 in nine innings of work in an 11-inning game.
Obviously, striking out a batter falls largely on the shoulders of the pitcher. You have to make more pitches, and you can’t rely solely on the fastball. Wood threw 122 pitches that day, with 84 strikes. Looking that stat up, I was surprised to find that Wood threw only six more pitches than Buehrle did when he threw the perfect game.
Woody struck out the first eight batters he faced that day. Obviously if you’re going to strike out 20, you’ve got to get out to a fast start, and you’ve got to do so economically. In fact, you’ve got to be economical with your pitches all game long. Wood only went to five 3-ball counts all day.
What gets lost in this debate is just how close Kerry Wood was to perfection that day. It was a one-hit shutout, and he also hit a batter. Two baserunners all day. An incredible for performance.
Then you think about the fact that he was a rookie in 1998. I’ve always thought that rookie pitchers have a slight advantage over hitters because of the lack of familiarity. Plus, it was just his fifth Major League start. It was the first time the Astros had gotten a real look at him. Plus, Wood faced Astros’ pitcher Shane Reynolds twice, striking him out once, as Reynolds sacrifice bunted the other time.
Thinking about both Buehrle’s and Wood’s performances, I’m going to revise my initial answer to the question. It’s not because I’m a homer, I just think that Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout game is a better individual performance. Buehrle’s perfecto might be remembered longer, but Wood did that basically by himself.