On May 6th, 1998 – 22 years ago today – Kerry Wood threw a 1-hit, no-walk, no-run, 20-strikeout game against the Houston Astros at Wrigley Field:
Beautiful. All those Astros batters just shaking their heads as they walk away from the plate. (Bonus: recognize the color man in that video? It’s none other than current Cubs color man, Jim Deshaies.)
At the time, Wood joined Roger Clemens as the only pitchers ever to accomplish the feat in nine innings. Randy Johnson would later join them in 2001, striking out 20 in the first nine innings of a game that ultimately went into extra innings, and then Max Scherzer joined the group four years ago.
With five of those 20-strikeout games in the history books (Clemens later did it again), have you ever wondered which was the best? It had to be Kerry Wood’s right? On the anniversary of Wood’s feat, we look back at an article that analyzes precisely that.
In an article at FanGraphs, Craig Edwards examined which of the five 20 strikeout games was the best, and in almost every way you slice it up, Wood comes out on top.
First and foremost, Kerry Wood’s 20K game came against the most potent lineup. In terms of straight offensive ability, the ’98 Astros had a weighted average wRC+ of 109. See how that stacks up against the other opponents:
• Wood’s Opponents: 107 avg. wRC+ (109 weighted avg.)
• Johnson’s Opponents: 69 avg. wRC+ (68 weighted avg.)
• Clemens’ ’86 Opponents: 98 avg. wRC+ (100 weighted avg.)
• Clemens’ ’96 Opponents: 84 avg. wRC+ (84 weighted avg.)
• Scherzer’s Opponents: 97 avg. wRC+ (100 weighted avg.)
As you can see, Wood’s opponents were the best offensive group of the bunch when you normalize it across eras.
Perhaps unsurprisingly (based on how good their offense was at the time), those same ’98 Astros had the lowest strikeout rate of the group – once again indicating how much more difficult it was for a young, rookie Kerry Wood.
• Wood’s Opponents: 19.6% avg. K-rate (19.4% weighted avg.)
• Johnson’s Opponents: 21.2% avg. K-rate (21.2% weighted avg.)
• Clemens’ ’86 Opponents: 22.3% avg. K-rate (21.8% weighted avg.)
• Clemens’ ’96 Opponents: 22.1% avg. K-rate (21.4% weighted avg.)
• Scherzer’s Opponents: 20.2% avg. K-rate (20.0% weighted avg.)
Once again, Wood’s opponents struck out less than 20% of the time that season, and even though it was a different offensive era (indeed, league-wide offense was more dangerous), the weighted average between seasons is still the lowest.
Striking out 20 batters in a single game is extremely rare on its own, and based on the inputs, Wood’s was the rarest. According to Edwards, Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout performance had a 1 in 122 million chance of happening with that particular team on that particular day. By contrast, Scherzer’s odds were a mere 1 in 3.0 million (child’s play). The next highest odds were Randy Johnson at 1 in 25.3 million, so Wood really was in a league of his own.
Lastly, Wood was also tied for the fewest batters faced (29), so basically, yeah: Kerry Wood was an absolute beast 22 years ago, and turned in one of the greatest pitching performances in the history of the sport.
There’s plenty more in Edwards article including graphs and a more detailed breakdown of what happened, so check it out and celebrate a historic anniversary.