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Baffoe: Why Kerry Wood’s 20 Strikeout Game Is Better Than Perfect

Kerry Wood winds up to throw a pitch during the Cubs 2-0 win over the Houston Astros on May 6, 1998. Wood struck out 20.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Kerry Wood winds up to throw a pitch during the Cubs 2-0 win over the Houston Astros on May 6, 1998. Wood struck out 20. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Tim Baffoe - clean background Tim Baffoe
Tim Baffoe attended the University of Iowa before earning his de...
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By Tim Baffoe-

(CBS) I had the same argument with friends in July of 2009 after watching the Mark Buehrle perfect game against Tampa Bay, one of the best games I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. A friend posed the question again to me almost immediately after Philip Humber was almost asphyxiated on the field by the mob of White Sox piling on him in Seattle, an equally thrilling experience to witness on my television.

Which is the better performance, that or Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout game against the Astros?

A perfect game is… well, perfect. In a way.

27 up, 27 down. Only been done 21 times (or 20 if you don’t count Don Larsen’s World Series perfecto because playoff stats are often considered separate). There’s something truly special about that. And while Humber’s game is fresh in our minds, Wood’s happened 14 years ago (if you needed a reason to feel old today).

I remember coming home from high school on that drizzly May day, sitting at my desk to begin some homework (yes, I was that kid) and flipping on the Cubbies. It was around the 6th or 7th inning when I heard Chip Caray mention that Wood had 14 or so K’s, and he and Steve Stone were talking about the NL and MLB record for K’s in a game. I also remember never, ever seeing a breaking ball like Wood’s in that game. It didn’t even look real. “Who can hit that?” I asked myself. Well, turns out 20 Astros couldn’t. I went absolutely crazy when he got the 20th. And to this day, Buehrle’s and Humber’s included, I have yet to see a better pitching performance (I’ve rewatched the Wood game at least a dozen times in its entirety).

There is no Cub fan bias in that opinion–I saw Randy Johnson’s perfect game, Buehrle’s no hitter in ’07, Johnson’s 20 K extra inning game, the Astros’ combined no-hitter against the Yankees, Armando Galarraga’s should-have-been, etc. All those were magnificent performances, but they do not measure up to Wood on that gray day in 1998. It should also be noted that I have grown to loathe Kerry Wood and even more so of late because he’s basically stealing money from the team and probably can’t pitch effectively anymore.

Some may read this and say my argument is inane because one can’t be better than perfection. Wood allowed a hit and hit a batter in his game, so it shouldn’t be in the same argument, right? Wrong.

First of all, the “hit” should have been ruled an error. Kevin Orie misplayed a ball that wasn’t overly difficult, and I really don’t know what the official scorer was drinking that day. But so as not to make this a case of woulda, coulda, shouldas, the crux of my argument is this–Wood’s dominance. There has never been a more dominating individual performance in a game. While Buehrle and Humber were perfect, they weren’t really making fools of professional baseball players the way Wood was. You can see a smattering of the Wood K’s here. Notice how stupid the Astros’ hitters look. I mean, 20 damn guys failed to put a ball in play! Some look like they were swinging ropes instead of bats. The footholes in the batter’s boxes must have been three feet deep by game’s end with the way the Astro batters were spinning around.

Buehrle’s game in 2009, like most good Buehrle games, sort of snuck up on you. Between watching it in an empty restaurant as I worked a day shift of delivering pizzas and listening to it on and off on the car radio, I didn’t realize he was perfect until after the 6th inning. That’s because Buehrle works fast, so fast that you rarely have a chance to stop and consider what’s going on statistically. A friend who was in attendance for that game told me Sunday that he recalls not even realizing Buehrle was perfect until the seventh inning because the game flew by before he could savor what was going on.

Humber’s wasn’t as sneaky, mostly because the FOX TV crew made damn sure to let the viewer know after four innings that he hadn’t allowed a baserunner, perhaps to keep the attention of people who might begin to realize they were watching a White Sox vs. Mariners game. But it was almost equally un-jaw-dropping.

Also, neither Buehrle nor Humber is a sexy pitcher. By “sexy” I mean that they don’t blow you away with their stuff, won’t make many highlight reels on a start by start basis. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that—Greg Maddux is going to the Hall of Fame riding that horse, and a win is a win is a win no matter how you got there. Allowing balls to be hit in play and trusting your defense can be an effective m.o., and Saturday is a great example of that.

But Buehrle did not make a very good Tampa Bay team look silly in 2009. Bats were on balls, and those balls just didn’t fall where Tampa needed them to. Ditto for a very sub par Seattle team and Humber. There weren’t shots of Mariners wide-eyed or cursing or looking back toward the mound in confusion as they walked back to the dugout.

A perfect game or no-hitter needs the other eight guys (nine once the pitcher becomes defender) to make a great performance happen (paging Dewayne Wise). Kerry Wood’s performance was completely solo, which makes it all the more impressive (and, again, I still think it should have been a no-hitter in much the same way Galarraga was robbed of his by interpretive error and is unofficially considered to have one).

We often take for granted the defense in a great pitching performance. Nine innings of baseball is not an easy period of time to be mentally perfect in the field. Early on in a game, it might be easy for a shortstop to be a little too loose out there. In the later innings, when everyone is aware of the historical situation, a third baseman might be a little too tight out there.

I won’t go thoroughly into the sabermetric analysis of it all, but a stat like BABIP would suggest that a perfect game that included 21 (Buehrle) and 18 (Humber) balls put in play would be far more about great luck than dominance. Every ball put in play was more or less right at somebody in both games — save the Wise spectacular catch — and the White Sox happened to be mentally and physically sound those days.

A perfect game, while credited to one guy, is essentially a team accomplishment, unless the pitcher strikes out all 27 hitters, and that’s never happened. (The most Ks by a perfect gamer is 14 by Sandy Koufax vs. the Cubs in 1965, and had I been alive to see that, I might say that is the most dominant individual pitching performance I’ve seen. The Cubs, coincidentally, have yet to be no-hit since then, the longest streak in the majors and a pretty impressive stat in itself, especially when you consider how many truly awful Cub teams have existed since then.) A pitcher isn’t getting guys out on groundouts, lineouts, and flyouts as much as he and at least one of his teammates are.

Wood allowed only eight guys to put a bat on the ball, one of whom reached when a Cub was not mentally sound for a moment. Step back and consider that. Less than one time per inning would you have seen a guy running toward first base. He for more than two-thirds of his time on the mound made defense irrelevant. To do such a thing is almost beyond comprehension.

Most White Sox fans I assume will disagree with me, surely due to blind tribalism, but if one looks at the individual work of Wood, Humber, and Buehrle in their respective games, the nod for individual dominance has to go to Cubs rookie. To paraphrase one of the greatest sports films ever, Bull Durham, strikeouts are not democratic. Strikeouts are fascist. They are dictatorial. They are oppressive. They are dominant.

Twenty of them are athletically genocidal.

Watching two perfect games was an absolute joy for this baseball fan, but I have yet to be as impressed by one pitcher as I was while probably failing an Algebra assignment in my bedroom that gray day in May of 1998 and in every replay of the game I’ve seen since.

The Wood game had imperfections, but it was despite those imperfections that dominance shone brightest amid the clouds and drizzle. That was the most perfect thing I’ve witnessed.

tim baffoe small Baffoe: Why Kerry Woods 20 Strikeout Game Is Better Than Perfect

Tim Baffoe

Tim Baffoe attended the University of Iowa and Governors State University and began blogging at The Score after winning the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He enjoys writing things about stuff, but not so much stuff about things. When not writing for 670TheScore.com, Tim corrupts America’s youth as a high school English teacher and provides a great service to his South Side community delivering pizzas (please tip him and his colleagues well). You can follow Tim’s inappropriate brain droppings on Twitter @Ten_Foot_Midget , but please don’t follow him in real life. He grew up in Chicago’s Beverly To read more of Tim’s blogs click here.