Chicago Cubs: Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout game is MLB’s greatest outing

(Photo by DANIEL LIPPITT/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by DANIEL LIPPITT/AFP via Getty Images) /

In the history of Major League Baseball, there have been five games where a pitcher has recorded 20 strikeouts in one outing. One of those belongs to former Chicago Cubs right-hander Kerry Wood, who accomplished that feat on this day, 23 years ago. I’d make the case it’s not just one of the baseball’s best performances, but it’s the greatest game ever pitched.

Wood was a rookie in that 1998 season and struggled for the most part in his first four outings where he posted a 5.89 ERA and made it past the fifth inning just once. A former fourth overall pick in the ’95 MLB Draft, there was no question Wood had all the tools, but it was just a matter of putting it together.

Cubs: Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout performance is the greatest game ever pitched.

On May 6, 1998, Wood took his electric pitch arsenal to the mound against a loaded Astros team that would go on to win 102 games and finish first in the NL Central that season. Houston’s lineup featured two Hall of Famers, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, and former All-Stars Moises Alou and Brad Asmus. The Astros offense would finish the ’98 season Top-5 in the Majors in runs (874-fourth), batting average (.280-fifth), and on-base percentage (.356-third).

Shutting down that lineup was no easy task for any pitcher, let alone a rookie, but that’s exactly what Wood did. He allowed one hit while walking none and racking up 20 strikeouts on 122 pitches in his complete game shutout.

The lone hit Wood allowed went off the glove of Cubs third baseman Kevin Orie, so you could make an argument it should’ve been ruled an error. With the way he was pitching that day it could’ve easily been a 20-strikeout perfect game for Wood.

Wood would finish his 1998 season with a 3.40 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 1.212 WHIP, and an MLB-leading 12.6 K/9 en route to winning NL Rookie of the Year.

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Back then, Wood was in a rare class of hard-throwing pitchers with some ferocious velocity and movement. He had the kind of nasty stuff those following the likes of Pitching Ninja and Baseball Savant drool over these days.

Unfortunately, injuries piled up in Wood’s career so he never won more than 100 games, and was forced to a bullpen role by the time his age-30 season came around in 2007. His lifetime 3.67 ERA and two All-Star appearances (2003 and 2008) won’t get him into Cooperstown, but that doesn’t take away how dominant he was at certain points in his career.

As far as greatest games ever pitched, you could make the case a perfect game or a no-hitter is greater. But I’d make the argument a 20-strikeout performance is just as difficult and it’s more rare. There have been 23 perfect games and Baseball-Reference recognizes 296 total no-hitters in MLB history. Meanwhile, there’s just five 20-strikeout games.

It takes a pitcher willing to attack the strike zone without fear of what the opposing hitters will do. That’s exactly what Wood did in his 20-K outing that could have resulted in a no-hitter or perfect game had it not been for Orie’s misplay.

Other MLB 20 Strikeout Games:

  • Roger Clemens:
    • April 29, 1986 vs. Mariners: 9 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 20 K
    • Sept. 18, 1996 at Tigers: (151 pitches) 9 IP, 5, 0 ER, 0 BB, 20 K
  • Randy Johnson:
    • May 8, 2001 vs. Reds: (124 pitches) 9 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 20 K
  • Max Scherzer:
    • May 11, 2016 vs. Tigers (119 pitches) 9 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 20 K

Not only was Wood’s final pitch line better than each of the other 20-strikeout performances, but he was considerably younger and logged far fewer innings in his big-league career up to that point. The 2016 Tigers were the only team on the above mentioned list to finish with a winning record (86-75).

Using the Bill James formula, Wood’s Game Score of 105 is the highest in MLB history for any pitcher in a nine-inning start. It’s been a while since this team has developed a homegrown arm with the type of pitch arsenal and excitement Wood brought to the mound.

Next. Cubs' homegrown arms have come through. dark

While it has something to do with drafting and team-building decisions, I still think it shows how special Wood truly was for the Cubs.