Visualization: How Matt Cain’s perfect game stands in baseball history

If a pitcher strikes out 14 batters in a single game, it’ll be the lead story on every sports news program of the night. After all, it’s only happened a few hundred times in baseball history. If a pitcher throws a perfect game, it’s one of those landmark events that’ll be sold on DVD in the store. And people will buy it, because hey, it’s a perfect game. Only 22 of those.

But both of them at the same time? Congratulations, Matt Cain. You just had one of the best nights from any pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball.

Baseball statistician Bill James created a statistic for measuring the strength of a starting pitcher’s outing, called Game Score. It’s a bit like a good version of football’s Passer Rating. James set up the scale so that the average start generally sits around 50, and that zero and 100 correspond to awful and fantastic on a historic scale, respectively. To give an idea where those extremes lie, a Game Score of zero or less has been achieved by 277 lucky pitchers from the end of the deadball era of baseball (1919). A Game Score of 100 has only been achieved 10 times since 1919 in a regular nine-inning game. Clearly, it’s easier to be bad than good.

With Matt Cain’s perfect game last Wednesday, not only did he become the 10th pitcher ever to record a triple-digit Game Score in nine innings of work, he also tied the record for the highest mark in a no-hitter. That mark of 101 was previously set by Sandy Koufax in 1965, and matched by Nolan Ryan in 1991.

As a testament to how rare a game like Cain’s really is, here’s every no-hitter since 1919 by Game Score. Click to enlarge.


Congratulations again, Matt Cain. You’ve earned it.

References & Resources

  • Fans of baseball in the late ’90s should remember the start that registered the highest nine-inning Game Score in baseball history. That start came from the arm of none other than Kerry Wood in 1998. 20 strike outs, no walks, and one hit.
  • If we allow extra inning games, the highest Game Score mark belongs to Joe Oeschger of the Boston Braves, who struck out seven, walked four, and allowed one run on nine hits. Doesn’t sound fantastic, until you realize that he threw 26 innings that day.
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  1. Todd said...

    Look at how big the ‘10s block is, and it’s only 2012. At this rate, it will be up there with the ‘60s and ‘70s for pitching dominance.

  2. Dan Lependorf said...


    AJ Burnett’s 9 walk no-no is the first low-ish bar in the ‘00s. Game Score of 85, which seems pretty high for a 9BB game, but he did throw 9 innings without a hit.

    And with that, I just realized I made a mistake with the data set. I put together every start that passed two qualifications: no hits, and a complete game. I didn’t realize that the complete game tag also includes shortened games, such as a rainout. So there’s a small handful of 5 inning complete games in the data set, which made its way into the graph. Those are all of the really low ones, basically. Burnett’s 85 is tied for third-lowest in a real nine inning no-hitter. Two guys have an 83 no-no, and five have an 84.

    I’ll update the post with a corrected graph some time tonight.

  3. Ed DeCaria said...

    Ah, that makes sense. When I saw that low bar in the ‘00s I thought it might be Burnett’s, but then I realized it looked too far into the decade sequentially for that to be right, but I couldn’t then figure out how another no hitter could be that much “worse” than Burnett’s.

    Being lazy here because I could query it myself, but could you also perhaps post a grid of the box score lines associated with each game (i.e., Burnett 9 0 0 0 9 7) plus the James game score?

    If not, no biggie. Just curious to see them all in one place and figured you might have already done it.



  4. Ed DeCaria said...

    This is cool, Dan.

    Which bar is AJ Burnett’s no-hitter with 9 walks and how does that compare to some of the other lower scores on the chart?


  5. Ed DeCaria said...

    Thanks! Very interesting to scan the list. And love the WPA marks—gives a sense of which no hitters were the most “necessary” to result in a win.

    Also like seeing random things like the fact that Virgil Trucks in ‘52 and Bo Belinsky in ‘62 each hit two batters in their respective no-hitters, and that Burnett in ‘01 and Doc Ellis in ‘70 allowed 3 SBs, and that no pitcher has ever awarded an intentional walk during a no hitter. (You’d think that maybe a walk+SB combo in a tight game might have resulted in one occurrence.)

    Thanks again.

  6. Dan Lependorf said...

    Yep, my mistake. Anyway, a new version of the chart should be up shortly.

    Speaking of bad no-hitters, Burnett’s 85 seems awful, but it’s nice compared to Liriano’s 83. At least Burnett had the decency to strike out seven. Liriano K’d two.

    And yeah, I have a spreadsheet of all of the Baseball-Reference Play Index data that came with the query. All yours.

  7. aneela said...

    Its been a disconcerting west coast road trip for the Phillies the past week. Definite, they ended up with a 5-2 record in the work of the past seven games. But with an extended scoring drought & Cliff Lee & Roy Oswalt getting roughed up the past days, a low grumble was building on the local sports talk radio & commentary ..

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