Epic pitchers duels, epilogue

Following what was supposed to be the final installment of our four-part series, a request came in to examine some of the best pitchers duels of the past three decades. After all, our series concludes in 1972, which may be fuzzy (or worse) in the minds of many readers. Besides, who am I to turn down a request, especially one as fun as this?

When all else fails, lower your standards

For the current installment, we must tweak our parameters. There aren’t any games in which both starters achieve Game Scores of 95 or higher (our criterion for identifying epic pitchers duels in previous installments). Part of the problem is that pitchers don’t work insanely deep (11 innings or more) into games these days:

Decade 11+ IP
1920s  505
1930s  397
1940s  456
1950s  267
1960s  196
1970s  209
1980s   48*
1990s    2
2000s    0

* Eight of these (16.7 percent came courtesy of Billy Martin‘s 1980 A’s—five by Mike Norris, and one each by Matt Keough, Rick Langford, and Steve McCatty. All four of those pitchers worked a 14-inning game that year. This is only tangentially related to the topic at hand, but damn…

Anyway, the point is, without working at least 11 innings, it’s hard to rack up monster Game Scores. The decline in Game Scores of 95 or higher relative to those of 90 or higher over the decades mirrors the decline in really long starts:

Decade  90+ 95+  Pct
1920s   64  21  .328
1930s   64  21  .328
1940s  104  26  .250
1950s  107  27  .252
1960s  278  67  .241
1970s  199  41  .206
1980s  140  17  .163
1990s  170  34  .200
2000s  144  26  .181

Those pre-1960s totals may seem low, but the fact that fewer starts were being made back then (compare, e.g., 2,472 major league games in 1927 to 4,862 in 2007) probably accounts for much of the discrepancy. The first column is self-explanatory. The second column (90+) represents the number of games in which a pitcher achieved a Game Score of 90 or higher. The third does the same, but for a Game Score of 95 or higher.

The rightmost column is where the action is. It represents the percentage of 90+ Game Score starts that were also 95+ Game Score starts. To use horribly subjective terminology, it helps us separate “really good” starts from “really, really good” starts. Note the roughly declining trend over the decades. This seems to jibe well with the innings data. It’s hard to get a Game Score of 90 while working fewer than 11 innings, but it’s even harder to get a Game Score of 95 while doing the same:

        Game Score 90+  Game Score 95+
Decade  Tot  <11   Pct  Tot  <11   Pct
1920s    64   22  .344   21    3  .143
1930s    64   25  .391   21    4  .190
1940s   104   44  .423   26    2  .077
1950s   107   58  .542   27    3  .111
1960s   278  207  .745   67   33  .493
1970s   199  150  .754   41   17  .415
1980s   140  134  .957   17   13  .765
1990s   170  170 1.000   34   34 1.000
2000s   144  144 1.000   26   26 1.000
Total  1270  954  .751  280  135  .482

That's a long way to go to demonstrate a point, but it's important to understand why we're tweaking parameters before actually doing so. Plus, it's just neat to see how pitching has evolved over the years.

So, what parameters are we using? To get a reasonable number of games, we'll go with a minimum Game Score of 85. This gives us six games in the '80s, five in the '90s, and three in the current millennium. Because these aren't "epic" in the sense that duels in the past were, we'll focus on the single "best" duel from each decade, giving honorable mentions to the rest.

The word "best" is in quotes because this is a subjective matter. For our purposes, "best" is defined as a summation of the two Game Scores in question. With that perhaps overly lengthy introduction out of the way, let's look at some games.

Best pitchers duel of the 1980s

July 22, 1986: Montreal Expos (0) at Houston Astros (1), 10 innings

Box score

Combined Game Score: 181

               IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Floyd Youmans 9.0 3 1  1  1  0  8  85
Nolan Ryan    9.1 1 0  0  0  4 14  96

Youmans, a high school teammate of Dwight Gooden, was 22 years old at the time and a highly regarded young pitcher. Originally selected by the New York Mets in the second round of the 1982 June draft (three picks after David Wells), Youmans came to Montreal as part of the package for Gary Carter.

Despite occasional struggles with command, the hard-throwing right hander enjoyed success at an early age. His list of similar pitchers through age 22 includes the likes of Mat Latos and Carlos Zambrano. In The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1987, Youmans is identified as the 17th best starting pitcher in the National League (behind Bill Gullickson and ahead of Tom Browning). The comments read, in part:

...superb pitcher, but the end of his motion is not pretty. It looks to me like he'll hurt either his elbow or his back within two or three years.

James had the right idea, but the wrong body part. This is from The Scouting Report: 1990:

Using Recurrent Neural Networks to Predict Player Performance
Technology is rapidly advancing possibilities in decision-making.

...persistent tendinitis in Floyd's right shoulder has made his fastball drop alarmingly in velocity. Youmans finally needed surgery on the shoulder.

Youmans was out of affiliated baseball (he pitched briefly in Independent leagues in 1995 and again in 2003) by 1989, at the ripe old age of 25.

Ryan was 39 years old when he threw this gem. He faced some good hitters, too (you may be familiar with Andre Dawson and Tim Raines). The only hit Ryan allowed came when catcher Mike Fitzgerald (another part of the Carter trade) doubled with one out in the fifth inning.

There weren't any real scoring opportunities for either team. Mitch Webster reached second base for the Expos with one out in the fourth inning, but Ryan struck out Dawson and got Tim Wallach to fly out to right field. The Astros had the same situation in the home half, but Youmans retired Davis and Kevin Bass to end the threat.

Montreal put a man in scoring position in the fifth (Fitzgerald's double) and again in the 10th. In the latter, Ryan walked two batters; manager Hal Lanier brought in the late Dave Smith, who put out the fire. Smith picked up the win when Glenn Davis led off the home half with a home run.

A quick perusal of The New York Times reveals no further details of the contest. It does, however, tell us that Greg Lemond led the Tour de France after 18 legs and that, 81 years earlier to the day, Philadelphia A's right-hander Weldon Henley no-hit the St. Louis Browns. Useless information in the current context, but interesting nonetheless...

Youmans would exact his revenge on Ryan and the Astros nearly a year later. The only two times these pitchers faced each other brought out the best in both. Youmans limited Houston to a single by Bass leading off the eighth, while Ryan gave up a whopping four hits in losing another 1-0 decision (this was the season in which Ryan finished with an 8-16 record despite leading the NL in ERA and strikeouts).

Honorable mentions, in descending order of combined Game Score

Oct, 1, 1982: New York Mets (1) at Philadelphia Phillies (0), 10 innings

Box score

Combined Game Score: 180

              IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Terry Leach 10.0 1 0  0  0  6  7  91
John Denny   9.0 1 0  0  0  3  7  89

Leach made 376 big-league appearances. Of those, 21 were starts. This was the second of those 21 starts. Despite not making his debut until age 27, Leach quietly had a nice little career. Think Scott Linebrink. As for Denny, the journeyman right hander didn't do much in 1982, but he surprised everyone by winning the NL Cy Young Award a year later.

The New York Times account of this game also contains an amusing anecdote:

The umpires arrived without their work uniforms, which had been sent someplace else by their airline, so they presided in makeshift outfits. Ed Montague called balls and strikes in a Phillies uniform, and his three colleagues wore slacks and sweaters.

If the sight of a man wearing a Phillies uniform crouched behind the plate gave Leach pause, he certainly didn't let it show.

Aug. 26, 1987: Cleveland Indians (0) at Milwaukee Brewers (1), 10 innings

Box score

Combined Game Score: 180

                IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
John Farrell   9.0 3 0  0  0  2  7  86
Teddy Higuera 10.0 3 0  0  0  2 10  94

Doug Jones took over for Farrell to start the 10th inning. He plunked the first batter he faced, Rob Deer (who had struck out in each of his first three trips to the plate). Mike Felder ran for Deer, advanced to second on a ground ball, and scored on a single by pinch-hitter Rick Manning. That's hardly a proper end to a stellar pitchers duel, but there it is.

James' comment on Higuera in The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1988 is revealing:

Higuera I suspect is one of the half-dozen pitchers in our generation who can work 8 to 10 innings a start without being destroyed by it... Managers establish as a normal workload the workload that Jack Morris and Teddy Higuera are capable of handling, but which destroys most pitchers in a year or two.

First, it ties in nicely with Higuera's performance in this game. Second, such handling (or something) apparently destroyed Higuera in a year or two anyway.

Sept. 6, 1985: New York Mets (2) at Los Angeles Dodgers (0), 13 innings

Box score

Combined Game Score: 174

                      IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Dwight Gooden        9.0 5 0  0  0  0 10  87
Fernando Valenzuela 11.0 6 0  0  0  3  5  87

Speaking of Youmans' high school teammate, here's a fun one that pitted two men who hurled eight shutouts at age 20. Gooden was in the midst of his sensational season, the best ever by a pitcher that age, while Valenzuela had accomplished the feat four years earlier.

The game's only runs came when Darryl Strawberry knocked a two-run double against Tom Niedenfuer to give the Mets the lead and, ultimately, the win. The Dodgers had a chance in their half of the 13th, but Bill Madlock popped out to first base against Jesse Orosco with the bases loaded to end the contest. Leach, a star in the previously mentioned 1982 Mets-Phillies game, worked in relief in this one.

Sept. 28, 1988: Los Angeles Dodgers (1) at San Diego Padres (2), 16 innings

Box score

Combined Game Score: 174

                 IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Orel Hershiser 10.0 4 0  0  0  1  3  86
Andy Hawkins   10.0 4 0  0  0  2  6  88

This is the start that pushed Hershiser past Don Drysdale for longest scoreless inning streak (59) in MLB history. With two on and two out in the 10th, Hershiser got Keith Moreland to fly out to right field and entered the record books. The Padres won when backup catcher Mark Parent, batting for Marvell Wynne, greeted incoming reliever Ricky Horton with a walkoff two-run homer to left.

April 10, 1980: New York Yankees (0) at Texas Rangers (1), 12 innings

Box score

Combined Game Score: 173

             IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Ron Guidry  9.0 2 0  0  0  0  4  87
Jon Matlack 9.0 3 0  0  0  0  5  86

Texas scored the lone run with one out in the 12th. With Mickey Rivers on third base, Yankees skipper Dick Howser had Tom Underwood intentionally walk Al Oliver and Buddy Bell to get to Richie Zisk. Howser then summoned Rich Gossage from the bullpen. Gossage uncorked a wild pitch, bringing home Rivers. This was Opening Day for both clubs. Welcome to the '80s.

Best pitchers duel of the 1990s

Aug. 1, 1990: Seattle Mariners (0) at Oakland Athletics (1), 11 innings

Box score

Combined Game Score: 188

               IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Erik Hanson  10.0 2 0  0  0  0 11  99
Dave Stewart 11.0 5 0  0  0  3  5  89

Stewart is the last big-league pitcher to work 11 innings in a game. He and Hanson were efficient, as the game took just two hours and 38 minutes.

Hanson is sort of forgotten these days, but once upon a time, he ranked among the more promising young pitchers in baseball. After going 9-5 for the Mariners as a 24-year-old, The Scouting Report: 1990 said of Hanson that he "appears to have the stuff to eventually become the ace of any staff." He followed that up with an 18-9, 3.24 ERA (122 ERA+) campaign during which he hurled this gem.

Young pitchers are a funny lot, though, and although Jim Bunning appears among Hanson's top 10 most similar pitchers through age 25 at Baseball-Reference, so also does Mark Fidrych. Still, Hanson dominated a very good A's team that would win 103 games and steamroller Boston in the ALCS before being shocked by Cincinnati in the World Series.

Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts against Hanson in this one; Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire did no better. If not for a fourth-inning wild pitch, Oakland would not have gotten a runner past first base against the lanky right hander out of Wake Forest.

Stewart was less dominant but equally effective. He gave up a double to Ken Griffey Jr. with two out in the first and again with one out in the 11th. Griffey never reached third base.

The A's finally broke through against Seattle closer Mike Schooler. With one out in the 11th, Oakland knocked three straight singles. The last, by Doug Jennings, came on a 1-2 pitch and drove home Lance Blankenship, who had come in to run for catcher Terry Steinbach.

Stewart was enjoying what would be the last of his four straight 20-win seasons (outside of that stretch, he never won more than 12 games in a season). He retired in 1995 with a career line of 168-129 and 3.95 ERA (100 ERA+). And in the random, but true department, nearly 77 percent of Stewart's victories came after he'd turned 30.

Honorable mentions, in descending order of combined Game Score

July 15, 1994: San Diego Padres (2) at New York Mets (1), 14 innings

Box score

Combined Game Score: 184

                  IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Andy Benes       8.0 2 0  0  0  1 14  91
Bret Saberhagen 10.0 5 0  0  0  0 11  93

Jeff Tabaka and Mike Maddux were the pitchers of record, a guy named Pedro Martinez (not the one you're thinking of; we'll get to him in a moment) worked two innings for San Diego, and Tim Mauser earned the first of his two career saves. Benes led the NL in strikeouts in '94. Impressively, this was only his second best performance against the Mets that month. Two weeks earlier, Benes had spun a one-hitter with 13 strikeouts, for a career-best Game Score of 97.

Saberhagen was a brilliant pitcher when healthy, which wasn't often. He had two Cy Young Awards (and more than half of his career victories) by age 25. The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1986 ranks his age 21 season among the best ever, along with Bob Feller, Vida Blue and Babe Ruth. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract ranks Saberhagen as the No. 79 pitcher of all time. In some respects, he is the opposite of Dave Stewart, recording nearly 72 percent of his wins before age 30.

The game remained scoreless through 13 innings. Tony Gwynn and Phil Plantier hit back-to-back homers in the 14th. David Segui doubled home pinch-hitter Luis Rivera in the bottom half, but Tabaka retired Jeff Kent and Rico Brogna to end the game.

June 25, 1999: St. Louis Cardinals (1) at Arizona Diamondbacks (0)

Box score

Combined Game Score: 178

               IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Jose Jimenez  9.0 0 0  0  0  2  8  93
Randy Johnson 9.0 5 1  1  0  2 14  85

Jimenez was in the midst of a miserable season in which he went 5-14 with a 5.85 ERA (79 ERA+). In this one, though, he outpitched a sure-fire Hall of Famer and shut down a potent Arizona lineup led by Luis Gonzalez (.336/.403/.549, 137 OPS+), Jay Bell (.289/.374/.557, 131 OPS+), Matt Williams (.303/.344/.536, 118 OPS+) and Steve Finley (.264/.336/.525, 113 OPS+).

Jimenez also benefited from two terrific defensive plays by right fielder Eric Davis, who robbed Andy Fox in the sixth and David Dellucci in the ninth. The only run came with two out in the ninth, when Thomas Howard singled home Darren Bragg.

For Johnson, although this represented a fine outing for him, it merely marked one of 50 big-league starts in which he achieved a Game Score of 85 or higher. Contrast that with Jimenez, who had 38 big-league starts... full stop. Jimenez later enjoyed some success as a reliever, saving 110 games over parts of seven seasons.

Colorado Rockies (1) at San Diego Padres (0), 11 innings

Box score

Combined Game Score: 178

              IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Darryl Kile 10.0 3 0  0  0  2  7  91
Kevin Brown  9.0 4 0  0  0  0  8  87

Kile led the NL in losses in '98, while Brown finished third in Cy Young Award voting, but on this Sunday afternoon in San Diego, their roles were reversed and Kile prevailed. The game's lone run came when Darryl Hamilton singled home Larry Walker, who had doubled with one out against left-hander Randy Myers.

The Padres had acquired Myers from Toronto a few weeks earlier for a 24-year-old catcher in High-A named Brian Loyd. It's not so much that the Blue Jays wanted Loyd as they wanted to rid themselves of Myers' burdensome contract. Padres GM Kevin Towers, in a rare bad trade, made the move to block Atlanta (whom he believed had interest in Myers) from claiming him on waivers.

A secondary reason for the trade was that Myers presumably would be tough on left-handed hitters. The careful reader will note, however, that both Hamilton and Walker batted from the left side. The Padres ended up paying Myers $13.58 million to pitch 17.1 innings, which comes out to a little more than $783,000 per inning—not the return on investment Towers had in mind.

July 27, 1990: Chicago Cubs (2) at Montreal Expos (0), 10 innings

Box score

Combined Game Score: 175

              IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Greg Maddux  9.0 2 0  0  0  1  5  87
Mark Gardner 9.0 4 0  0  0  1 10  88

One of the joys of this series has been watching David go up against Goliath and, if not outright beating him, then giving him one heckuva fight. Here is yet another example.

Maddux needs no introduction, but you may have forgotten Gardner, who was the Brett Tomko of his era. Gardner never won more than 13 games in a season or finished with an ERA+ of better than 107 (that would be '90, his rookie campaign). During his 13-year career, Gardner won 99 games and had an ERA+ of 88. He could pitch in a variety of roles and soak up innings—useful enough for someone who didn't reach the big leagues until he was 27.

On this Friday evening in Montreal, Gardner matched Maddux pitch for pitch. And he did it while subduing future Hall of Famers Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson, among others. The Cubs won in the 10th on the strength of a Shawon Dunston walk (!) and three straight singles by Gary Varsho, Dave Clark, and Sandberg.

Best pitchers duel of the 2000s

July 1, 2010: Cincinnati Reds (0) at Philadelphia Phillies (1), 11 innings

Box score

Combined Game Score: 178

              IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Travis Wood  9.0 1 0  0  0  0  8  93
Roy Halladay 9.0 5 0  0  0  1  9  85

The diminutive rookie left hander out of Little Rock, Ark., outpitched the man who would win the NL Cy Young Award. The Phillies prevailed when Jimmy Rollins singled to right against reliever Logan Ondrusek, driving home Carlos Ruiz for the game's only run. More could be said about this game, but it's still fresh in our minds so we'll leave it at that.

Honorable mentions, in descending order of combined Game Score

May 6, 2000: Tampa Bay Devil Rays (1) at Boston Red Sox (0)

Box score

Combined Game Score: 176

                IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Steve Trachsel 9.0 3 0  0  0  3 11  89
Pedro Martinez 9.0 6 1  1  0  1 17  87

Youmans vs Ryan, Jimenez vs Johnson, Gardner vs Maddux, Trachsel vs Martinez... trite as it may seem, this is why they play the games. With two out in the eighth, Greg Vaughn singled home Dave Martinez. Ballgame.

Trachsel worked his way into and out of a few jams. The Red Sox put runners at first and second in the second inning, but Trachsel retired the light-hitting Manny Alexander to escape unharmed. They put runners at the corners an inning later, but this time the decidedly more dangerous Carl Everett made out. They did the same in the sixth, with Mike Stanley and Jason Varitek failing to deliver.

Both pitchers struck out the side in the first inning. Martinez did it again in the second. Trachsel's 11 strikeouts represented a career high (which he would tie a year later) and an impressive total for someone who posted a 5.7 K/9 over parts of 16 big-league seasons.

May 28, 2002: Arizona Diamondbacks (0) at San Francisco Giants (1), 10 innings

Box score

Combined Game Score: 173

                IP H R ER HR BB SO GSc
Miguel Batista 9.0 1 0  0  0  1  3  87
Jason Schmidt  9.0 3 0  0  0  1  6  86

Poet, pitcher, friend of Miss Iowa... Batista does it all. And in this game, he neutralized a powerful Giants team (they would go on to represent the NL in the World Series) led by Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent.

Schmidt, meanwhile, was starting to find himself as a pitcher after several seasons of teasing. He took a step forward in 2002 before blossoming a year later.

Unlike Batista, who made it through the contest untested, Schmidt faced a tough situation in the seventh. He loaded the bases with one out, but got Mark Grace to fly out to shallow center field and fanned Rod Barajas to quell the threat.

San Francisco won in the bottom of the 10th. With lefty Mike Myers now on the hill, Bonds drew a leadoff walk. Right-hander Bret Prinz replaced Myers and gave up singles to Kent (on an 0-2 pitch) and Benito Santiago to end the contest.

Best pitchers duels by decade, 1920-2010

For the sake of completeness, and because this article isn't long enough already, here are the top pitching duels of each decade as determined by combined Game Score (CGS):

Decade     Date Pitchers (Game Score)                    CGS
1920s  05/01/20 Leon Cadore (140), Joe Oeschger (153)    296
1930s  07/02/33 Tex Carleton (106), Carl Hubbell (132)   238
1940s  07/21/45 Les Mueller (112), Russ Christopher (99) 211
1950s  08/13/54 Al Aber (101), Jack Harshman (109)       210
1960s  10/02/65 Chris Short (114), Rob Gardner (112)     226
1970s  09/24/71 Ken Forsch (98), Clay Kirby (109)        217
1980s  07/22/86 Floyd Youmans (85), Nolan Ryan (96)      181
1990s  08/01/90 Erik Hanson (99), Dave Stewart (89)      188
2000s  07/01/10 Travis Wood (93), Roy Halladay (85)      178

Never say never, but that duel between Cadore and Oeschger won't be surpassed. It's also possible that we've witnessed our last 200 combined Game Score performance; if you were one of the 6,339 in attendance at San Diego Stadium on Sept. 24, 1971, congratulations.

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference, The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1986, The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1987, The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1988, Ducksnorts 2007 Baseball Annual, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, The New York Times, The Scouting Report: 1990.

Thanks to reader Dave Bristol for inspiring this article with a simple, yet compelling question. Jeff Angus' article "Does 'Game Score' Still Work in Today's High-Offense Game" (The Baseball Research Journal, Summer 2010, pp. 39-48) also proved useful.

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Dave Bristol
Dave Bristol

Thanks for doing the extra legwork and analysis!  Much appreciated.  Those two Youmans-Ryan duels are fascinating to learn about.

Geoff Young
Geoff Young

My pleasure; thanks for the excellent suggestion. It’s always fun to look back and rediscover old games and players.

Chris J.
Chris J.


Fun series.  Thanks.

Tommy G
Tommy G