Red Sox: ESPN’s surprising choice for Boston’s best pitching performance
By Sean Penney
ESPN ranked the best pitching performance in the history of each franchise and their selection for the Boston Red Sox isn’t what many would expect.
Offense tends to draw an audience but there’s beauty in the artistry of pitching a gem that warrants appreciation. There have been many great pitching performances in the storied history of the Boston Red Sox. Which one ranks at the top of the list is up for debate but it’s a question that ESPN’s David Schoenfield aimed to find out when he assembled a list of the greatest pitching performances for each franchise.
Pedro Martinez‘s 17-strikeout one-hitter against the New York Yankees quickly comes to mind as a strong contender. Roger Clemens had two 20-strikeout games during his tenure in Boston. Neither legendary hurler made the cut. Instead, the top Red Sox pitching performance on ESPN’s list goes to…
You’ll be excused if Nomo’s short stint in Boston slipped your mind. His lone season in a Red Sox uniform back in 2001 was underwhelming for the most part. Nomo led the league with 220 strikeouts and a 10.0 K/9 but also issued the most walks with 96 while going 13-10 with a 4.50 ERA.
It was a fairly unremarkable season with the exception of a couple of brilliant performances, one of which made the top of ESPN’s list for the Red Sox.
On May 25, 2001, Nomo tossed a complete game shutout against the Toronto Blue Jays. He allowed only one hit without a walk and struck out 14, including 26 swinging strikes.
The performance earned Nomo a Game Score of 99. Developed by Bill James, Game Score is a metric with a simple formula awarding points for outs recorded and strikeouts while subtracting for base runners and runs scored.
Schoenfield seems to place heavy emphasis on Game Score for this list, although he clarifies that he was mindful of some inflated scores from the early 20th century when pitchers were often left in for more than nine innings. It’s not as simple as picking the highest Game Score in franchise history but this metric played a significant role in Schoenfield’s rankings.
As brilliant as Nomo was on the mound that day, a case can be made that it wasn’t even his best start from that season. Nomo tossed a no-hitter in his Red Sox debut in April of that year. He also walked three batters in that game with 11 strikeouts, leaving him with a Game Score of 95. More memorable, perhaps, due to the rarity of a no-hitter but it wasn’t statistically his best.
There have been 18 no-hitters in Red Sox history but none of them can top Nomo’s 99 Game Score. Nomo’s no-hitter was the first the franchise had seen since 1965. There have been three more since (Derek Lowe, Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester) but each of those performances included at least two walks and none of them matched Nomo’s strikeout total.
Cy Young recorded the only perfect game in Red Sox history back in 1904. This performance wasn’t eligible for the list since Schoenfield only went back to 1908, which is as far back as the Baseball-Reference Play Index goes. While it’s hard to top perfection, Young’s eight strikeouts gave him a 95 Game Score so he would have fallen short of Nomo anyway based on how this list was put together.
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Young posted a 108 Game Score in the start following his perfect game but it took him 15 innings to do it. This is where the disclaimer about early 20th century games comes into play since Game Score awards more points for pitching more innings. Young allowed 11 base runners and only struck out five in a 1-0 victory over the Detroit Tigers. An impressive performance but not one that most would rate ahead of a perfect game, regardless of what Game Score thinks.
Pedro’s 17-strikeout gem in the Bronx was a masterpiece but the one hit he allowed happened to be a solo home run, dropping his Game Score to 98. Clemens had a 97 Game Score in both of his 20-strikeout games.
Comparing players from different eras can get tricky. Strikeouts are more plentiful than ever but so are home runs. Teams these days are smart enough to give their pitcher the hook before their arm falls off.
Game Score might not be the best way to compare pitchers from different eras but it can be a useful starting point as long as it’s used in proper context. Only 15 major league pitchers have logged a 100+ Game Score since 1908, so Nomo being on the cusp of that exclusive group goes to show how incredible his performance was.
Nomo’s one-hitter in 2001 isn’t the most memorable Red Sox pitching performance and can’t match the significance of many of the great postseason performances. It does have the highest rating in one metric though and there’s no denying that Nomo produced two of the most remarkable outings in recent memory in the midst of an otherwise unremarkable season.