Kahn: Baseball’s Best Feat

By Andrew Kahn

Edinson Volquez threw a no-hitter in early June. Scooter Gennett hit four home runs three days later. And on Saturday, Cody Bellinger became the fifth player this season to hit for the cycle. Generally speaking, what is the best single-game individual achievement in baseball?

No-hitters and cycles

It’s useful to compare these two feats right away because we can try to define “best” in a low-stakes environment. What I mean by that is it’s clear neither feat is the correct answer to the above question. When assessing individual achievements, frequency certainly matters, but so does degree of difficulty and the less quantifiable “impressiveness.” In other words, there may be only a small number of players with three infield hits in one game, but an infield hit is not very impressive. An unassisted triple play is impressive but more a function of circumstance than skill.

For the record, there have been 291 cycles and 263 one-pitcher no-hitters in Major League Baseball history. It’s hard to compare the accomplishments of hitters and pitchers, but I think no-hitters are more impressive. It doesn’t help answer our question, though, because of the better achievements listed below.

Four home runs

Only 17 players have hit four homers in one game. This is undoubtedly the single-game pinnacle for a batter. Recording six hits in a game is impressive, but it’s been done 72 times. And while one player—Rennie Stennett in 1975—notched seven hits in a nine-inning game, including two doubles and a triple, we dig the long ball.

20 strikeouts vs. perfect game

And now we have to make some difficult but important distinctions. But first, the facts. Only three players have struck out 20 batters in a game: Roger Clemens (twice), Kerry Wood, and Max Scherzer. There have been 23 perfect games. If we use measures like Bill James’ Game Score, there are plenty of examples in which a pitcher who didn’t record a no-hitter performed “better” than a pitcher who did. Curt Schilling’s one-hit, two-walk, 17-strikeout performance earns a better Game Score than Felix Hernandez’s perfect game.

This is where a human’s interpretation of impressiveness enters the equation. To pitch a complete game without allowing a single baserunner means more than simply striking out a lot of hitters. This is somewhat arbitrary, sure. That a defensive error can take away from a pitcher’s perfect game doesn’t seem right. And if, back in the day, we decided that striking out at least 17 batters and allowing fewer than three combined hits and walks was called a “dominator” or something, it could be considered among the top achievements. But such a thing doesn’t exist, “perfect game” does, and so even the most analytical among us must accept that.

The best of the best

So which is better, a perfecto or a four-homer game? To repeat the notion that comparing hitters and pitchers is apples and oranges, as I’ve just done, is a cop-out. So I’ll say this: When a player reaches three home runs early enough in a game to get another at-bat or two, the excitement builds, but it’s nothing like the momentum of a potential perfect game. The deflating feeling when a pitcher loses a perfect game bid in the late innings is unmatched and proves what it means to achieve this feat. It seems the answer to the question was in the name all along. You can’t beat perfect.

Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about baseball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at andrewjkahn@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn

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