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June 25, 2014

Overthinking It

Does Bill James' Game Score Still Work?

by Ben Lindbergh


In the wake of 26-year-old Clayton Kershaw’s dazzling no-hitter last Wednesday, a 26-year-old statistic got its own moment in the sun. When Bill James introduced Game Score in the 1988 Baseball Abstract, he called it “a kind of garbage stat that I present not because it helps us understand anything in particular but because it is fun to play around with.” Unlike Micro Machines and Dolly Surprise, Game Score remains one of our favorite toys in 2014, so it’s safe to say that James undersold it. Despite (or maybe because of) its lack of sophistication, it’s still one of the most intuitive methods we have to convey how effective a given outing is. Thus, it wasn’t long after Kershaw sealed the deal with his 15th strikeout that the internet noticed that his Game Score of 102 was the second-highest ever for an outing of no more than nine innings, behind only Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout start in 1998, which got a Game Score of 105. (Remove the innings restriction, and Vern Law’s 18-inning effort in 1955 takes the cake.)

That almost-unprecedented “102” lent some statistical support to what we all thought while watching Kershaw: that his outing was one of the most dominant ever. However, it made me wonder: Is it fair to use Game Score to compare starts across eras?

As a reminder, here’s how Game Score works:

1. Start with 50 points.
2. Add one point for each out recorded, so three points for every complete inning pitched.
3. Add two points for each inning completed after the fourth.
4. Add one point for each strikeout.
5. Subtract two points for each hit allowed.
6. Subtract four points for each earned run allowed.
7. Subtract two points for each unearned run allowed.
8. Subtract one point for each walk.

Game Score doesn’t attempt to account for everything—hit by pitches, batted-ball distribution, ballpark effects—and nitpicking about methodological flaws goes against the stat’s simplistic spirit. Still, the difficulty of accumulating each of those point-conferring components has fluctuated over time. Kershaw racked up 15 strikeouts, but we know that K’s are easier to come by than they were when Wood got to 20, let alone when Roger Clemens did. Nolan Ryan posted a 101 Game Score in a 16-strikeout start in 1991; doesn’t the Express deserve a boost for topping Kershaw’s total in a season when strikeouts were 26 percent scarcer? And mightn’t that boost be enough to push him past 102?

Let’s find out. Here’s a graph of the average game score in starts of nine innings or fewer from 1950–2014. (Click to expand.)

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Related Content:  Bill James,  Clayton Kershaw,  Game Score

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