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Top 10 starts in Oakland A’s history

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Oakland’s best starting pitching performances since 1968

Oakland Athletics
Bobby Witt’s near-perfecto is No. 2 on the list
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The month of May has been a fun time to celebrate the Oakland A’s franchise history of starting pitching. We’ve already looked back at the anniversaries of four no-hitters this month, including two perfect games, going back as far as Chief Bender in 1910.

Not every great performance by a starting pitcher results in zero hits, though. They can also set themselves apart by piling up strikeouts, or working deep into extra innings, or even just avoiding walks such that they allow fewer total baserunners than a no-hitter.

One way to measure starts against each other is Game Score, first created by Bill James. This straightforward formula takes into account innings, runs, strikeouts, hits, and walks, combining them all together into one number — click here to learn more. The highest possible score for a nine-inning game is 114, and in practice the highest mark we’ve seen in this century is a 104 (Max Scherzer’s 17-strikeout, 0-walk no-hitter).

Here’s a list of the 10 best starts in Oakland history (since 1968), as measured by James’ version of Game Score. Five of them are no-hitters, which means three more no-nos were left out: Mike Fiers in 2019 (tied for 14th), Mike Warren in 1983 (tied for 27th), and the 1975 combined effort. (To see more of the list beyond the Top 10, check out Baseball-Reference’s Play Index.)

10. Dallas Braden perfect game

Date: May 9, 2010 (vs. Rays) (box)
Stats: 9 ip, 0 runs, 0 hits, 6 Ks, 0 BB
Game Score: 93

This is one of the most famous games on the list, and the only surprising thing is that it didn’t rank higher. Avoiding not only runs, but any baserunners at all, is a great path toward a high Game Score by completely skipping the parts where points are subtracted. However, Braden’s modest total of only six strikeouts limits the ceiling of his score, as does his total of “only” nine innings.

We just celebrated the 10-year anniversary of this Mother’s Day perfect game a couple weeks ago, so click here to check out our full coverage.

9. Mark Mulder one-hitter

Date: July 6, 2001 (at D’Backs) (box)
Stats: 9 ip, 0 runs, 1 hit, 9 Ks, 0 BB
Game Score: 94

This was one of the games that cemented the legacy of the Big Three in Oakland.

The 2001 A’s got off to a terrible start. Looking to defend their upstart division title from the previous year, they went 2-10 in their first dozen games, and a couple weeks later they were still stuck at 8-18. By the end of May they had climbed out of the hole and were hovering around .500, but by the beginning of July they still hadn’t made any progress beyond that point.

Oakland had one more series remaining before the All-Star break, and it was a tough one. They had to go on the road to visit the Diamondbacks, who sported the best record in the NL at the time and ultimately went on to win the World Series. The A’s were 41-43 at the time, and it was nearly impossible to think of them coming out of this daunting three-game set with a winning record — even though they mercifully didn’t have to face eventual Cy Young winner Randy Johnson.

But the A’s had a serious weapon on their side, as their scheduled starters were Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito. In the first game, Mulder needed just 100 pitches and 2:08 to breeze through a one-hit shutout. He was perfect through seven innings, until Danny Bautista led off the 8th by lining a single. It wasn’t the pristine box score of a true no-hitter, but functionally it was every bit as dominant.

Hudson followed the next day with another complete game victory, allowing one run on eight hits. Zito then wrapped things up by outdueling Curt Schilling, racking up 10 strikeouts in six innings. Oakland swept the series, and the Big Three had made their mark. The team carried that momentum into the second half, going 58-17 the rest of the way en route to a 102-win season.

Tie-7. Sean Manaea no-hitter

Date: April 21, 2018 (vs. Red Sox) (box)
Stats: 9 ip, 0 runs, 0 hits, 10 Ks, 2 BB
Game Score: 95

The lefty was two walks (and an error) away from being perfect. He did get a couple favorable calls, though, and while both were completely justifiable they still leave the door open for debate.

First there was a missed popup by the shortstop that was ruled an error instead of a hit. That’s always a subjective decision, partly because the error is such a poorly designed stat, but in this case it was applied accurately and consistently. The more controversial moment came later, when a Red Sox runner was called out for leaving the basepath to avoid a tag near first base on a potential infield single. The letter of the law fully supports this call in the rulebook, but it’s not a ruling you see often and Boston fans were understandably unhappy about it.

Those are just details now, though. The bottom line is that Manaea completed a no-hitter, and he did so despite walking the first batter of the game. Perhaps the best part is that it snapped the Red Sox’ streak of not being no-hit since 1993, which was the second-longest active streak in the majors after only Oakland themselves (since 1991, and still active). Now the runner-up is Washington, as it hasn’t happened to the Expos/Nationals since 1999. Click here for more on Manaea’s no-hitter.

Tie-7. Vida Blue no-hitter

Date: Sept 21, 1970 (vs. Twins) (box)
Stats: 9 ip, 0 runs, 0 hits, 9 Ks, 1 BB
Game Score: 95

This was the first of two times that Vida Blue participated in a no-hitter while wearing green and gold. Later, in 1975, he tossed the first five innings against the Angels, and then his bullpen matched the hitless effort the rest of the way — Glenn Abbott and Paul Lindblad for one frame each, and then Rollie Fingers for the final two. Altogether, if you combined the whole thing into one performance it would have scored a 90, one point below Fiers’ no-hitter and tied for 22nd in Oakland history.

But this time, in 1970, Vida finished off the whole thing by himself. Even more impressive, this was only his eighth career start in the majors, coming just a couple months after his 20th birthday. What’s more, his opponent that day was Twins starter Jim Perry, who went on to win the Cy Young that year. If not for a 4th-inning walk to future Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew, Vida would have been perfect. It proved to be a sign of great things to come, as his next four seasons brought him a Cy Young of his own and three rings.

Tie-5. Dave Stewart no-hitter

Date: June 29, 1990 (at Blue Jays) (box)
Stats: 9 ip, 0 runs, 0 hits, 12 Ks, 3 BB
Game Score: 96

Like Manaea, Stewart ran into some trouble out the gate by walking the very first batter of the game. Fortunately he was caught stealing, but then Stewart walked the second batter of the game too, before finally escaping the 1st inning.

From there, though, Stew cruised. He needed 115 pitches to finish the gem, which was quite a bit fewer than the 143 and 134 he’d thrown in his previous two starts. It was a signature performance for the A’s long-time ace, and he cited it as “by far” the top highlight of his career, even above his World Series MVP award. Click here for more details on the game from SABR, or watch some clips analyzed by Stew himself (Part 1, Part 2).

Tie-5. Steve McCatty goes 14 innings

Date: Aug 10, 1980 (vs. Mariners) (box)
Stats: 14 ip, 2 runs, 6 hits, 8 Ks, 4 BB
Game Score: 96

And now for something completely different. This one isn’t a no-hitter. It’s not even a shutout. In fact, the A’s didn’t even win this game, making it the only loss on this list. Instead, it gets its value from the sheer quantity of work that McCatty put in.

The 1980 A’s were famous for the workload of their starting rotation. They threw 94 complete games that year, as new manager Billy Martin was reluctant toward the idea of pulling his starter and turning the ball to the bullpen.

That principle was taken to a particular extreme on this day. McCatty allowed a run in the 1st inning, which the A’s eventually matched in the 6th. That 1-1 tie held until the top of the 14th, when Seattle’s Dan Meyer homered to break the deadlock. In between, McCatty had held the Mariners scoreless for a dozen innings straight.

It’s hard to imagine a pitcher throwing 14 frames in a game these days, but even more amazing was the right-hander’s pitch count. McCatty threw 207 pitches in this game, according to the LA Times. That’s twice what you would expect in a normal start today. The LA Times story also mentions that McCatty had every intention of finishing the game himself, telling Martin during an 11th-inning mound visit: “I said, ‘I’m staying out here one way or another. I’m getting a win or a loss.’”

And the kicker? This was the first game of a doubleheader.

Tie-3. Matt Keough goes 14 innings

Date: May 17, 1980 (at Blue Jays) (box)
Stats: 14 ip, 2 runs (1 earned), 5 hits, 8 Ks, 6 BB
Game Score: 98

It’s deja vu all over again. McCatty wasn’t the only A’s pitcher to throw 14 innings in a single start in 1980. In fact, nearly the whole rotation did it — Mike Norris matched the feat in June, and Rick Langford in July, with only Brian Kingman failing to join the group. Billy Martin really didn’t want to use his bullpen, though the starters certainly weren’t complaining at the time.

In Keough’s case, his effort at least led to a win. He allowed a run in the 2nd, the A’s answered back with two in the 3rd, and then Toronto scored in the 9th to tie it. Oakland finally found the plate again (twice) in the top of the 14th, and in the meantime Keough held on for five extra innings, facing just one batter over the minimum during that time.

The box score wasn’t full of zeroes like it was for most of the other, more dominant games on this list, but going 14 frames to lead your team to victory is undoubtedly impressive in its own way. The right-hander, who had been an All-Star in 1978 but then struggled in ‘79, was named AL Comeback Player of the Year at the end of this season.

Sadly, Keough was in the news again this month, as he passed away at age 64.

Tie-3. Catfish Hunter perfect game

Date: May 8, 1968 (vs. Twins) (box)
Stats: 9 ip, 0 runs, 0 hits, 11 Ks, 0 BB
Game Score: 98

This one needs no introduction, as it’s one of the most famous games in franchise history. The A’s had just moved to Oakland that season, and had only been playing in the Coliseum for a few weeks. Hunter retired all 27 batters he faced to give their new home ballpark an iconic highlight, and we’re still celebrating his perfect game a half-century later.

The anniversary of this historic game was just a couple weeks ago, so click here to check out our full coverage. As an extra bonus, this was before the introduction of the designated hitter, and Hunter also had a big day at the plate. He went 3-for-4 and drove in three of the A’s four runs, leading us to wonder if he had the most perfect all-around game in MLB history.

2. Bobby Witt is almost perfect

Date: June 23, 1994 (vs. Royals) (box)
Stats: 9 ip, 0 runs, 1 hit, 14 Ks, 0 BB
Game Score: 99

Before there was Armando Galarraga, there was Bobby Witt, and his own almost-perfect game robbed by a bad call. Witt had come to Oakland in ‘92 as part of the Jose Canseco trade, and he’d been the de facto ace of a bad rotation in ‘93. On this day in ‘94, he nearly made history.

The right-hander retired the first 16 batters he faced, but with one out in the 6th inning, Greg Gagne laid down a bunt and beat it out for a single. Replays showed that Gagne was actually out, but back then there was no chance to review the tape. Gary Cederstrom’s call stood, however incorrect, and the perfecto was busted. Witt did at least go on to get the final 11 outs in order, but in the box score he settled for a one-hitter.

Had he earned the perfect game, he would have been the second pitcher named Witt to do so, after the unrelated Mike in 1984. Just over a month later, future A’s ace Kenny Rogers would throw one for the Rangers, the very team from which Witt had been dealt to Oakland. This near-miss isn’t quite as excruciating as Galarraga’s, which came on what should have been the final out of the game, and you never know how the butterfly effect might have changed things if Gagne had been properly ruled out. But it’s still an all-time what-if.

On the bright side, even with the hit included, this is still the best nine-inning start in Oakland history thanks to 14 strikeouts against just one baserunner. Click here for more on Witt’s game against the Royals, via John Hickey of Sports Illustrated. And in an extra coincidence, Witt’s son, Bobby Jr., was drafted by Kansas City last year and is now their top prospect.

1. Vida Blue goes 11 innings (out of 20)

Date: July 9, 1971 (vs. Angels) (box)
Stats: 11 ip, 0 runs, 7 hits, 17 Ks, 0 BB
Game Score: 100

Ironically, the top spot on this list is also the only start that wasn’t a complete game. But that’s fair enough, considering this one went 20 innings.

Vida made the start and threw 11 scoreless frames. He did allow seven hits along the way, but he also struck out 17 of the 40 batters he faced. That’s an amazing combo of quantity and quality, maintaining sheer domination for more than a full regulation game. Rollie Fingers relieved him and worked another seven innings, followed by Bob Locker and Darold Knowles taking care of the next two, before Angel Mangual finally drove in a run in the bottom of the 20th to end the marathon.

While Vida didn’t get to complete his own shutout, another A’s pitcher got a similar opportunity two decades later. Stewart, just over a month after his no-hitter in 1990, tossed an 11-inning shutout against the Mariners; his teammates were kind enough to score the walk-off run while he was still in the game. However, with just five strikeouts to go with his five hits and three walks, Stew’s 89 Game Score fell short of this list, tying for 27th.

***

Honorable mention for a few games that just missed the cut by one point (92 Game Score):

  • 6/16/1995: Todd Stottlemyre goes 10 innings, but the A’s eventually lose in extras (10 ip, 1 run, 5 hits, 15 Ks, 1 BB)
  • 8/28/2000: Tim Hudson one-hits White Sox (9 ip, 0 runs, 1 hit, 8 Ks, 1 BB)
  • 8/21/2002: Corey Lidle one-hits Indians (9 ip, 0 runs, 1 hit, 8 Ks, 1 BB)