The best days of pitching in history

A week ago, Matt Cain threw his perfect game. R.A. Dickey tossed the first of his back-to-back one-hitters. And Lance Lynn struck out nearly half of the 26 batters he faced. It might have been the best day of pitching in baseball history.

That all depends, of course, on how one defines it. First, let’s review how it all happened.

Dickey began by baffling the Rays at Tropicana Field with his signature knuckleball. Only a handful of misplays on defense -- David Wright’s throwing error and Mike Nickeas' two (understandable) passed balls -- marred the line score. If not for an infield hit that hopped to Wright slower than a Dickey knuckler, the Mets hurler would have had a no-hitter.

Meanwhile, back in St. Louis, the Cardinals’ Lynn was busy striking out 12 of the 26 batters he faced. That’s not bad for a pitcher about whose stuff general manager John Mozeliak once said "doesn’t necessarily overwhelm you" and who was summoned to join the team’s rotation this year only because of Chris Carpenter’s injury. But like Dickey, the right-hander’s outing wasn’t a fluke: Lynn has been among the league’s best pitchers as Dickey, Cain and Lynn rank seventh, eighth and 10th, respectively, in the majors in Fielding-Independent Pitching.

But Cain saved the best for last. Just about the time that Lynn departed the Cardinals-White Sox game, Cain was warming up to take the hill at AT&T Park for the Giants’ game against the Astros. When he had finished dispatching his 27th batter, Houston’s Jason Castro, for the final out, he had thrown the season’s second perfect game.

As an aside, although some observers have remarked on the fate of pitchers in their outings following their perfect games, what’s interesting about both Lynn and Cain is how they performed immediately prior to their outstanding games. Dickey spun -- perhaps that’s not the right word, given his repertoire -- a four-hit shutout over seven-plus innings, striking out eight. In his previous start, Lynn established a career high in strikeouts with 11. Six days later, he broke it with his 12-K night. Similarly, Cain was ramping up for his perfecto with nine strikeouts and only one walk over seven shutout innings.

So back to the claim: Was this triumvirate of pitched games the best ever?

In terms of stinginess, Cain and Dickey’s one hit allowed between them was not unique. Baseball has had pitchers toss a no-no and a complete-game one-hitter in the same day before:

In probably the most brilliantly pitched single game (in 1995, members of the Society for American Baseball Research voted it as the greatest game ever pitched) the Cubs’ Bob Hendley would’ve made headlines on Sept. 9, 1965 for his one-hitter had it not been for the fact that his opposite number, Sandy Koufax, was perfect. Although Pascual Perez’s no-hitter was a rain-shortened five-inning affair, not one but two pitchers -- Mark Langston and Dave Stieb -- joined him on Sept. 24, 1988 with one-hitters.

And of course baseball has actually had two no-hitters in the same day. So for a two-pitcher performance in a single day, it’s hard to beat Fernando Valenzuela and Dave Stewart back on June 29, 1990.

If it’s strikeouts you like, three pitchers with at least 12 strikeouts each, while impressive, isn’t a first, either. Dennys Reyes (yes, that Dennys Reyes), Darryl Kile and Curt Schilling were the last ones to do it, on Aug. 20, 1998.

The estimable Dave Cameron at FanGraphs.com used Game Score, a Bill James invention, to find some of the best recent pitching combinations on a single night and found that the dual performances of Cain and Dickey ranked among the best since 1992.

Another way to assess pitching performances is through fielding-independent pitching statistics, such as Defense-Independent Pitching (DIPS) and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). Fielding-Independent Game Score (FIGS), like Game Score, attempts to quantify the success of a pitcher’s start. It differs from Game Score in that its formula is comprised mainly of fielding-independent statistics, like strikeouts, walks and home runs.

The game has changed over the years, and with it pitching (and hitting) styles, so that fielding-independent approaches might not be as valid historically. But going back to 1973 -- the year in which the designated hitter came into being -- the Cain-Dickey games rank as the top. My method for determining best pairs is to take the highest minimum of the two scores in the pair. So for example, when Cain and Dickey had scores of 88 and 82, respectively, their pair score is 82.

The thing about the June 13 games was that adding Lynn’s as the third game makes the combined low score for the three pitchers a still-amazing 77. Since 1973, the closest trio in terms of FIGS was Rich Harden (78), A.J. Burnett (77) and Ricky Nolasco (76) on Aug. 19, 2008.

Was June 13, 2012 the best day of pitching in major-league history? As with any legendary baseball argument, it comes down to the stats to which you give the most credence. For those who prefer fielding-independent pitching stats, like me, who claim June 13, 2012 as best, you’ve got a pretty strong case.

Matt Philip writes for Fungoes, a blog about the Cardinals.