With the conclusion of my Greatest Home Runs in Cubs History series Sunday and Major League Baseball no closer to beginning a 2020 season, I figured it was time to begin another one.
This time, there’s no subjective judgment involved. I looked up the top games by a starting pitcher in Cubs history by Game Score. Here is how Game Score is calculated by baseball-reference.com, my source for this list:
Start with 50 points. Add 1 point for each out recorded, (or 3 points per inning). Add 2 points for each inning completed after the 4th. Add 1 point for each strikeout. Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed. Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed. Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed. Subtract 1 point for each walk.
There is one limitation I put on this list: The starts must be in games of nine innings. If I were to allow extra-inning games, the list would be dominated by extra-inning games thrown by pitchers from the Deadball Era, since starters often went well into extras back then. Searching baseball-reference without the inning limitation, six of the top seven Game Scores were from extra-inning affairs.
Thus this is officially “The Greatest Starts In Cubs History of Nine Innings,” which I think is a reasonable distinction. There are 19 such starts with a Game Score of 92 or higher. I could have extended the Game Score qualification to 91, which would have made a 25-start list, but ... well, I have to be honest. I didn’t want to write 25 articles. 19 seemed more do-able, so this is a “Top 19” list. Plus, 19 of these brings us to July 3... perhaps by then we’ll have some clarity on the 2020 real baseball season.
When more than one pitcher in this list had the same game score, I will post them in chronological order, earliest first. Lastly, this list is limited to games I could look up on baseball-reference, so it’s games from 1904-2019.
And thus we begin with Bob Wicker. And to be frank, this is a Cubs pitcher I had not heard of previously, and he made just 84 Cub starts in parts of four seasons (1903-06) with the ballclub.
The Cubs acquired Wicker from the Cardinals in April 1903. He had a very good year for the Cubs that year, going 20-9 with a 2.96 ERA and 1.255 WHIP. It would be more than a century before bWAR would even be created, but retroactively Wicker had a 2.9 bWAR season.
He was just about as good in 1904: 17-9, 2.67 ERA, 1.131 WHIP, 2.0 bWAR. And on September 24, 1904, in the first game of a doubleheader at Brooklyn, he threw a one-hit shutout with seven strikeouts.
In fact, per the un-bylined Tribune recap of the game, it probably should have been a no-hitter:
Wicker was the whole show in the first game, and the Brooklyn batters could not touch him. That one hit the locals got could easily have been called an error, as it was a grounder by Lumley that rolled past first base and was thrown a little high by Chance to Wicker, and Lumley was called safe. But he did not live to reach second, as Kling’s wing was in good condition.
About that description: First, it’s not clear from the description above exactly when Brooklyn right fielder Harry Lumley reached base on that play. He was the third batter in their lineup. Based on the boxscore, it is definitely clear that Lumley was thrown out trying to stretch that “hit,” because Wicker allowed no walks, didn’t hit a batter, and each of the batting-order positions had exactly three plate appearances. By definition, then, it must have been in either the first, fourth or seventh inning. I checked the New York Times archive for a report about this game and nothing was said about the inning Lumley reached there, either, so this will likely forever remain a mystery.
And thus Wicker faced the minimum 27 batters in his 92 Game Score game in 1904. It is one of just eight games in Cubs history in which a starter threw nine innings and faced the minimum. That would make this in some ways “greater” than 19th on a list of “great starts by Cubs pitchers,” but I’m doing this list strictly by Game Score.
In June 1906, Wicker was traded to the Reds for Orval Overall. That deal wound up well in the Cubs’ favor, as Overall posted outstanding years for the Cubs in their 1907 and 1908 World Series championship seasons, while Wicker never pitched in the big leagues after 1906. His SABR bio says he was “the fattest and least conditioned man on the team.” He did pitch in the minor leagues from 1907-09 and 1915, after which he settled in the Chicago area, living there until his death in 1955 at age 77.
I learned a few things while researching this article and hope you did as well. We’ll never know, but this game probably should have been a no-hitter for Bob Wicker.