A True Win requires two things: The pitcher must complete the game, i.e. he doesn’t require any other member of the pitching staff to get outs. And he must have more home runs than runs allowed, i.e. he didn’t require any other member of the lineup to contribute. Note that this is very demanding: It’s not enough to drive in more runs than he allows (because the other batters were partly responsible for those runs), or to score more runs than he allows, but to drive himself in more times than the other team scores. He can win 10-0 and homer, or 1-0 and homer, or 2-1 and homer twice. All of those are True Wins.
The world is drowning in fun facts that are more complicated than fun, but I am going to try to sell you on adopting this new thing. It’s a cool concept, but it’s getting cooler every year; it made Syndergaard’s start extremely fun, from the third inning on.
The first thing to know is these have always been rare. I count 208 of them since 1908, which makes them rarer than no-hitters. (In fairness, a True Win is essentially impossible in the post-DH American League. But, still, they’re incredibly rare.) The great thing about a no-hitter is how interesting it can make a start. You stop what you’re doing and flip over to watch a guy chasing a no-hitter. You get alerts on your phone. On balance, no-hitters (and deep no-hit bids) make your life less boring. Here we’ve got something that is roughly as rare, arguably as impressive (we’ll get to that in a bit), and can also make your life less boring.
The second thing to know is these have become even more rare. Before Syndergaard, it had been almost two years since the last one (by Stephen Strasburg, in 2017), and before that it had been two years since Madison Bumgarner‘s, and before that it had been two years since Clayton Kershaw‘s. There have now been six this decade — Johan Santana and Jordan Lyles threw the others, before Kershaw — compared to a whopping 32 complete-game no-hitters. Before Syndergaard on Thursday, there had been as many perfect games as True Wins in the 2010s. And add this to the mix: True Wins have been thrown by a higher class of pitcher than no-hitters, and even perfect games, this decade.
It’s obvious why these are so rare, as rare perhaps as a perfect game: It has become extremely difficult to throw a complete game. Syndergaard was able to do it because he was dominant — only five baserunners allowed — and pitch efficient (71 percent strikes) and because he got two double plays to save him further labor. He threw 104 pitches — a season high, if you can believe it — and was allowed to bat for himself in the bottom of the eighth, with just that one-run lead, thanks in part to the situation he was hitting in (nobody on, one out) and perhaps in part to the fact that he is a good hitter.
What makes watching a no-hit bid fun is the pitcher has so little margin for error: A single bloop ends it. You hold your breath on every swing. But in the modern era, rooting for a complete game can be just as nail-biting if you really care about it, since a long at-bat, a 3-2 pitch called a ball instead of a strike or a double-play ball booted by the shortstop, can all force a pitcher’s pitch count too high. A no-hitter is lost when a ball lands; a complete game is lost gradually, dread-inducingly, across many innings.
There were only 19 complete-game shutouts last year, a number that figures to keep going down. (Syndergaard threw the third across the majors so far this year.) The starting pitcher, meanwhile, hit a home run in only 19 games last year. A starting pitcher would be more likely to hit one in a complete game (since he would bat three or four times), but even if we double the starting pitcher’s home run odds, the chance of seeing an NL team’s pitcher throw a True Win on any given day would be something like 1 in 15,000. We should expect a couple, maybe a few, each decade — for now. But the game keeps changing. The next True Win you see could plausibly be the last.
I just watched Syndergaard’s start with extreme interest, as soon as he homered. I was counting pitches, rooting for double plays, telling people I knew that this was happening. It made my day a great day. The great gift baseball offers is something on a Thursday afternoon for you to care about. The best thing we can do to help is be open to caring as much as possible about as much as possible. A lot of times, that means naming what we see, documenting it and celebrating it.
What’s a good argument against using this thing? Well, there’s a small flaw in the premise. The premise is that the pitcher did it all, didn’t need his teammates at all, not for a single run or a single out. But, of course, Syndergaard didn’t strike out 27 batters. He needed his defense. It wasn’t True if “True” means he could have pulled it off with you and me and five of our unathletic friends playing behind him.
So I propose not renaming it, but co-naming it: Syndergaard threw a Bob Gibson.
Nobody in history threw more Bob Gibsons than Bob Gibson. He threw six, four of them against the Chicago Cubs alone. A few other pitchers came close — Don Drysdale threw five, including a two-homer/one-run-allowed start — but nobody threw more. And unless they dramatically change the rules, or unless the Angels let Shohei Ohtani bat when he pitches (and maybe not even then), nobody is ever going to.
You can call it a True Win, or you can call it a Bob Gibson. Noah Syndergaard threw a Bob Gibson. Say it aloud to commemorate what Syndergaard did. Tell your friends about it to commemorate what Gibson did.
Thanks to Russ and his friends — the East Meadow Crew — for inventing this.