The art of being perfect

Today, makes the five-year anniversary of Philip Humber’s remarkable and thoroughly unexpected perfect game. I wrote a little something about it here and to celebrate — and to arm you with some fun trivia to use on your friends this weekend (no, really, they’ll love it) — I’m giving you a fun fact or two on all 23 perfect games so far.

№1: Lee Richmond, Worcester Worcesters at Cleveland, June 12, 1880

The rules were entirely different (the mound was not yet 60 feet, 6 inches away from the plate; pitchers had to pitch the ball underhand, etc.) but Richmond still gets credit for the first perfect game. It was against a Cleveland team without a settled name (sometimes called the Blues, sometimes the Forest Citys) and, absurdly, it was the second game Richmond pitched that day.

№2: John Montgomery Ward, Providence Grays vs. Buffalo, June 17, 1880

The second perfect game came just five days after the first, and there has long been a debate whether Ward — the premier pitcher of of his day — knew about Richmond’s perfect game and wanted to match it. Of course, defense was the biggest part of perfect games in those days, and (you’ll like this) one defensive star of that game was a third baseman named George Bradley, who had four assists. Why does that matter? That’s the same George Bradley who, four years earlier, became the first man in baseball history to throw a no-hitter.

№3: Cy Young, Boston Americans vs. Philadelphia, May 5, 1904

Young would call it his biggest thrill — the first perfect game with pitchers throwing overhand. In his next start, he threw 15 scoreless innings against Detroit. In all, this perfect game was part of Cy Young’s 45-inning scoreless streak, and in there he actually had 24 consecutive hitless innings. It really is amazing that Cy Young never won a Cy Young.

№4: Addie Joss, Cleveland Naps vs. Chicago, October 2, 1908

Joss actually came close to throwing a perfect game in his first outing; he allowed just one hit and his team’s right fielder Erwin Harvey forever insisted that he caught the ball. Joss was crazy good in 1908. That year, he pitched 325 innings with a 1.16 ERA, and he allowed just 6.4 hist per nine inning.

№5: Charlie Robertson, Chicago White Sox at Detroit, April 30, 1922

Robertson was a rookie from Texas, it was just his fourth big-league start, and the best part of it all was that he had to retire Ty Cobb three times to get the perfecto. In that way, he got a bit lucky — Cobb started off the year ice cold and perhaps a bit injured. He managed just one hit in 12 at-bats in April, none obviously against Robertson. He hit .409 for the rest of the year and tied a major league record getting five hits in five different games. This is obviously the only perfect game against a team with a player who hit .400 that very season.

№6. Don Larsen, New York Yankees vs. Brooklyn, October 8, 1956

The most famous perfect game in baseball history came more than 34 years after the previous one. Larsen, as you probably know, was a journeyman pitcher who two years earlier had gone 3–21 for Baltimore. He pitched better than a 3–21 record but, really, how could he not? Many people have written that Larsen partied pretty much the entire night before the game, which does make it an even better story, though Larsen insisted that he was in his hotel room before midnight.

№7: Jim Bunning, Philadelphia Phillies at New York, June 21, 1964

The first perfect game thrown in the National League either (1) ever or (2) since the Richmond-Ward duo back when the mound was 45 feet away from home plate. The big play came when the Mets Jesse Gonder cracked a hard ground ball in the hole between first ands second. Philadelphia’s Tony Taylor dived for it, knocked it down, chased it down, threw with a spinning motion and got the slow-moving Gonder by a millisecond. As Bunning would tell James Buckley Jr., author of Perfect, an excellent recap of perfect games, just about anyone else would have beaten that hit out.

№8: Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Chicago, September 9, 1965.

“Two and two to Harvey Kuenn. One strike away. Sandy into his wind-up, here’s the pitch, SWUNG ON AND MISSED A PERFECT GAME … (38 seconds of crowd noise) … On the scoreboard in right field, it is 9:46 p.m. in the City of the Angels, Los Angeles, California. And a crowd of 29,139 just sitting in to see the only pitcher in baseball history to hurl four no-hit, no run games. He has done it four straight years, and now he capped it: On his fourth no-hitter he made it a perfect game.”

— Vin Scully

№9: Catfish Hunter, Oakland A’s vs. Minnesota, May 8, 1968.

By advanced measures, Catfish Hunter does not fit in at the Hall of Fame. His 104 ERA+, his 36.6 WAR, these are not only below typical Hall of Fame standards, they are well below. But Catfish did things that made himself stand out. He won 20 games five years in a row. He won a Cy Young Award. He started games in five different World Series. And he threw a perfect game in the Year of the Pitcher, in the process retiring Rod Carew and Tony Oliva three times each and striking out Harmon Killebrew three times.

№10: Len Barker, Cleveland vs. Toronto, May 15, 1981

This is one of the cherished moments of my Cleveland childhood. Only 7,290 people were there, making it the lowest attended perfect game, not counting the 19th century ones. The most remarkable part about it was that Barker didn’t walk anybody. Everyone knew that Barker could be pretty unhittable — he led the American League in strikeouts in 1980. But he was wild. Up to that game, he had only once in his entire career thrown a complete game without walking anybody.

In fact, in his entire career, even including his years after the perfecto, Barker only had three complete games where he didn’t walk anybody. One of those just happened to be the perfect game.

№11: Mike Witt: California Angels at Texas, September 30, 1984

Witt was a guy with dazzling stuff — when he was on, he was on. The key play was probably a slicing flying ball to right field by Larry Parrish. When it came off the bat, Witt thought it was gone. Right fielder Mike Brown made a good catch at the wall. “I remember it being much more difficult than it looks like on the video that I saw on ESPN Classic,” Brown told Buckley Jr.

№12: Tom Browning, Cincinnati Reds vs. Los Angeles, September 16, 1988

Browning probably came the closest of anyone to throwing TWO perfect games. On Independence Day, 1989, Browning went into the ninth inning with another perfect game intact. He then gave up a double to Dickie Thon. To make it worse, two batters later he gave up a single to Steve Jeltz to score Thon and manager Pete Rose — just six weeks away from his lifetime suspension — pulled Browning.

№13: Dennis Martinez, Montreal Expos at Los Angeles, July 28, 1991.

Martinez became the first pitcher born outside of the United States to throw a perfect game. And, more history, catcher Ron Hassey became the first and so far only player to catch multiple perfect games. Hassey was also behind the plate when Len Barker threw his perfecto a decade earlier.

№14: Kenny Rogers, Texas Rangers vs. California, July 28, 1994

That’s a lucky day, July 28, two perfect games thrown on the day, three years apart. The key play in the game was Rusty Greer’s spectacular catch on a line-drive by current Kansas City Royals announcer Rex Hudler.

№15: David Wells, New York Yankees vs. Minnesota, May 17, 1998

I sometimes think about how similar David Wells and Kenny Rogers are. They were left-handed pitchers, roughly the same size, they both pitched for about 20 years, they won a similar number of games (Rogers 219, Wells 239), they lost almost exactly the same number of games (Rogers 157, Wells 156), they had more or less the same career value (Rogers 51.1 career WAR, Wells 53.5).

And they both threw perfect games.

№16: David Cone, New York Yankee vs. Montreal, July 18, 1999

Cone famously threw his perfect game on Yogi Berra Day — Don Larsen was at the game to throw out the first pitch. This was as breezy as a perfect game gets; Cone never had a three-ball count and threw just 88 pitches (68 for strikes).

№17: Randy Johnson, Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Atlanta, May 18, 2004

Big Unit threw 12 complete games where he gave up two hits or fewer. This includes a no-hitter he threw against Detroit in 1990. But he walked six in that game. This was the only one of the 12 low-hit games Johnson threw where he didn’t walk anybody. Johnson is one of six Hall of Famers to throw a perfect game; Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez certainly both have a chance for induction.

№18: Mark Buerhle, Chicago White Sox vs. Tampa Bay, July 23, 2009

This:

№19: Dallas Braden, Oakland Athletics vs. Tampa Bay, May 9, 2010

To me the fun fact is that this happened on Mother’s Day — and barely two weeks after Braden had told Alex Rodriguez, in no uncertain terms, to stay off his mound.

Well, and this hug:

№20: Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies at Florida, May 29, 2010

Halladay, like Browning, came within an eyelash of a second perfect game; Halladay’s near-perfecto against Cincinnati in Game 1 off the National League Division Series that same year. He walked Jay Bruce in the fifth inning on a 3–2 count — tried his signature cut fastball and Bruce wouldn’t bite. He retired everyone else for a no-hitter.

№21: Philip Humber, Chicago White Sox at Seattle, April 21, 2012

Lots on this perfect game here.

№22: Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants vs. Houston, June 13, 2012

There were a couple of nice plays in this once — a diving catch by Gregor Blanco stands out:

But all in all this was about as dominant a performance as a perfect game can be. Cain struck out 14, tying him with Koufax for most among perfectionists, but what I recall was how stress free the last inning seemed for Cain. He got a foul pop-out, a lazy fly ball and and a chopped grounder to third. Total command.

№23: Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners vs. Tampa Bay, August 15, 2012.

Tampa Bay has been the perfect game patsy three times in their relatively short history, which is impressive. Hernandez said after the game that he started thinking about a perfecto in the second inning, which is absolutely fantastic. That’s why he’s the king.

— —

Twitter Poll of the Day


The Pitcher Win Scoreboard

Thursday night, Chris Sale got absolutely jobbed out of a win. He pitched 8 innings of brilliant baseball — 4 hits, 0 runs, 13 strikeouts, 1 walk — and left the game with a 1–0 lead. Craig Kimbrel came in to pitch the ninth because, as mentioned often here on the JPT, this is just how managers do it now. They almost never let starters complete their own shutouts. Sale threw only 102 pitches.

Anyway …

Kimbrel gave up a bomb to Toronto’s Kendrys Morales on the first pitch he threw. That tied the game and made Chris Sale irrelevant in the pitcher win and loss department. As it was Kimbrel got the next six outs, five on strikeout, the Red Sox scored three in the 10th, and Craig Kimbrel took away the victory.

Point: I said before the season began that I expected Sale to have a ridiculous won-loss record this year because, for the first time in his career, he has a great defense behind him and a great offense to score runs. I said, “You know he might go 25–0 or something like that.” Funny. Sale has already been jobbed two wins this year.

The point of the Pitcher Win Scoreboard is only to determine where the pitcher wins are going and to see if there might be a nice, easy and even elegant way to tidy them up. I have in the past said that starters should get all wins and losses because at least that way we would just be COUNTING something rather than using the convoluted rule and often illogical one we have now. Many, particularly MLB Network’s Brian Kenny, have pushed to just kill the win, which many people have in their own minds.

But there’s a reality here: The pitcher won-loss record is a big part of baseball history. It’s a big part of the game. To kill it, or to change it drastically, would be breaking from the past. That doesn’t seem like the right answer.

The chart above can be broken down like so:

Starters so far this year have gotten 157 of the victories.

Relievers so far this year have gotten 78 of the victories.

So, it seems to me, if we’re trying to “fix” the win, using a light touch, what we really want to do is figure out how many of those 78 reliever wins should have gone to the starter. In the case of Chris Sale, yes, he should have gotten the win on Thursday.

In Cincinnati, Wade Miley pitched 8 wonderful innings — allowing only the Mike Trout homer referenced above — and left with the score tied 1–1. He too should have gotten the win rather than Darren O’Day, who pitched one scoreless inning at just the right time. And so on.

I think there should be an easy way to make the win markedly better without fundamentally changing the thing. And that will be our conversation with Tango and Bill next week.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Joe Posnanski’s story.