Photo: AP Images
PITCHING a perfect game is baseballs most sublime individual achievement. Batters have no equivalent accomplishment: hitting four home runs in a game might be the closest, but even batters who manage that could conceivably have hit five, or even six, if they had got enough at-bats. In contrast, there are only 27 outs in a game. Sending 27 men in a row back to the dugout without reaching base is the theoretical pinnacle of the pitching profession it can never get any better than that. The only major sport in which it has a direct parallel is bowling, in which perfect games with a score of 300 are no longer an extreme rarity among elite players. (It is mathematically possible for a golfer to hit 18 straight holes-in-one, but only the late Kim Jong Il of North Korea has ever come close to doing so outside the realm of video games with cheat codes).The conceptual elegance of the perfect game makes for an awkward juxtaposition with the rather prosaic list of players who have done it. Sure, it includes a handful of all-time greats in Cy Young, Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson, and a respectable share of present and future members of baseballs Hall of Fame including Addie Joss, Jim Bunning, Catfish Hunter and Roy Halladay. But that leaves room for a bunch of merely good pitchers, and for a disturbing contingent of absolute no-names ranging from the long-forgotten Charlie Robertson to the eminently forgettable Philip Humber of the Chicago White Sox, who on April 21st became the clubs 21st member.
A fans first instinct is to revel in the improbability of it all: on any given day, any no-name player can attain perfection. Yet such events can simultaneously seem to cheapen the feat if even Philip Humber can do it, maybe its not so special after all. This sentiment has been particularly prevalent of late given the spate of perfect games in recent years. From 1922 to 1956, not a single player managed to throw one. But since 2009 there have been four official perfectos in addition to Armando Galarragas heartbreaker in 2010, when an umpire incorrectly ruled the final out as a hit.
This cognitive dissonance arises from two common misunderstandings of the sport. The first is conflating a teams success with that of its most visible player. Bowling and golf are truly individual sports: although multiple players compete simultaneously in tournaments, they each perform on their own, without any direct interaction with their rivals. Fans tend to think of baseball the same way, attributing perfect games (and their much more frequent little sibling, no-hitters) entirely to the pitcher as do the teammates who mob their hurler in celebration following the last out.
In fact, however, baseball is a team effort. The only outcomes pitchers can claim full responsibility for are strikeouts, walks and home runs. Everything else depends on whether opposing batters hit the ball in the vicinity of the fielders, and on whether the fielders corral those balls properly. Though the pitcher has some influence over where batters hit the ball, extensive research shows that most of the responsibility lies elsewhere.
As a result, perfect games require a combination of good pitching, sure-handed defence, and a generous dose of offensive futility from the opposing lineup. The proportions of these ingredients can vary widely. The more strikeouts a pitcher records, the greater share of credit for the achievement he can claim and it is little wonder that the two perfect games with the highest strikeout totals (14 and 13) were thrown by the two best modern pitchers on the list, Mr Koufax and Mr Johnson. In contrast, Mark Buehrle, who struck out only six batters in his 2009 perfecto, owes much of his accomplishment to DeWayne Wise, a little-known outfielder whose remarkable circus catch in the final inning kept Mr Buehrles streak intact.
If you are looking for evidence of a pitchers greatness in a single game, you are far better off checking the list of hurlers who have struck out 18 batters in a contest than the perfect-game record. Punching out 18 hitters certainly lacks the romance of the perfect game it is entirely possible for a player who strikes out 18 to give up any number of runs and to lose the game. But because it measures the pitchers performance exclusively rather than mixing it up with those of his teammates, it is a nearly fail-safe test of excellence.
The second misunderstanding is the notion that all perfect games are created equal. Baseballs hagiographers often cite the game as the one constant amid the tumult of American history. Yet in fact the sport is constantly evolving, in ways that increase or decrease the likelihood of pre-defined spectacular achievements such as 27 up, 27 down.
The first reason baseball is seeing more perfect games than ever before is because it is playing more games than ever before. From 1904 to 1960, Major League Baseball had 16 teams playing 154 games a year. It now has 30 teams playing 162 each. All other things equal, that should double their frequency.
Another is that after years of high offence, pitchers as a group have regained the upper hand over hitters of late. In 1999 and 2000 batters reached base 34.5% of the time. Last year this ratio fell to 32.1%. That decline alone makes perfect games 2.6 times more likely now than they were a decade ago.
A third factor in Mr Humbers favour was his matchup. The Seattle Mariners are baseballs worst-hitting team, and their batters have the further misfortune to play half their games in cavernous Safeco Field, one of the sports most pitcher-friendly ballparks. Last year their hitters reached base a mere 28.9% of the time when playing at home. That means that an opposing pitcher would be 3.5 times more likely to throw a perfect game at Safeco than he would facing an average lineup in an average stadium.
Statistical analysts are often accused of taking the joy out of baseball, and if any White Sox fans find their way to this blog, they will probably be outraged at this attempt to pooh-pooh Mr Humbers magical afternoon. Mr Humber certainly pitched the game of his life, and he deserves far more credit for what is still an extraordinarily rare accomplishment than does any other player on the field. He also performed well in his first start this year, and is throwing his fastball 1.3 miles (2.1 km) per hour harder than he did last year, suggesting he may well be a new and improved pitcher. But lets offer some cheers to the Chicago defence as well and to all the pitchers who have thrown just as well as Mr Humber did on his historic day, but who did not benefit from enough good luck or circumstances at the same time to join one of baseballs most exclusive clubs.
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