On Perfect Games

Yesterday, Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle threw the 18th perfect game in Major League history, winning 5-0 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Thus sending baseball geeks everywhere scurrying to learn about the history of perfect games, and I’m no different.

One interesting thing is how unevenly distributed the perfect games are through baseball’s history. Even if we exclude the 2 19th-century perfectos (since I’ve never been very confident that baseball’s record-keeping from that century was all that great), there have been 16 in the so-called modern era, of which:

  • 2 were thrown in the deadball era (1904 and 1908)
  • 1 was thrown in 1922
  • Then you have to go all the way to 1956 for the next one (Don Larsen’s famous World Series game)
  • There were 3 in the 1960s
  • And the other 9 have been thrown since 1980, all during an era of relatively high offense, free agency, and the most intense competition in the history of the game

Is it a fluke that over half of the modern-era perfect games have been thrown in a little over a quarter of the modern era? Or is it indicative of something about today’s pitchers?

(And consider that just two weeks ago, San Francisco Giants pitcher Jonathan Sanchez threw a no-hitter which would have been a perfect game if not for an error by one of the fielders. Now how much would you pay?)

The other remarkable thing is that Buehrle threw his perfect game against a good offense, the Rays, who through yesterday’s games are third in the American League in runs scored, and third in on-base percentage. Only two Rays hitters who played yesterday have an OBP which is significantly below league average (Gabe Kapler’s is 333; the AL average is 334), so it’s not like the Rays were sitting their good players. Buehrle beat a squad of the better hitters in baseball.

Consider the opposing teams in the other perfect games since 1980:

  • Randy Johnson, 2004, vs. Atlanta Braves: 6th of 16 teams in runs, 5th in OBP
  • David Cone, 1999, vs. Montreal Expos: 14th of 16 teams in runs, last in OBP
  • David Wells, 1998, vs. Minnesota Twins: 11th of 14 teams in runs, 11th in OBP
  • Kenny Rogers, 1994, vs. California Angels: last of 14 teams in runs, 12th in OBP
  • Dennis Martinez, 1991, vs. Los Angeles Dodgers: 5th of 12 teams in runs, 3rd in OBP
  • Tom Browning, 1988, vs. Los Angeles Dodgers: 7th of 12 teams in runs, 11th in OBP (the Dodgers won the World Series two months later)
  • Mike Witt, 1984, vs. Texas Rangers: 13th of 14 teams in runs, last in OBP
  • Len Barker, 1981, vs. Toronto Blue Jays: last of 14 teams in runs, last in OBP

Historically notable pitching performances often come against bad offenses, and this list seems to validate that. On the other hand, it takes two to tango, and a great pitching performance backed up by outstanding defense can overcome even good hitting. (Of course, any perfect game is a remarkable achievement, no matter who it was pitched against; every hitter who makes it to the Majors is by definition a tough out.)

It’s also interesting to see that almost every pitcher who’s thrown a perfect game should be familiar to a serious baseball fan. (Lee Richmond, Charlie Robertson and Len Barker are the only three I’m not really familiar with.)

It seems like every couple of years we have a baseball player performing another nigh-unthinkable feat, be it a perfect game, an unassisted triple play, or what-have-you. Truly this is the golden age of professional baseball.