Everybody's Perfect

Perfection in Major League Baseball is a rare thing, but in this look at perfection, everybody has achieved it. Yes, in this episode, Everybody's Perfect.

In this baseball tale, everybody's perfect. That's because it's all about perfect games, normally one of baseball's rarest happenings. Something that (up until last year) happened only 17 times in 138 seasons – essentially once every seven years -- has to be by definition rare. That fact notwithstanding, some baseball fans had to be wondering just what in the world was going on Saturday night, when Roy Halladay threw, not just the 20th perfect game in major league history (dating back to 1871), but the third perfect game in less than a year.  

July 23, 2009 – Mark Buehrle, White Sox vs. Rays, 5-0
May 9, 2010 – Dallas Braden, Athletics vs. Rays, 4-0
May 29, 2010 – Roy Halladay, Phillies vs. Marlins, 1-0

Other than the past 10 months being particularly unkind to Florida-based teams, it seems astounding that three perfect games could happen in such close succession. But it's not. All Halladay's, Braden's and Buehrle's gems really indicate is the idiosyncratic nature of perfection. In fact, so random are feats like this, that Braden's and Halladay's 20-days-apart perfect games weren't even the first time two such events had happened in the same calendar month. And thereby hangs a tale… one of baseball's oddest.

Dallas Braden celebrates his perfect game with his grandmother, Peggy Lindsey, May 9, 2010 in Oakland.
(Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

On June 12, 1880 – just about 130 years ago – rookie pitcher J. Lee Richmond of the Worcester Ruby Legs (yes, there really was a National League team by that name… the franchise eventually became the Philadelphia Phillies) tossed the first perfect game in major league history, a 1-0 win over the Cleveland Blues. Five days… five days later, on June 17, 1880, John Montgomery Ward of the Providence Grays pitched the second, a 5-0 win over the Buffalo Bisons. And then, 24 years went by before the Boston Americans' Cy Young completely shut down the Philadelphia Athletics on May 5, 1904. And that span was nothing compared to the 84 years between Ward's gem and the next National League perfect game, by the Phillies' Jim Bunning, on Father's Day (June 21) 1964.

This particular time line is pretty well known. The really interesting part, from the historians' point of view, involves the parameters of Richmond 's and Ward's feats. From one perspective, it's utterly incomprehensible that even a single perfect game could be pitched in 1880. From another, there were actually aspects of the game in 1880 that made it easier for Richmond and Ward than you might at first think.

Let's recall some of the salient aspects of baseball in 1880. Most significant from the point of view of the possibility of a perfect game is the fact that fielder's gloves weren't exactly real common at that time, and those that were in use were generally more like today's batting gloves. Thus, fielding a ball cleanly (or even preventing a hit by a sparkling defensive gem) was a highly problematic occurrence. For example, in Ward's perfect game, the Grays made zero errors (duh), while Buffalo made seven. The fielding averages for the 1880 season bear out the rarity of the day Ward's defense had on June 17, 1880. For instance, Ned Williamson of Chicago, one of the finest fielding third basemen of his time, did indeed lead everyone at the hot corner in fielding average, with a mark of .893. Davy Force, normally Buffalo 's second baseman (he had the day off on June 17), and one of the 19th Century's notable defensive stars, had a .939 fielding average at second in 1880 – better than every other fielder at every other position except first base and pitcher. Overall, the National League fielding percentage in 1800 was .901… meaning there was a 1 in 10 chance that a fielder would boot any individual chance.

However, it's also true that Richmond and Ward did have some advantages for throwing a perfect game. First of all, although the 19th Century is often thought of as a high-offense era, that wasn't always the case, mainly due to variations in the pitching distance. In 1880, with pitchers still standing just 45 feet from the batter (a foot closer than the pitching distance in present day Little League!), offense was at a premium. Exactly four hitters posted batting averages higher than .309 – George Gore (.360), Cap Anson (.337), Roger Connor (.332) and Abner Dalrymple (.330). The league batting average was a modest .245.

Secondly, suppose Cleveland leadoff man Fred Dunlap (who made two errors himself in Richmond's perfect game), let the 3-2 pitch to him leading off the game go by… after all, it was in the dirt, no need to chase a bad pitch. So, Dunlap would have had walk, right? Wrong. Dunlap wouldn't have gotten a walk if the 6-2 pitch was over his head. It took eight balls to draw a walk in 1880. Or, suppose Ward had plunked Buffalo first baseman Dude Esterbrook with a pitch late in his game. Did the Dude go to first and break up the historic moment? No, the hit batsman rule didn't come into the NL until 1887.

Even with these advantages, given the fielding records of the day, and given the fact that Richmond only struck out five, and Ward only two (meaning there were 25 balls put in play, and each one of them had a 10 percent chance of being erred upon), you have to say that Richmond's and Ward's feats, especially since they were five days apart, constitute a collective miracle. That was even more so in Richmond 's case. You see, Cleveland first baseman Bill Phillips, in leading off the fifth inning against Richmond , apparently dropped what would have normally been a clean single into right field. Except that Philips either loafed on his way to first or Ruby Legs right fielder Lon Knight was playing very shallow, because Knight threw Phillips out at first, your everyday 9-3 putout (scored as R-A instead of 9-3 in the scorecard of the game) that saved the first perfect game for posterity. If that's not idiosyncratic, nothing is.

After Cy Young's effort, perfect games were pretty scarce up until the mid 1960s, despite the years from 1900 to 1920 being known as the "Deadball Era." Picking up from Young's game…

Addie Joss – October 2, 1908
Charlie Robertson – April 30, 1922
Don Larsen – October 8, 1956 (in the World Series, of course)  

Then, within four years, came perfect games by Bunning, Sandy Koufax (Sept. 9, 1965) and Catfish Hunter (May 8, 1968), a not altogether shocking distribution, considering how depressed hitting was in the 60s. However, after the hitting picked back up in 1969, 13 years went by without a perfect game, after which they became almost common in the 80s and 90s… and none of these was by a Sandy Koufax.

Len Barker – May 15, 1981
Mike Witt – September 30, 1984
Tom Browning – September 16, 1988
Dennis Martinez – July 28, 1991
Kenny Rogers – July 28, 1994
David Wells – May 17, 1998
David Cone – July 18, 1999

There really is no single explanation for perfect games all of a sudden starting to come at three and four year intervals (or less), starting in 1981. No more than there is an explanation of the four perfect games in six years (2004 to 2010) of the 21st Century. (Let's not forget Randy Johnson's May 18, 2004 beat down of the Braves.) The best explanation is that they come in a random distribution.

What's not at random are the types of pitchers who typically throw perfect games. With few exceptions, they are either Hall of Fame caliber pitchers (Ward, Young, Joss, Bunning, Koufax, Hunter, Johnson, Halladay), or good pitchers having very good days (Barker, Witt, Browning, Martinez , Rogers , Wells, Cone, Buehrle). That leaves four others… Robertson, Larsen, Braden and the first perfect game pitcher, Richmond . There are at least possible explanations for three of these games.

Charlie Robertson was a rookie, making one of the first starts of his major league career, when he shut down Ty Cobb's hard-hitting Tigers in 1922. He would end his career with a 49-80 record, six shutouts and an Adjusted ERA of 90. His perfect game was a fluke, although it is interesting to note that Cobb and the Tigers complained throughout the game that Robertson was throwing a spitball, or some other kind of illegal delivery.

Don Larsen was, by all accounts, more interested in partying than pitching. He went 81-91 with a 99 ERA+ for seven different teams. His throwing a perfect game in the World Series against the best team ever subjected to a perfect game, the Brooklyn Dodgers (admittedly an over-the-hill Dodgers, but still most of the team that had dominated the NL between 1947 and 1955), was arguably the biggest single game fluke in major league history. (Maybe his no-windup delivery kept their timing off-balance.) There was a lot of truth in Dick Young's famous, ghostwritten lead sentence, "The imperfect man pitched the perfect game."

Richmond was a different case. He really only pitched regularly for three years for a bad Worcester team, and was out of baseball by age 26, choosing instead to become a doctor. He was 75-100 for his career, but it's a little hard to accurately judge him from the perspective of 130 years. It is worth noting that he was the first left-handed pitcher of any note… which may have been an advantage to him. Maybe the hitters weren't used to seeing southpaws.

As for Dallas Braden, it's too soon to say what path his career might take. At the moment though, his career 18-26 record and 96 ERA+ look more like Don Larsen than Roy Halladay. Maybe he thought the Rays had traded for A-Rod.

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