by Mallet James and Kyle Kroboth
In the final installment of our 4-part series where we attempt to rank all 21 perfect games in the modern era using a numbers only approach, we take a look at the most unlikely of all perfect games. In this section, we explore Don Larsen and the 1956 world series, recent names like Dallas Braden and Mark Buehrle, and reveal the perfect game that should have never happened. We introduced our ranking method using Bradley-Terry in our introductory post.
5. Dallas Braden vs. Tampa Bay Rays B-T Probability: 3.2 in 100,000
Dallas Braden wasn’t a household name when he threw his perfect game for the Oakland Athletics on Mother’s Day 2010 versus the Tampa Bay Rays, but unlike fellow perfect game thrower Phillip Humber, he was a solid middle of the rotation pitcher. He wasn’t overpowering; he ended the 2010 season with a 5.3 K/9, which he overperformed in his perfect game with six strikeouts, still tied for third lowest of any perfect game. But he compensated for his inability to miss bats with pinpoint control and an ability to induce weak contact: he finished 6th in the MLB in BB/9 and and 16th in the MLB in WHIP. Braden wasn’t elite, but wasn’t quite the stiff that he is often portrayed as.
What made Braden’s perfecto especially unlikely was the composition of the opposing Rays lineup that day. Headlining the Rays’ starting nine were two 2010 All-Stars: prime Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford. People forget just how good those guys were in the late 2000s; Longoria finished 6th in the MVP race and was 11th in the American League in on-base percentage. Crawford landed one spot behind Longoria in the MVP race and even won an outfield Silver Slugger award in his final season in Tampa Bay before the Boston Red Sox signed him to a disastrous 142-million dollar free agent deal in the offseason.
The Rays had depth beyond their headliners as well. Guys like Ben Zobrist, Carlos Pena, and Jason Bartlett each added 2+ wins and got on base at an above average clip. The Rays ended the season with 96 wins and in first place in the AL East, their only division title since their 2008 World Series run. The A’s ended the season at .500.
4. David Cone vs. Montreal Expos B-T Probability: 2.2 in 100,000
David Cone threw the Yankees’ third perfect game on July 18th, 1999 at Yankee Stadium in front of almost 42,000 fans. In 1999 Cone was nearing the end of his 17 year MLB career in which he built a consistently strong resume that featured 5 world series wins, 4 of which came on the back end of his career with the Yankees. He is a Cy Young award winner and 5 time all star so the high unlikelihood of his perfect game coming at a time when he was pitching some of his best, although late in his career, seems like it may have been mostly due to the lineup he faced. Cone though was not all that proficient at keeping runners off base in 1999. His POBP of .320 ranks third highest of any pitcher to have thrown a perfect game and the Expos lineup really wasn’t as bad as you might think.
The Expos team that Cone faced at the time was 33-55 and ended the 99’ season with a 68-94 record, finishing 4th in the NL East. A poor record but mostly due to an inexperienced pitching staff that featured what would end up being a lot of no name guys that averaged an age of 24 years old. The batting lineup was actually quite strong top to bottom at the time and was headlined by a young Vladimir Guerrero.
Vlad was just embarking on a hall of fame career in a 99’ season where he posted a .978 OPS, won his first silver slugger award, and made his first all-star game appearance. Apart from Vlad, the Expo names don’t jump off the paper but there were some serious hitters in the lineup including Rondell White, who put together three straight years with an offensive WAR above 2.5 from 1997-1999. Jose Vidro was in the lineup as well, a solid late 90s, early 2000s infielder who was an all-star 3 out of 4 years from 2000-2003, in 1999 he posted an OBP of .346.
The Expos average OBP against Cone was .332 which is the 4th highest average lineup OBP out of all lineups that have been defeated by a perfect game. .332 would be an above average OBP by today’s standards, it was slightly below the .345 MLB average in 1999 but the Expos lineup, sneaky as it might have been where a formidable opponent for Cone. He navigated his way through the test that they posed and earned his spot quite high up on our list of most unlikely perfect games.
3. Don Larsen vs. Brooklyn Dodgers B-T Probability: 1.8 in 100,000
Larsen threw the most famous perfect game of all time against the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 8th, 1956 in game 5 of the 1956 World Series.
I know what you’re thinking, how is a perfect game thrown in the World Series not the most unlikely perfect game of all time? Larsen’s perfect game is almost unanimously ranked as the greatest perfect game of all time (I think it is too) but as you know by now we are taking a different approach. Certainly we could add some weight to the calculation to account for postseason games, World Series games even; and maybe we should have done just that but when accounting for batter and pitcher performance there are two perfect games that rank slightly ahead in unlikelihood. This takes absolutley nothing away from the feat, it may be one of the few untouchable games of all time but hopefully our take will offer some perspective and make you think a little differently about the best perfect games thrown in the modern era.
World Series or not Larsen faced a stellar Dodgers lineup. It was a lineup headlined by Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, and Roy Campanella to name a few. The Dodgers were 93-61 on the year and outscored their opponents by 119 runs. When you just consider the names involved it may be the best core of a lineup to lose by way of a perfect game of all time. Larsen needed just 97 pitches to get through the Brooklyn lineup three times. He struck out 7 batters, no Dodger struck out more than once, and Jackie Robinson was one of the few Brooklyn Bats not to strike out.
Larsen was a career 81-91 pitcher, pitching for 8 different teams over his 14 year MLB career. He was not the ace that you might think of when you consider a World Series perfect game pitcher, splitting his time between the back end of starting rotations and the bullpen. 1956 ended up being the best year of his career as a starting pitcher, he went 11-5 that year after posting a 3-21 record with the Baltimore Orioles just two years prior. Many of the usual indicators of success are all pretty average marks for Larsen, his ERA+ for his career was 99, right on average, his FIP was 3.94 and he had K/9 of 4.9. The most noteable statistical find when it comes to Larsen’s career is how good of a hitter he was. He had a .242 average with 14 home runs and was used quite often as a pinch hitter.
For what was a fairly pedestrian career as a whole, Larsen’s sparkling perfect game will have his name enshrined in postseason baseball history forever.
2. Mark Buehrle vs. Tampa Bay Rays B-T Probability: 1.7 in 100,000
Mark Buerhle threw his perfect game versus the Tampa Bay Rays on July 23rd, 2009, less than one year before Dallas Braden threw his versus seven out of the same starting nine. How this Rays team is the only one to be perfect gamed twice in less than a year is a mystery: the 2009 Rays had an even higher team OBP than the division winning 2010 squad. Only two teams on the losing end of a perfect game had a higher team OBP than the Rays: the 1922 Tigers versus Charlie Robertson and the 2004 Braves versus Randy Johnson
Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford still had nice seasons in 2009, both finishing in the top 30 of AL OBP. But surprisingly, they were not the guys that got on base most. That award goes to Ben Zobrist, who finished fourth in the American League with an elite OBP of .405. Jason Bartlett was not far behind at .389, good for 12th in the AL. A team full of on-base machines shouldn’t have perfect games thrown against it, making Buehrle’s accomplishment one of the most unlikely in MLB history.
You might expect the number two pitcher on this list to be ineffective or inexperienced, but that was not the case for Buehrle. In fact, Buehrle was in the middle of his tenth out of sixteen seasons and only nine days removed from pitching the third inning of the MLB All-Star Game. He finished the season with an ERA of 3.84: not an elite number, but good enough to be a solid number two or three in a rotation. What really drives Buehrle down the list is his .311 POBP. That’s not a bad number by any stretch, but it ranks 16th out of the 21 pitchers to throw a perfect game, a testament to how good most perfect game pitchers are.
1. Charlie Robertson vs. Detroit Tigers B-T Probability: 0.9 in 100,000
In the most unlikely perfect game of all time Charlie Robertson of the Chicago White Sox shutout the Detroit Tigers on April 30th, 1922 at Navin Field in Detroit.
We’ve talked about POBP and OBP quite a lot throughout the perfect games ranked series and how important it is to consider both sides of the story when considering what truly is an unlikely perfect game. There have been games ranked relatively high on this list due to poor pitching resumes and there have been games ranked just as high due to the strong lineup that a pitcher had to navigate to get all 27 outs. Charlie Robertson’s perfect game is the perfect storm of sorts when it comes to these two elements. It was a brutally tough lineup matching up against a very weak opposing pitcher. Charlie Robertson’s POBP was .332, the 2nd worst among all perfect game pitchers behind only Phillip Humber. He faced a lineup with an OBP of .358, by far the best of any lineup to see a perfect game. That lineup ended up beating out the NL champion Brooklyn Dodgers that Don Larsen faced in the world series by quite a large margin. It is a surprise that Charlie Robertson got one of his 49 MLB career wins against this Tigers team let alone found a way to throw a perfect game against them. I imagine if bets were being made on this game in 1922 there would have been quite a few folks interested in the -1.5 line in favor of the Tigers. There is almost no way this could have happened.
Robertson was an 8 year major leaguer who started upwards of 20 games in only 5 of them. 1922 was his first full year in the big leagues and his perfect game came in just his 5th ever game started. The game and his pitching performance truly came out of nowhere. He shutdown a Tigers lineup that featured some of the games all time greats including winner of the triple crown and hall of famer Ty Cobb. Ty Cobb might be the guy you would choose out of all major league hitters, all time, to pinch hit for your team with two outs left in the 9th to break up a perfect game. Somehow Charlie Robertson found a way to keep him off base 3 times that day. The other hall of famer in the Tigers’ lineup was Harry Heilman who slashed a stunning .356/.432/.598 in 1922.
Ty Cobb is famously known to have complained to the umpires about Robertson possibly doctoring the ball but they investigated his uniform, checked multiple balls, and never ended up finding anything substantial.
Beyond the perfect game, Charlie Robertson achieved basically nothing of note the remainder of his career. His perfect game is certainly the most mind-boggling of all time. He holds the title of most unlikely perfect game, a perfecto that was almost 2x more unlikely than Mark Buerhle’s runner up on this list. Robertson’s perfect game speaks to how random these events are and how anything can happen in major league baseball on any given day which is what makes the game so great.
Baseball Reference. Retrieved from https://www.baseball-reference.com/
Baseball Almanac. Retrieved from https://www.baseball-almanac.com/pitching/piperf.shtml
Fangraphs. Retrieved from https://www.fangraphs.com/
Dallas Braden. Retrieved from https://www.sbnation.com/2010/5/9/1464953/dallas-braden-no-hitter-perfect-game-athletics-vs-rays-2010-score-recap
Charlie Robertson. Retrieved from https://theledgesports.com/2015/06/10/ranking-10-best-no-hitters-all-time/mlb-perfect-games-charlie-robertson/