by Mallet James and Kyle Kroboth
In the first installment of a 4-part series where we attempt to rank all 21 perfect games in the modern era using a numbers only approach, we take a closer look at the most likely of the perfect games thrown in Major League Baseball since 1900. Greats like Cy Young and Addie Joss fall in the section along with lesser known names like Len Barker. We introduced our ranking method using Bradley-Terry in our introductory post here.
21. Cy Young vs. Philadelphia Athletics B-T Probability: 16 in 100,000
Cy Young leads off our perfect game analysis fittingly enough, having thrown the first perfect game of the modern era on May 5th, 1904. If there was a single pitcher that you would bet on to have thrown one of these just based on his resume and number of appearances alone he would have to be in your top 3, if not number 1 all time. One of the greats of the game, he still holds the record for many MLB pitching counting stats that may not ever be broken. His 511 wins, 749 complete games (no one’s touching that one), and 29,565 batters faced, among many others are records that put him in a league of his own when it comes to pitching excellence and longevity.
Out of any pitcher on our list this one probably makes the most sense. He was an outstanding pitcher and did it for a long time, you would think he would have to run into one of these sooner or later. Then again, you might say the same thing about Nolan Ryan, who threw seven no-hitters but does not find his name among greats having thrown a perfect game. There is no doubt a great deal of luck involved in the feat of a perfect game, Cy Young is one of the few that was so skilled that the luck did not need to work quite as hard in his case.
Young’s POBP of .251 is one of the best out of pitchers on this list and he faced a lineup that featured 3 batters with deplorable sub-.200 OBPs. There were a few formidable opponents in the lineup that day for the Philadelphia Athletics team he faced, but it didn’t prove to be enough to fend off perfection. 37 years old at the time, Cy Young is still the oldest pitcher in MLB history to have thrown a perfect game. Unlike some others in the perfect game club, he will not be even remotely remembered for just having thrown a perfect game due to the many other accolades earned in his career. He holds the title of most likely perfect game thrown on our list, certainly not a bad place to be.
20. Addie Joss vs. Chicago White Sox B-T Probability: 15.5 in 100,000
The second perfect game in the modern era was thrown by Addie Joss on October 2nd, 1908. Ranking Joss and Cy Young’s perfect games is about as straightforward as it gets; their perfect games sit on a tier separate from all other perfect games not just because of the time they were thrown (first two of the modern era), but also because they feature a strong jump in likelihood well above any perfect game. Both pitchers are all time great Hall of Famers, who found perfection when throwing to weak lineups when, at the time, they were dominating even some of the best lineups that Major League Baseball could plate against them.
Joss was a force on the mound, posting one of the great major league pitching careers of all time despite injuries and illnesses limiting him to only eight years of MLB ball. He even found his way into the Hall of Fame, using a special exemption to the usual ten year service requirement having been inducted. He still holds the record for best career WHIP at an incredible .968. Joss in his prime could be compared to present-day Max Scherzer, who has led the league in WHIP four times. In 8 years and change Joss won 160 games, while Max Scherzer has pitched around 10 full seasons in the major leagues and has a current win total of 170. When accounting for the differences in pitcher uses between eras, those numbers even out. One thing that Joss could hold over Scherzer’s head is a perfect game. Scherzer came close against the Pirates in 2015, but lost perfection in the bottom of the ninth when outfielder Jose Tabata leaned into an inside breaking ball to draw an HBP.
Joss blanked a Chicago White Sox team that was fighting for a World Series berth at the end of the regular season. Looking back at their lineup that day, it doesn’t seem like they were much of a World Series team given that their lead offensive threat, Patsy Dougherty, was batting .285 on the year with an OBP of .369 and there were many guys in the lineup with sub-.300 OBPs even this late into the season in October. Joss only needed 74 pitches to get 27 outs that day, a record low amount of pitches among perfect games thrown. He only needed 3 strikeouts through 9 innings so it is safe to say he had his defense working behind him that day. Joss is the leader in POBP out of all pitchers having thrown a perfect game at a mark of .218, a staggering number that, when coupled with facing a weak lineup makes Joss’s perfect game quite likely relative to many of the perfect games thrown all time.
19. Len Barker vs. Toronto Blue Jays B-T Probability: 13.2 in 100,000
Len Barker’s perfect game on May 15, 1981 against the Blue Jays seems to be a story of a hot pitcher having his way against an inexperienced lineup.
You’ll see that many other lists produced with a similar idea of ranking perfect games, rank Barker’s perfect game at or near dead last in significance and relative quality. Len Barker is not all that memorable of a name in major league baseball pitching and he pitched to a very young Blue Jays lineup with no baseball names of real historical note. The eleven guys that saw a pitch from Barker that day were an average age of 25 years old. Four of them were younger than 23, including a then 22 year old Danny Ainge, much more well known for his success on and around a NBA basketball court than a baseball field. Barker ran through the lineup with extreme ease, never pitching a ball three while striking out 11.
By most accounts Barker put together a very average 11 year MLB career as both a starter and a reliever, posting a 74-76 career record along with a pitcher’s WAR of 0.3. After transitioning from the bullpen, Barker had a very nice 1980 season where he put together a 19-12 record and led the American League in strikeouts. His 3.29 FIP was .88 points lower than his 4.17 ERA that year, a common theme throughout his career where his FIP proved much better than his ERA, based probably on the fact that he struck out a lot of batters when he had his best stuff.
Barker started 1981 with a 3-1 record, continuing his success from the prior year. He ran through a Blue Jays lineup that a hot pitcher should have had little to no problem shutting down. The Jays lineup that he faced had an average OBP of .277 that year, 2nd lowest of any lineup to see a perfect game in the modern era. Barker’s POBP was .299 in 1981, above the .284 average POBP of pitchers with perfect games on their resume but certainly nothing to laugh at. Barker may not be a popular name on this list, but given the timing of his performance, when he was pitching at his best, it makes sense that his likelihood of finding perfection is near the highest on our list.
The perfect game was without a doubt the high point of Barker’s MLB career. He was an All-Star in 1981, put up a solid year in 1982, and then was traded to the Braves mid-way through 1983 and never really had the same success again. He signed a very large contract with the Braves after the 1983 season but the big man never found a way to dominate major league hitters with his power fastball game again. The peak of his career featured some strong performances, unfortunately it did not stick around for very long.
18. Sandy Koufax vs. Chicago Cubs B-T Probability: 12 in 100,000
In September 1965, Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax threw a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs. The game is notable for its general lack of offense; Koufax’s opposing pitcher, Bob Hendley, held onto a no-hitter until the seventh inning and the only run that scored was the result of a walk, sacrifice bunt, and an overthrow on a stolen base attempt. Overall, only two runners reached base during the entire game, a major league record for a full nine inning game.
The lineup that Koufax faced was very top-heavy, with three Hall of Famers in Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and Ernie Banks. All three made the 1965 All Star Game, with Williams and Banks each putting up elite 7.7 bWAR seasons, while an aging Banks still mustered 1.9 bWAR. Despite this murderer’s row in the middle of the order, Koufax’s performance was still relatively likely compared to other perfect games (albeit still extremely unlikely as a whole) because the rest of the Cubs’ lineup was, to put it lightly, not good. In fact, each one of the remaining six hitters in the Cubs lineup was below replacement level in 1965.
Two Cubs starters, leadoff center fielder Don Young and left fielder Byron Browne, had been called up in the days prior and made their major league debut that night. Neither would ever make much of an impact– after 1965, Young would not play another MLB game until 1969, and Browne somehow led the National League in strikeouts in 1966 despite playing only 120 games, hopping between the majors and minors in the years following. Hendley, as good as he was on the mound, was equally terrible with the bat, never reaching base and striking out in 12 of his 17 at bats in 1965. He didn’t help his own cause against the Dodgers, as he struck out in both of his at bats before being lifted for pinch hitter Harvey Kuenn in the top of the ninth, who fittingly enough also struck out.
Hendley and Kuenn weren’t Koufax’s only strikeout victims that night. In fact, 10 out of the 11 batters that stepped into the batter’s box struck out at least once. Koufax’s 14 strikeouts are a record for a perfect game, and he is the only pitcher to strike out at least one batter in each inning of his perfect game.
17. Felix Hernandez vs. Tampa Bay Rays B-T Probability: 10.7 in 100,000
The most recent perfect game was on August 15th, 2012, the conclusion of a three-part saga of perfection that year featuring Humber, Cain and Hernandez. Felix Hernandez faced off against what was a weak Tampa Bay Rays lineup at the time albeit headlined by longtime Rays standout Evan Longoria.
Though the lineup he threw to was somewhat weak, the lineup that he relied on for run support was quite a sad story in itself. At the time the man leading the lineup in OPS and batting fourth for the Mariners was John Jaso, certainly less of a liability at the plate than behind it but still not a guy to hang your hat on to lead a major league offense. Other notable names in the Seattle lineup that day included Michael Saunders, Eric Thames, Justin Smoak, and the only current Mariner that took the field that day, Kyle Seager. Every name mentioned has swung the bat well in some part of their major league career but found a way to keep fans engaged in the final outcome that day with perfection in the making. The Mariners lineup was no stranger to perfect games in 2012 as we will touch on later, having gone through one of their own. There was only one run scored in the game, the Mariners won it 1-0.
Probably the most interesting note from this game is that it was the third time the Rays were the victim of a perfect game in a 4-year span. An unfortunate stretch that probably will not be bested by another major league team any time soon. The four batters that were in the lineup for all 3 perfect games include Longoria, Carlos Pena, Melvin Upton, and super-utility man Ben Zobrist. Zobrist is a guy that really has no business being on the short list of batters that have seen the most perfect games firsthand. His 13.6 Whiff%, 91.5 Zone Contact%, and 74.2 Chase Contact% are all well above major league average since 2015 and speak to how hard it is to keep him off base. Hitting a major league pitcher is tough for even those who see the ball best, over a small sample size of 9 ABs I guess it’s hard to be too surprised by anything.
A little bit about Felix, he had a POBP of .295, (allowed a runner on base about 29.5% of ABs) in 2012 which is about average among pitchers having thrown a perfect game, still a strong mark though among all major league pitchers. He struck out 12 in the game, the first 11 all swinging and then the game ended with a strikeout looking from Sean Rodriguez. Hernandez faced a Rays lineup with an OBP of .320 that year, slightly above the average .312 OBP among lineups that have seen perfect games. All in all, Felix’s bid was fairly average in the scope of perfect games, obviously any of the 21 is an extremely rare feat but nothing too out of the ordinary in this one. 27 up, 27 down, and King Felix picked up another spectacular honor in what has been a very nice career.
16. Tom Browning vs. Los Angeles Dodgers B-T Probability: 10.4 in 100,000
The Cincinnati Reds’ Tom Browning twirled a perfect game versus the Los Angeles Dodgers on September 16, 1988. Contrary to most other victims of perfect games, the Dodgers were actually a formidable opponent and even went on to win the World Series later the same season. They featured the eventual NL MVP Kirk Gibson along with contributors like Steve Sax, Mike Marshall, and John Shelby. However, the Dodgers won more so on the back of terrific pitching, with Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser and an elite bullpen contributing to the team’s combined 2.96 ERA.
While it’s challenging to make too much of the Dodgers’ offensive limitations given that they were later crowned the best team in baseball, they featured a few hitters that skewed Browning’s perfecto towards the bottom of the list. Notably, the Dodgers threw shortstop Alfredo Griffin in the leadoff spot, despite his .255 OBP at the time (that’s pre-Moneyball era for you!). Third baseman Jeff Hamilton further damaged the Dodgers’ fortunes with a pedestrian batting average of .236 batting average compiled with a complete inability to draw walks: only 10 in 327 plate appearances. Dodgers pitcher Tim Belcher threw a three-hit gem, but was not known for his abilities at the plate and was a non-factor on that front.
Browning’s perfect game was unique in several ways. Rain caused a two hour and twenty-seven minute delay to the beginning of the game, making it one of two perfect games to undergo a rain delay and also the perfect game with the latest first pitch, at 10:02 PM local time. It was the first and only perfect game thrown on artificial turf, as well. Browning, a quality but not elite pitcher, took an unusual number of no hitters deep into ballgames. Earlier in the 1988 season, he had a no hitter going into the ninth until Tony Gwynn broke it up with one out. The next season, he took another perfect game into the ninth inning until Phillies infielder Dickie Thon knocked a double into the right-center gap.
Baseball Reference. Retrieved from https://www.baseball-reference.com/
Baseball Savant. Retrieved from https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/
Fangraphs. Retrieved from https://www.fangraphs.com/
Cy Young. Retrieved from https://www.history101.com/may-5-1904-cy-young-throws-the-first-perfect-game-in-modern-mlb-history/
Addie Joss. Retrieved from https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/joss-addie
Len Barker. Retrieved from https://www.neosportsinsiders.com/lenny-barker-reflects-back-perfect-game-35-years-later/
Felix Hernandez. Retrieved from https://grantland.com/the-triangle/27-perfect-things-about-felix-hernandezs-perfect-game/
Sandy Koufax. Retrieved from https://www.mlb.com/cut4/49-years-ago-sandy-koufax-threw-perfect-game-one-hour-43-minutes/c-93862524