by Mallet James and Kyle Kroboth
In the penultimate 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 closer look at some more of the middle tier likelihood perfect games. In this section, we explore both ends of the perfect spectrum from an ace like Randy Johnson to relative unknown Phillip Humber. We introduced our ranking method using Bradley-Terry in our introductory post.
10. Catfish Hunter vs. Minnesota Twins B-T Probability: 6.3 in 100,000
Jim “Catfish” Hunter threw his perfect game for the Oakland Athletics on May 8th, 1968 versus a league average Minnesota Twins team that fielded a formidable 2-3-4 all-star punch of Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew, and Tony Oliva. Hunter had no problem with Killebrew, who struck out in all three of his at bats amidst an embarrassing season that saw him hit .210 and miss six weeks after tearing his hamstring in the All-Star Game. Carew, the reigning Rookie of the Year, made the All-Star Game as well but fell into a bit of a sophomore slump; his .273/.312/.347 slash line was at or near his career low in each category. Hunter’s perfect game would have been far less likely the following season, in which Carew hit .332 and won the batting title. In 1968, Oliva was putting together another elite year in his underrated career, hitting .289/.357/.477.
Hunter’s perfect game took place in the middle of the “Year of the Pitcher,” the 1968 season that saw pitchers dominate hitters in most statistical categories. Carl Yastrzemski’s .301 batting average remains the lowest ever average for batting title champion, and Oliva’s .289 mark finished third in the league behind him. Bob Gibson had what was regarded as one of the most dominant seasons of all time in 1968, with a 1.12 ERA and 368 strikeouts. The season led to multiple rule changes going into the 1969 season, including shrinking the strike zone back to 1950s levels and lowering the pitcher’s mound from 15 inches to 10. It is worth noting that Hunter’s perfect game was thrown under the rules and specifications most historically favorable to pitchers.
There were several notable details and firsts in Hunter’s perfect game. One of the coolest bits wasn’t on the mound at all, but rather at the plate: Hunter went 3 for 4 at the plate with a double and 3 RBIs, making him the pitcher with the best batting line during a perfect game. The game was played in Oakland during the Athletics’ first season there, but the 13-12 A’s weren’t very popular yet: there were only around 6,300 fans in attendance, the smallest crowd at any perfect game ever. Hunter, at age 22, is also the youngest to ever pitch a perfect game.
9. Kenny Rogers vs. California Angels B-T Probability: 6.2 in 100,000
On Thursday, July 28th, 1994 Kenny Rogers threw his perfect game at Arlington Park in Texas returning the favor to the Angels who perfected the Rangers 10 years earlier. It is the only instance of two major league teams throwing perfect games against eachother to date.
Kenny Rogers had quite a career and one that is unique in a lot of ways. The first interesting point that stands out is that instead of peaking just once in his career like many pitchers on this list and really any MLB player or pro athlete, he found a way to find great success in his career twice, both early in his career and well into his 40s later on. Rogers was a very steady major league pitcher throughout his 20 years in the bigs but his career is bimodal in a sense where he was at his best around normal peak years when he was 28-30, when he threw the perfect game, but also found his greatest form and maybe is most well known for what he did in his early 40s with the Detroit Tigers. Earlier on in his career his “stuff” might have been a little better as he posted higher strikout rates but he is a pitcher that throughout his career didn’t rely too heavily on the strikout and found a way to get it done with weak contact never having to really overpowered the batter.
During the perfect game Rogers was up against a lineup that he struck out 8 times. The lineup included some notable batters such as Bo Jackson, Jim Edmonds, and Chili Davis, all who it the ball well that year and got on base at a high clip, especially Chili who owned an OBP of .410 that year, the second-best mark of his career.
Chili Davis only saw 5 pitches from Rogers, his failure to work the count may have really aided Rogers in the feat as he was a very dangerous hitter at the time. Whether it was by way of luck or excellent planning Rogers’ ability to get through Davis quickly was certainly a key to his success on the day. As Tom Tango recently noted by way of Bill James, there are only 9 players that have logged 1000 or more games as a DH in MLB history. Chili Davis is 7th on that list, of which 5/9 are hall of famers or will be hall of famers in the case of David Ortiz. Chili Davis is not a hall of famer but if you’re going to be penciled into the starting lineup 1000 or more times as a designated hitter you have to be able to swing the bat and in 1994 that was certainly the case.
A 39th round draft pick, Kenny Rogers is a great example of a late round success story, his longevity and skill led to playoff wins and many achievements including one of 21 perfect games.
8. Randy Johnson vs. Atlanta Braves B-T Probability: 5.6 in 100,000
As we start inching closer to the top of our most unlikely perfect game countdown you might expect to see pitchers with less experience and maybe even some names known for the perfect game they threw and nothing else. This one does not fit that picture, in fact it doesn’t come close.
In May of 2004 Randy Johnson threw a perfect game against a Braves lineup that would go on to win the NL East and post a 96-66 record on the year. It was an all time great hall of famer against a lineup with some big time names and hall of famers in their own right. The lineup included Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, and a very strong J.D. Drew. Andruw Jones makes an interesting hall of fame case, Chipper Jones is a hall of famer, and J.D. Drew probably had the best year of his career in 2004, finding his way on base a ton at the time.
J.D. Drew never really hit lefties all that well during his career but in 2004 he had a 142 wRC+, .929 OPS, and a 18.9 K% against lefties, a tough out for anyone at the plate even if you’re The Big Unit.
Randy Johnson struck out 13 Braves in his perfect game, striking out every batter at least once except for the aforementioned Andruw Jones and utility-man Mark DeRosa. Johnson had a K/BB rate of 6.59 in 2004 which was far and away the best of his career and really helps when it comes to finding a groove and retiring 27/27 batters in a major league outing. His WHIP was sub-1 in 2004 as well at 0.90, also a career best, command was not a problem for Johnson which was a huge key to success for the flame-throwing lefty.
Johnson was an ace in every meaning of the word, he led the major leagues in strikeouts 8 times between 1993-2004. To go along with that he has a career HR/9 of 0.9 meaning he gave up less than 1 home run per nine innings, those kind of numbers put him in a limited group of all time greats. He won 303 games and led his league in ERA+ (ERA adjusted to league ERA and player’s ballpark) 6 times. No matter what numbers you look at it is clear that Randy Johnson was a dominant major league talent. The perfect game is simply a feather in his cap even though it is in the upper tier of unlikelihood due to the high quality of opposition that he faced.
7. Dennis Martinez vs. Los Angeles Dodgers B-T Probability: 5.0 in 100,000
Dennis Martinez led his Montreal Expos to victory on July 28th, 1991 throwing a perfect game against the LA Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Martinez was one of the top pitchers in the AL in 1991 and as we are starting to see as we have reached the top 10 of this countdown had to work his way through a strong Dodgers lineup that finished 93-69 on the year under skipper, Tommy LaSorda.
In some cases these perfect games are very random events, pitchers get hot one day, come up against a poor lineup and can make it through all 9 innings unscathed. In other cases even though these events are extremely rare you aren’t entirely in awe by who got the job done. Pitchers that we’ve seen already that are of a more recent era like Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez were no strangers to working long into games and leading the league in categories such as complete games and shutouts. That’s not to say you are bound to throw a perfect game if you get through 9 innings once a month but if you have the ability to put yourself in those sort of positions it might make it a little easier to run into a chance at a perfect game.
Dennis Martinez fits in the same category as Halladay and Hernandez in this respect. Leading up to 1991 which was arguably the best year of his career he threw 21 complete games between 1988-1990, then throwing 9 more in 1991 including his perfect game. He was no stranger to working long into games as he led the league in complete game in 1979 when he was an Oriole. He completed 18 games that year and 15 the year before in 1978. It wasn’t something he did regularly throughout his 23 year MLB career but in his best spurts from 1978-1982 and 1988-1992 he had no problem working deep into games. If there is an underlying predictive statistic for a perfect game it seems like being able to go the distance often has to be about the best one.
The Dodgers lineup that day was both peculiar and extremely solid at the same time. The top batters in the Dodger lineup were Juan Samuel, Eddie Murray, and Daryl Strawberry. It’s an interesting one because when you think of each of those players, at least for me, Dodger certainly isn’t the first baseball team that comes to mind. 1991 also fittingly enough ended up being the final year that each of them contributed in a star everyday role for a big league club. Eddie Murray went to the Mets and had some success but for this most part this ended up being the final year of the production that we remember them for. Mike Sciosia was also the Dodgers catcher that day.
Interesting lineup names aside, Dennis Martinez made quick work of the Dodgers only striking out 4 but retiring all 27 batters using just 96 pitches. Martinez led the league in ERA in 1991 and only gave up 9 home runs all year in 31 games started. His perfect game is a stellar achievement in what was a career year for the Nicaraguan-born Expo.
6. Phillip Humber vs. Seattle Mariners B-T Probability: 4.6 in 100,000
Below average pitchers throw gems from time to time, but rarely do they do what the White Sox’s Phillip Humber did versus the Seattle Mariners in 2012: throw a perfect game. Going by name and reputation alone, Humber might be the least likely of the players on this list to throw a perfect game. He was a journeyman who played on five different teams in eight seasons, and made nearly half of his career appearances in long and middle relief. Humber ended with a 6.44 ERA in 2012, and that’s counting his perfect game. Save for a solid 2011 campaign in which he threw for a 3.75 ERA that was actually worse than his 3.58 FIP, Humber was strikingly below average.
It is actually surprising how far down Humber is on the list, given his complete lack of name recognition and poor counting stats. Even his POBP numbers are awful; his .348 POBP in 2012 ranks as the highest of any pitcher to ever throw a perfect game. To put in perspective how unlikely Humber’s performance was: Humber averaged over one batter reaching base per inning on the season, but was able to limit the Mariners to no base runners through nine.
The only reason Humber doesn’t rank closer to the top of the list is the Mariners’ lackluster lineup. If you check the box score, you’ll see a cast of random role players from the late-2000s and early-2010s: Chone Figgins, Miguel Olivo, Munenori Kawasaki, Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, Michael Saunders. Future all-stars Kyle Seager and Justin Smoak were still early in their careers and experiencing growing pains, and Mariners legend Ichiro Suzuki was in the midst of his worst season in Seattle before being shipped off to the Yankees in the middle of the year. The absence of any truly good players, combined with the absence of any truly bad players, resulted in a middling lineup that was susceptible, but not too susceptible, to a perfect game.
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/
Catfish Hunter. Retrieved from http://www.thepostgame.com/blog/throwback/201505/remember-catfish-hunter-throwing-ninth-pefect-game-mlb-history
Kenny Rogers. Retrieved from http://shsports.blogspot.com/2014/07/texas-rangers-kenny-rogers-pitches.html
Randy Johnson. Retrieved from https://www.thescore.com/mlb/news/1972181
Dennis Martinez. Retrieved from https://montrealgazette.com/sports/remembering-martinezs-perfect-game-with-expos
Phillip Humber. Retrieved from https://sports.yahoo.com/news/philip-humber-most-obscure-perfect-182236269.html