Philip Humber and the most obscure perfect-game pitchers in baseball history
- Retiring all 27 batters ensures a pitcher an everlasting place in the game's lore, and while some members of that exclusive club are legends others were far from it.
Friday marks the fifth anniversary of White Sox pitcher Philip Humber retiring all 27 Mariners he faced at Safeco Field to become the 19th pitcher in modern baseball history to throw a perfect game. Coming off a solid season in Chicago's rotation in 2011, it appeared as though the 29-year-old righty—who had been chosen by the Mets with the third pick of the '04 draft—was finally about to become a star. As it turned out, however, Humber was closer to the end of his major league career than the beginning. He won just four more games in the bigs and last pitched at that level in 2013.
Most of the 21 perfect games in the majors since 1901 were thrown by accomplished pitchers. Six are now in the Hall of Fame: Cy Young (whose perfecto came in 1904), Addie Joss ('08), Jim Bunning ('64), Sandy Koufax ('65), Catfish Hunter ('68) and Randy Johnson (2004). Conceivably, Roy Halladay (2010) and Felix Hernandez ('12) might join them in Cooperstown some day, or at worst wind up among the next tier of perfecto-spinners such as Dennis Martinez (1991), Kenny Rogers ('94), David Wells ('98), David Cone ('99) and Mark Buehrle (2009)—pitchers who enjoyed long, impressive careers.
The five pitchers highlighted here, however, are at the other end of the spectrum. They had careers that would have surely been forgotten had they not achieved a sort of immortal status for being, for one day at least, perfect.
Philip Humber, 2012
Though Humber made his major league debut just two years after being drafted, by that point, he had already undergone Tommy John surgery. By the end of 2010, he had passed through the organizations of the Mets, Twins, Royals and A’s, with 51 1/3 innings spread over five seasons, and he was best known for having been included in the 2008 trade that sent Johan Santana from Minnesota to New York. In January 2011, the White Sox plucked him off the waiver wire and he turned in a respectable 3.75 ERA in 163 innings that year while making 26 starts, finishing 9-9.
On April 21, 2012, his second start of the season, Humber shut down the Mariners in Seattle, not allowing a baserunner and striking out nine, the last of which was Brendan Ryan on a controversial check-swing call to end the game. From there, Humber mostly went downhill. He was tagged for nine runs in five innings in his next start, and while he logged four quality starts in May, he posted a 7.39 ERA in his 87 2/3 innings after the gem, notching just four wins and spending a month on the disabled list due to a flexor pronator strain.
Things went even worse after he moved on to the Astros as a waiver-wire pickup in 2013 (0-8, 7.90 in 54 2/3 innings), and by '15, he was getting roughed up in the Korean Baseball Organization. After a last-ditch try with the Padres in the spring of 2016, he retired.
Dallas Braden, 2010
A 24th round draft pick out of Texas Tech in 2004, Braden overcame a hardscrabble upbringing, shoulder surgery and a lack of fastball velocity to make the majors in '07. Between returns to the minors and a 2009 trip to the disabled list for a foot infection, he had a modest career mark of 17-23 with a 4.62 ERA when he took the mound in Oakland on May 9, 2010 to face the Rays on Mother's Day. His greatest fame to that point had come in a bizarre incident just a couple of weeks earlier, a heated exchange with Alex Rodriguez over the Yankees slugger having crossed "his" mound while returning to first base following a foul ball, a controversy that generated national attention.
In his first start after that confrontation, Braden had been roughed up by Tampa Bay, but just 11 days later he made history against them, finishing with six strikeouts and getting Gabe Kapler to ground out to short to end it. Braden enjoyed several other strong outings that year, including a pair of complete-game four-hitters in August, and finished the season 11-14 with a 3.50 ERA in 192 2/3 innings. He made just three starts in 2011 before undergoing surgery to repair a torn anterior shoulder capsule, and he never made it back to pitching a competitive game; all told, he notched just eight wins after his perfecto. He's now a broadcaster on ESPN, where he's cultivated a unique look, to say the least.
Len Barker, 1981
After debuting with the Rangers in September 1976, Barker spend the next three seasons only intermittently sticking in rotations with Texas and Cleveland before going 19-12 with a gaudy 4.17 ERA and a league-high 187 strikeouts for the Indians in 1980. He came into his start on May 15 against the Blue Jays in Cleveland on a roll, having allowed just two runs while striking out 23 over his previous three outings. In front of just 7,290 fans at Municipal Stadium, with the temperature just 49 degrees at first pitch, the 25-year-old righty heated things up with his 96 mph fastball, striking out 11 Toronto hitters without allowing a baserunner. Said his 92-year-old grandmother after his perfect game, "I'm very proud of him. I hope he does better the next time."
After the seven-week players' strike, Barker went on to make the All-Star team for the only time in his career and he again led the AL in strikeouts, although his 3.91 ERA amounted to just a 94 ERA+. He set a career best the following year (3.90 ERA, 106 ERA+) while going 15-11, but from 1983 to '87, he was cuffed for a 4.88 ERA while going 20-34 and failing to live up to a five-year, $4 million contract he signed with Atlanta after being acquired for their stretch run in 1983. He last pitched in the majors for the Brewers in 1987.
Don Larsen, 1956
While he threw the most famous perfect game in major league history—the only one in the World Series to date—Larsen rarely stood out otherwise during his 14-year career. He broke in with the St. Louis Browns in 1953, and in '54, the franchise's first season after having moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles, he went 3-21 with a 4.37 ERA and more walks than strikeouts; those 21 losses marked the only time he led a league in a statistical category.
Traded to the Yankees as part of a 17-player (!) blockbuster in November 1954, Larsen posted a respectable 45-24 record with a 3.50 ERA in five seasons with New York, including 11-5, 2.36 in 1956. On Oct. 8, he overpowered a Brooklyn Dodgers lineup featuring four future Hall of Famers, striking out pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell for the 27th and final out of a 2-0 win. He helped them win pennants again in '57 and '58 and gave up just one run in two starts in the latter season as the Yankees beat the Braves to win the World Series.
In December 1959 New York traded Larsen to the Kansas City A's, the first of six more big league stops he would make. With the Giants in '62, he came out of the bullpen three times in the World Series against the Yankees, winning Game 4. He never made an All-Star appearance, however, and finished his career in 1967 with a record of 81-91 and a 3.78 ERA (99 ERA+).
Charlie Robertson, 1922
Though he had debuted with the ill-fated White Sox in 1919, the 26-year-old Robertson was making just his fifth big league appearance on April 30, 1922 when he took the mound against the Tigers. Though Detroit would finish first in the AL in on-base percentage that year and second in scoring, they could do nothing aganst the undistinguished Robertson. Future Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Harry Heilmann would both later claim that Robertson was doctoring the ball, an allegation never proved.
Robertson's gem would be the majors’ last until Don Larsen pitched one in the World Series, and the last in the regular season until Phillies righty Jim Bunning, a future Hall of Famer, spun one against the Mets in 1964. Robinson went 14-15 with 21 compete games and a respectable 3.64 ERA (111 ERA+) in 272 innings in 1922, and he had a similarly solid follow-up in '23 (13-18, 3.81), but thereafter he battled arm problems and was lit for a 5.22 ERA while going 22-46 in five more seasons with second division-dwelling White Sox, Browns and Braves squads.