Another perfect game? Ho Humber. This is getting routine.
When the White Sox's Philip Humber struck out the Mariners' Brendan Ryan on a check swing to complete the 21st perfect game in major league history Saturday afternoon, he became the fourth man to pitch an official perfect game since 2009, the fifth if you include Armando Galarraga, who was perfect for 28 batters in 2010 but was robbed of the perfecto by a blown call at first base on the 27th, and sixth if you include Jonathan Sanchez's 2009 no-hitter, which was an eighth-inning Juan Uribe error away from perfection making Sanchez also essentially perfect for 28 batters. Before 2009 there had never been more than two perfect games in any four-year span in major league history, but in the last four years there have been four, plus Galarraga and Sanchez.
Unfortunately, something that occurs as infrequently as a perfect game is so random that no meaningful conclusions can be drawn when those occurrences start to clump up. After all, the games referenced above amounted to just six of the 15,208 games started in the regular and postseasons since the beginning of the 2009 season, or .04 percent. Random doesn't necessarily mean rare, and four perfect games and two essentially perfect games in four years is not necessarily a trend. However, that doesn't mean that Humber's performance was necessarily any flukier than, say, Roy Halladay's two years ago. Those who see Humber's perfect game as particularly shocking because of the circuitous route his career took to this point are underrating Humber a little and overrating the Mariners a lot.
A perfect game is a game in which no member of one team reaches base, and reaching base is something at which the Mariners are exceptionally bad. Before Saturday, the Mariners' on-base percentage was .285 (compared to a major league average of .316). Only two teams had reached base less often to that point in the season, the Pirates and, sadly, the A's. It's early, you might say. Small sample, you might say. Well, last year, the Mariners' on-base percentage was .292, dead last in the majors, even behind all 16 teams who let their pitchers hit, and when they played at their pitching friendly home ballpark, where Saturday's game was played, that number dropped to .289. In 2010, the team OBP was .298, also dead last in the majors.
A sub-.300 on-base percentage for an individual player, even one who contributes a lot on defense, is grounds for removal from the staring lineup (think Pedro Feliz, Rey Ordoñez, Jeff Mathis ...). The Mariners' entire team has been that bad for three years running. Given the rash of no-hitters in recent years, Humber's is the 10th since 2010, not counting Galarraga who technically gave up a hit to the 27th man, it's almost more surprising that it took this long for the Mariners to fall victim to one, and, by the standards of such things, not terribly surprising that when they finally did it came at home and was a perfect game.
Better yet, of the Mariners' nine regulars, the only one who entered this game with an on-base percentage above .311 was Ryan, and he didn't start this game. Japanese veteran Munenori Kawasaki, who took a .267 OBP into just his seventh major league game, started in his place at shortstop. Kawasaki tried to bunt his way on base with two outs in the sixth, but Humber made the play to retire his 18th straight. Ryan finally pinch-hit for Kawasaki with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, worked Humber full and checked his swing at an obvious ball four that got past catcher A.J. Pierzynski, but home plate umpire Brian Runge ruled that Ryan swung, and Ryan was too busy being outraged at that call to make the play at first base close.
I've yet to see a replay of that final out that convinces me either way on the call, but one wonders if Runge had Jim Joyce, the highly regarded umpire who will unfortunately be remembered primarily from robbing Galarraga of his perfect game via a badly blow call at first base, on his mind before the pitch. Or perhaps he was thinking of Bruce Froemming, who called two close pitches balls with Milt Pappas one strike away from perfection in 1972, resulting in a walk and the first base runner of the game. If so, he wouldn't be the first umpire to give a pitcher a favorable call one out away from a no-hitter. The final called strike of Don Larsen's perfect game leaps to mind immediately as an especially dubious call.
As for Humber, yes, this is a pitcher who was cut loose three times between the end of the 2009 season and the start of the 2011 campaign, but let's not forget that Mets made him the third overall pick of the 2004 draft, that he was a key piece obtained by the Twins in the Johan Santana trade, and that he appeared to finally find his footing in the majors last year, posting a 3.69 ERA and 1.17 WHIP (thanks in part to a tidy 2.3 walks per nine innings) in 26 starts for the White Sox.
That 2011 performance was a better season than Dallas Braden had in 2009, the year before his perfect game, comparable to Larsen or Galarraga's best seasons, and more than 19th century lefty Lee Richmond, who threw the first perfect game in major league history in 1880, or fellow White Sock Charlie Robertson, whose 1922 perfecto was the last before Larsen's in 1956, did before their perfect games. In fact, it's more than Robertson ever did. At 29, Humber is older than all five of those men were when they accomplished perfection (officially or otherwise), but there's a decent chance that he could still have a better career than any of them. Galarraga is only 30, but he's not on a major league staff. Braden is only 28 but hasn't pitched in more than a calendar year due to shoulder surgery. Larsen had a 14-year career but never made 30 starts in a season and finished with a dead-average 3.78 ERA, 1.40 WHIP and 1.17 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
So Humber's was far from the least likely perfect game ever pitched
I can offer a few guesses. The fact that the balance of the game has been tilting back toward the pitchers in recent years likely has played a role. The largest clump of perfect games before 2009 was the three perfect games in five years from 1964 to 1968, which happened to be the most pitching-dominated period of the liveball era. One reason there likely weren't more perfect games during the dead-ball era (just two between 1881 and 1919), was that the fielding wasn't as good, in part due to the gloves the players wore and the conditions of the fields they played on. The overall major league fielding percentage in 1919 was .966. In 1900 it was .942. In 2011 it was .983. Beyond Sanchez's, there have been seven other no-hitters in which the only base runners reached via error, and it's possible that there would have been more in the days before television replay if the official scorers had the chance to review plays before making their ruling.
One of those error-only no-nos was Terry Mulholland's in 1990. If that was a perfect game, there would have been three in four years from 1988 to 1991, besting that 1964-68 stretch. Note that there were 14 no-hitters in 1990 and 1991 combined, besting the total from 2009 to present. Meanwhile, the major league average of 4.28 runs scored per team per game in 2011 was the lowest since 1992, and thus far run scoring in 2012 season has been right around the same level. One can't draw a direct line from those low run-scoring rates to the increase in perfect games -- perfection is still so rare that it can never be expected even when run scoring and leaguewide on-base percentages are at their lowest points in decades -- but the state of the game is certainly more conducive to such accomplishments than it has been in roughly twenty years.
All of which does nothing to take away from Humber's accomplishment. As common as perfect games seem to have become, and even if we include Galarraga, Humber is still just the 22nd man in the 143-year history of the major leagues to have thrown one. Even in an increasingly pitching-friendly period, in a pitchers' park, against a team that needs a map to find first base, that's an awesome accomplishment.