Thursday, February 9, 2023

MLB’s perfect game drought reaches 10 years: A deeper look as baseball perfection remains elusive

MLB's perfect game drought reaches 10 years: A deeper look as baseball perfection remains elusive

Félix Hernández threw the last perfect game in 2012; MLB is in the midst of its longest drought in 40 years

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Monday marks the 10th anniversary of one the game’s most memorable recent feats.

Below is the final out of the perfect game twirled by Seattle Mariners legend Félix Hernández on Aug. 15, 2012. Hernández’s historic gem against the Tampa Bay Rays on that day was just the 23rd recognized perfect game ever and just the 21st since the modern American League-National League era began in 1903. What makes this anniversary even more notable is that Hernández’s 2012 perfecto is the last perfect game to be thrown in Major League Baseball. 

Yes, we’ve achieved several examples of almost-perfection over the last decade — including Drew Rasmussen‘s near miss on Sunday — but the perfect game itself has remained elusive. Let’s put the current perfect game drought in some historical context by looking at the time elapsed between each of those 23 perfect games: 

Lee Richmond, Worcester Worcesters

Cleveland Blues

June 12, 1880

John Montgomery Ward, Providence Grays

Buffalo Bisons

June 17, 1880

5 days

Cy Young, Boston Americans

Philadelphia Athletics

May 5, 1904

23 years, 10 months, 23 days

Addie Joss, Cleveland Naps

Chicago White Sox

Oct. 2, 1908

4 years, 4 months, 27 days

Charlie Robertson, Chicago White Sox

Detroit Tigers

April 30, 1922

13 years, 6 months, 28 days

Don Larsen, New York Yankees

Brooklyn Dodgers

Oct. 8, 1956

34 years, 5 months, 8 days

Jim Bunning, Philadelphia Phillies

New York Mets

June 21, 1964

7 years, 8 months, 13 days

Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodgers

Chicago Cubs

Sept. 9, 1965

1 year, 2 months, 19 days

Catfish Hunter, Oakland Athletics

Minnesota Twins

May 8, 1968

2 years, 7 months, 29 days

Len Barker, Cleveland Indians

Toronto Blue Jays

May 15, 1981

13 years, 7 days

Mike Witt, California Angels

Texas Rangers

Sept. 30, 1984

3 years, 4 months, 15 days

Tom Browning, Cincinnati Reds

Los Angeles Dodgers

Sept. 16, 1988

3 years, 11 months, 17 days

Dennis Martínez, Montreal Expos

Los Angeles Dodgers

July 28, 1991

2 years, 10 months, 12 days

Kenny Rogers, Texas Rangers

California Angels

July 28, 1994

3 years

David Wells, New York Yankees

Minnesota Twins

May 17, 1998

3 years, 9 months, 20 days

David Cone, New York Yankees

Montreal Expos

July 18, 1999

1 year, 2 months, 2 days

Randy Johnson, Arizona Diamondbacks

Atlanta Braves

May 18, 2004

4 years, 10 months, 1 day

Mark Buehrle, Chicago White Sox

Tampa Bay Rays

July 23, 2009

5 years, 2 months, 6 days

Dallas Braden, Oakland Athletics

Tampa Bay Rays

May 9, 2010

9 months, 17 days

Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies

Florida Marlins

May 29. 2010

21 days

Philip Humber, Chicago White Sox

Seattle Mariners

April 21, 2012

1 year, 10 months, 24 days

Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants

Houston Astros

June 13, 2012

1 month, 24 days

Félix Hernández, Seattle Mariners

Tampa Bay Rays

Aug. 15, 2012

2 months, 2 days

Those first two 19th-century perfectos are counted since they occurred in the National League, but they should really be dismissed since the rules of play were significantly different in 1880. As noted, we’ve had just 21 perfect games in the modern era — i.e., since 1903, when the first AL-NL World Series was played. Not meeting the official definition of a perfect game are the efforts of Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 26, 1959 and Pedro Martinez of the Montreal Expos on June 3, 1995. In Martinez’s case, he lost his perfect game in the 10th, and Haddix lost his in the 13th. That’s because the rules stipulate that a pitcher is credited with a perfect game only if he prevents any baserunners for the entire game even if that game stretches beyond the usual nine innings. Had Haddix’s and Martinez’s teammates provided them with a single run of support during the first nine innings, they’d be on the list above.   

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As you may have already sussed out, we’re presently experiencing the longest perfect game drought since the early 1980s and the third-longest since 1900. So what gives? Well, it’s baseball, and the unsatisfactory answer is that it’s very likely just randomness at work. Yes, it’s been 10 years since we had a perfect game, but in 2010 alone we had three. From 2009 through 2012 we had six. In the 10 years since Hernández crafted history, nine pitchers have lost perfect game bids in the ninth inning (counting Rasmussen). That’s just how such things go in a sport like baseball, which is heavily influenced by luck be it good or bad. 

Beyond that, you can argue that conditions over the last 10 years have been less conducive toward perfect games when compared to the sprawl of modern baseball history. In essence, a pitcher is competing against the opposing team’s on-base percentage when attempting to pitch a perfect game (fielding errors can also ruin a perfecto, of course). Since 1903 – the onset of the modern era – the league OBP has been .328. Since the start of the 2013 season, however, that figure has fallen to .319. In theory that should make perfect games more likely over the last 10 years than they have been across all 119 years of the modern era. Again, the luck and randomness native to baseball are the real drivers. 

Obviously, someone will break through at some point and pitch the next perfect game – maybe it’ll even happen this season. Until then, though, Hernández’s appointment with history remains the last one that any moundsman has managed to keep. Meantime, the drought grows day by day, game by game.

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