Monday, May 10, 2010

The Perfect Odds and Ends

The Common Man visited the new ballpark in Minnesota this weekend, and had a brilliant time. Much has been written about the new park, but TCM will post his pictures and share his impressions tomorrow. Today though? Today’s all about The Perfect Game. The Common Man’s got all you want to know about perfectos.

Obviously, Braden’s perfect game is impressive. It’s a feat that has only been accomplished 19 times in league history, and just 17 times since 1900. Braden is in exclusive company that includes Hall of Famers John Ward, Cy Young, Addie Joss, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax, Catfish Hunter, and (eventually) Randy Johnson. But the truth of the matter is that the rate of perfect games has increased since the 1980s. Indeed, between Joss’s gem and Charlie Robertson’s in 1922, 14 years past. After Robertson, it would be until 1956 before Don Larsen pitched his perfect game in the World Series, a 34 year layoff. Then there was an eight year lull until Bunning and Koufax did it in back-to-back years. After Koufax, there was a 16 year break. Since 1981, when Len Barker secured his immortality, the rate of perfect games has been relatively steady, with a new one coming every 3-5 years. 1981, 1984, 1988, 1991, 1994, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2009, 2010. Look at the following chart to get a sense of the dramatic increase:

Still, Braden’s gem is pretty impressive, particularly against a good club like the Rays. Of course, we don’t know where the Rays will finish the season, but they’re likely to finish in contention. Counter-intuitively, of the 17 perfect games since 1900, nine have come against clubs with a winning record. You’d think, of course, that teams who get utterly dominated in this way would tend to be poor overall. The overall winning percentage of teams getting blanked is .494 (1,225-1256) thanks to an epically bad Mets team that went 53-109 and got shut down by Koufax. Two of the opposing clubs ended up in the World Series. Obviously, one of these is the Dodgers club of 1956 who Don Larsen victimized in the World Series. The other, the 1988 Dodgers who were stopped by Tom Browning, also made it to the series, and won.

The Dodgers are the current record holder for most times being blanked in a perfect game, as they were victims in the aforementioned ’56 and ’88 games, and also in 1991 against Dennis Martinez. The Rays join the Dodgers and the Twins as the only teams to have laid down for 27 straight batters more than once, since they were also shut down last year by Mark Buehrle.

Of course, there were several players in the Rays lineup who played in both perfect games. BJ Upton, Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, Ben Zobrist, and Gabe Kapler each played all of both games, getting six trips to the plate each. That said, they are not the first players to be shut down twice. Catcher Ossee Schreckengost played in both of the first two perfect games in the 20th century, getting five at bats (and being pinch hit for in the second game). Not surprisingly, Ossie wasn’t much of a hitter and had a .199 and .247 OBP in ’04 and ’08 respectively. But none of these players is close to touching the record for most at bats in a perfect game for a losing team. That honor is held by one of the great all field-no hit shortstops of all time. Alfredo Griffin actually got into three perfect games on the losing end, including twice as a leadoff hitter (Griffin had a career .285 OBP, and had just a 59% stolen base percentage across 18 seasons. The low point was 1980, when he stole 18 bases, but was caught 23 times.). Griffin had eight at bats in these three games, but was mercifully lifted in the 9th for pinch hitter Stan Javier in 1991.

Griffin was part of, by far, the easiest American League team to no hit. His 1981 Blue Jays (who finished just 37-69) were an abysmal offensive club, as they broke in a number of young players. Lloyd Moseby (.278 OBP) and George Bell (.256), both in the lineup, were just 21, Danny Ainge (.258) was 22. Damaso Garcia (.277) and Willie Upshaw (.252) were both 24. Aside from 1B John Mayberry (.360), no one else in the starting lineup had an OBP above .290. Griffin (who was 23 years old) was by far the worst offender, with a .243 OBP on the year. That particular lineup had a .282 OBP for the year, and should have had a .277 OBP in the game. Len Barker had a relatively easy time that day, in comparison to his peers.

While their lineup’s OBP was considerably higher (.324), the ’64 Cubs offered probably the easiest lineup that allowed perfection. While Billy Williams and Ron Santo pumped up the overall performance of the group over the course of the season, the Cubs started two players who did not get on base in 1964 (OF Byron Browne and P Bob Hendley) and one player (OF Don Young) who got on base just twice in 36 plate appearances. These three offensive sink holes got 8 of the 27 at bats in the contest. As such, their expected OBP in that game was around .230. Koufax easily mowed them down.

The toughest lineup to pitch a perfect game against was undoubtedly the ’22 Tigers, who rookie Charlie Robertson (making just his 3rd big league start) blanked for one of his 49 career victories. The Tigers boasted Ty Cobb (.462 OBP, easily the highest OBP of any player who was shut down in a perfect game), Harry Heilman (.432), Lu Blue (.422), Topper Rigney (.380) and Bobby Veach (.377). When their pitcher (Herman Pillette) was due up in the 9th, the Tigers sent Johnny Bassler (.422) up to the plate. The lineup’s OBP for the year was .383, and should have had a .363 mark in the game. By a wide mark, the Tigers were the best lineup to ever be set down in order. Still, they couldn’t match Robertson.

For what it’s worth, any suggestion that teams should not be using every method at their disposal to get on base is ridiculous. In the past, The Common Man has heard criticism when managers send up pinch hitters or try to bunt for a hit in a no hitter. There’s some ridiculous notion that that’s part of an “unwritten” rulebook. That’s ridiculous. For 90 years, from Cy Young’s perfect game against the A’s in 1904 until Kenny Rogers’ perfecto against the Angels, teams had used pinch hitters in perfect games, and not just for the pitcher. The White Sox used three pinch hitters against Joss in 1908. The Mets also used three against Jim Bunning in ’64 (fat lot of good it did them). In the DH era, the Blue Jays still pinch hit for their 3B and C against Len Barker. The Expos used two pinch hitters against David Cone and the Yankees in ’99, despite playing in an AL park. Of the 17 post-1900 perfect games, only four times did managers not go to their bench. Only Marcel Lachemann (’94), Tom Kelly (’98), and Joe Maddon (’09-’10) played it straight, and likely did so either for platoon advantage or because their bench was weak.

Braden may not end up being as good as the other pitchers on this list. He’s still 39 career wins behind Robertson to get out of last place on the list of 20th and 21st century pitchers who have pitched perfect games. But with his short stature, his screwball, and his attitude, he’s going to be a fun pitcher to root for. And The Common Man will be sure to be watching on Friday, when he gets a chance to go Johnny VanderMeer on the Angels. Congratulations to him and to his family, who sound like nice people who don't have a bad thing to say about anybody.

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