The Rarity and Randomness of Baseball's Perfect Game
Nothing is perfect in life, so they sometimes say (although I'm not quite sure who "they" are). Baseball, however, has its own version of perfection. For those who don't know, a perfect game in baseball is when a pitcher gets every hitter out without allowing a single base runner. This also means no errors can be made, so the perfect game is a bit of a team effort compared to the more common no hitter. As impressive as a perfect game is, it feels like it could happen fairly often with baseball being a sport where success is not always defined by results. We've all watched a game and seen a hitter line out 4 times. "Unlucky" is the proper way to describe it. So how hard could it be for 27 guys to get out in a row? Of the 2,430 regular season games played every year, surely at least one of them will have enough hitters get "unlucky" to compliment a dominant pitching performance and result in a perfect game. Not quite. Let's dive in.
Let's jump straight into the numbers. According to baseball reference, in the entire history of baseball (since 1876), there have been 236,204 games played (as of April 26th, 2023). There have been 23 perfect games. 236,204 times, play ball has been yelled (let's assume they yelled play ball back in the late 1800's), and only 23 of those times has the game resulted in a dog pile celebrating perfection. To understand this for all my fellow math nerds, that means 0.009% of games, or 1 in every ~10,300 games, have been perfect games. Even getting close is actually a lot harder than you think. In just the last 25 years, only 14 games have made it to the 9th inning with the perfect game still intact before being broken up in the final 3 outs. In fact, even with pitching in the MLB as dominant as we've ever seen it, we haven't seen a perfect game in over 10 years. A perfect game is truly something to be celebrated.
The Closest Calls
There have been a few performances that are really worth talking about, although they aren't etched in the history books as perfect games. The first is the most notable to me, because I remember watching it live. Armando Galarraga (who?) was one out away from a perfect game, and he got the 27th batter out. The catch? Umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe, despite everyone else in the world knowing he was out. I mean, an egregious call that Jim Joyce says still haunts him to this day, I personally count this as a perfect game in my book. Galarraga deserved this and was robbed of it. And the silly thing is, in today's MLB, they would've taken that to the replay booth and overturned the call in 4 seconds.
We've also seen two pitchers, Harvey Haddix in 1959 and Pedro Martinez in 1995, have a perfect game in tact through 9 innings, but had to go to extra innings because the game was still tied. Both pitchers lost their perfect game bid in extra's, and although they are not official in the books, these two deserve to be recognized (especially Haddix, who was perfect through 12 innings until he lost it in the 13th).
I quickly want to explain what I mean by "randomness." We already saw the near perfect game by Armando Galarraga, which as I mentioned, should likely be recognized as a true perfect game. The real question is who the heck is Armando Galarraga. He only played 6 seasons, has a combined 26-34 W/L record to go with a 4.78 ERA. Now anyone who makes the MLB is among the best in the world, but in terms of baseball lore, Galarraga is nobody. He was in and out of the league fairly quickly, and if not for that one outing in June 2010 we wouldn't know his name. And yet, he was one bad call away from accomplishing baseball's rarest feat.
While some of the games' best pitchers are on the short list of perfect game throwers, like Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson, the list is not populated with many of the greats. Greg Maddux, Tom Seaver, Roger Clemons, and Nolan Ryan are some of the best and most dominant pitchers the game has ever seen. None of them are on that short list of perfection. You know who is? Phillip Humber. Dallas Braden. Two guys (like Galarraga) who have career losing records and ERA's of 4.15 or higher. I'm not taking anything away from these guys; they made the majors, stuck around for a bit, and are in the history books. It is just quite interesting that the hardest thing to do in baseball is not always accomplished by the best.
I just want to conclude this with one of my favorite perfect game highlights. The 9th inning of Mark Buehrle's perfect game on April 18, 2007 is just a beautiful thing to behold. It features one of the greatest and most underrated catches ever by Dewayne Wise, and an all time final call by passionate Hawk Harrelson (MERCY), who recognized that saying (yelling) very little truly said the most. I hope you enjoy.