Yesterday, Felix Hernandez went 27-up, 27-down against Tampa Bay, becoming just the 23rd pitcher in baseball history to throw a perfect game. Amazingly, this was the sixth perfect game in the last four years, as Felix joins the company of Mark Buehrle, Dallas Braden, Roy Halladay, Philip Humber, and Matt Cain as the newest members of the club.
Back when Cain threw his perfect game in June — striking out 14 games in the process — I looked at where that game ranked in history, and noted that it was in the conversation with Kerry Wood‘s 20 strikeout performance and no-hitters from Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax as one of the best games in history. While Game Score does a pretty good job of scaling relative performances, however, it doesn’t evaluate for context — park, league, opponent, etc… So, that’s what I set out to do today.
It’s simply more work than I have time for to go through every perfect game in history to evaluate the quality of the opponent, the park the game was played in, and the run environment of the day, but with the help of Jeff Zimmerman, I was able to look at the most recent six. Thanks to the fantastic custom leaderboard feature here on FanGraphs, it is not that difficult to compile the statistics of a specific group of players, like for instance the batters who were matched up against a guy who threw a perfect game. From there, we can look at the relative strength of the batters that each pitcher had to face.
For the recent six, here are the opponents they faced on their road to perfection – you can click through the links to see the custom leaderboards with each player’s performance from that year.
7/23/09: Buehrle vs 2009 Rays.
Buehrle got the Rays at home on a Thursday afternoon getaway game, but Tampa Bay still ran out most of their regulars, just subbing in the backup catcher in a day-game-after-night situation. This was a good year for Tampa’s offense too, as the nine guys in the line-up that day combined to hit .270/.356/.465 in 2009, good for a .359 wOBA. Each member of the Crawford/Zobrist/Pena/Longoria/Bartlett group posted a wOBA over .367 that year, and Crawford was the only one who wasn’t particularly good agains left-handed pitchers. Making up Crawford’s weakness against LHBs was the presence of Gabe Kapler, who posted a .394 wOBA against LHPs that year. This was simply a staggeringly good line-up to get completely shut down.
5/9/10: Braden vs 2010 Rays.
Hey, look, it’s mostly the same group of guys that Buehrle faced. Michael Hernandez got swapped out for Dioner Navarro behind the plate and Willy Aybar was DH’ing instead of Pat Burrell, but those guys were just as ineffective as the previous incarnation. This group was a bit worse, though, as Bartlett went from having an insane year back to being a weak-bat shortstop, and Zobrist’s offense regressed a lot in 2010. This group of nine combined for a .333 wOBA in 2010, so while they were still above average offensively, they weren’t hitting like they did the year before, especially against left-handers. Also worth noting – this was a Saturday afternoon game, so again, day-game-after-night situation.
5/29/10: Halladay vs 2010 Marlins.
The Marlins threw 12 different batters at Halladay, pinch-hitting for the entire bottom third of their order in the bottom of the 9th inning. So, here, it’s not quite as simple as averaging out the entire season lines for the starting nine, since there weren’t equal opportunity, but we can still evaluate the strength of that Marlins offense without too much trouble. And, to be frank, it wasn’t great. Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez were having strong seasons, but both were also right-handed batters, which meant that Halladay had the platoon advantage against them. Every other batter Halladay faced that day was a below average hitter vs RHPs, ranging from okay bats like Gaby Sanchez and Chris Coghlan to automatic outs like Josh Johnson and Mike Lamb. As a group, Halladay’s opponents posted a .312 wOBA against right-handers in 2010, and while weighting the line by number of at-bats given to each player shifts that up a bit, this was still a below average offense that Halladay was facing. Unlike the two against Tampa Bay before him, though, this was a night game.
4/21/12: Humber vs 2012 Mariners.
If you were to pick a team that you’d expect to get perfecto’d over the last few years, it’d probably be the Mariners. Their offense is better this year than it was the last two, but it’s still pretty bad, with John Jaso representing the team’s only above average hitter this season, and he didn’t even start against Humber. Another afternoon game, the Mariners were also using backup shortstop — and completely useless hitter — Munenori Kawasaki at shortstop, and this was the part of the season where they were still trying to extract value from Chone Figgins, so he was hitting leadoff and playing left field. The whole group of hitters Humber faced have combined for a .286 wOBA this year, and that doesn’t improve at all against right-handers. Of the guys who started for the Mariners that day, Kyle Seager‘s .321 wOBA vs RHPs was the best in the line-up, and Ichiro Suzuki was the only other batter in the line-up to clear the .300 mark. This line-up deserved what they got.
6/13/12: Cain vs 2012 Astros.
It’s easy to dismiss Cain’s performance since it came against the Astros, who are clearly baseball’s worst team this season, but that’s not totally fair to his accomplishment. They did run out a couple of solid hitters that night, including Jed Lowrie and Jose Altuve, and the overall group of batters Cain faced have posted a .310 wOBA this year. That’s not great, but they weren’t all automatic outs either, and they actually did slightly better than that against right-handed pitching this season. It was also a night game, so Cain wasn’t facing too many back-ups — beyond the joke about everyone on Houston being a back-up on a good club, anyway — and J.A. Happ‘s terrible performance meant he only got to hit once. So, while the quality of opponent here wasn’t great, this wasn’t the total cakewalk you might think when you heard someone beat up on the 2012 Astros.
8/15/12: Hernandez vs 2012 Rays.
Hey, it’s the Rays again. They show up here for the third time, but this is a pretty different group than the first two. Upton, Zobrist, and Longoria are still around, as is the ghost of Carlos Pena, but everything else has been turned over. It was another day-game-after-night situation, so Felix got to face the likes of Sam Fuld and Elliot Johnson, but Joyce and Longoria were still in the line-up and Jeff Keppinger and Desmond Jennings both pinch-hit in the ninth inning, so this wasn’t a total scrub best. Still, the group’s .319 wOBA is inflated a bit by the single plate appearances from Keppinger and Jennings, so the first two times through the order, the Rays offense was a bit worse than that number would suggest. As a righty getting to roll through the Lobaton/Johnson/Rodriguez/Fuld quartet, nearly half of the line-up the Rays rolled out there didn’t present much of a challenge.
So, just adjusting for quality of competition, Buehrle seems to stand out as the most impressive perfect game of the bunch. He faced a legitimately good offense at full strength with no platoon issues against left-handed pitchers. In fact, if we adjust for ballpark effects, Buehrle again comes out on top, as he threw his in the hitter’s haven of US Celluar Field, while every other perfect game in the last four years has been thrown in a pretty extreme pitcher’s park.
The hardest opponent and hardest environment awards go to Buehrle, with Braden probably coming in second, and then Halladay/Felix/Cain all facing similar-ish challenges in terms of park and quality of batters faced. Humber clearly had the easiest path to perfection, facing a brutally awful line-up in a park that is just destroying offense this year, primarily by suppressing hits on balls in play.
Of course, Felix, Cain, and Halladay all racked up double digit strikeouts, doing more of the work themselves and relying less on balls getting hit right at their defenders, and going by sheer dominance, they’re the ones throwing unhittable pitches. Buehrle got 21 outs on balls in play using his 85 mph fastball and diving change-up, which just doesn’t look as overpowering as the breaking balls that Felix was busting off yesterday. But, when you consider who he was pitching against, and where he was pitching, Buehrle’s perfect game is probably the most impressive of the whole bunch.
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