The Present Imperfect

This is Kate Preusser’s third piece as part of her month-long residency. Read her previous posts here. Listen to her appearance on FanGraphs Audio here.

When Benji Gonzalez, a 27-year-old non-roster invitee for the Twins, poked a single into right field to break up a perfect game being thrown by the Rays’ pitching staff one week into spring training, I admit to sighing in relief. No need for asterisks, then. No need for the arguments about whether a perfect game thrown by multiple pitchers counts as much as one thrown by a single pitcher. No reminders that spring training doesn’t count and that this technically wouldn’t go down in the record books as a perfect game.

Of course, spring training doesn’t count, but the white whale of a perfect game, even in spring training, even thrown by multiple pitchers, is such a compelling figure in baseball that discussion of it would have been inevitable — and made more inevitable, perhaps, by the fact that baseball fans haven’t seen a perfect game, spring training or otherwise, in five years.

There has already been one recorded spring-training perfect game — a Red Sox win over the Blue Jays in the year 2000, featuring starting pitcher Pedro Martinez. Pedro would go on to have a complicated relationship with the perfect game and the no-hitter, coming close but never quite getting there. The role he played in the perfect spring-training game is rarely noted. Once more for the folks in the back: spring training doesn’t count. Even Rays pitcher Danny Farquhar thought they were playing shuffleboard:

“It was probably two outs into my first inning when I realized we had a perfect game,” Farquhar said. “I’m like, ‘Wow, we have a lot of points, and they have zero points. I’m going to try and not mess this up.'”

The eloquent Lord Farquhar receives partial credit for this response. The Rays — whose 17-run offensive onslaught managed to so confound all involved parties that even Farquhar himself didn’t realize it was a perfect game until he was two-thirds deep in his own inning — did indeed have a lot of points. The Twins, however, didn’t just have zero points, they had perfectly zero points, and the Rays staff was hurtling toward rarefied air in the baseball sphere, even if this achievement would have to ride in a little sidecar or sit at a table in the back near the kitchen.

In the storied history of Major League Baseball, there have only been 23 perfect games. Only 23! That is, relatively, not a lot. It’s roughly the number of cans in a case of soda, or two handfuls’ worth of chips, or the approximate number of years Meghan Trainor has been All About That Bass. It’s a seemingly paltry amount for a game like baseball, where 162 games are played every year by 30 teams. And yet a variety of statistical models show that a pitcher is more likely to get struck by lightning than he is to throw a perfect game.

If you clicked on any of those links, what you’ll notice is they’re all from two or three or five years ago. That’s because it’s been half a decade since the last perfect game: August 15, 2012, when Felix Hernandez blanked the Tampa Bay Rays. Felix’s perfecto — which is how we refer to it, I guess because it seems like magic? Presto, perfecto — was actually the third thrown that year, coming close on the heels of two in 2010. This led to much hand-wringing amongst baseball pundits who penned articles about why no-hitters were becoming more common — to the point of losing their special sheen — and prognosticating that we would see more no-hitters and, therefore, more perfect games.

It’s an idea that seems to have statistical legs: league OBP is down from the .330-adjacent halcyon days of the middle-aughts to a lean and mean sub-.320; teams are more defensive-savvy than ever before with the advent of the shift; and the newest crop of fireballing pitchers strike out batters at historic rates. While no-hitters have increased over the past 15 years — 18 were thrown from 1999 to 2009, while that number spiked to 32 between 2010-2016 — the perfect game remains elusive.

Not that there haven’t been some close calls. While lacking the Hollywood drama (complete with book deal) of Armando Galarraga’s near-miss in 2010, the past five years have offered up several almost-perfect games, each with their own special, sad story. Sometimes they are prosaic, like Eric Young working a single off a rookie Shelby Miller in the first inning of a 2013 tilt before Miller would go perfect for the rest of the game. Sometimes they involve Hunter Pence, animatronic Passion Play escapee, diving for a ball in right field and missing it to ruin journeyman Yusmeiro Petit’s perfect game in the ninth inning back in 2013. Other times, they involve Hanley Ramirez sucking at defense, although in the court of public opinion, that game is an honorary perfecto. Max Scherzer was visited twice in 2015 by the Ghost of Christmas Almost, once when his infield couldn’t pick up a routine ground ball in the sixth, and another time when Jose Tabata probably leaned into a pitch.

To be frank: I am obsessed with this game, which I happened to be watching that day. As a Mariners fan, I am loath to watch Felix’s record fall, even while understanding that was lo these many moons ago, all records must fall, yada yada yada. But if it had to be someone, I thought, I couldn’t be mad about it being the heterogenously-eyed, dog-rescuing Max Scherzer.


Full disclosure: I spend too much time thinking about this at bat. So much time. Calendar-pages-flying-away-in-an-old-movie kinds of time. Of course, this is an epic screwup by the umpiring crew, who should have picked up Tabata’s total unwillingness to get out of the way of the pitch, that slight abdominal contraction he makes to actually bring himself closer to it. Of course, Tabata is just trying to make something happen, because a six-run deficit in the ninth with two outs and two strikes isn’t… nope. Nope. Cost-benefit analysis here says even if Tabata gets on base with the HBP, the next batter is probably going to go down anyway, so why not preserve your integrity as a baseball player and just take your lumps? Why are humans so prone to error and bad judgement and Hunter Pence’s marionette-like arrangement of limbs?

Ultimately, our very humanness is what keeps us from achieving the perfect. Pitchers like Scherzer and Kershaw can spin gems, only to be let down by the defense behind them. Into every life a little Hunter Pence must fall. Or the slider gets away, arrives fat and slow over the plate, a bumblebee drunk on too much nectar, and gets punished. We are not creatures designed for perfection. A symmetrical face has long been held up as the standard for beauty, representing good breedin’ genes; now, research shows that our brains might not disparage asymmetry as much as previously believed, and maybe even prefer it, embracing the beauty of the imperfect, like the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi.

The imperfect can charm; like poetry, it can surprise and delight. It can also frustrate, as Tabata did when he gave in to Poe’s imp of the perverse. (“What a nice perfect game you have here. Be a shame if someone leaned right into it.”) The French call this idea l’appel du vide, the call of the void. It’s the human impulse we have to think about how badly we can make things go. What if we jumped? It’s saying the one thing we should not say, doing the one thing we should not do, hanging a slider or leaning into a pitch. We are imperfect creatures, on both sides of the ball.

It’s been five years, and those who don’t understand the Gambler’s Fallacy might say MLB is due for its next perfect game. But even as OBP goes down and strikeouts go up, the human element remains: constantly, maddeningly inconsistent.

Kate Preusser lives in Seattle, where she manages Lookout Landing and spends too much time thinking and writing about Mariners baseball. Follow her on Twitter @1nceagain2zelda.

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5 years ago

Good post.