Yusmeiro Petit’s Penultimate Pitch of Perfection

The last pitch Yusmeiro Petit threw while he had a perfect game was the one that ended his perfect game. It was a fastball, thigh-high, over the outer edge, and Eric Chavez got around it and lined it to right. The ball was very nearly caught, but everything in baseball is very nearly something else, and Petit’s bid was over with one strike to go. The pitch was just about right where Petit wanted it to be, and when he retired the next hitter, he had to settle for simply having pitched the game of his life. Immediately, it was easy to see the top of the ninth as bittersweet. Petit’s still never going to forget what he did, and how the crowd roared for him.

The second-to-last pitch Yusmeiro Petit threw while he had a perfect game was almost the one that sealed his perfect game. It was a curveball, knee-high, around the low-outside corner, and Eric Chavez took it for a ball. The count jumped from 2-and-2 to 3-and-2 — Petit would perhaps have to come into the zone. This pitch, more than the next one, is the one I find fascinating. It seemed to me to be almost the perfect pitch. It seemed to me to be the perfect way to end a perfect game.

You can see the pitch below, and you can see how tempting it must have been:


Petit thought for an instant he might’ve had the strike. The fans thought for an instant he might’ve had the strike. Hector Sanchez caught the ball dragging his glove below the zone — it’s difficult to frame a low curveball — but the pitch, clearly, was close:


The pitch, clearly, could’ve been called a strike:


We’re looking at Pitch No. 5. It’s below the zone, but the zone doesn’t have absolute, black-and-white borders, which is one of the reasons the Gameday zone borders are fuzzy and wide. The curve went exactly where Petit and Sanchez wanted it to. You might notice Pitch No. 1. That pitch, too, was a low curveball, taken for a ball to begin the at-bat. In a sense, then, that established precedent for this pitch not getting a strike. But later on, the count situation was different, and the game situation was different, and all the borders are a gray area. Sometimes, a borderline pitch is a ball, and sometimes that same borderline pitch is a strike. That’s the deal with borderlines.

I grew curious about pitches like this in the past, and about how they’d fared and how they’d been called if taken. Over the PITCHf/x era, I looked for 2-and-2 curves thrown to lefties in just about the same spot. Petit’s pitch was half a foot to the left of the center of home plate, and it was about 1.4 feet off the ground. I was able to identify 135 similar pitches from 2007 on. Interestingly, 112 were swung at, yielding 32 whiffs and 36 fouls. There were 23 that were taken, and just one of those was taken for a called strike three. It happened very recently, to a particularly short batter:


Out of curiosity, I looked at 2-and-2 fastballs thrown to the same spot. I isolated pitches at 90+ miles per hour, looking to see if maybe a straighter pitch would get more called strikes, since the catcher’s glove wouldn’t be moving downward as much. Of the 118 similar fastballs that were taken, just eight went for called third strikes. Clearly, this is not a zone where umpires like to grant third strikes, and that took me by surprise, since I was expecting rates at least around 20% or so. Unless you’re pitching to Jonathan Lucroy, there aren’t a lot of called strikes to be found around the lower edge of the zone. You can be aided by an excellent framer, but an average frame-job usually won’t do the trick.

So given the location, it’s not surprising that Petit didn’t get a called strikeout. It’s more surprising he didn’t get a swing. Again, historically, lefties have swung at this pitch five out of six times. Chavez himself had seen a similar pitch with two strikes six times — all six times, he swung, and three times he whiffed. Granted, this at-bat began with a low curve that Chavez took, but in that situation the count was 0-and-0. With two strikes, you’d expect Chavez to be more defensive, more willing to expand the zone. For Chavez, taking this pitch might’ve been even more impressive than lining the next pitch for a hit. The next pitch was just an 89 mile-per-hour fastball over the plate. This pitch was almost a perfect 2-and-2 curveball.

One thing of note: the home-plate umpire was Phil Cuzzi. Cuzzi would’ve understood the situation, and he would’ve recognized that a called strike would’ve cemented a perfect game. The pitch itself was a ball, but it wasn’t absolutely a ball; there existed an argument that it clipped a part of the zone. Cuzzi easily could’ve awarded the strike and the game, and there wouldn’t have been too much of a protest. Some of the discussion would’ve supported Cuzzi for overlooking Sanchez’s glovework, now that catcher-framing is a hot topic. I don’t have a purpose for this paragraph, other than the general point. Cuzzi wasn’t swayed by the situation. As a human, he easily could’ve been. I’m pretty sure that’s a point in Cuzzi’s favor, not that Giants fans would necessarily agree.

Yusmeiro Petit threw 93 pitches last Friday with a perfect game. He wound up with a 95-pitch complete-game shutout. Given the nature of Chavez’s two-out single, there’s been a lot of talk about how close Petit came to making history. That line drive was maybe a foot or a step from being snagged out of the air. On the pitch before, Petit came even closer. By location, he was off by maybe one or two inches. He was off by a split-second decision by Phil Cuzzi. He was off by a split-second decision by Eric Chavez. He was off by a lock of the wrist by Hector Sanchez. The perfect game was officially lost when a line drive dropped just in front of Hunter Pence, but that only happened after Eric Chavez took quite possibly a perfect 2-and-2 curveball. Chavez earned his full-count opportunity, and Petit hit his spots to the end.

Every perfect game comes down to a combination of execution and breaks. In the end, Petit missed by one break. Seconds after he missed by one break. They’re going to be talking about this game for years anyway, and Petit will be telling the story to his grandchildren, but it’ll be a story punctuated by two sighs and a shake of the head. It’s a pretty good story, though. It grips you until the end.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago

Cuzzi undoubtedly thought the pitch was foul down the left field line.