Monday, April 23, 2012

Philip Who?

Two years ago I was forced to consider the question if Dallas Braden was the worst pitcher to ever throw a perfect game. This weekend the exact same thought came up with regards to Philip Humber. Humber is a career 12-10 pitcher with a 3.90 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 7 seasons, not exactly spectacular numbers. I guess that does make him slightly better than Braden, who owns a 26-36 record, 4.16 ERA, and 1.32 WHIP. So I guess we settled the case of Braden v. Humber, but each of them has such a limited resume that it's difficult to put much stock in the result. The lack of history and shining moments for pitchers like Humber makes it really hard for me to care that he just threw a perfect game.

We like to idealize the perfect game. It's a career defining moment that comes around only a few times in a generation. Well except for right now. In the last three seasons we've seen Humber, Braden, and almost Armando Galarraga pitch perfect games. If it wasn't for the masterful performance of Roy Halladay sandwiched in there, this achievement would begin to be associated with a rather pedestrian list of names. These players are starting to devalue the magic of the perfect game. When we think of the greatest game that could possibly be pitched we like to think of names such as Cy Young, Sandy Koufax, and Randy Johnson. Those are names that define great pitchers, the player that kids pretend they are when playing catch in the park. Although already legends, the perfect games sealed their fates as some of the greatest of all time. Roger Clemens never threw a perfect game, neither did Walter Johnson, Greg Maddux, Steve Carlton, or Tom Seaver. Nolan Ryan threw seven no-hitters but always allowed at least one man to reach base. As these legends sit on their couches drinking over their few missed opportunities, it can't be comforting to know that they were beaten into the pantheon by the likes of Philip Humber.

I want pitchers in the exclusive perfect game club to be more than just a footnote in baseball history. I think it's this quest for perfection that makes the perfect game so appealing to the fan. The idea of knowing that a great pitcher such has Halladay could kick it up a notch and get those one or two extra batters that he always seems to miss each game. Using his 2010 stats, the odds of Halladay throwing a perfect game were 0.02%. By comparison, using his career numbers the odds for Phillip Humber are 0.006%. It's only about a three times difference but it's that difference that makes us tune into all of Doc's starts and few of Humber's.  With Doc you always get the feeling that his next start might be something special. We should probably applaud Humber for beating the odds much more so than Halladay but beating the odds just isn't enough. The odds of Halladay throwing a perfect game are the same as a .241 hitter going 6/6 in a game. A 6/6 game is a story for a night though1 while a perfect game lives on forever. It's not just the long odds, but the mystique behind the perfect game and the kind of pitcher who throws it that makes the occurrence so special.

I don't mean to discount Philip Humber's game. It was an exceptional performance (even if it was against the Mariners) that most pitchers could only dream of throwing. I know I should be excited about it, but I just can't find the will to care. In the context of history, the perfect game just doesn't seem as perfect anymore. I was actually happy when Jim Joyce blew the final call for Galarraga, it would have been one more name to taint the list. I'm hoping we have to wait a long time for the next perfect game and the pitcher who throws it would have had a Hall of Fame career with or without the game. It can be something he holds over everyone at the next meeting of Cy Young winning pitchers2. The underdog story is fun, but at midnight Philip Humber turns back into a pumpkin and Halladay's accomplishment seems a little less impressive.

1Ian Kinsler batted .253 in 2009 when he had a 6/6 night. Does anyone outside of Texas remember this?
2I assume this is a real thing.

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