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Philip Humber a Reminder About the Unpredictability of Perfection

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Philip Humber a Reminder About the Unpredictability of Perfection
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Of the 200,000-plus games in the history of Major League Baseball, exactly 21 have ended with a pitcher going all nine innings without allowing a baserunner, which is more commonly known as a perfect game. MLB has sometimes gone entire decades without seeing a perfect game; heck, the National League once went 84 years between such contests.

So a lot of people were caught off guard when Philip Humber became the latest pitcher to accomplish the feat, setting down 27 Seattle Mariners in a row in a 4-0 victory at Safeco Field on Saturday afternoon. Humber, whose previous claim to fame was being a part of the trade that sent Johan Santana to the New York Mets, was about as far from the perfect game radar as any pitcher in baseball.   

But this is the most remarkable aspect of the perfect game: seemingly any pitcher, even one as nondescript as Humber, can throw one.   

The list of pitchers who have thrown a perfect game is about as varied as any list of feats in professional sports. Some pitchers who have accomplished the feat are on the short list for greatest pitchers in MLB history: Cy Young, Addie Joss, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax and Catfish Hunter are all in the Hall of Fame, while Randy Johnson and Roy Halladay both look like future first-ballot inductees.  Nobody is really surprised that historic aces such as these guys experienced perfection.

Other perfect-gamers put together long careers and put up similar numbers to some of the more questionable inductees (including Joss, Bunning and Hunter) who were ace-caliber pitchers at certain points in their careers. Pitchers like Dennis Martinez, David Wells, David Cone, Kenny Rogers and Mark Buehrle all fall under this heading.

But the list also includes plenty of otherwise unremarkable players who seemingly had no business experiencing perfection yet managed to catch lightning in a bottle for one glorious day.

Don Larsen, whose perfecto in the 1956 World Series is on the short list for greatest pitching performances in MLB history, went 81-91 during his 14-year career and was a starting pitcher in fewer than half of his 412 career appearances. 

Charlie Robertson, whose 1922 perfect game came in his fifth career start, went 49-80 with an ERA+ of 90 during his eight years in the Majors.

Len Barker, Tom Browning and Dallas Braden also fall into this category, as does Armando Galarraga, whose famous “imperfect game” in 2009 is by far the most notable moment of his career.

Humber, who is playing for his fifth organization and fourth MLB team, clearly falls into the last category.

There also does not appear to be any specific skill set required for throwing a perfect game. Although conventional wisdom would say that strikeout pitchers would have an advantage, it is by no means a requirement. Johnson, Koufax, Cone and Barker were all regarded as great strikeout artists during their careers, but nobody would ever confuse the likes of Hunter, Wells, Buehrle and Braden for power arms. 

Similarly, while great control is clearly a requirement for any perfect game, it does not need to be a permanent fixture in a pitcher’s arsenal. Johnson and Cone actually led the league in walks during individual seasons in their careers, while Barker, Larsen and Robertson wound up with less-than-stellar careers due primarily to control issues.

The perfect game is one of those rare feats that can be attained by literally any player at the position in the sport. Every pitcher who makes it to the Major Leagues is by definition one of the best in the world, and all it takes is one day of great control and everything else breaking right.

It does not take much to ruin a perfect game—one walk, one hit batter, one wild pitch, or one unfortunate call is all it takes—which is the main reason why they are so rare and therefore so memorable. 

Never be surprised by the name that throws a perfect game. Be impressed that he actually pulled it off.

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