Chicago White Sox pitcher Phil Humber came out of obscurity when he pitched a perfect game this past Saturday. Twenty-seven up and 27 down is a magnificent feat, but I'll show you why it doesn't compare to a 20-strikeout game.
There have been 21 pitchers in baseball history to throw a perfect game, but just three pitchers who struck out 20 batters in a nine-inning game.
If we go to the modern era, the number goes down to 16, starting with Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series; so it's still five times easier to pitch a perfect game than strikeout 20 batters.
A perfect game is about luck, while a 20-strikeout performance is about dominance.
In Humber's game, the final batter, Brendan Ryan, struck out on a 3-2 pitch that was more than a foot outside and got away from the catcher, A.J. Pierzynski. Had Ryan taken the pitch, there is no perfect game. Had Ryan run as soon as the ball got away instead of hesitating and arguing, he might have beat the throw to first.
It would have been a close play, and under the pressure, the throw might have been off target or hit the runner. Anything could have happened, but it didn't. He was lucky.
And that's the basis for this argument. Any call by the umpire, whether it's balls and strikes or a play at first, changes the outcome of history.
Milt Pappas of the Cubs should have pitched a perfect game back in 1972, but umpire Bruce Froemming called a 3-2 pitch to Larry Stahl that should have ended the game ball four and ruined Pappas' perfect outing.
Just a few years ago in 2010, umpire Jim Joyce blew a call with two outs in the ninth, ruining Armando Galarraga's perfect game. He didn't even get a no-hitter because the umpire called the runner safe on a play where he was clearly out.
Perfect games are about judgment, luck and great plays.
A 20-strikeout game is about total dominance over a team. Let's look at the pitchers who have accomplished the feat.
Roger Clemens was the first to do it, accomplishing the feat twice in a 10-year span. If not for the recent steroid controversy, he was a surefire Hall of Famer.
Randy Johnson also struck out 20 batters in a nine-inning span. There was some controversy over his accomplishment because that game went into extra innings; nonetheless, he did it.
Johnson was one of the most dominant pitchers to ever put on a uniform and will surely be elected into the Hall the first time he is eligible.
That leads me to Kerry Wood, who struck out 20 Houston Astros in just his fifth major league game. A phenom out of Texas, he was untouchable that early May day. Besides striking out 20 batters, he walked no one and allowed only one hit.
The "hit" was questionable to say the least. It was an easy bouncer a few steps to the left of Cubs third baseman Kevin Orie. He botched the play and Ricky Gutierrez was awarded a hit on the play.
The key to the play, and where luck factors in, was that it occurred in the second inning. Had it been later in the game with Wood pitching a no-no, the official scorer surely would have rightly scored it an error. At the time, he had no idea what Wood was going to do that day.
The only other batter to reach base for Houston was Craig Biggio, who was hit by a pitch. The reason he was plunked was because he asked the umpire to check the ball shortly before Wood hit him. He couldn't believe it was moving like it was, so he figured Wood had to be doctoring it.
Wood sent him a message with that pitch, so if not for a bit of bad luck on one play, and Wood's feistiness, Wood would have pitched a perfect game to go along with his 20 strikeouts.
Many experts have called that the greatest game ever pitched.
While Wood will never be elected to the Hall of Fame, it's more because of injuries than lack of ability. He had Tommy John surgery after his first season, when he won the Rookie of the Year award. While he had dominant stuff, bad luck (injuries) did him in.
If you look at pitchers who struck out 19 batters, you see names like Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton and David Cone, in addition to Johnson again. Cone is the worst of the bunch and he had a 194-126 career record. The others are in the Hall of Fame.
Even dropping down to 18, you're looking at names like Sandy Koufax and Bob Feller in the mix.
To strike out that many batters in a game, you have to have great stuff. To pitch a perfect game, there are other factors involved.
Has anyone heard of Dallas Braden? He pitched one in 2010.
Mark Buehrle has thrown both a perfect game and a no-hitter. He's a guy who pitches to contact. He doesn't have no-hit stuff but he has thrown two, because on two different occasions, the balls were hit right at somebody, along with a great catch in the 9th to save the perfect game.
Speaking of a perfect game, pitching coach Dave Eiland said, "If somebody's on top of his game, anybody can do it." In other words, if you're on that day, spiced in with a little luck, you can pitch a perfect game.
Anybody can't strike out 20 batters, or even 19, in a game. It takes far more pitching ability to be able to accomplish that. Some of the players I mentioned, like Johnson, Koufax, and Cone, also pitched perfect games.
Looking at the names, the pitchers who have had the high-strikeout games are far superior pitchers to those who have tossed perfect games.
While either one is tough to do, for some of these guys, the perfect game is the only positive thing on their record. That's not the case with the pitchers with the record strikeout numbers.
20 strikeouts or a perfect game—which do you think is tougher?
I think you know my answer. .