Humber Humbled

The first man Philip Humber faced in the start after his Perfect Game? He walked him. The third? He surrendered a base hit to him. The fourth? He watched him smack an RBI double. In short, after retiring 27 consecutive batters against Seattle, in his next appearance against Boston, before he could get two outs in total, he had lost his shot at a Perfect Game, a no-hitter, and a shutout.

By the third inning, Humber no longer had a homer-free streak, or even a grand slam-free streak. By the fifth, he had gone no games without surrendering two homers to the same guy (Jarrod Saltalamacchia) The Coach had turned back into The Pumpkin.

The vagaries of the perfecto – the idea that a muse appears, gives a pitcher flawless results for three hours or less, then vanishes, never to return – are countless. For virtually every one of the 21 flawless games, I think there are overwhelming mitigating circumstances that made the outcome slightly more possible than usual on the day in question. This would require a lot of research on some of the early games (like the first of the three by the White Sox, by Charlie Robertson in 1922), but just anecdotally: Mike Witt’s 1984 job was on the ultimate getaway day, the season finale between two teams not in the pennant race. When the kinescope of the Don Larsen game resurfaced three winters ago we learned that the batter’s eye at Yankee Stadium had been removed to accommodate the World Series crowd (it is thus more amazing that the Yankees got any hits that day, more than that the Dodgers didn’t). Mark Buehrle’s had an obvious aberration (an epic outfield catch by Dewayne Wise) and a less obvious one (a free-swinging Tampa Bay line-up, in a really early start for a day game after a night game, on getaway day). And as if he needed the help, when Sandy Koufax mesmerized the Cubs in 1965, he was facing a line-up with three future Hall-of-Famers in Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, and Billy Williams. The other six batters were a pitcher, and five rookies – and two of them were playing in their first major league games.

What were the telling signs for Humber? He took no-hit bids into the sixth and seventh last year, had a new pitch that not everybody had seen before (six of the nine Mariner hitters were not in the line-up during his last start against Seattle, even though that was only last June), and is pitching during a time in which the hitters are deflating. Clearly PED use by hitters is down, perhaps by some extraordinary percentage, and lord knows how much that’s reduced strength of contact, let alone results, or even hand-to-eye coordination.

Perhaps the only Perfect Game that gets a note if not an asterisk might be the effort by the great Addie Joss in 1908. As his Cleveland Naps took the field against the White Sox on October 2, 1908, they were half a game behind first-place Detroit, and just a game ahead of Chicago. His future fellow Hall-of-Famer Ed Walsh (who only won 40 games that year) was the opponent. Joss, in the tightest imaginable pennant race, retired all 27 men he faced, and won 1-0, on an unearned run in the third. The degree of difficulty on that was pretty big.

But anyway. In June, 2010, at the end of the Buehrle-Braden-Halladay-Shoulda-Been-Galarraga-Too swarm, I asked here if the achievement itself might have a long-term negative impact on the pitchers involved. It’s time to update that data:

Is there something about getting 27 outs in a row that psychologically alters a pitcher? The sudden realization that you can do it? The gnawing sensation that a “quality start” or even a six-hit shutout just isn’t the ceiling? Or is it possible that a Perfecto really is some sort of apogee of pitching skills, and not merely the collision of quality and fortune? Whatever the impact of the Perfect Game on the Perfect Game Pitcher, six of the other 20 to throw them have not managed to thereafter win more games than they lost. Another was one game over .500. An eleventh was just three games over. Fully fourteen of the pitchers saw their winning percentages drop from where they had been before their slice of immortality (though obviously the figures on Braden, Buehrle, and Halladay are at this point embryonic) Consider these numbers, ranked in order in change of performance before and after. First the good news: it is perhaps not surprising that of the eight pitchers whose percentages improved afterwards, the two most substantial jumps belong to Hall of Famers.

Jim Hunter Before: 32-38, .457

Jim Hunter After: 191-128, .599

Jim Hunter Improvement: Winning percentages jumps 142 points

Sandy Koufax Before: 133-77, .633

Sandy Koufax After: 31-10, .756

Sandy Koufax Improvement: 123

Koufax is a bit of an aberration, since that 31-10 record, gaudy as it seems, represents only one season plus about a month, before his retirement in November, 1966. Five of the other six improvements are a little more telling.

David Wells Before: 110-86, .561

David Wells After: 128-71, .643

David Wells Improvement: 82

Don Larsen Before: 30-40, .429

Don Larsen After: 51-51, .500

Don Larsen Improvement: 71

Roy Halladay Before: 154-79, .661

Roy Halladay After: 36-14, .720

Roy Halladay Improvement: 59

Mike Witt Before: 37-40, .481

Mike Witt After: 79-76, .510

Mike Witt Improvement: 29

Dennis Martinez Before: 173-140, .553

Dennis Martinez After: 71-53, .573

Dennis Martinez Improvement: 20

There is one improvement that is really misleading. Dallas Braden hadn’t been much of a pitcher before his 2010 perfecto. Since, he’s been ok – he just hasn’t pitched much:

Dallas Braden Before: 17-23, .425

Dallas Braden After: 8-7, .533

Dallas Braden Improvement: 108

For everybody else, the Perfect Game has meant comparative disaster. We can again discern some unrelated factors: many pitchers threw their masterpieces late in their careers (Cone), late in life (Joss died about 30 months after he threw his), or not long before injuries (Robertson and Ward, the latter of whom would switch positions and become a Hall of Fame shortstop). Still, the numbers don’t augur well for our trio of active guys. They are listed in here in terms of the greatest mathematical drop from career Winning Percentage before the game, to career Winning Percentage afterwards:

David Cone Before: 177-97, .646

David Cone After: 16-29, .356

David Cone Dropoff: 290

Lee Richmond Before: 14-7, .667

Lee Richmond After: 61-93, .396

Lee Richmond Dropoff: 271

Jim Bunning Before: 143-89, .616

Jim Bunning After: 80-95, .457

Jim Bunning Dropoff: 159

Len Barker Before: 33-25, .569

Len Barker After: 40-51, .440

Len Barker Dropoff: 129

Charlie Robertson Before: 1-1 .500

Charlie Robertson After: 47-79, .373

Charlie Robertson Dropoff: 127

Mark Buehrle Before: 132-90, .595

Mark Buehrle After: 29-32, .475

Mark Buehrle Dropoff: 125

Addie Joss Before: 140-79, .639

Addie Joss After: 19-18, .514

Addie Joss Dropoff: 125

Cy Young Before: 382-216, .639

Cy Young After: 128-116, .525

Cy Young Dropoff: 114

Randy Johnson Before: 233-118, .664

Randy Johnson After: 69-48, .590

Randy Johnson Dropoff: 74

Johnny Ward Before: 80-43, .650

Johnny Ward After: 81-60, .574

Johnny Ward Dropoff: 46

Tom Browning Before: 60-40, .600

Tom Browning After: 62-50, .554

Tom Browning Dropoff: 46

Kenny Rogers Before: 52-36, .591

Kenny Rogers After: 166-120, .580

Kenny Rogers Dropoff: 9

If you’re wondering: Phil Humber was 11-10 before he performed his magic against the Mariners.

9 Comments

His career peaked with that perfect game. It’s funny how sometimes below average pitchers just face the right team at the right time with stuff just a bit above what they usually have in their arsenal.

Wow, I knew nothing about Larsen except that he was good enough to start a World Series game for the Yankees in the 50s. I figured great if not immortal. But a career 81-91? Again I say, wow.

The numbers here are amazing! You are a master statistician as well. Speaking of masterpieces, in the art world we say that there is a point at which, if the painter touches the brush to the canvas even one more time, the piece will be ruined. Humber made something that could hang in the “hall” that night. That he might hang his head again was inevitable, since he is actually a human being. We all fall short. But here’s to the glory of the brief high flight, that streak of genius that illumines the night, that lightning that though only briefly splits the sky with white light, makes us all gasp with delight! May we all know the feeling, in celebrating the self, then in waving our hands at others.

Fifteen minutes? Nah, a lifetime of good for all!

I guess back-to-back perfect games for Humber Humber proved to be as elusive as Lolita.

Regression towards the mean. That’s how it works. Humber’s career is ERA. After yesterday, his ERA for the year is 4.66 ERA. Just the way things in baseball and in life go!

Rather: Humber’s career ERA is 4.

Great blog, help illustrate that perfect games may actually demand a great deal of luck. Also reminded me of how David Cone dropped off after his perfect outing … which took me back to the unique “ambiance” for Cone’s flawless outing. He forged his masterpiece on Yogi Berra Day at The Stadium – when fellow (even more significant) perfect game Hurler Don Larsen threw out the first pitch (to Yogi) of course. Keep up the great blogging, I like the historic take on today’s events / numbers.

Thanks, Keith, and thanks for responding to my Tweet. This is a good explanation. It almost seems counter-intuitive, but the statistics tell the story.

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