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.
I have told before the story of the argument of the man who built the Yankees’ last twenty years of success, Gene “Stick” Michael, on making a big trade for a star pitcher. Still a consultant when New York was offered Johan Santana for Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, Melky Cabrera, and a minor league body, Michael said he would leave the finance and the health to others. But in terms of baseball, he pointed out that whether through injury or under-performance, 50 percent of all pitching prospects don’t even approach their highest ceiling.
Thus, he said, you have to consider the two pitchers as one: Hughnedy, or Kenughes. And suddenly you’re seeing the trade for what it was: one pitcher with 13 so-so major league starts and a proclivity to injury under his belt, for Johan Santana. He said you’d make that deal every day of the week.
And yet the Yankees didn’t make the trade. The money issue is now clear: the only thing the Mets gave up for Santana that has yet to pan out is Philip Humber, and that wasn’t until this year and it wasn’t in Minnesota. The Mets wound up tying up a huge amount of cash in Santana and got one great season, two fair ones, and this one that might see him back from serious surgery to make six or seven starts this year.
Still, the Yankees could’ve afforded that from Santana. As a major league General Manager explained it to me, the reason they didn’t make it was that they must have seen signs that the Twins weren’t certain about Santana’s health. Was he getting extra time between starts? Had his pitch count been limited? Were his innings per-start level, or coming down?
In fact, Santana’s innings per-start had dropped by 0.15% from 2005 to 2006, then another 0.13% from 2006 to 2007, meaning he was coming out of every game roughly one batter sooner in 2007 than he had been in 2005. This other statistic is a little looser as an indicator, but the total number of batters Santana faced in 2007 was 45 fewer than he had in 2006. Doesn’t seem like a lot, but it suggests that the ‘torch factor’ – the exact number of pitches at which you go from being a guy who gets batters out, to a guy who gets torched. For whatever reason, Santana was coming out of games six or seven pitches earlier. That’s a red flag.
All of which brings us to Ubaldo Jimenez. Why wouldn’t you trade for a man who shined the way he did the first half of last year? Why, he was 15-1, and he was still 17-2 and the consensus Cy Young Winner before he got “tired.” He’s a solid citizen, and judging by that ‘bicycle license plate’ commercial, a very funny, grounded man. Heck, he’s got an Emmy Award for narrating a special for the regional cable network in Denver (I don’t have an Emmy Award). Well, in the year since he reached that 15-1 mark, he’s 10-16. And if that number is too obvious for you, let’s go back to the tip-off the Yanks evidently used on Santana. In 2010, Jimenez lasted 6.71 innings per start. This year, he’s lasted 5.86.
That number suggests if he’s not hurt, he’s going to be.
So what did the Indians give up for this? A pitcher in Alex White who had successfully stepped into their rotation before a serious but hardly chronic finger injury knocked him out. He’s just beginning rehab and should be starting for Colorado within a couple of weeks, and he’s a sinkerballer going to the thin air of Denver. Then there’s Joe Gardner, a pitcher who’s struggled in AA, but another sinkerballer. And then there’s Drew Pomeranz, that rarest of pitchers, the lefthanded flamethrower. There’s a high-risk throw-in, an ex-catcher named Matt McBride.
All of this for a Jekyll-and-Hyde starter who is showing early signs that a serious injury is in his immediate future. Or, if it isn’t, that he reached a peak of efficiency last July and has been heading downhill ever since. I’m confident that this is a trade the Indians will regret next year. I think they may regret it next month.