Measuring just how unlikely Braden's perfect game really was
Dallas Braden of the Oakland A's pitched a perfect game against the Rays
Braden is one of six non-established stars to throw a perfect game
He doesn't rank as high on the list of unlikely perfect games as might be expected
In retrospect, it's probably a good thing that Dallas Braden got into a public war of words with Alex Rodriguez two weeks ago over the proper etiquette concerning opposing players crossing the pitchers mound. If not for that incident, there would have been a lot more casual baseball fans who responded "who?" upon learning that Braden threw the 19th perfect game in major league history on Sunday.
Braden is among the least-accomplished pitchers ever to throw a perfect game, and by that measure among the least likely, but a closer look at Braden's performance thus far this year, as well as that of the team he retired in order for nine innings, the major league-best Tampa Bay Rays, reveals that his was far from the least likely perfect game ever thrown.
A 24th-round pick by the A's in the 2004 amateur draft, Braden is in his fourth major league season, but the first two were split between the majors, minors, bullpen and rotation, and a foot malady ended his 2009 season in July with Braden sporting an 8-9 record after 22 starts. It's too early in his career to definitively say that he is or isn't among the worst pitchers to ever throw a perfect game, but given career statistics such as his 4.62 ERA, 5.6 K/9, and .279/.334/.424 opponents' batting line, it seems safe to say that he ranks among that group for now. In fact, given his career record of 17-23, he's easily among the least-accomplished.
Of the 18 other men to throw perfect games in major league history, six are in the Hall of Fame (John Montgomery Ward, Cy Young, Addie Joss, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax and Catfish Hunter). A seventh, Randy Johnson, is a shoo-in to join them. Of the eight non-Hall-of-Famers to pitch one since the All-Star Game was started in 1933, four (Dennis Martinez, David Wells, David Cone, and Mark Buehrle) were selected to an All-Star team prior to throwing their perfect game. Len Barker won 19 games and led the American League in strikeouts the year before he threw his perfecto, and Tom Browning won 20 games, finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, and also picked up a few Cy Young votes three years prior to his perfect game. That leaves just six men, including Braden, who weren't established stars when they threw their perfect games.
Of those six, Mike Witt and Kenny Rogers had each shown flashes of their emerging potential before adding their name to the list of perfection. Indeed, like Barker and Browning, both would be selected to All-Star teams after throwing their perfect games. Though Witt had not yet accomplished any real measure of stardom when he threw his perfect game on the final day of the 1984 season, he did strike out 196 men and win 15 games that year. He also finished fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 1981. Rogers spent his first four major league seasons in the Rangers' bullpen, but he won 16 games as a starter for Texas in 1993, the season before throwing his perfect game. Braden can't measure up to even that uninspiring standard.
That leaves just Don Larsen, Charlie Robertson, and 19th century hurler Lee Richmond, who threw the first perfect game in major league history back on June 12, 1880 (five days later, Ward threw the second), as Braden's contenders as the least-accomplished perfect-game authors of all-time.
Richmond had pitched in just one major league game prior to 1880, when he went 32-32 for the Worcester Ruby Legs, including his June perfect game. The White Sox's Robertson, who threw his perfecto in the early days of the live-ball era, had even Richmond beat. He had thrown thrown just two innings in the majors, in 1919, before becoming part of the White Sox's rotation in 1922. Robertson threw his perfect game on April 30, 1922 in just his fourth start and (adding in that two-inning stint from 1919) fifth major league game, making him by far the least-experienced major league pitcher ever to retire all 27 hitters.
Unlike Rogers and Witt, Robertson didn't have brighter things in his future. In that 1922 season, he went 14-15 with a 3.64 ERA (which against a league average of 4.03 was only good for a modest ERA+ of 111). The next year, he went 13-18 with a 3.81 ERA (104 ERA+). Pitching for three teams in the five years that followed, he posted a 22-46 record with a 5.22 ERA (77 ERA+) and was finished at 32, having gone 49-80 with a 4.44 ERA (90 ERA+) in his major league career. Charlie Robertson was the worst major league pitcher ever to throw a perfect game.
Of the four non-star pitchers to throw a perfect game, Larsen was technically the most accomplished when he did it. He went 30-40 with a 3.82 ERA (101 ERA+) in the regular season for the Browns-cum-Orioles and Yankees over four seasons before no-hitting the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. At 27, Larsen had a brighter future than Robertson did at 26, but only by degrees. After his legendary performance, Larsen pitched in the major leagues for nine more years with five teams (plus a three-game coda with the Cubs in 1967), but more than half of those seasons were spent pitching primarily in relief. He never made more than 20 starts or threw more than 140 innings in a season after 1956, and in his post-perfection career, he was an almost perfectly average pitcher (51-51, 98 ERA+).
Like Larsen, Braden threw his perfect game in his fourth season at age 26 (though he obviously did it earlier in the season), but Braden's career accomplishments at the time of his signature game actually fell short of Larsen's modest standard (his career ERA+ prior to Sunday was 93). Still, though it seems safe to say Braden won't blossom into a Hall of Famer, we can't say for sure he will never achieve a modest level of stardom similar to that enjoyed by Barker, Browning or Witt. Braden may be the third-least-accomplished pitcher ever to throw a perfect game, after Robertson and Richmond, but it's too early to say that he's among the three or four worst ever to perform the feat.
Indeed, despite initial appearances, Braden's doesn't rank as high on the list of unlikely perfect games as might be expected. A perfect game is accomplished by keeping the opposition off base entirely. With that in mind, we can start a search for the least-likely perfect games ever by looking for the opposing teams with the highest on-base percentages. Here are the top five on-base percentages of teams that have had perfect games thrown against them:
Already, Braden is merely fifth on that list, but a closer look moves him even further down. First, let's limit each team's on-base percentage to their performance against pitchers who throw with the same hand as the perfect-game pitcher in question. Let's also take their OBP from only that portion of the season prior to the perfect game so as to avoid any spikes or drops caused by late-season acquisitions or injuries. Then, let's take each pitcher's on-base percentage allowed to that point in the season and average the two OBPs to get a rough look at the average chance of a runner reaching base in a given plate appearance in that game.
This is a blunt tool with all sorts of small-sample issues, and the partial-season team splits are only available back to 1974, but that's enough to allow us to rank 11 of the 19 perfect games (including Larsen's, for which we can use full-season stats because his game came in the World Series). The result is this list:
Rogers tops the list because he not only had the highest opposing OBP of the pitchers listed (.323), but also because the 1994 Angels were very effective against left-handed pitching prior to Rogers perfecto (.346 OBP). By comparison, despite their early struggles overall, the 2004 Braves excelled against lefties in the early going (.356 OBP), but Johnson had the lowest opponent OBP of the group (.251), which reduced the chance of a Braves batter reaching base significantly. Johnson had an even greater advantage in that game, because the Braves All-Star middle infield of Rafael Furcal and right-handed hitting Marcus Giles was on the disabled list, and Mark DeRosa (.239/.293/.320 on the season) had not yet lost his third-base job to Chipper Jones' return from left field.
Curiously, Buehrle is high on the list because the 2009 Rays got on base at a .362 clip against lefties, but though their lineup is largely unchanged this year, and the team is second in the majors only to the Yankees in runs scored per game, the 2010 Rays have actually struggled against lefties, reaching base at a mere .317 clip against southpaws prior to Sunday.
What's more, though Braden was beat up by the Rays in Tampa at the end of April, that was his only poor start of the season. Even with that game included, he had held opponents to a .295 OBP heading into Sunday (by comparison, Buehrle had held opponents to a .301 OBP in his first 19 starts of 2009). It's also worth considering that Braden was pitching at home in the most pitching-friendly ballpark in the American League. Combine the Rays' weak showing against lefties in the early going, Braden's solid pitching thus far (lost in the Alex Rodriguez flare-up was the fact that Braden beat CC Sabathia and the Yankees in that game), that friendly home park, and a solid, though not spectacular A's defense, and the conditions for a perfect game were more favorable than they might have initially appeared Sunday, despite the lack of career accomplishments of the man on the mound.
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