An imperfect decade
By Tyler Kepner
The San Francisco Giants were playing their own game, just down the steps from the home clubhouse at Oracle Park, but Carlos Rodón and some of his teammates stayed inside. Down the coast, Clayton Kershaw was working on a perfect game for the Los Angeles Dodgers. History was streaming through a laptop.
At least there was the possibility of history, and that was enough to intrigue Rodón, who had come so close to his own slice of it in 2021. Pitching for the Chicago White Sox against Cleveland that April, Rodón retired the first 25 batters before his 0-2 slider nicked the top of Roberto Pérez’s shoe.
That spoiled Rodón’s perfect game, but he was thrilled to settle for a no-hitter, one of 317 in major league history. Yet only 23 of those have been perfect games, and as they watched Kershaw’s attempt July 15 against the Los Angeles Angels — which ended with an eighth-inning double — Rodón and his teammates realized they hadn’t seen one in a long time.
“So we went back, I think on Baseball Reference or something, and we found that the longest streak was, like, 30 years, so it was kind of crazy,” Rodón said. “We were like, ‘We’re not even close.’ This is, like, the third longest, only 10 years.”
This month makes it a decade since the Mariners’ Félix Hernández froze Tampa Bay’s Sean Rodríguez with a sinking change-up and pointed to the skies over Seattle on Aug. 15, 2012, celebrating the last perfect game in the majors. More than 22,000 games have been played since then, and in all of them, both teams have put at least one runner on base.
This is the longest stretch in baseball without a perfect game since 1968 (Catfish Hunter) to 1981 (Len Barker). As Rodón discovered, the longest stretch ever was 34 years, from 1922 (Charlie Robertson) to 1956 (Don Larsen, in the World Series).
When Hernández mastered the Rays, though, the perfect game had seemingly become more common. Mark Buehrle had thrown one in 2009, followed by Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay in 2010 and Philip Humber and Matt Cain in 2012 before Hernández’s. There would have been another, by Armando Galarraga in 2010, had replay existed to overturn a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce on the potential last out.
So that was six perfect games (plus Galarraga’s effort) in a little more than three years — followed immediately by a decade of pure imperfection. What a sport.
“Am I surprised? Not really,” said David Cone, who threw a perfect game for the New York Yankees in 1999. “I was more surprised when there were more being thrown than I am now. That surprised me more than the 10-year gap.”
There has never been a combined perfect game, and to Cone, the odds of a one-pitcher perfecto would seem to be lower now, because starters rarely get the chance to work nine innings. Yet there were still seven complete-game no-hitters in 2021 and another this season, by the Angels’ Reid Detmers on May 10.
Also, because a pitcher can face no more than 27 hitters in a nine-inning perfect game, pitch counts tend to be lower. Only one perfect game (Cain’s) has a known pitch count of more than 120, and most managers will let a pitcher keep going around that mark except in rare cases, like Kershaw’s seven-inning, 80-pitch attempt in his season debut this April, on a cold day in Minnesota, after ending last season with an injury.
Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes threw eight no-hit innings in Cleveland last September, with 14 strikeouts and one walk. But he had reached 115 pitches, a season high, so Josh Hader finished the no-hitter in the ninth. Burnes insisted he was far from perfect that night.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a no-hitter or perfect game where a guy can look back and say, ‘I threw every pitch where I wanted to, and I absolutely dominated, and they didn’t have a chance,’” Burnes said. “I left cutters over the plate, hung a curveball, hung a change-up. If you’re able to disguise it enough and mix pitches, you can get away with mistakes. But you’ve got to have guys in the right place at the right time.”
Burnes spoke last month at the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium, where Sandy Koufax (1965) and Dennis Martinez (1991) had achieved perfection. Koufax is one of eight Hall of Famers to do it, but even a no-hitter has eluded some of the greats, like Steve Carlton, Lefty Grove and Greg Maddux.
Houston’s Justin Verlander has just about every superlative a pitcher could want: three no-hitters, two Cy Young awards, an MVP award, a World Series title. But he is not chasing a perfect game to round out the resume.
“I don’t think it’s something you can aspire to do,” Verlander said. “It’s like no-hitters; some of the best, like Roger Clemens, never had a no-hitter. It’s something that you can’t say, ‘I want to accomplish that.’”
Since Hernández’s gem, three pitchers have lined up 26 stars until the 27th fizzled out. Yu Darvish and Yusmeiro Petit gave up singles with two outs in the ninth inning in 2013, and Max Scherzer hit the 27th batter with a 2-2 backup slider in 2015. (Scherzer, then with Washington, ended up with the first of his two no-hitters.)
Darvish and Scherzer have been perennial All-Stars, but Petit was mostly a reliever across 14 major league seasons with six teams. A couple of years ago, before a spring training practice with Oakland, he remembered his near-miss in detail.
Petit was pitching for the Giants at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who used a veteran, Eric Chavez, to pinch-hit with two outs in the ninth. Chavez took the first five pitches — a curveball, three fastballs and a change-up — and his patient approach unnerved Petit.
“Everything was working together: my command, the hitters swinging early, the pitch count was low, it’s my night,” said Petit, 37, who was recently released from the San Diego Padres’ Class AAA team.
“The only thing is, I don’t know why Eric Chavez didn’t swing at two pitches before. In that moment, I thought, ‘Something’s wrong here,’ because 25, 26 guys before him swing automatically. I know it’s a veteran guy, but he didn’t swing at two good pitches. For me, I said, ‘Wow, I have to live or die here.’ I know it was my last chance because I want to win everything, I want the perfect game, so I don’t want to walk him. It was 3-2, and I want to throw my best pitch.”
Petit had thrown only 92 pitches. He tried to finish his masterpiece with a fastball, down and away, but Chavez pulled it on a line, just in front of the glove of the diving right fielder, Hunter Pence. Petit retired the next hitter for the only shutout of his career, and a year later, mostly as a reliever, he set a major league record by retiring 46 batters in a row.
Of course, because Petit did that over several weeks, the major leagues’ streak without a perfect game continued. And while strikeout rates have exploded in recent years — meaning fewer balls in play, and thus fewer chances for errors or fluke hits — the drought persists.
“Even if you have a lot of strikeouts — like, 10, 11, 12 in a game is a lot — that still means that you have about 15 outs in the field that need to get hit right to a guy,” said Atlanta’s Max Fried, who won the World Series clincher last fall but has never come close to a perfect game.
“And you’ve got to do it without walking or hitting anyone or having an error happen. So there’s a lot of things that have to go your way for that to kind of come to fruition. More than anything, it’s almost a team accomplishment.”
Perfect-game pitchers have had storybook careers (Koufax), otherwise disappointing careers (Humber) and ordinary careers (Barker). On the right day, anybody could join the group.
“Kershaw would be a great guy for the club — a Hall of Famer, c’mon!” Cone said. “But then you’ve got other guys who had that one special day, and the random variance comes into play. The further removed I get from it, the more I appreciate the bounce of the ball, the luck factor, whatever you want to call it.”