NPF: CRUEL, RANDOM PERFECTION

Ever have one of those days where you feel like everything you do is right? Like you're in the zone and nothing can stop you? Yeah, me neither. But apparently it happens to even the lowliest among us sometimes.

I'm on record as an admirer of the perfect game, a feat so rare that despite an anomalous burst of four in four years, there are still fewer people who have done 27 up, 27 down in the Major Leagues (19) than have orbited the moon (24). Baseball fans are unsurprised that the list includes legends and Hall of Famers like Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Catfish Hunter, Jim Bunning,* and Roy Halladay, or solid All Star players like David Cone, David Wells, Mark Buehrle, Kenny Rogers, and Dennis "El Presidente" Martinez. We might expect that in a large sample of pitchers of that caliber, a few of them would accomplish a statistically improbable feat over time. What is more surprising, and I think more interesting, is the presence of pitchers like Don Larsen (Career record: 81-91, ERA+ 99), Len Barker (74-76, ERA+ 93), Dallas Braden (26-36, 4.19 career ERA), and, as of Saturday…Philip Humber?? Philip Humber, he of 12 career wins, zero complete games, and, on Thursday night, nine runs surrendered in his follow-up start? How does that happen?

This, I think, is one of the more intriguing aspects of baseball in particular and sports in general – the potential that on any given day, some slob can stroll out on the field/court/etc and enter a zone of complete perfection. We expect to see Michael Jordan or Arnold Palmer or Roger Federer approach perfection. They do it all the time. We never expect to see the guys we've never heard of come out and accomplish things that even the legends of the game rarely approach.

In 2001, I was watching so much baseball that it was probably detrimental to both my health and my personal life. Yet on September 3, 2001, just a few days before sports became the last thing on our minds, a gentleman by the name of Bud Smith, allegedly of the St. Louis Cardinals, threw a no-hitter. It's not quite on par with the perfect game, but it is a rare and difficult feat in its own right. And I looked at the TV and said aloud to no one, "Who in the hell is Bud Smith?" Bud threw the no-hitter in his 13th career start, aged 21. He was not considered a hot prospect. He would start less than a dozen more games in the majors after that day. He was out of baseball by 23. Career record: 7-9. ERA: 4.95. Bud Smith, ladies and gentlemen.

The sheer randomness of such feats from a player who either has no talent or is clearly unable to harness his talent even semi-consistently is fascinating to me. I suppose it comes down to the law of large numbers, of the million monkeys with a million typewriters who, given the time, will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. Psychologically it must be very challenging to try to re-create that level of perfection throughout one's career only to face the cold, hard reality of regressing to the mean – that is, returning to mediocrity. What did I do on that day that made me perfect, and why can't I do it again? I don't expect that Philip Humber will be out of baseball in a year like Bud Smith, nor will he become a dominant player. We often write off failures to randomness and bad luck – Don't worry about it, it just wasn't your day! – but are less eager to do the same for successes. "Luck" is not the right word here, but the fact remains that people like Humber can simply have a day where everything goes their way. Every stoplight on the way to the stadium is green, the wind is blowing in the right direction on every pitch, and the players on the other team are all in slumps. If and when such a day ever comes for me I hope I'm able to recognize it while it's happening and enjoy it, knowing well that it's unlikely to happen again.

*Yes, it's common knowledge that Bunning is only in the Hall because he was a powerful Senator at the time of his election. There are politics involved.

Be Sociable, Share!

25 Responses to “NPF: CRUEL, RANDOM PERFECTION”

  1. Jamesian Says:

    Bunning was inducted into the Hall in '96, but wasn't elected to his Senate seat until '98. Prior to the Senate, he was in the House, and was the chair of Ways and Means from '95 to '98, so he was powerful – just not in the Senate.

    And since you put politics into NPF, it's worth noting that Bunning is a troglodyte – he was the second most conservative senator behind Teabagger Jim DeMint, and he endorsed Rand "yes, I picked that nickname to remind you of Ayn" Paul.

  2. Ben Says:

    19 my ass

    Armando Galarraga, dammit

  3. Daniel Says:

    The interesting thing about Humber's game was that the defense didn't need to do a whole lot. Most of the putouts were easy except for a few moderate line drives that hung up enough. Buehrle's perfect game needed the DeWayne Wise circus catch of course.

  4. Middle Seaman Says:

    I never understood the fascination with baseball. It is a game with statistics more than any other game known to me. A perfect game is always possible although not very likely. So what's the big deal; it can happen to any pitcher and even to the same pitcher twice in a row. Big deal?

    The typing monkey, however, is a known political method. Most of our latest presidents are typing monkeys. When they aren't monkeys, e.g. Clinton, we hate them.

  5. cromartie Says:

    I'm going to second the Galaraga omission. That missed call was complete bullshit, and if I were Cabrera I would have punched Jim Joyce in the face.

    Psychologically it must be very challenging to try to re-create that level of perfection throughout one's career only to face the cold, hard reality of regressing to the mean – that is, returning to mediocrity.

    Which is why my entire goal is to be consistently slightly above average, while stashing enough money away for an early retirement. It works out better that way. Leaders exist to get their head chopped off.

  6. c u n d gulag Says:

    Years from now, Galaraga may be more famous for his not-perfect perfect game, due to Joyce's epic wtf f*ck-up, than if Joyce had made the obvious call, and he got his "perfecto."

    Especially since he handled the situation with class and dignity, even before Joyce apologize for his epic wtf f*ck-up.

    And I give Joyce credit for "manning-up" and taking the blame – since a lot of umps would have stuck to their call, no matter what the video evidence was.

    I, myself, would probably gone the 2 year-old having a tantrum route, and be getting out of prison for A&B in about 5-10 years. Or, maybe never, if I killed him with a bat, and gotten life without parole.

    Another interesting statistic (which is one of the reasons why I love baseball, and consider it the greatest game/sport ever) is that a batter hitting for the cycle occurs about as often as a pitcher throwing a no-hitter.
    From wiki:
    "Cycles are uncommon in Major League Baseball (MLB), occurring 293 times since the first by Curry Foley in 1882. In terms of frequency, the cycle is roughly as common as a no-hitter (272 occurrences in MLB history), it has been called "one of the rarest" and "most difficult feats" in baseball."

    Yin, meet Yang.

  7. The Disgruntled Chemist Says:

    I was at Qualcomm Stadium (or whatever it's called now) for Bud Smith's no-hitter, and I had exactly the same reaction as you: who the hell is Bud Smith?

    Another incredible piece of luck: one of the guys that I was there with had just moved to San Diego from Spokane, and was attending his first ever professional baseball game at any level.

  8. Peggy Says:

    As a teacher I definitely get the cruelty of perfection. Why is this lesson perfect and magical on this day, with this class, and then never again? It's a combo of student personalities and time of day and what was for lunch and whose parents were mean to them last night and a hundred other factors I can't control or understand. It's awful. And addictive. And I get better at it with practice but it'll never be predictable or guaranteed. Maybe teaching and stand up have that in common. I wouldn't know for sure, because I'm only brave/foolish enough to tackle the one. ;)

  9. JazzBumpa Says:

    I caught the last inning of Humber's perfecto after the Tiger's loss on Sat.

    He had some help from the umpires in the last inning. One called strike was a good 6 inches off the plate. Of course, there's nothing unusual about that.

    And the last out was a 3rd strike on a wild pitch, where that batter had to be thrown out at first. He tried to check his swing, and got into the judgment call area that I see going both ways all the time.

    A similar checked swing occurred in a Tiger's game this week, and the call went the other way. The announcer's commented on it, but didn't pursue the thought.

    I wonder if the Galarraga experience has influenced umps in favor of a pitcher in that situation?

    Galarraga seems to be out of MLB this year. Cant find any 2012 stats for him.

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/galarar01.shtml

    Ah, from Wikipedia:

    He signed as a minor league free agent with the Baltimore Orioles on January 18, 2012. The Orioles released him on April 6.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armando_Galarraga

    Shit. Even this comment is depressing.

    Alas,
    JzB

  10. Bob Says:

    I had season tickets for the Washington Bullets and was present for game two of this epic match-up. Jordan barely let anyone on the Bulls touch the ball for the first quarter. It was one of the most amazing displays of basketball prowess I've ever seen. I really think Jordan could have pleayed 1 on 5 against the Bullets and held his own he was so in the zone.
    http://bleacherreport.com/articles/658735-michael-jordan-vs-labradford-smith-the-interesting-two-game-rivalry-of-1993

  11. Scepticus Says:

    I don't enjoy baseball, but I enjoyed this account of a no-hitter by Dock Ellis in 1970 made possible by performance-diminishing drugs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vUhSYLRw14

  12. Eric S. Says:

    Over at the Boston Globe a Harvard student crunches the statistics and concludes that there only should have been 4 perfect games in MLB history.
    http://www.boston.com/sports/blogs/statsdriven/2012/04/perfection_baseballs_elusive_g.html

  13. Ed Says:

    Regarding the last out in the Humber game: Look, it was a check swing. On a 3-2 count 26 outs into a perfect game, the home plate umpire's benefit of the doubt goes with the pitcher. Period. That's human nature. If you take the bat off your shoulder and start swinging in that situation, it's a strike. There are no umpires, especially post-Joyce/Galarraga, who are going to say "Yeah, I think he checked his swing in time so that ended the perfect game."

    As a batter in that situation, you have to be aware of where the close calls are going to go. Also, don't be a fucking dick. Swing the bat.

    After the game, neither the Mariners manager nor the guy who made the final out complained. I think that the pitch was clearly outside and the swing was checked, but come on. Which way do you want a close check-swing call to go in that situation?

  14. Ed Says:

    And coincidentally, Jim Joyce is regularly graded by the MLB Players Association as the best, most consistent, and most respected umpire. I guess the fact that he apologized and admitted his mistake proves why.

  15. JazzBumpa Says:

    Ed –

    What I said about Humber's last out was descriptive, not critical. Like I said, that call goes both ways, all the time, so a strike is not unreasonable, even in an ordinary situation.

    And I think your comment reinforces my point – that no umpire wants to be remembered that way Joyce will.

    But a batter has a job to do, too, and making the other guy's no hitter easy isn't part of it. A batter is trained to check his swing on that kind of a pitch. Doing so is not being a dick. It's playing the game.

    And you're right about Joyce (who, btw, is from my home town.) He illustrates the very antithesis of this post topic – even somebody who is really, really good can fuck up really really bad.

    I'm watching Tigers-Yankees, tied at 6 in the top of the 9th. Nobody has any clue where this ump's strike zone is. Yanks Mgr got tossed for arguing.

    Cheers!
    JzB

  16. c u n d gulag Says:

    In Larsen's perfect WS game, the 3rd out in the 9th inning was a close call.
    The batter was Dale Mitchell, an 11 year ML veteran, who never played again.
    And the Home Plate umpire was Babe Pinelli, who planned on retiring after the World Series.
    The 97th and final pitch of the game, was a fastball that many thought was high, but Pinelli called it strike 3. Mitchell argued, but it didn't matter.
    Yogi jumped on Larsen, and the game was history.

    Incidentally, Mickey Mantle made a great catch on a Gil Hodges line drive to left-center, where he ran as fast as he could, and back then, there were no, or few, players who were faster, and caught the ball over his shoulder on a dead run. Not quite Willie Mays in '54, but none too shabby, either.

  17. Michael Gittings Says:

    My favorite record doesn't involve perfect games, but when you talk about being in the zone nothing beats it. In 1938 Johnny Vander Meer pitched BACK to BACK no hitters. Think about that. Yeah, maybe you manage to duplicate the feat, but you've only TIED the record. I grin mentally every time I think about it.

  18. plugin Says:

    Great post, very informative. I wonder why the other specialists of this sector do not understand this. You must proceed your writing. I am sure, you've a great readers' base already!|What's Taking place i'm new to this, I stumbled upon this I've discovered It absolutely useful and it has aided me out loads. I hope to contribute & assist other customers like its helped me. Good job.

  19. c u n d gulag Says:

    Michael Gittings,
    Ewell Blackwell almost matched Vander Meer!
    Ok, he DIDN'T!
    But he came close.
    After pitching a no-hitter in 1947, he took another one into the 9th inning, but it was broken-up by Eddie Stanky:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ewell_Blackwell

    What I didn't know, and just read, is that Jackie Robinson batted after Stanky, and that Blackwell, in frustration, issued a stream of racial slurs at Jackie, was in his first season.

    Jeez, I'd never heard that before, and had always liked Blackwell.
    That lowers him A LOT in my estimation. He's now down in the "Racist Asshole" category, instead of "under-rated pitcher for a few years."

  20. BobS Says:

    I was watching the Galarraga game with my wife, who enjoys sports but doesn't understand some of the finer points. While I was aware I was seeing a perfect game being pitched, I was dutifully staying silent. Consequently, she had no context for the tantrum I threw when Joyce blew the call (which was easy to see in real time).
    I did feel like kind of a dick for the way I reacted when I saw the classy way Galarraga handled his disappointment. I think the way his perfect game was stolen from him with a blown call on the 27th batter will make him more iconic in baseball history.

  21. Michael Gittings Says:

    c u n d gulag——-
    Great story, and one I didn't know. I'm familiar with Blackwell, but not how close he came to consecutive no-hitters. One more reason to love baseball and the endless fascination that such a rich history provides. Thanks again.

  22. c u n d gulag Says:

    MG,
    You're welcome!
    I'm a Baseball junkie – but not a stat's freak. Just a stories freak. And baseball has more than any other.
    I'd never read that Blackwell took his frustration out on Jackie, until I read that Wike link.

    There's and interesting theory that's been around for a long time – "The smaller the ball, the better the stories."

    And I agree with that.
    There are some GREAT Golf articles and books.
    And Baseball, of course. Maybe more than Gold, because a lot of us who grew-up in inner cities, never knew what a golf ball was – except, of course, that that dimpled white (emphasis intended) sucker bounced almost as high as a "Superball!"
    Football? Yeah, but not that may.
    Same thing with Basketball.
    Beachball? None that I know of… :-)

    Btw:
    Also great articles and books on Boxing and Horse Racing.
    Hockey, Volleyball? Not so much.

  23. Michael Gittings Says:

    c u n d gulag—–
    Baseball, golf, boxing and horse racing have produced the best sportswriting, and by extension, writing indirectly about life in general, of any sports. Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, Roger Angell, the list goes on and on. Horse racing in particular has special meaning for me. My folks both loved racing and took me with them to Hollywood Park and Santa Anita from the time I was old enough to go. I still live 15 minutes away from Santa Anita, and still love it. Baseball? My dad and his brother were both pretty fair country ballplayers, and when I was born my uncle came to the hospital to look through the big glass window at newborn me. My uncle pulled a new baseball out of his jacket pocket, and said "look what I got for the kid." My dad said "thats nice, but he doesn't even have his eyes open yet." My uncle said "That's okay, he can be an umpire."

    '

  24. c u n d gulag Says:

    MG,
    Now THAT'S a classic story!
    LOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  25. Bill Murray Says:

    There's always Ernie Shore, who replaced babe Ruth after the Babe got thrown out for arguing the first batter's walk. That batter got thrown out trying to steal second (the catcher had been thrown out too) and Shore then retired the next 26 batters, for what is now called a shared no-hitter.