Thursday, May 16, 2013

Is Phil Humber the most unlikely pitcher to ever throw a perfect game?

Phil Humber took the mound at Safeco Field on April 21, 2012 for his second start of the season. In his previous start against Baltimore, he pitched well enough: 5.1IP, 6H/1ER, 7K:3BB.

Coming into the 2012 season, Humber - a former #3 overall pick by the Mets - was on his fifth team, and the White Sox were his third team in three years. He was 11-10 for his career with a 4.12 ERA/1.28 WHIP. In 214.1IP, he had allowed 210H/98ER, 151K:65BB, and had a 106 ERA+. But apparently he sold his soul to the devil on April 21, 2012 when he threw the 21st Perfect Game in the modern era.

From the next start (getting lit up at Boston) through his release from the Astros, here are his stats:

123.1IP, 164H/120ER, 89K:56BB. This translates into an 8.76 ERA/1.79 WHIP since throwing his Perfect Game. Assuming he doesn't pitch in the Majors again (which is not a certainty) his career will end with a 16-23 record, 5.34 ERA/1.43 WHIP and an 81 OPS+.

Which got me wondering: Is Phil Humber the most unlikely pitcher to ever throw a Perfect Game?

There are some names we can just automatically cross off the list as not being germane to this conversation for obvious reasons:

Cy Young. Jim Bunning. Sandy Koufax. Catfish Hunter. Randy Johnson. Roy Halladay. Felix Hernandez.

There are pitchers on the list who have had better careers or are currently having unquestionably better careers, and can thus be eliminated from the discussion:

Dennis Martinez, Kenny Rogers, David Wells, David Cone, Mark Buehrle, Matt Cain.

This leaves the following non-Phil-Humber pitchers in the discussion, if only because I needed to look a few things up and analyze their careers more closely:

Addie Joss, Charlie Robertson, Don Larsen, Len Barker, Mike Witt, Tom Browning, Dallas Braden. Let's take them in order of appearance:

Addie Joss

Alright, first things first: Addie Joss is a Hall of Famer. Interestingly enough, Addie Joss is the only player in the Hall of Fame who played fewer than the requisite ten years due to the fact that he died of tubercular meningitis two days after his 31st birthday in 1911, after nine seasons in the Majors, and thy waived the 10-year requirement for him. Lawrence Ritter named him one of the 100 greatest players of all-time. That's enough to take him out of this discussion. But he did finish his career 160-97 with a 1.89 ERA/0.97 WHIP. He won 20+ games in four straight seasons, and after his rookie season in 1902, his career ERA was 1.77.

Charlie Robertson

A strong candidate. Robertson (from Dexter, Texas), started his career in earnest in 1922 for the White Sox, St. Louis Browns, and Boston Braves. On April 30, 1922 Robertson threw his perfect game at Detroit, striking out six in the process.

From his next start forward, Robertson was 12-15, allowing 271H/103ER, 72K:85BB. He was 13-18 in 1923 with a 3.81 ERA (104 ERA+), and that was the last time he had an above-league-average ERA. From 1923 through the end of his career in 1928 he was 35-64 with a 4.73 ERA/1.56 WHIP (84 OPS+), and he was 49-80 with a 4.44 ERA/1.52 WHIP, striking out 310 batters in 1005IP (2.8 per 9IP) and walking 377 (3.4 per 9IP).

Don Larsen

I know what you're thinking: It's the only perfect game in World Series history! Hell, it was the only no-hitter in playoff history until Roy Halladay no-hit the Reds in Game 1 of the NLDS in 2010. But the fact is, Larsen's perfect game in Game 5 of the World Series (against Brooklyn) is really the only thing Larsen has to hang his hat on for his career.

In that 14-year career he was 81-91 (assisted by a 3-21 season with Baltimore in 1954) with a 3.78 ERA/1.40 WHIP. His 99 ERA+ is perfectly average. And he really only made spot starts after the 1958 season, shifting more and more frequently to the bullpen as the years went by. Interestingly enough, Larsen was purchased by the Houston Colt .45s in 1964, and traded him the following season to Baltimore.

From 1957 to the end of his Major-League career in 1967, Larsen was 51-51 with a 3.75 ERA/1.41 WHIP, 99 OPS+. He struck out 522 batters in 877 innings, but also walked 425. Not great. Not bad. Perfectly average.

Len Barker

Barker's perfect game on May 15, 1981 against Toronto was the 10th perfect game in history, the last ever thrown by a Cleveland Indian. Barker was coming off a 19-12 season for the 1980 Indians, leading the AL with 187 strikeouts, and 6.8 K/9. The following season, shortened by the strike, Barker led the AL with 127 strikeouts. With the perfect game, Barker finished the season 8-7 and got a nod as an AL All-Star. But from 1982 forward to the end of his career, Barker was 35-45 with a 4.52 ERA/1.34 WHIP, and a 91 ERA+.

Mike Witt

Witt's perfect game, on the last day of the 1984 season, gave him the first of what would be four consecutive 15-win seasons. From 1985 to the end of his career in 1993, Witt was 79-76 with a 3.87 ERA/1.31 WHIP. He threw 49 complete games in that span. Witt also would come out of the bullpen on April 11, 1990 to throw a combined no-hitter with Mark Langston against Seattle.

Tom Browning

Browning pitched nine full seasons in the majors (considering a "full season" more than seven appearances), and was a 20-game winner in 1985, earning a 6th-place Cy Young vote and a runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year voting behind Vince Coleman. He was also 18-5 with a 3.41 ERA/1.07 WHIP in 1988, and got an All-Star bid in 1991. So when he threw a perfect game against the Dodgers on September 16, 1988, it gave him his 16th win of the season, and he would pitch in to the 8th inning of each of the last three starts of the season. From 1989 to the end of his career in 1995 (a two-game stint with the Royals), he was 60-50 with a 4.07 ERA/1.32 WHIP (95 ERA+).

Dallas Braden

The serious challenger to Phil Humber for our purposes today. Braden was 14-21 heading into the 2010 season with a 4.68 ERA/1.44 WHIP and a 92 ERA+. He was 3-2 going into his May 9 start against the Rays, but throwing Quality Starts in five of his first six starts of the season. So when he threw a perfect game on Mother's Day it was interesting and notable and all of that. It was the first complete game of his career. It was the first time that a perfect game had been thrown against a team with MLB's best record at the time.

Braden had a torn shoulder capsule early in 2011 and needed immediate surgery, missing the rest of 2011. He also missed all of 2012 and had rotator cuff surgery on his shoulder in August 2012, meaning that he'll miss at least the first half of 2013, as well. He's now a free agent.

So how does the list look now? By these short(ish) bios, we can eliminate Addie Joss, Len Barker, Mike Witt and Tom Browning from the Worst Pitcher to Throw a Perfect Game list, leaving:

Phil Humber, Dallas Braden, and Charlie Robertson.

Braden's career was shaping up nicely (he went 1-8 in his rookie season in 2007), so from 2008-2010 Braden was 24-27, but with a 3.75 ERA/1.27 WHIP and a 112 ERA+. That's pretty good. So let's recap the fight between Humber and Robertson.

Humber: 89 games, 16-23 record, 5.34 ERA/1.43 WHIP. 2.06 K:BB ratio. 81 ERA+.
Robertson: 166 games, 49-80 record, 4.44 ERA/1.52 WHIP, 0.82 K:BB ratio. 90 ERA+.

There are pluses and minuses to each. Do you give the nod to Humber (meaning he's, to put it kindly, the most unlikely Perfect Game Pitcher in baseball history)? He had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Robertson. Or do you give it to Robertson, who pitched in more games, had a better ERA+, but walked more than he struck out and had a higher WHIP?

I'm giving it to Humber. Thoughts?