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April 27, 2004

Aim For The Head

Hidden Perfect Games

by Keith Woolner

A perfect game is one of the rarest achievements in baseball. It's 27 up, 27 down--with no batter reaching first base safely. It's officially happened only 16 times, with a few other asterisks such as Harvey Haddix's 12-perfect-inning effort, and Ernie Shore's 27 outs of perfect relief, thrown into the discussion as well.

Cleveland Indians pitcher Jake Westbrook recently drew attention for an outstanding seven-inning perfect relief appearance. Interestingly enough, he retired the last batter he faced his previous appearance, and the first five batters of his next apperance (en route to a complete game win over the Tigers), for a total of 27 straight batters retired. There's that "27" again--a perfect game, albeit one "hidden" across three appearances.

Following Westbrook's accomplishment, I became curious about the idea of "hidden" perfect games--instances where a pitcher retired 27 batters in a row, but may have done it across multiple appearances; i.e. the pitcher retired the last 15 batters he faced in one start, and the first 12 batters he faced in his next start, he would have a streak of 27 batters retired, and thus have a "hidden" perfect game. Relievers could qualify as well, if they had, for example, nine straight 1-2-3 one-inning appearances.

I analyzed the play-by-play data from 1972-2003 looking for hidden perfect games. "Hidden" is actually a bit of a misnomer, since regular perfect games will also be included under the definition given above, and several pitchers had well publicized close calls with perfect games (losing them in the ninth inning, for example). But we'll stick with the name regardless.

From 1972-2003, there were 61 hidden perfect games thrown by 58 different pitchers, versus seven (or eight, if you include Pedro Martinez's nine perfect innings on 6/3/1995) recognized perfect games. The hidden perfect games include the major league record for longest streak of batters retired--Jim Barr retired 41 straight batters starting in the third inning against the Pirates on 8/23/1972, and ending in the seventh inning on 8/29/1972 against the Cardinals.

There were two hidden perfect games in 2003, one by a World Series hero, the other by the best reliever on his team. I'm referring, of course, to Carl Pavano of the Marlins, and Luis Ayala of the Expos. Ayala took almost a month to put his together, starting on May 7th, and ending 10 appearances later on June 1st. Pavano spread his secret perfecto across just two starts, June 6th and June 12th. Amazing as his Cy Young season was, Eric Gagne never strung together a streak of 27 batters retired during 2003.

Several "big game" starters threw hidden perfect games, as you might have expected, including Orel Hershiser, Tommy John, Jack Morris, Bruce Hurst, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan and Bert Blyleven. So did some of the top closers of their eras, like Lee Smith, John Wetteland, and Rich Gossage.

Some not so big names also pitched hidden perfect games. Al Holland, Alejandro Pena, Atlee Hammaker, Brian Fisher, David Nied, Jim Barr, Jose DeLeon, Mike Grace, Mike Mohler, Paul Splittorff, Steve Busby, Tim Belcher, and Vicente Palacios all managed the feat.

Active players (besides Pavano and Ayala) with hidden perfect games include Hideo Nomo, Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, David Wells, Rick Reed, Rod Beck, and (if you consider them active) Greg Swindell and Justin Thompson.

One pitcher had both a regular perfect game, and a hidden perfect game: Tom Browning. Browning's perfect game on 9/16/1988 was part of a stretch of 40 consecutive batters he retired, starting in the fifth inning on 9/11/1988 and ending in the first inning on 9/21/1988. That 40-out streak is the second-longest among those studied, behind only Barr's record 41.

One pitcher has an asterisked regular perfect game, and a hidden perfect game: Pedro Martinez, who lost a regular perfect game in the 10th inning in 1995, and who had a 30-out streak over two starts (9/10/1999 vs. the Yankees and 9/15/1999 against the Indians).

One pitcher had his hidden perfect game start in an extra-inning game: Willie Hernandez retired 31 straight, starting with Jim Presley in the 10th inning on 5/24/1985. His streak also ended in extra innings, giving up a single to Phil Bradley in the 12th inning on 6/4/1985. Only Pedro Martinez's asterisked regular perfect game also ended in extra innings.

The shortest span of days needed to accomplish a hidden perfect game (other than a regular perfect games which takes place in a single day, of course) is four days, done six different times. The longest number of days an in-season hidden perfect game lasted was 27, accomplished by Jeff Montgomery, who retired 32 straight batters between 7/16/1997 and 8/12/1997.

Three streaks spanned two seasons:

Mike Witt's season-ending perfect game in 1984 would have made the list, but he gave up a single to the first regular-season batter he faced in 1985, and thus the streak itself was entirely restricted to 1984.

Other random observations:

A perfect game (whether hidden or regular) was about as likely to begin when there were zero outs (22 games), one out (20 games) or two outs (19).

The distribution of innings in which hidden perfect games started was more skewed towards the beginning of games:


 #   Inning
--   --------
11   1st inning (note: includes all "regular" perfect games, too)
 7   2nd inning
 7   3rd inning
 7   4th inning
 5   5th inning
 4   6th inning
 8   7th inning
 6   8th inning
 5   9th inning
 1   10th inning

# = number of perfect games (hidden and regular)

Three pitchers had two perfect games (hidden or regular) since 1972. Two have already been mentioned--Tom Browning and Pedro Martinez, both of whom had one regular perfect game and one truly "hidden" perfect game.

That leaves only one pitcher in that span with two hidden perfect games (neither being a regular perfect game). Amazingly, he had both in the same season, a year in which he finished in the top 10 in IP, ERA, WHIP, H/9, BB/9, SO/9, strikeouts and shutouts. Yet in that season he received no Cy Young or MVP votes, and, in fact, he was traded after the season.

Any guesses as to who the mystery two-hidden-perfect-game pitcher is? Hint: his name does not appear in this column, so you can rule out all the pitchers mentioned above. Send in your guess to kwoolner@baseballprospectus.com, and I'll reveal the answer in my next column.

Keith Woolner is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Keith's other articles. You can contact Keith by clicking here

Related Content:  The Streak,  Perfect Game,  Perfect Games

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Under The Knife: Insuf... (04/26)
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Next Column >>
Aim For The Head: Hidd... (05/26)
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Premium Article Can Of Corn: Dodger Bo... (04/28)

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