I saw perfection tonight. I saw Randy Johnson when he came to the Seattle Mariners from the Montreal Expos as a wild flame-thrower, I saw him refine himself into an ace pitcher, a guy who could throw 200 innings, strike out almost 300 guys, walk about 75, and keep his ERA under 3 in one of the AL’s more notorious launching pads. He threw a no-hitter in Seattle in his early days (1990–8 K, 6 BB). I missed him getting through an inning on nine strikes for three strikeouts in 2001, which is a weird but almost as rare historical achievement, and I’m still mad about it.
Today, I was flipping around watching games while writing something else up when I found the Diamondbacks game. The announcers were talking all about the perfect game he had going and I started yelling “Shut up! Shut up!” at the television. I’m a guy who’ll rail at the stars against astrology, I’ll talk until spoons bend about what a bunch of baloney telekinesis is, I’ll bore you to death about my hatred for John Edward, but when it comes to baseball and a chance to see one of the great games in history, I flip back to the superstitious caveman in a second.
Johnson’s performance tonight was one of the most impressive in baseball history. Thirteen strikeouts in a game is the second-most of the 17 perfect games in the modern era–only Sandy Koufax in 1965 topped him, setting down 14. One-hundred and seventeen pitches isn’t the most in a perfect game, either–David Wells threw 120 in his 1998 perfect game (struck out 11), but it’s the second-highest among the games that offered pitch-count totals.
Strikeouts burn pitches. David Cone‘s 1999 perfect game took only 88 pitches to complete, and he still got 10 strikeouts–one of the most efficient games in history. Most perfect games rely much more heavily on defenses, and go easier on the pitchers. As Johnson was pitching his way to perfection, Jason Schmidt was en route to striking out 13 Cubs, throwing a one-hitter, giving up one walk, and taking 27 more pitches to do it (144 total–and he started his season late because he was recovering from elbow surgery).
Johnson’s location was almost dead-eye all game. He could have thrown strikes from center field tonight if he’d wanted. Only in the last few innings, when I suspect his blood was about 50% adrenaline, did he start to overthrow the target a little. His fastball was clocked at 96, 97 through the final innings. His slider, something he normally tosses in the upper 80s, hit 90 late in the game on one weird pitch, the rest of the time getting it in for strikes with a nasty bite. Who’s going to hit that stuff? There are pitchers, good pitchers, who might touch 90 if they reach back for something extra in a critical situation. Randy throws his off-speed breaking stuff 90 miles an hour when he gets jumpy. Bill James once said you could cut Rickey Henderson in half and you’d have two Hall of Famers. You could give Randy’s fastball to one pitcher and his slider to another and you’d have two great pitchers (maybe relievers if that was all they got, but so what?).
Johnson wasn’t just dominant, he was steady and efficient. There was only one speed bump, when he faced Johnny Estrada for 11 pitches to get a strikeout, the only three-ball count any Brave saw all night. Aside from that at-bat, Johnson threw 106 pitches to get 26 outs and 12 strikeouts–four pitches an out with 12 of them requiring at least three pitches each. He went to a two-ball count only once all night, a three-ball count only eight times.
He was in top form, using his talent and intelligence to exploit a depleted offensive team without pity or remorse. Atlanta ranks near the bottom of the pack in batting average, even lower in on-base percentage. Marcus Giles is out, Rafael Furcal is out, Chipper Jones has been hurt. Nick Green was Giles’ replacement, while Jesse Garcia stood in for Furcal. But shutting down a team with a .317 on-base percentage is still impressive.
And if you believe that pitchers don’t have much control over balls put into play, well, 14 balls were put into play and they all went for outs. The Diamondbacks have been turning balls in play into outs at a rate of about a 70% rate all year. What are the odds they’d get all 14 outs, then? Figure 70% chance they get the first out, then a 70% chance on the next ball… 0.7^14 …it’s about a 1% chance.
It didn’t seem like chance. Looking at the perfect games in history, there are a couple where there were only a few strikeouts. Dennis Martinez in 1991, for instance, got only five strikeouts in his, meaning that his defense had to convert 22 outs for him–you can start to make an argument that there’s a lot of luck in that one. But watching last night’s game, it seemed like Johnson did everything he could, and if it meant that this was his perfect game and his equally-amazing three-hit, no-walk, 20-strikeout performance in 2001 was a couple of good plays away from being perfect. Johnson’s given his defense these kind of chances many times over his career, and finally the D came through for him.
The amazing thing is that it didn’t even feel like the defense behind him mattered much. Those balls in play were almost all weakly hit, only a couple–two by my count–requiring even good plays by infielders to turn the out. It felt like the Braves were making all their contact on foul balls–they had 31 fouls and only 14 balls in play–and when they kept the ball fair, Johnson sensed weakness and blew smoke past them all night long. He tied them up and made them chase outside, he worked them high and dropped the slider down on them…it was almost a wonder the Braves made any good contact at all.
The Braves are reeling. They’ve been on the wrong side of a perfect game, the 17th in baseball history, and Ben Sheets struck out 18 their last time out–something that’s happened now only 21 times (including a shocking four times by some guy named Randy Johnson). In two games, Sheets and Johnson have posted a line of 18 IP, 3H, 1BB, 31K against them. That offense has taken two severe body blows in two days, and while they’re professionals who should be able to get past this, I can’t help but think the Braves will go back to their hotel rooms or bars or restaurants tonight wondering what the heck’s happened to them, and if they’ll ever hit again.
I love watching the bench during these games. In the ninth the Diamondbacks sat on the bench quietly, barely moving, like antsy kids in church pews, told to behave or else, thinking about how they’d rather be chasing after frogs or girls. Their faces betrayed no emotion at all and only a trace of anxiety, but when Randy got that last out they leapt up in joy and charged the field to congratulate him,
I was impressed at how well the Braves fans responded. I can’t abide people who don’t care, and I have some sympathy for the stoic homers who’d boo Barry Bonds if he hit number 715 in their park. But I respect the fans who’d grudgingly applaud a fine defensive play even if it ended their team’s rally, because they appreciate the difficulty of the feat. I’ve never liked Atlanta fans, and I’ll admit it’s a little unfair–I’ve always been squeamish about the tomahawk chart and the whole chant–but Turner Field applauding Randy in the ninth, the crowd aware that they’d been witness to something special and amazing–that’s being a baseball fan. And to put “Congratulations to Randy Johnson on his perfect game” up on the scoreboard after the game ended…tipping your hat to your opponent in defeat was classy.
What a great game.