The Art of Perfection: A Look Forward

Yesterday Seeds All Day tipped its proverbial cap to last year’s three perfect game throwers. Today, we look at what it takes to go 27 up and 27 down, and attempt to predict which pitcher is most likely to throw a perfect game in 2013.

The Factors

We analyzed six primary factors to narrow down who we think has a shot at perfection this year. Three of the factors look at the individual tendencies of the pitcher, while the other three assess the game day situation the pitcher happens to find himself in.

1. Low Batting Average Against

Batting Average Against (BAA) is a statistic that measures a pitcher’s ability to prevent hits during official at bats. In throwing a perfect game, it’s not necessarily important that a pitcher miss bats (by getting tons of swings and misses), but it is important that a pitcher be able to consistently neutralize the other team’s offense. Those pitchers who hold opposing hitters to the lowest combined batting average are most likely to flirt with no hitters and perfect games.

2. High First Pitch Strike Percentage

First Pitch Strike Percentage (F-Strike %) measures the percentage of batters faced that the pitcher threw a first pitch strike.  It has been statistically proven that getting the first strike on a batter significantly decreases the batter’s chance of success and likewise increases a pitcher’s chance of success.

Let’s look at last year’s perfect games as an illustration. Out of the 27 batters they faced, Phil Humber threw a first pitch strike against 17 of them (63%), Matt Cain against 19 (70%) and Felix Hernandez against 16 (59%). Working ahead in the count gives the pitcher an advantage because it gives him freedom to mix up pitches and locations without less fear of giving up a base on balls. Logic thus tells us that the higher the F-Strike %, the more likely a pitcher is to remain perfect during a game.

3. Ability to Pound the Strike Zone

Throwing a lot of strikes – and not just on the first pitch – is important for several reasons. First, a pitcher must complete all nine innings to be eligible for a perfect game, so it is important that he keep his pitch count at a manageable number so he does not run out of steam in the later innings. Second, throwing lots of strikes will keep the pitcher ahead in individual counts, which as we have discussed gives him an advantage against the opposing hitter. Third, if the pitcher gives up a single walk in a game, it is no longer perfect.

Those pitchers who are known for pounding the strike zone give up the fewest base on balls. For that reason, we looked at pitchers who had the lowest walk percentages (BB%) in coming up with our list of perfect game candidates.

4. Games Against Bad Offenses

The worse the team a pitcher is facing, the less likely that team is to get a walk or a hit to spoil the quest for perfection. Again, we look to last year’s perfect games as illustration. Those games came against the Seattle Mariners (4th fewest runs scored and lowest team batting average in 2012), the Houston Astros (fewest runs scored and 2nd lowest team batting average in 2012) and the Tampa Bay Rays (13th fewest runs scored and 4th lowest team batting average in 2012).

It stands to reason that those pitchers who face the most bad offenses in a given season have a significantly increased probability of throwing a perfect game.

5. Games Played in Pitcher Friendly Parks

Pitcher friendly parks by definition yield the fewer home runs and fewer total runs than their big league counterparts. Their fences are deeper and the baseball just does not carry as well as it does in other ballparks. It’s more likely that a perfect game will occur in one of these pitcher friendly parks than elsewhere. For example, both Humber’s and Hernandez’s perfect games occured at Safeco Field in Seattle. Safeco gave up the fewest runs per game and the second fewest home runs per game in the big leagues last season. Cain’s perfect game occurred at AT&T Park in San Francisco. AT&T gave up the second fewest runs per game and the fewest home runs per game in 2012.

6. Quality of Defense Playing Behind You

In nearly all 23 cases, you can point to at least one outstanding defensive play that saved the pitcher’s perfect game. Yesterday, we posted videos of two amazing catches made by Melky Cabrera and Gregor Blanco that preserved Cain’s bid for perfection last year. Good defenses can prevent would-be bloop hits and rob offenses of should-be base hits, which only increases a pitcher’s chances at going a full nine innings without giving up a single hit.

Who Won’t be Going Perfect in 2013

Before we dive further into our analysis, history allows us to go ahead and scratch a few names. In 135 years of Major League Baseball, no player has ever pitched more than one perfect game in his career. With that rule of thumb in mind, it’s safe to say that the following WILL NOT accomplish the feat for a second time this season:

  • Mark Buehrle (7-23-2009)
  • Dallas Braden (5-9-2010)
  • Roy Halladay (5-29-2010)
  • Phil Humber (4-21-2012)
  • Matt Cain (6-13-2012)
  • Felix Hernandez (8-15-2012)

We are also eliminating from contention pitchers whose home ballparks are considered among the league’s most batter friendly. No Blue Jays, Reds, Yankees, Rockies or Rangers pitchers will be considered.

The Most Likely Candidates for Perfection

Clayton Kershaw

clayton-kershaw-bruty2

The Dodgers ace finished with the second lowest BAA in 2012 with a stifling .210, and threw a first pitch strike 64.5% of the time (12th). Kershaw pitches his home games in the spacious Dodgers Stadium, which ranked as 6th lowest in runs allowed, and plays in the same division as the Colorado Rockies – the league’s second worst team  – and the San Diego Padres, who scored the 6th fewest runs in all of baseball a season ago. The Dodgers had the 10th best fielding percentage among big league teams last year, and have added Carl Crawford to the outfield mix, who is expected to be ready for Opening Day. The big question mark for Kershaw is his control. His BB% was 7.0% in 2012, 47th among qualifying pitchers, but Kershaw is only 24 years old. Another year of maturity will likely bring more consistency in the strike zone.

Cole Hamels

Hamels

For Cole Hamels, the statistical factors are all there. The left hander ranked 16th among major league pitchers last season with a BAA of .237, 19th with an F-Strike % of 63%, and 28th with a 6.0 BB%. Playing in the same division as the New York Mets and Miami Marlins will afford him several opportunities to pitch against bottom-tier offenses. The Phillies also have interleague series against the Indians, Red Sox and White Sox – none of which were playoff teams last year. He will be supported by the experienced middle infield of Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley and several youngsters capable of covering a lot of ground in the outfield. Citizens Park in Philadelphia has long been considered a hitter friendly park, but over the past few seasons it has actually played as one of the more neutral parks in baseball. It gave up the 12th fewest runs last year, though some have argued that the shift toward neutrality is due to the quality of pitching the Phillies have had recently.

Jered Weaver

jered-weaver

Weaver already has a no-hitter under his belt. He was a walk away from a perfect game against the Twins on May 2, 2012, though it took him 125 pitches to get there. Having thrown the no-hitter does not automatically disqualify Weaver from perfect game consideration – in recent history Mark Buehrle has thrown both and Roy Halladay threw both in one season. But Weaver will need to increase his F-Strike% (61.7% in 2012, ranking 40th) and cut down on his walks (his BB% was 6.1% last year, ranking 29th) if he hopes to reach perfection. The right hander dominated hitters in 2012, finishing with a BAA of just .214. The Angles finished in the top half of fielding defense, and at least with regard to run production, Angel Stadium of Anaheim was the 4th most pitcher friendly in the game. Let’s not forget Houston’s move to the AL West this year either. The Angels and Weaver will be able to feast on baseball’s worst offensive team in intra-divisional competition, and get two interleague series with the lowly Chicago Cubs.

 

About Matthew George

Matthew George graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2008 with a bachelor of science in journalism. He spent three years writing sports for the Kentucky Kernel, the university's daily paper, and served as assistant sports editor. After undergrad, Matthew attended Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University where he earned his juris doctorate. He is now admitted to practice law in Kentucky and Indiana.

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