27 Perfect Things About Felix Hernandez’s Perfect Game

There are so many angles we can take to describe and explain Felix Hernandez’s mastery of the Tampa Bay Rays during Wednesday’s start, one that produced the 23rd perfect game in Major League Baseball history. Rather than neglecting salient points, let’s try to cover a bunch — 27 of them, one for each out that King Felix recorded in his masterpiece.

27. Inside Edge delivered a terrific infographic showing pitch location and pitch type for all 27 batters that Felix faced. The way he mixed pitches all day was masterful. Check out his inside-outside, high-low sequence to Evan Longoria in the second inning. Or how he handled Carlos Pena in the fifth. You can count the number of mistakes Felix made in the game on one hand. You could argue that the most hittable pitch he threw was a high fastball on a 2-1 count to Sam Fuld, the first batter of the game. Fuld smoked the ball, but Eric Thames made a great running catch. Felix cruised from there.

26. Was this the best-pitched game of all time? By Bill James’s Game Score stat, it was not. Game Score is calculated as follows:

  • Start with 50 points.
  • Add one point for each out recorded, so three points for every complete inning pitched.
  • Add two points for each inning completed after the fourth.
  • Add one point for each strikeout.
  • Subtract two points for each hit allowed.
  • Subtract four points for each earned run allowed.
  • Subtract two points for each unearned run allowed.
  • Subtract one point for each walk.

Felix scored a 99 for his 12-strikeout perfecto. Matt Cain scored a 101 for his perfect game in June. The highest score of all time actually belongs to Kerry Wood, and it wasn’t for a perfect game, or even a no-hitter. Wood’s 20-strikeout, one-hit effort against the Astros in 1998 scored a 105.

Game Score and most other metrics don’t consider quality of competition, by the way. That ’98 Astros team was loaded, with Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and Moises Alou leading the offense, during one of the friendliest periods of all time for hitters. Still tough to beat Don Larsen, though. Larsen threw his perfecto in the high-offense 1950s, back in the days when the best team in each league made the World Series and underdogs couldn’t sneak in via short-series upsets. The higher stakes don’t hurt his cause, either. (This post by Dave Cameron comparing the six most recent perfect games in detail is well worth the read, by the way.)

25. What’s up with all these perfect games, anyway? There have been 23 in MLB history; six of those have come in the past three years. The number of no-hitters has spiked sharply in recent years, too. So what gives?

The increased number of strikeouts in baseball might have something to do with it. Barring the very rare occurrence of a passed third strike, ringing up three strikes is a pretty reliable way to secure an out. When a batter puts the ball in play, the pitcher suddenly must pray that multiple outside factors — defense, luck, field conditions, wind, the alignment of the planets — don’t result in a hit. Pitchers have recorded the highest strikeout rate of all time this season, 7.5 Ks per nine innings. The past four seasons also mark the only four times league strikeout rates have exceeded 7 Ks per nine innings: 7.0 in 2009, 7.1 in 2010, 7.1 in 2011, and 7.5 in 2012. Strikeout-to-walk rate is also at its highest point ever this year, at better than 2.4 K/BB.

Of course this is just one possible explanation, and it’s a flawed one. Relief pitchers have accounted for a big chunk of the spike in K and K/BB rates (hey there, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel!). Few no-hitters, and zero perfect games, have included contributions from relief pitchers. There are likely a whole stack of subtle reasons that can help explain the recent surge in flawless pitching. We just don’t have all those answers yet.

24. Grantland colleague Bill Barnwell ran the numbers to see what the odds were that we’d have three perfect games already occur this season, based on historical rates of perfect games (and not considering any other factors). The result? About 1,294-to-1.

23. OK, then what’s up with the Rays getting no-hit/perfecto’d so often? Of the past 16 no-hitters/perfect games thrown, the Rays have been involved in five of them, victimized four times (Matt Garza threw a no-no for Tampa Bay in 2010). The Rays do strike out a lot: They’re fourth in the majors this season, striking out 21.4 percent of the time. They were 11th in 2011 (19.4 percent), third in 2010 (20.6 percent), fourth in 2009 (19.7 percent), and fifth in 2008 (19.4 percent). Of course these were also all seasons in which they either made the playoffs or were competitive until late in the year, with decent to very good offenses each year, except this year. They’ve also seen most of those performances come in pitcher-friendly parks: Felix at Safeco, Dallas Braden on Mother’s Day 2010 in Oakland (dare you not to cry when he hugs his grandmother at the end of this clip), Edwin Jackson in 2010 at home in Tropicana Field.

But again, there are surely a bunch of factors that aren’t obvious here, including random chance.

22. As SB Nation’s Rob Neyer notes, only the Rays and Dodgers have had three perfect games thrown against them. The Dodgers are a century older.

21. Wednesday’s Rays lineup was particularly vulnerable to a big pitching performance. This DRaysBay post covers the lineup Tampa Bay trotted out Wednesday against Felix. The Rays were already struggling offensively this season, and they benched Jeff Keppinger (hitting .319 with a .372 on-base percentage as one of the most pleasant surprises in baseball) and Desmond Jennings (weak numbers this year, but .344/.394/.541 in his past 67 plate appearances heading into Wednesday’s game). Of course, even with Felix pitching and a diminished lineup, this was still a special accomplishment. The DRaysBay analysis pegs the chances of Felix throwing a perfect game against that lineup at four-thousandths of 1 percent — vs. three-thousandths of 1 percent if you assume league-average on-base percentage (.320) against an average pitcher in average conditions.

20. These were not average conditions. We’ve mentioned Safeco Field, which has played as a pitcher’s paradise for as long as it’s existed, and as the worst park for overall offense this season (.661 park factor — 1.000 is average) as well the worst park for hits this season, by far (.750 park factor).

But the study I’d like to see done (and which I once tried, and failed, to complete) is an in-depth look at the possible effects of getaway day. Anecdotally, it seems that umpires bungle ball-and-strike calls even more than usual in the final game of a series and everyone’s got a plane to catch, calling more liberal strike zones. It’s possible that some hitters might mentally already have one foot out of the ballpark, too, such that their performance suffers (though you’d have to account for pitcher performance too). Felix got the benefit of several horrible strike calls Wednesday — though having watched most of the entire three-game series, I can tell you that both teams’ pitchers were getting generous strike calls on pitches well outside, all three days. At any rate, at some point some enterprising analyst will break down team performances on getaway day vs. every other day. It’s possible that Felix got a getaway-day assist for his perfecto.

19. Back to Safeco for a minute. This marked just the second time in MLB history that three no-hitters were thrown at one park in one season, joining Sportsman’s Park in 1917.

18. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the six no-hitters thrown this year places 2012 behind only 1884, 1990, and 1991 for most no-hitters in a single season in MLB history. There were seven thrown in 1990 and 1991 and eight thrown in 1884.

17. How bad was that strike zone? See all those light-red squares well outside the strike zone? That bad.

Felix’s stuff was obscene. He generated 26 (26!!!) swings and misses out of the 113 pitches he threw. Ten of those came on 24 curveballs (people watching on TV even reported their knees buckling), five on his 18 sliders (which were breaking a foot or more, it seemed), and one on his 40 fastballs (Felix throws three kinds). But many hitters will tell you that Felix’s nastiest pitch is his changeup. It’s thrown with the same delivery as a fastball but with a similar grip to a split-fingered fastball, at 88-92 miles per hour, with incredible sink. As one Rays player told me afterward: “His split/change is like no other pitch in the game.”

15. John Jaso helped. DRaysBay’s Jason Collette has some great details on how the Mariners catcher called the game. Catchers can sometimes gain a bit of an exaggerated halo effect for their contributions to a game, when in fact it’s the guy on the mound who has to throw 97 mph and hit targets perfectly from 60 feet, six inches away. But Collette notes that Jaso is an ex-Ray who worked to exploit Tampa Bay’s traditional strategy of attacking Felix by swinging at fastballs early in the count. Instead they got a heavy dose of curves, sliders, and changeups, and looked helpless flailing at them. When it was all over, the Seattle Times‘ Steve Kelley asked Felix about his approach against the game’s final hitter, Sean Rodriguez. His reply?

“I took a little walk, you know, to catch my breath,” Hernandez said. “[Jaso] called a slider and I’d been following him all day. I threw a slider and [Rodriguez] swung and missed.”

14. Very few Rays did anything to try to disrupt Felix’s rhythm. Though his per-pitch pace wasn’t extraordinarily fast according to FanGraphs numbers, it was clear from beginning to end that Felix was speeding up or slowing down his offerings at will, with little to no interference from Rays hitters. Carlos Pena, a sub-Mendoza hitter who still counted as one of Tampa Bay’s top on-base threats as a lefty hitter with the eighth-best walk rate in baseball, did step out and take a few deep breaths during his at-bat in the 8th. That was about it for anyone lugging a bat to the plate.

13. Joe Maddon tried. After the latest of home plate umpire Rob Drake’s charitable strike calls, Maddon stormed toward home plate in the seventh inning, spewing a series of F-bombs (hat-tip Gary Carter!), and taking his time leaving the field after he’d been tossed. Twitter exploded with indignation at Maddon’s tirade, slamming him for delaying the game and potentially messing up Felix’s timing and concentration. Which, of course, was precisely the point. The Rays trailed 1-0 at the time, and would go on to lose 1-0. They’re in the thick of the wild-card hunt. One hit, or even one call, could’ve turned the outcome of the game. Some might have seen the move as bush league. Looked like good managing from here.

12. Maddon was asked afterward about the perfect game, and what it said about the Rays. “The last time we got perfect gamed, we went to the playoffs, so.” In other words, this.

11. There were some concerns early in the season about diminished fastball velocity and thus a potential drop in effectiveness. Those concerns are now gone. Felix has gone from a strikingly predictable pitcher who threw a ton of first-pitch fastballs to a very unpredictable, eclectic pitcher who can still blow it by you at 93 when he wants to. This might not be the last time he’s mobbed at home plate for doing something extraordinary.

10. Felix has emerged as a strong Cy Young contender. Again. He ranks among the league leaders in ERA (2.60), FIP (2.86), innings pitched (180), strikeouts (174), and Wins Above Replacement (5.0). Given voter tendencies and how they consider won-lost record, ERA, and strikeouts vs. advanced metrics, your top four Cy Young candidates in some order are probably Justin Verlander, David Price, Chris Sale, and Felix. It could be a dogfight, right down to the final day of the season.

9. Felix is the hottest starting pitcher in baseball. His past 12 starts are just obscene: 92 1/3 innings (meaning he’s averaging close to eight innings per start), 90 strikeouts, 15 walks, two homers, and a 1.56 ERA, with opponents hitting .178/.221/.215 against him during that stretch.

8. Want GIFs and video of the perfect game? You got it.

7. Want to see all 27 outs in one clip? You got it.

6. Want to see Felix’s brother Moises and his Jackson Generals (Double-A) teammates lose their minds after Felix gets the final out of the perfecto? You got it.

5. This might not have been the best game Felix ever pitched. In April 2007, he fired a one-hit shutout at Fenway Park against a stacked Red Sox team that went on to win the World Series. Just three days after his 21st birthday, Felix carved through Boston’s lineup full of All-Stars, with only J.D. Drew’s eighth-inning single preventing a no-hitter. This game also marked Daisuke Matsuzaka’s home debut, making for an electric atmosphere. I was there. It was awesome.

4. Reader and Philadelphia Daily News intern Tim Gilbert passes along this gem on Twitter: “I’m really proud of myself because I noticed Felix’s [Win Probability Added] was .666 and he therefore made a deal with the devil.”

3. As Felix was slashing his way toward history, HBO started showing the 1999 movie For Love of the Game. Kevin Costner stars as Billy Chapel, a 40-year-old pitcher throwing the final game of his career. As the game progresses, Chapel thinks back on his career, his rocky relationship with Jane Aubrey (played by Kelly Preston), and other seminal life events. The game ends with Chapel throwing a perfect game, the only movie ever to use a perfect game as its pivotal moment. The movie’s timing synched up almost perfectly with Felix’s perfect game, with both pitchers delivering the final pitch mere minutes apart.

2. Talk to any Mariners fan and their Felix love becomes palpable, even on non-perfect day games. The King’s Court section at Safeco features a bunch of dudes wearing yellow King Felix jerseys, holding up K signs, and generally having the time of their lives. Though their man is still only 26, he’s been a Mariner for nearly a decade, with USS Mariner and FanGraphs writer Dave Cameron bestowing his King Felix nickname when the big right-hander was just a teenager. The signature image for Felix’s career will now be him celebrating behind the mound, arms raised in triumph, about to be mobbed by delirious teammates. Before that, his defining image to Mariners fans who’ve rooted him on all these years might’ve been something like this.

Every year, Felix Hernandez dominates baseball and electrifies crowds league-wide. And every year, Seattle Mariners fans are subject to made-up trade rumors, rampant speculation that he’s about to be traded, and blatant coveting by writers who make up implausible and one-sided trade scenarios.

That kind of talk would anger any fan base. But Mariners fans have had it especially tough. They waited 18 years before seeing their first playoff series. Endured a string of near-misses over the ensuing seven seasons, capped by a 116-win juggernaut that looked invincible in 2001 until Seattle got drilled by the Yankees in the ALCS in five games. It’s been 11 years since that last playoff berth, with regime changes, disastrous signings, and what-were-they-thinking trades dealing one dispiriting blow after another. Ichiro’s gone, Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley have been wildly disappointing, and the team appears to be years away from contending again.

But the one thing Seattle still has is Felix. A message from excellent Mariners blog Lookout Landing on Felix’s Baseball-Reference page nicely sums up the feelings of Mariners fans on this front: “Felix is ours,” the message defiantly tells the world, “and you can’t have him.”

Filed Under: Felix Hernandez, Jonah Keri, Seattle Mariners

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri