In his first start of the season against the Houston Astros, Texas Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish fell one out shy of pitching a perfect game. Had he snagged Marwin Gonzalez's comebacker with two down in the ninth, he would have finished off the 24th perfecto in MLB history and we'd all have been singing songs of his glory.
But then what would have happened?
Would Darvish have been in danger of falling prey to a perfect game curse? Would it have been the start of something big? Or would there have been no difference whatsoever in his pitching after his perfecto?
These questions struck my curiosity over the weekend, so I sat down to take a look at how past perfect game pitchers were pitching before they twirled their gems and how they pitched afterwards.
What I found was that most of them kept on pitching like nothing happened, but that a few others fell under different umbrellas. Let's take a look.
But First: A "That's a Bummer, Man" Disclaimer
Officially, there have been 23 perfect games in Major League Baseball history.
Here's the thing, though: There were six that I couldn't take a closer look at for this little experiment.
I did my research using Game Logs on Baseball-Reference.com, and no Game Logs exist for Lee Richmond (perfecto in 1880), Monte Ward (1880), Cy Young (1904) and Addie Joss (1908).
In addition, I didn't look at Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series because, obviously, it was in the postseason. He also didn't make another start after twirling his perfecto.
Neither did Mike Witt in 1984. His perfect game came on the final day of the regular season.
These guys aside, it's on to the rest. We'll start with what I'm calling the "Par for the Course" crowd.
The "Par for the Course" Crowd: Party of Nine
Take 23 perfect games and remove six from the equation, and you're left with 17 pitchers and 17 case studies.
Of these 17, what I found was that nine of them pitched pretty much the same after their perfect games as they had been before.
Here's a super-colorful, super-informative graphic that can show you what I mean.
You'll notice that the Before/After numbers aren't exactly the same across the board, but for the most part they're close enough for government work. The big picture is that these pitchers were pitching well heading into their perfect games, and they then continued to pitch well afterwards.
Granted, some of these guys did see their ERAs rise to a not-insignificant degree, most notably Catfish Hunter in 1968, Dennis Martinez in 1991 and Matt Cain last year. What made me lump them in with the others?
I did so based on their larger bodies of work. Hunter, Martinez and Cain weren't as dominant after their perfect games as they had been before, but they did pitch pretty much like their usual selves.
As evidenced by his .716 opponent OPS after his perfect game, Hunter wasn't fooling as many hitters as he had been before his perfecto. However, Hunter went into the 1968 season with a .661 opponent OPS for his career, as well as a 3.53 ERA. He wasn't so much slumping as much as he was regressing more towards his career norms.
Cain did the same last year. Though he posted an unspectacular ERA and opponent OPS after his perfecto, he went into the 2012 season with a career 3.35 ERA and .660 opponent OPS. He regressed towards those numbers after his perfect game.
Besides which, Cain's post-perfecto ERA is skewed thanks to a rough collection of starts immediately after the fact. He shook those off to post a 2.28 ERA in his final 10 starts with a .602 opponent OPS.
As for Martinez, he had a 3.82 career ERA heading into the 1991 season and a 3.01 ERA over the four seasons before. The 3.32 ERA he posted after his perfect game was a happy medium between the two.
Given the names we're dealing with here, it should come as no real surprise that these nine guys just kept on keeping on after their perfect games. Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax, Catfish Hunter and Randy Johnson are four of the greatest pitchers of all-time, and Roy Halladay and Cain are two of the best pitchers in recent memory. Tom Browning and Martinez were two of the better pitchers of their era.
The only guy who doesn't fit is Charlie Robertson. He posted a modest 3.64 ERA in 1922, and went on to post a 4.44 ERA in a career that only lasted until 1928. If this is the first time you're hearing his name, don't worry. That doesn't mean you're a bad baseball fan.
With the exception of Robertson, what we have here is a reminder of a certain fact of life: Good pitchers are going to be good pitchers. It's always been true, and presumably always will be true. I wouldn't be surprised if it's etched in stone on a pyramid somewhere.
Now, as for the rest...
The "Inconclusive" Crowd: Party of Three
Of the 17 pitchers I looked at, there were three who presented complicated case studies.
We'll get into why that was in just a moment, but for now here's a look at the before and after numbers. Due to format issues—too few pitchers to make a proper graphic—I'm just going to give you a plain table for this one. You'll just have to pretend that the pretty colors are there.
You can see here that both Len Barker and Kenny Rogers both struggled after twirling their respective perfect games, but that they also didn't get a chance to make that many starts. What gives?
Remember what happened in Major League Baseball in 1981 and 1994?
If you don't, there were nasty work stoppages both years. The 1981 strike wiped out games from the middle of June through early August, and the 1994 strike ended the season for good in August.
Barker's post-strike starts were the ones in which he really struggled, going 3-4 with an even 6.00 ERA in 12 outings. His struggles likely had more to do with rustiness than they had to do with any sort of perfect game hangover.
As for Rogers, he didn't exactly overwork himself in his perfect game with a grand total of only 98 pitches. His issues in his next two starts may have just been a fluke that he could have corrected if he had gotten a chance.
Then there's Dallas Braden, whose situation is an odd one.
Braden posted a 4.31 ERA in eight starts immediately following his perfecto, and then found himself on the disabled list with left elbow stiffness, according to Baseball Prospectus' injury database. Those are some red flags if there ever were any.
It's not fair to jump to conclusions about Braden, however. The 109 pitches he threw in his perfect game were two short of his career high. To boot, BrooksBaseball.net's PITCHf/x data shows that Braden's velocity in his perfect game was about the same for his average velocity for the entire season.
There's also the reality that Braden pitched pretty well once he came off the disabled list, posting a 3.19 ERA in 15 starts with a .632 opponent OPS. It thus can't be definitively concluded that he was ruined by his effort in his perfect game.
Not relative to these next guys anyway.
The "Ruined" Crowd: Party of Four
So far we have nine "Par for the Course" guys and three inconclusive guys. Up next are four guys who would rather not be a part of this discussion, but, well, are a part of this discussion.
Going once again with a plain white table, here are four guys who just weren't the same following their perfect games.
What stands out here is that three of these four guys are pretty good pitchers. Why didn't they fall under the "Par for the Course" umbrella like all the others?
In Felix Hernandez's case, his post-perfecto struggles likely had to do with him overexerting himself during his perfect game. BrooksBaseball.net can show that he was ramping up his velocity quite a bit towards the end of the game, throwing a couple pitches harder than 96 miles per hour.
That's significant, as King Felix was otherwise averaging between 92 and 93 miles per hour with his hard stuff last season. He was really letting it fly in his perfect game.
Philip Humber may have overexerted himself in his perfecto as well. He sat in the 91-MPH range with his hard stuff in 2011, and the velocity charts from his perfecto show that he was sitting in the 92-MPH range and touching 94 miles per hour with his heater. Like Hernandez, Humber was also ramping up his fastball later in the game.
Sure enough, the data shows that Mark Buehrle was also ramping up his velocity in his perfect game. He sat in the 85-86 range with his hard stuff in 2009, but was throwing much closer to 90 miles per hour towards the end of the game. He also threw a season-high 116 pitches.
Sadly, we don't have PITCHf/x data for David Cone's perfect game in 1999. What we do know is that he threw only 88 pitches, including 68 for strikes. His perfect game was a pretty low-effort, um, effort.
But Cone was never the same after his perfect game was in the books, both in the short-term and the longer-term. You can see that he struggled mightily after hurling his perfecto, and his struggles didn't end when the '99 season ended. He went on to post a 5.74 ERA over the remainder of his career.
Cone doesn't speak for his three comrades, however. It's early yet, but Humber and Hernandez have combined to allow five earned runs in 19.2 innings this season. Buehrle compiled a 3.87 ERA between 2010 and 2012, right along the lines of his 3.83 career ERA.
There's the silver lining. A perfect game can break a pitcher, but not necessarily forever.
This leaves us with one last case study to discuss.
The "Turning Point" Crowd: Party of One
Sometimes pitchers find themselves feeling like most of us feel on Monday mornings: In need of a little something to get on the right track.
You'd think that nothing would get a pitcher on the right track quite like a perfect game, but there's really only one legit case of a pitcher using a perfect game as a turning point.
That would be David Wells in 1998.
Wells came into the 1998 season with a 4.02 career ERA, and he had posted a modest 4.21 ERA in his debut season with the New York Yankees in 1997, with a 1.30 WHIP to boot.
But then watch what happened before and after his perfect game on May 17.
Wells had been struggling before his perfect game. He probably deserved better than a 5.23 ERA given his not-too-bad opponent OPS and solid K/BB ratio, mind you, but he was struggling all the same.
But then Wells blanked the Minnesota Twins, and the next thing anyone knew he was one of the best pitchers in the game. His 3.10 ERA down the stretch helped him finish with a 3.49 ERA, which still stands as a career-best in a season that saw Wells make at least 30 starts. He also posted what was then a career-best 4.8 WAR by Baseball-Reference.com's reckoning.
As for why Wells was so hot down the stretch, his insane control stands out as a decisive factor. He walked only 15 hitters in those 153.2 innings, an absurdly low total even for him. That helped him lead the league in both BB/9 (1.2) and WHIP (1.05).
It was the greatest season of Wells' career at the time, and may not have happened without his perfect game.
Is There a Conclusion Here?
Because I like a good curse as much as the next baseball fan, I have to be honest: I dove into this project hoping the data would reveal that a perfect game is a kiss of death.
But that's not the case. Of the 17 guys we just looked at, only four stand out as being legitimately derailed by their perfect games. Nine others pitched like their usual selves, one used his perfecto as something to build on and three are neither here nor there.
So the next time a pitcher throws a perfect game, fear not. It's not a given that he's going to be hexed going forward.
This is something to keep in mind in this day and age. More than 25 percent of all the perfect games in major league history have occurred within the last four years, and that's not totally surprising. Offense is down across the league in these post-Steroid Era days. Pitching has never been more of an exact science. Managers also know exactly where to put their fielders nowadays.
These are times in which more perfect games should be happening. Yu Darvish just missed last week, but we're not going to have to wait long for the next one. Or the next one after that, the next one after that, the next one after that, and so on.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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