A few rules of the game to start …
A baseball game is broken down into nine innings, with one team at bat (in attack) and another scattered across the field, including a pitcher and a pitcher. catcher (in defense). When three players of the attacking formation have been eliminated, the teams switch roles. And, once the attacking team in second position has, in turn, three players out, the round is over.
To eliminate a batsman, there are three options. He hits the ball, but it is caught on the fly by a defender (flyball). Or it touches the ground but is then returned to first base, before the batter can reach it (groundout). Finally a batsman can also be taken out, on a series of throws. There, it is a little more complicated.
The area where the pitcher can send the ball is between the middle of the chest and the batter’s knees. If the pitcher throws three balls into this area, without the batsman being able to hit one, he will be eliminated (strikeout). But, if the pitcher throws four balls out of that zone or hits the batter with the ball, he goes straight to first base.
How does a pitcher make a “perfect match”?
For a pitcher to have a “perfect game”, an opposing batter must not have had access to first base. These will all have been eliminated, on flyballs, groundouts or strikeouts. And the pitcher will not have made any bad pitch that would have sent the batter automatically to first base.
Thus, the pitcher will have faced the minimum number of batsmen in a match: 27. That is to say three players who will have been eliminated during the nine innings of a meeting. Perfection.
The pitcher is not the only one to be involved in a « perfect game », since it is his teammates scattered around the field who catch volley balls or return them to first base. But it is the pitcher who is credited with the “perfect match” because he is the source of every action and the quality of his throws results in poor hitting from the batsmen. Which will then end in flyball or groundout.
Only 23 « perfect matches »
Professional baseball was born in the United States in 1876. And, in 145 years, only 23 pitchers have had a « perfect game. » That is to say the difficulty of the exercise. The first was made in 1880 by a certain Lee Richmond, who played for the Worcester (Massachusetts) team. The last one took place in 2012. That year, three players achieved this performance: Philip Humber (Oakland) in April, Matt Cain (San Francisco) in June and Félix Hernandez (Seattle) in August.
A « perfect match » can be achieved by a baseball legend, like Cy Young (in 1904), who gave his name to the trophy which rewards the top pitcher, Sandy Koufax (1965) and Randy Johnson (2004), or pure strangers such as Don Larsen (1956) and Len Barker (1981). Larsen still pulled off his “perfect match” in the World Series, which his team, New York Yankees, won.
The difference with the « no-hitter »
When a pitcher does not allow the batsmen to make a valid hit but an error on his part allows one (or more) of them to arrive at first base, he must « be satisfied » with what. ‘we call a « no-hitter ». Which is already a hell of a performance, difficult to achieve, but more common than a « perfect match ».
Since 1876, 296 “no-hitters” have been successful. Plus 14 others that were established by pitchers from the same team who took turns over the course of a game. The legendary Nolan Ryan (27 years in MLB) has never achieved a « perfect match », but, on the other hand, he managed seven « no-hitters » in his career.
Since the start of the 2021 season, three “no-hitters” have taken place, works by Joe Musgrove (San Diego) Carlos Rodon (Chicago White Sox), in April then John Means (Baltimore), on Wednesday.
Joe Musgrove, author of the first “no-hitter” for the 2021 season (K. Kuo / USA Today Sports / Reuters)
Why did Means miss the “perfect match”?
The Baltimores Orioles dominated the Seattle Mariners (6-0) and John Means’ stat line was perfect: 27 batsmen faced, 27 batsmen eliminated, no bad pitch on his part. But one of his opponents still got to first base. He actually took advantage of a mistake made by the catcher from Baltimore who dropped a bullet.
The strikeout was counted, because the pitch was good, but the Seattle player stayed on the pitch anyway. He was eventually eliminated in the next action, along with his beating teammate. So the Mariners didn’t use more than 27 players in the game.
John Means didn’t blame his catcher. The contentious action occurred at the start of the game. It was far too early to think of a possible “perfect match”. And Means still managed the first « no-hitter » of his career.
Those who missed the « perfect match » by nothing
MLB history is full of missed “perfect matches”. It has happened several times that a pitcher has failed 26 batsmen, before cracking on the 27th and last. There were also games where a pitcher was perfect for nine innings. But an extension was necessary to decide between the two teams. And, that’s when the opposing team finally pulled off a strike.
The best-known example is that of Harvey Haddix, pittsburgh Pirates, in 1959. He completed nine perfect innings, then three more in overtime, before a teammate error allowed the opposing team to sign. one strike, and even win the game afterwards.