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Dissecting Philip Humber’s Wild Perfect Game

According to the raw neutrality of the win probability chart, the Seattle Mariners actually had a chance to win the game last Saturday:


Source: FanGraphs

But it did not know — nor did the players know — what day it was. A.J. Pierzynski did not realize the significance of that first pitch, sailing wide to his glove side. Philip Humber may have even felt a twinge of frustration as that first toss missed so poorly. And Paul Konerko had no way of knowing what he started when he took that first grounder and tossed it to Humber for out number one.

They were all witness to and participants of a rare and wild event.

There have been only 21 perfect games (including one in the postseason and not including one that didn’t count) in the 137 years of the MLB. In that span, as of this morning, there have been 201,366 regular season games. That’s 402,732 starts for pitchers on either side, not counting the playoffs. Humber’s perfect game was a 0.0052% event (or 0.01% if we round). And it is no wonder that even the away crowd was cheering Humber at the end:

For those watching Humber’s perfect game live, it was probably a little surprising. A look at the heat map from the game shows he was not always the zone:

I imagine many fans were shocked around the 5th inning when they realized Humber had a perfect game going. For those first several innings, the game appeared unspectacular. The Mariners had jumped out to an early deficit while effectively limiting their own base runners — business as per usual.

But Humber quietly managed to make pitches when needed and never fell behind for long. Specifically, he did not have to throw a three-ball pitch until the 9th inning — by far his toughest inning — and threw only an astonishing two pitches with a 2-0 hitter’s count.

Here’s a look at distribution of counts in which Humber threw (plus 27 counts of 0 balls, 0 strikes, obviously):

Count Um, Count?
0-1 13
0-2 6
1-0 10
1-1 13
1-2 8
2-0 2
2-1 4
2-2 8
3-0 1
3-1 1
3-2 3

A look at the zone getting called for Humber shows neither blatant favoritism or uncommon narrowness, but it certainly shows a wildness we might not expect from a 0.01% event:

NOTE: There is always a bit of leeway with the bottoms and tops of MLB zones given different hitters’ heights.

Does that look a little wild? Compare it to the heat map from Dallas Braden‘s perfect game in 2010:

That, my friends, is a big ball of strike.

And Braden’s perfecto took 13 more pitches than Humbers. Fault in any perfect game falls on both parties — the hitters and the pitcher and defenders — but not necessarily equally. Braden pumped strikes against a Tampa Bay Rays lineup that took a lot of pitches and relied on working counts. Humber threw filthy off-speed pitches (10.63 weighted run values per 100 pitches on his curve and slider combined that day) to get the team with the 2nd lowest BABIP over the last 3+ seasons to hit into some crazy weak contact.

And for that purpose, he didn’t even need the strike zone:

When his breaking stuff veered into the zone, he got weak contact and misses. Low breaking pitches — regardless of how low or far away — killed the Mariners hitters. The pitches must have looked so tasty for so long. Batters licked their proverbial lips, swinging away while expecting a clean liner to center field — until the pitch dropped like the wicked hammer of fate for a whiff or a grounder.

Was Humber wild in his start? Eh, not immensely wild, but seemingly pretty wild considering the result. Does that mean the Mariners are largely at fault here? Largely? No. Only partly. Humber’s slider and curve are legit pitches. Dave Cameron showed how Humber’s breaking stuff has evolved over the previous years and it makes sense that both his slider and curve have been worth over 5 runs per 100 pitches this season. They naturally will not stay that valuable (in fact, Humber’s career is downhill from here, but in a good way, sort of), but they are pitches to be known and feared.

Because FOX was broadcasting the game and they inexplicably elected to not show a replay of Brendan Ryan‘s check swing, we are left to speculate whether or not the shortstop actually did swing on the final 3-2 pitch that sealed the White Sox win, but that twinge of controversy cannot change the curiosities of the remainder of the game — and certainly cannot undo the epic and most rare accomplishment.

Congrats Philip Humber; you are a wild man.