Is Roy Halladay the Best Pitcher Ever to Throw a Perfect Game?

Of course not, considering that Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson and Cy Young have thrown perfect games in the past. But the perfect game is one of the hardest (if not the hardest) single-game achievement in baseball. Only 23 men have ever recorded 27 straight outs in a single game: the 20 official no-hitters; Harvey Haddix and Pedro Martinez, who each threw nine perfect innings to start a game, then surrendered a hit in extra frames; and Ernie Shore. In 1917, Babe Ruth walked the first batter to start a game, was ejected for arguing balls and strikes. Shore came on in relief, got the leadoff runner thrown out stealing, then sat down 26 consecutive Washington Senators for one of three “unofficial” perfect games.

What strikes me about these 23 pitchers is that, despite each of them recording an achievement that requires a great deal of skill, many of them are quite unremarkable. So where does Halladay rank among those who have done it?

For our purposes, we’ll throw out John Montgomery Ward and Lee Richmond, who threw perfect games five days apart in 1880 in a game that resembles modern baseball about as much as rugby union resembles the modern NFL.

Likewise, we’ll discount Haddix, Shore, and Martinez, who, through no fault of their own, didn’t get through the entire game perfectly.

That leaves us with a group of 18 pitchers. Five (Young, Addie Joss, Jim Bunning, Koufax, and Catfish Hunter) are Hall of Famers. Four more (Dallas Braden, Don Larsen, Charlie Robertson, and Len Barker) won less than 100 games in the major leagues. Randy Johnson isn’t in the Hall of Fame, but only due to the fact that he hasn’t yet been retired five years.

In between, you have Halladay and a group of eight more pitchers who ranged from mediocre to quite good. Let’s see how Halladay stacks up against them. To be honest, I’m not sure what the significance of this exercise is, but in the face of the Phillies’ latest streak of offensive ineptitude, I thought we might enjoy getting one last bit of fun out of Roy Halladay’s historic Saturday night.

Mike Witt

September 30, 1984, Angels 1, Rangers 0, 94 pitches, 10 K

Witt was, in his day, not a bad pitcher, twice making the All-Star team and posting four straight seasons of 15 wins or more and an ERA+ of 108 or better. Though he came in third in the Cy Young voting in 1986, the only categories he ever led the league in were hit batters and earned runs. A career line of 117-116 and a 3.83 ERA sums up Witt in one word: average.

Tom Browning

September 16, 1988, Reds 1, Dodgers 0, 102 pitches, 7 K

Browning’s 12-year career was much like Witt’s—a collection of mediocre seasons punctuated by one night of brilliance. Browning was by no means a bad pitcher (he won 123 games in his career with an ERA+ of 98), but he was undone by an inability to get strikeouts (4.7 K/9 for his career) and a propensity to give up home runs, a category in which he led the National League three times. Better than Halladay? I can’t make that argument.

Dennis Martinez

July 28, 1991, Expos 2, Dodgers 0, 95 pitches, 5 K

Quick. Name another Nicaraguan. Apart from Vicente Padilla, I can’t think of any. El Presidente pitched parts of 23 seasons in the major leagues, logging 3,999 2/3 innings (one of my favorite career totals ever), making four All-Star teams (including one in 1995 at the age of 40) and going to three World Series. Martinez, just by force of his longevity, has to be a better pitcher than Browning and Witt, but his prime, which came in his mid-30s, was offset by a truly woeful five-year stretch in his late 20s. The perfect game was one of five shutouts Martinez threw in 1991, a year he led the National League in ERA and won 14 games for an Expos team that only won 71. The best so far, but a 4.8 career K/9 ratio and a career ERA+ of 106 can’t make him better than Halladay.

Kenny Rogers

July 28, 1994, Rangers 4, Angels 0, 98 pitches, 8 K

Another four-time All-Star over a 20-year career, Rogers gained international musical notoriety when “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” took him and his band, The First Edition, to the Billboard Top 10 in 1968. Oh, wait…

This Rogers won 219 games in the majors, won a World Series ring with the 1996 Yankees, and pitched effectively into his 40s with the Tigers. But he never set the world on fire. His best season was 1998, when he went 16-8with a 138 strikeouts, a 143 ERA+, and WHIP of 1.18 in a 6.9 WAR season for Oakland, but he, like Browning, Witt, and Martinez, had enough bad years to settle his career ERA around league average.

David Wells

May 17, 1998, Yankees 4, Twins 0, 120 pitches, 10 K

Almost certainly the fattest man to throw a perfect game, Wells also worked the hardest, throwing 120 pitches (allegedly while hung over), tops for any perfect game in history (Addie Joss needed only 78 pitches to throw his in 1908). In truth, he’s very much like Rogers and Martinez—guys who won 200 games in their extremely long careers, had a few very good seasons mixed in (Wells a little more so than Rogers and Martinez), but landed, on the whole, as better-than-average pitchers and not much more. Wells twice finished in the top three in Cy Young voting (at age 35 and 37). That 1998 season marked one of the few seasons Wells ranked among the league’s best. That year he struck out 5.6 times more hitters than he walked, posted a league-leading 1.05 WHIP in 214 1/3 innings, and won 18 games for the world champion Yankees. Better than Rogers and Martinez? Yes. Better than Halladay? Probably not.

David Cone

July 18, 1999, Yankees 6, Expos 0, 88 pitches, 10 K

The itinerant staff ace, Cone had a better prime (and a somewhat shorter career) than these other “mid-level” perfect game pitchers. In 15 full seasons, Cone pitched for five teams, won four World Series, took home the 1994 Cy Young award, and finished in the top five in voting three other times. Cone made five All-Star teams over an 11-year span, twice led the league in strikeouts, and twice won 20 games, and finished with a career ERA+ of 121. Cone’s last season as an effective starter was 1996, at age 36. So while he was a dominant starter at one point, he loses points for longevity. He rates 107th all-time in ERA+ and 181st all-time in WAR. Let’s put it this way: he got on the Hall of Fame ballot, but didn’t get enough votes to stay for more than a year.

Mark Buehrle

July 23, 2009 White Sox 5, Rays 0, 116 pitches, 6 K

One of five pitchers who pitched a perfect game and another no-hitter in the modern era, along with Joss, Young, Koufax, and Bunning. Career ERA+ of 121, same as Cone. Pitched his first full season in the majors at age 22 and has made at least 30 starts, won at least 10 games, and thrown at least 200 innings every year. A four-time All-Star, Buehrle has always been good, but has never been great. He’s never won 20 games, struck out more than 165 batters, or posted an ERA under 3. Consistently among the top 15 pitchers in the game, but hardly ever among the top five. The good news is, that age 31, he still stands to compile his good-but-not-great seasons for years to come.

Roy Halladay

May 29, 2010 Phillies 1, Marlins 0, 115 pitches, 11 K

I don’t know that you’d call anyone in this muddied middle, apart from mid-90s Cone, an staff ace. Martinez, Wells, Rogers, and Buehrle have all led good pitching staffs in the past, but none have ever put an entire league in their hip pockets the way Halladay’s doing this year, or the way guys like Koufax and Bunning have in the past. Doc was a little late turning into a major league starter (at age 25), but since then he’s made five All-Star teams, won a Cy Young award, led the league in innings pitched three times, led the league in K/BB ratio three times, and won 138 games in the past 8+ seasons. A career ERA+ of 135 and a WHIP of 1.19, fifth among active pitchers, put him in Hall of Fame territory if he keeps this up. He’s already compiled more career WAR than Cone and Buehrle, stands 22nd all-time in ERA+, and, at age 33, is putting up his best season to date. Of all the non-Hall of Famers (plus Johnson, just for fun), Halladay stands head and shoulders above the rest.

While we’re here, let’s see how Halladay compares to those pitchers who did make the Hall of Fame. For the sake of simplicity, I think we can all agree that any comparisons to Johnson, Young, and Koufax would be a stretch, at best. So let’s take a look at the others who have been bronzed in Cooperstown: Addie Joss, Catfish Hunter, and Jim Bunning.

Catfish Hunter

May 8, 1968, A’s 4, Twins 0, 107 pitches, 11 K

The youngest man ever to throw a perfect game (age 22), Hunter went on to have a pretty decent career. Catfish won 224 games in his career, and, in his prime, was quite a good pitcher, though saying so about a Hall-of-Famer might sound a little condescending. Top four in Cy Young voting four straight years, winning once, five straight 20-win seasons, six pennants and five World Series titles in a seven-year span, AL leader in WHIP in 1974 and 1975. Not too shabby. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, here’s the flip side. First, Hunter pitched in one of the pitcher-friendly eras and parks in baseball history, for consistently great teams. Halladay has pitched for (until this year) bad teams in probably the second-hardest era for pitchers ever. The year Hunter threw his perfect game, Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 batting average. Hunter also let up 374 home runs in his career, posted a K/9 of 2.11 (Halladay’s is 3.35), and was just about done as a pitcher by age 30. Halladay already has posted 10 more career WAR than Hunter by age 33 and is still going strong. By this point in Hunter’s career, he was retired. So when you adjust for context, you see that Catfish, though his 3.26 career ERA was better than Halladay’s, only posted a 105 ERA+ in 13 major league seasons. Hunter was truly great for about five or six years, and had excellent taste in teammates, but burned out early. This one goes to Halladay.

Jim Bunning

June 21, 1964, Phillies 6, Mets 0, 90 pitches, 10 K

While Bunning leaves something to be desired as a senator, he was a truly excellent pitcher. Interesting note: of the 20 official perfect games, only two first names have doubled up: David (Wells and Cone) and Jim (Bunning and Catfish Hunter, who went by Jim until Charlie Finley started calling him “Catfish”). Both double first names happened within a few years of each other.

Anyway. Bunning was a five-time All-Star who, like Cone, was great from age 25 to 35, then slid off the map quite a bit. What’s more, no disrespect intended to Bunning, but he’s a marginal Hall-of-Famer. Inducted by the Veterans’ Committee, Bunning’s stats rank below most pitchers in Cooperstown. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve to be there, only that he’s a subpar Hall-of-Famer, if such a thing exists.

Already, Bunning lags behind Halladay in ERA+ and WAR, and while he was a workhorse ace for the better part of a decade, Halladay’s peak (which doesn’t appear to be over yet) is better than Bunning’s, and Halladay still has a few years to catch the Kentucky senator on counting stats like wins and strikeouts.

By any measure, if Halladay doesn’t already have a better career resume than Bunning, he will soon.

Addie Joss

October 2, 1908, Naps 1, White Sox 0, 74 pitches, 3 K

Q: The rules of the Baseball Hall of Fame state that a player must play at least 10 seasons in the major leagues before being considered for induction. Who is the only player ever exempted for that rule?

A: Addie Joss.

Joss was the ace of the Cleveland Naps (now the Indians) from 1902 to 1910, winning 155 games (Roy Halladay’s career total, incidentally) in his first 8 seasons, by age 29. The reason he only won five more games over the rest of his career is that over the 1910-11 offseason, he contracted tubercular meningitis and died at the age of 31. In 1978, the Veterans’ Committee waived its service requirement and elected Joss to the Hall of Fame.

Was he a better pitcher than Halladay? Despite his short career, I believe he was. I’ll concede that Joss threw in an extremely low-scoring era, but he still posted the lowest career WHIP (0.968) and second-lowest career ERA (1.89) in major league history. WAR rates Halladay’s best season on pare Joss’s (7.5 WAR), but 1908 saw Joss post a 0.806 WHIP, a league-leading 1.16 ERA, and a mind-bending 206 ERA+. Joss’s career ERA+ was 145. If Halladay continues to pitch at his current level for another three or four years, he’d certainly have a better body of work, but for now, Addie Joss is where I have to draw the line.

So I give you Roy Halladay—the fifth-best pitcher ever to throw a perfect game. Maybe if the offense wakes up, he won’t have to do it every time out.

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