clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Did Catfish Hunter have the most perfect game ever?

New, 22 comments
Jim Hunter Pitching

Over the weekend, we celebrated the anniversary of Catfish Hunter’s perfect game in 1968. Every perfect game is an amazing feat, but what struck me about Hunter’s was that he was also the hero at the plate, driving in three of his team’s four runs on the day. It’s one thing to be perfect on the mound, but he was nearly perfect on both sides of the ball.

That got me thinking: What’s the most perfect perfect game in history? First, let’s define what complete all-around perfection would look like:

  • As pitcher, retire all 27 batters in a row
  • As pitcher, retire all 27 of those batters via strikeout
  • As batter, reach base in every plate appearance
  • As batter, drive in all of your team’s runs, especially the first/go-ahead one

In other words, it would mean never having a negative result and effectively winning the game all on your own. To really take this to its logical extreme, you’d want every plate appearance to be a solo homer, so that you created the runs yourself rather than needing a teammate to get on base ahead of you. On the pitching side, popouts are generally considered as good as strikeouts, with both requiring your teammate to make one simple catch (even the strikeout needs to be caught by the catcher), so we’ll keep those in mind even though they’re not listed above.

Based on those criteria, Hunter did exceptionally well:

  • 11 strikeouts
  • 3-for-4 in four PAs
  • Drove in 3-of-4 team runs, including first run

Obviously nobody ever strikes out all 27 batters, nor usually even half that many, so any double-digit number is going to rank high on the list. He also induced two popouts. And at the plate, he was around 75% perfect. (None of his hits were homers, but they almost never will be when it comes to pitchers batting, so just as with the 27 strikeouts this isn’t a realistic part of the criteria.)

How does that compare with other perfect games? There are 22 other instances in history, but nine of them took place in American League stadiums during the Designated Hitter era. That immediately disqualifies them here, because they didn’t get the chance to bat — can’t win the whole game by yourself if you didn’t even play in half of it. Let’s begin with the other strikeout leaders:

  • Sandy Koufax, 14
  • Matt Cain, 14
  • Randy Johnson, 13
  • Felix Hernandez, 12 (AL)
  • Roy Halladay, 11
  • Len Barker, 11 (AL)
  • David Wells, 11 (AL)
  • Jim Bunning, 10
  • Mike Witt, 10 (AL)
  • David Cone, 10 (AL)

That leaves us with Koufax, Cain, Johnson, Halladay, and Bunning. Let’s take a closer look at each. Since I’m potentially willing to accept popouts as a substitute for strikeouts, we’ll need a name for Ks plus popouts. How about K-Pop? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that abbreviation isn’t being used for anything else in the world right now.

Note: Click name to see box score from that game

  • Koufax had three popouts, so his K-Pop was 17, the highest on the list. However, he was a total zero at the plate, going 0-for-2 as his opponent threw a one-hitter in his own right. He relied on his teammates to score the game’s only run, and even then it was an unearned run gifted by the opposing catcher.
  • Cain had one popout, for a K-Pop of 15. He was 1-for-3 at the plate, but he didn’t drive in any of his team’s 10 runs. Next.
  • Johnson had no popouts, so his K-Pop is even with Hunter’s at 13. At the plate he was 0-for-4.
  • Halladay had two popouts, so his K-Pop is also even with Hunter’s. At the plate, he was 0-for-3.
  • Bunning lags behind in strikeouts, but he also got six popouts, so his 16 K-Pop is actually higher than Hunter’s. Bunning also drove in two runs with a 2-RBI double. However, his team had already scored four more before that, and he got out in his other three at-bats to finish 1-for-4.

The real contenders here are Koufax and Bunning. Johnson has more Ks but Hunter catches him in K-Pop, and anyway it’s no contest at the plate. Cain has the K-Pop edge, but again he was a non-factor at the plate. Koufax also did nothing at the plate, but at least has a more significant pitching edge.

But nobody catches Hunter. Bunning is the closest, nearly matching Koufax’s K-Pop while also doing at least something at the plate, but Hunter’s performance with the bat was still far superior. By these criteria, I believe Hunter had the most perfect perfect game in history.

Non-perfectos

But what about non-perfect games? After all, instead of a day of perfect pitching and near-perfect hitting, a player could instead have a day of perfect hitting and near-perfect pitching. And in 2019, we had something close to that, courtesy of Noah Syndergaard.

Last May, Thor threw a shutout against the Reds, and he hit a solo homer that stood as the only run in a 1-0 victory. He also got out twice for a 1-for-3 day overall, but he satisfied the otherwise unrealistic criteria of driving in all your team’s runs via solo homer. On the pitching side, he allowed six baserunners — four hits, a walk, and an error that he committed himself.

There have been six other instances of this feat in MLB history, with a shutout and a homer in a 1-0 win. Here are the pertinent stats, including Thor:

The leader here is definitely Ruffing. He has the fewest baserunners and a monster K-Pop, all while carrying the offense and only getting out once. And he pitched a 10th inning, just for good measure.

Is that enough to beat Hunter? Five runners is awfully far from perfect, and my instinct, however biased, is it’s too many and overshadows the bonus of having fully created his team’s only run.

Of course, we’ve only looked at a tiny sample of elite performances. There are still lots of no-hitters, and one-hitters with no walks, and so on, that could be hiding in a century’s worth of game logs.

So, what might it take to outclass Hunter? If a pitcher allowed just one baserunner but went perfect at the plate himself while still accounting for a majority of his team’s runs, that might be enough to tie Catfish. Same if a pitcher matched Hunter’s day at the plate and allowed only one or two runners in his pitching work, but posted a K-Pop several points higher. In order to break that tie? It would require throwing a shutout while allowing just one baserunner and going perfect at the plate (to match Hunter’s zero runners as a pitcher and one time getting out as a batter), while also driving in more than 75% of his team’s runs and/or posting a strikeout (or K-Pop) total in the mid-teens or higher.

Here are a few more contenders:

  • Kerry Wood and his 20-strikeout game (plus one popout), which was also one hit away from being a perfect game, though at the plate he went 0-for-3
  • Max Scherzer and his no-hitter in Oct 2015, featuring 17 strikeouts and two popouts, which was perfect other than an error by his third baseman behind him; he went 1-for-3 at the plate
  • Clayton Kershaw and his 2014 no-hitter, featuring 15 strikeouts, which was also perfect other than an error by his shortstop behind him; however, he went 0-for-4 at the plate
  • Chris Heston and his 2015 no-hitter, featuring 11 strikeouts, with zero walks but three HBP; he went 2-for-4 at the plate and drove in two of his team’s five runs
  • Bob Ewing (1910) allowed four runners but went 4-for-4 and drove in 2-of-4 team runs
  • Jim Tobin (1944) also allowed four runners and drove in 2-of-4 team runs, going 1-for-1 with two walks
  • Allowing three runners and going perfect at the plate, albeit with no RBI unless noted: Jimmy Lavendar (1912) (drove in 1-of-3), Frank Owen (1905) (but zero strikeouts), George Mogridge (1919), and Camilo Pascual (1959)

And finally, the top competition I’ve been able to find so far: Ed Walsh of the 1910 Chicago White Sox. He threw a one-hitter with no walks or HBP, but did allow a second runner on an error that he committed himself. At the plate he was a perfect 2-for-2 with a walk. However, he didn’t drive in any runs (his team won 1-0 and he didn’t factor into either end of the scoring play), and he only struck out five batters (no play-by-play data to check for popouts). This gets close to tying Hunter, but not quite all the way.

Update: One more submission courtesy of AN member DanMan89 in the comments section. In 1971, Rick Wise of the Phillies threw a no-hitter and was one runner away from perfection, issuing only one walk. At the plate, he went 2-for-4 with two homers, driving in three of his team’s four runs, albeit not the first run of the game. This might be even better than Walsh, though I think it still falls just short of Hunter. They’re equal in RBI, and I’d be willing to concede that the extra self-creation bonus of the homers makes up for the extra time Wise got out. But if they’re roughly even at the plate, then Hunter still wins with the superior pitching. As another tiebreaker, Wise collected only 5 K-Pop.

Is that game out there, one that’s even more perfect than Catfish Hunter’s? It’s difficult to say for sure, and it’s absolutely possible, but if it exists then I haven’t found it yet.