When Randy Johnson threw his perfect game in 2004, my mom came to my room to wake me up so I could witness what she described as an event that only happens every “five years or so.” And she was right, of course: The last perfect game before Johnson’s was David Cone’s in 1999.
A perfect game is one of the rarest feats in sports. In fact, the number of pitchers who have thrown them is almost as small as the number of people who have walked on the moon.
And as expected, Mark Buehrle threw the next perfect game a full five years later against Tampa Bay — singlehandedly causing me to lose my fantasy baseball matchup that week. Since Buehrle’s achievement, though, the rate of perfect games in baseball has exploded.
The following year, Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay each earned a place in the history books, and Armando Galarraga’s near-perfect game almost made the list. In addition to the two perfect games, the 2010 season saw four no-hitters. A relatively quiet 2011 followed with only three no-hitters, and this year, Philip Humber threw baseball’s 21st perfect game on April 21.
The rise in perfect games is not necessarily problematic, since they add excitement to the sport, but it is shocking. Since Cy Young threw the first perfect game of the modern era in 1904, there have been four decades without a perfect game. Previously, the most prolific era for this achievement came between 1964 and 1968, when three gems were tossed in five years. As a comparison, three perfect games were recorded in a 10-month span from July 2009 to May 2010.
The rise in perfect games could be attributed to the rise in dominant pitching. Just last year, the American League MVP was a pitcher — something that 23 other pitchers can boast — and was the first award given to a starting pitcher since 1986.
But Humber, Braden and the near-perfect Galarraga prove that explanation wrong. Of the three, Galarraga hasn’t pitched a major league game since May 2011, Braden’s career record is 26-36 and Humber had never even pitched a complete game before achieving perfection. With the exception of Halladay, the most recent group of hurlers to throw a perfect game is more of a motley crew than an all-star team.
What, then, is sparking the recent wave of perfect games? The evidence seems to point to good matchups and a pinch of luck. Humber threw his perfect game against the Mariners, who are currently last in the AL in on-base percentage. Braden’s perfect game, came against a team that ranked 13 out of 14 in the AL in batting average. But Nolan Ryan never threw a perfect game despite being one of the most dominant pitchers in the game, and of the last 50 Cy Young winners, only three have thrown a perfect game — showing that the achievement isn’t necessarily correlated with ability.
The statistics above indicate that the recent wave of perfection comes from fortuitous situations, but also important is the emphasis on control in pitching. Last week, Bartolo Colón threw 38 consecutive strikes, and in his perfect game, Humber threw 57 strikes of his 96 pitches.
But it’s still impossible to say whether the current trend in perfect games will continue. If history has taught us anything, it is that perfect games are largely a random meeting of the right pitcher on the right day against the right team. While there is skill involved, the event really just comes down to luck.
The club of those who have thrown a perfect game is quite small. Going forward, Humber surely hopes to be more like Roy Halladay than Dallas Braden or Armando Galarraga, but this outcome is unlikely. At least for one day, Humber was perfect, something even reigning AL MVP Justin Verlander can’t say.

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