Toward A More Perfect Definition Of A Perfect Game

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Der Ball ist rund und das Spiel dauert 90 Minuten.

That’s a German observation about soccer, and the only two things anyone knows for sure about a given match: the ball is round, and the match lasts 90 minutes. Philosophers have done the same work since antiquity: strip away the variables in order to arrive at an objective conclusion about a subjective concept; Aristotle used the approach to explain persuasion, St. Anselm to prove the existence of God, and Husserl in the Logical Investigations. It has not always been so easy in baseball.

The perfect game’s current definition has stood since MLB’s codification of it in 1991. (It was not substantially different before that; two games, Harvey Haddix in 1959 and Babe Ruth/Ernie Shore in 1917 were removed from the list.) It requires that a pitcher face a minimum of 27 batters, and retire all of them at the plate. In that sense, at least, we know what a perfect game is. The ball is round and the losing team makes (at least) 27 outs. The out is the specter, the guarantee, the prize sought by the team on defense and the calamity the offensive team seeks to avoid.


Baseball, of course, makes no scoring distinction between the different manners in which a batter can be put out. An out is an out, and each of the 31 ways, in total, that a player can be put out count equally toward the 27 allotted to each team in a regulation game.


You know all this. But MLB’s definition of a perfect game adds arbitrary restrictions to the type of outs that qualify. Each of the 27 outs in a perfect game must be recorded in one of 19 of the 31 ways. This subjectivity exists in a space where everything else is very straightforward; argue all you want about the value of a no-hitter in which the pitcher walks eight batters and hits another one, the thing being defined specifically matches its name. It’s a no-hitter. No hits were allowed. It makes sense.

The idea that a perfect game must be a no-hitter is arbitrary and introduces unnecessary variables to what is at heart a simple concept. So does the idea that a fielder’s error fouls the pitcher’s attempt at perfection. An out is an out; the pitcher’s duty is to record 27 of them, and if the pitcher faces 27 batters and retires them all then “everything else is pure conjecture,” as is often amended to the German quotation up top.


27 up, 27 down.

Major League Baseball claims there have been 21 perfect games in the modern era. I dispute this. I argue that there have in fact been 87. Eighty-seven pitchers, going back to 1904, have faced a total of 27 batters and recorded 27 outs. 61 of them allowed a hit; 24 a walk; one, Terry Mulholland, overcame a teammate’s error to retire the batter on the base paths a few pitches later.


The out is all that matters.

If we allow ourselves to arbitrarily limit the manner in which a pitcher must retire a batter, then the definition depends entirely upon the aesthetics of the ruling party that dictates said definition. Is a strikeout not more perfect than a long fly ball? (Or is it less?) If more perfect, then do we require a strikeout on three pitches for true perfection? Three swinging strikes?


Why is there a difference between the pitcher’s reliance on a teammate to make a play on a batted ball and that pitcher’s reliance on a teammate to catch a baserunner stealing, or to apply the tag on a pickoff attempt?

There is no difference. To make any other argument is to commit the fallacy of appealing to authority. A pitcher who faces the minimum 27 batters has completed a perfect game, regardless of the manner in which the pitcher retired those 27 batters. Here’s to the 87 pitchers who have done it.