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The perfect game that was, and wasn’t

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Darn you, Philip Humber

Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Last night, John Means threw a perfect game against the Mariners. Part of the issue there is the Mariners. They haven’t been especially good. The other part is Means. He has been good! There’s not that much to be said about it that hasn’t already been said. At least for the most part. Matthew Roberson wrote about it, in ways that I mostly won’t write about it. I have a few more thoughts to add, but I want to consider things from a different angle.

One of those is that, although Means pitched a perfect game, Pedro Severino didn’t catch a perfect game. In the third inning, a would-be strikeout against Sam Haggerty trickled between Severino’s legs and dribbled all the way to the backstop.

This was the difference between a perfect game and a no-hitter for Means:

Severino is known more for his glovework than his hitting, but he’s not always great defensively. After all, he currently ranks in the first percentile in framing. The Mariners should have been the first victim of a perfect game since 2012. No one has done it since future Mariners Hall of Famer Félix Hernández. Matt Cain did it in the same year too. Before that, though? Philip Humber tossed a perfect game, and will go down in Mariners lore for all the wrong reasons.

Yesterday felt really bad, and it should feel bad. The Mariners are, well, bad! They posted a .106 expected batting average Wednesday night, which I probably don’t need to tell you is pretty lousy. In fairness, baseball is subject to a lot of flukiness. Seven teams — including the Mariners, again! — have had games with lower expected batting averages than last night. None of those were no-hit, but the Mariners certainly deserved the pummeling they received.

The Mariners have the penchant of making undistinguished pitchers look distinguished. Means? He’s good. He’s been flashing plus stuff since last year, and he looks like he’s starting to put it all together. Not that it means anything, but it’s interesting to note that Humber has the fewest career wins of any pitcher who’s tossed a perfect game. More meaningfully, the year Humber threw his perfect game, he had the third-lowest FIP of any pitcher in baseball, just ahead of the locally maligned Héctor Noesí. He wasn’t especially good, but the Mariners made him look historic.

Statcast data doesn’t go back to games before 2015, but I don’t need to see the exit velocities and launch angles from that day to know that Humber didn’t give up much hard contact. He missed a lot of bats too. Means threw a perfect game that was, and wasn’t. Humber threw a perfect game, but perhaps it wasn’t perfect either. If you’ll remember, it ended in controversial fashion.

Perhaps most controversial is that Brendan Ryan pinch-hit for Munenori Kawasaki. Why the fuck did he pinch-hit for Kawasaki? Literally, I do not know! Ryan finished dead last in wOBA and wRC+ of all hitters in 2012, and Ryan had worse career splits against righties than Kawasaki. I could get into it, but I won’t get into it. Here’s the final pitch of the game:

These are the days before the Mariners had a camera angle that was relatively straight on to the strike zone. It’s clear that the pitch itself wasn’t in the strike zone. It’s clear that Ryan tried to check his swing, and it’s clear that home plate umpire Brian Runge is calling that Ryan failed to check his swing. You can see that Ryan stops to argue, before realizing that the ball has leaked away from A.J. Pierzynski. He halfheartedly jogs about 45 feet to first base, and, as the ball leaves Pierzynski’s hand, Ryan is already turning around to jaw at Runge. And he gives him an earful.

I don’t necessarily mean to rehash history, but after Means lost his perfect game, something was kindled in me that reminded me an awful lot of Humber’s perfecto. Now, one obvious conversation to be had is that Ryan should have run to first base. He probably still would have been out, but it wouldn’t have hurt to put some pressure onto Pierzynski. His pleas were futile anyhow. Obviously, that’s easier said than done in the heat of the moment, but it’s worth mentioning.

The other conversation to be had is that Ryan may not have gone around at all. That brings up the issue of what a swing is in the first place — which is a headache of an argument — but if we’re operationally defining a swing as the bat breaking the plane of the plate, we might have a case here. If it’s intent to swing, we’re in the clear. Unfortunately, the rulebook has no definition for a swing — which highlights baseballs archaism, and is obviously an issue — and so it was completely at Runge’s discretion. He can make whatever decision he wants. In any case, this is the conversation that I’m most interested in.

The ensuing days after Humber’s perfect game involved much debate about whether Ryan went around or not. Jeff Sullivan wrote that it looked like Ryan checked his swing. (He maintains that Ryan checked his swing.) Lone Star Ball wrote that Ryan didn’t go around. Sam Miller said, mumble, mumble, shrug. Reddit, hubristic as always, concluded that it definitely looked like a swing. Ryan himself refused to discuss the checked swing in question and (and also praised Humber).

For perhaps a touch more clarity, here’s a slo-mo video of Ryan’s checked swing (or not checked swing) from the first-base side:

And if that’s still not clear — and it probably shouldn’t be — then here’s a still from the same angle, at the apex of his swing:

I don’t know! We never did get the closure of a straight-on, side-angle view of Ryan’s swing. There’s certainly a good argument to be made that Ryan checked his swing. There is perhaps a stronger argument to be made that nothing matters and that, regardless of its level of absurdity, the umpire’s call is the be-all and end-all. It’s certainly in the grey area, and the rules dictate that there is a grey area, and so it’s ultimately up to the umpire to decide what a swing is. Baseball is silly!

Regardless of what actually went down, this is how it went down in the record books:

the look of a man who literally cannot believe what he just did

In many ways, the Mariners have really improved from these times. Their farm system is stocked in a way that it hasn’t been for perhaps decades, and they aren’t saddled with any bloated contracts or appallingly mediocre players on the roster. In other ways, the Mariners have continued to give fans plenty of things to brood about. They had the option to sign quality free agents this offseason, and they declined this opportunity to give their young players opportunities to play every day, which is team-speak for being stingy and prioritizing padding owners’ pockets over providing fans an enjoyable viewing experience.

I’m not here to diminish Philip Humber’s historic night. Humber threw a perfect game, perhaps because of a dumb rule. John Means threw a no-hitter instead of a perfect game, because of a different dumb rule. Baseball, really, is just a game made up of dumb rules. In the end, I like to think that the Mariners have changed an awful lot. But the more you think about it, the more you realize it’s sort of the same experience it’s always been. The only difference is that there might be a smidge of hope for the future in a way that there previously hasn’t been.