Episode 1: June 3, 2010
Umpire Jim Joyce missed a call last night that cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game…or did he? How should we think about Galarraga’s performance? How many times have similar events occurred in baseball history? Thoughts on the nature of baseball records, instant replay, reversing the call, and what to do if you’re mad about it.
Please note: this is not an exact transcription of the episode.
People are MAD! I mean they're angry, they're really upset. They want blood. Jim Joyce's blood. They'd really like to see him suffer, as if he doesn't already feel bad enough, or as if there's any way to fix his mistake. It's not going to get fixed, people. It's done. Forget about it.
I'm Alex Reisner and you're listening to Game of Chance, a show about baseball, baseball statistics, and the role of luck in baseball.
If you've never heard of Jim Joyce then you haven't read any baseball news yet today because this story is unavoidable. Armando Galarraga, last night's starting pitcher for Detroit, retired the first 26 Cleveland Indian batters he faced. That's one out away from a perfect game. The next batter hit a routine ground ball to the first baseman, Galarraga ran to cover, caught the throw, stepped on the bag, and beat the runner, completing his perfect game. It was the third perfect game in the past 30 days, and the second in the past week, which is really incredible considering there have only been 20 pitched in 138 years of Major League Baseball history.
Great story. Oh yeah, the problem is that on that last play of the game, first base umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe, so Galarraga lost the perfect game he apparently earned. Now, Joyce watched a replay after the game and immediately apologized for his fairly obvious mistake. The play wasn't even that close, and Joyce feels terrible about it. He even said "I just cost that kid a perfect game." You can imagine, given that Joyce understands the historic gravity of a perfect game, that he feels appropriately awful. But people want blood. They want Joyce suspended or fired, and they want to broaden the use of instant replay.
Calm down. Seriously, if you want to be upset for Armando Galarraga, that's great, I feel for him, but this situation does not undermine the sanctity of the game like people seem to think. What about Harvey Haddix? Harvey Haddix people! Harvey Haddix, in 1959, pitched a perfect game for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Not only did he pitch a perfect game, he didn't allow a baserunner for 12 full innings! Let me say that again: Harvey Haddix pitched a perfect game for 12 innings, and is not included on the list of baseball's 20 perfect games. He doesn't even get credit for a no-hitter. Forget a no-hitter, he didn't even get a win. In the bottom of the 13th inning Don Hoak, the Pirates third baseman, made an error. The Braves scored on a sac fly, an intentional walk to Hank Aaron, and then a home run. Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings and he got nothing. His name is not on the list. He pitched an even better game than Galarraga's and he lost.
This is what baseball is. Or, maybe I should say, this is what baseball records are. If we think about it, we all know that there's nothing magical that happens when a batter hits 500 home runs. 500 isn't *that* much better than 499, or 498, but we like 500 because we like multiples of 10, because of our base 10 number system. Hitting .299 isn't that much worse than hitting .300, winning 19 games isn't that different from 20, and retiring 27 out of 28 batters isn't that different from retiring 27 out of 27. Maybe we need to keep different lists. I don't know without looking it up, but there are probably dozens of pitchers who have missed a perfect game or a no-hitter by one batter. Now, you might say that they didn't have the psychological toughness to, you know, finish the deed, but I don't think you could prove that, and what a great feat to throw a one-hitter! A one-hitter is a fantastic pitching performance. It doesn't have the mystique of a no-hitter or a perfect game, but it's only slightly worse. It seems like a totally different thing because of how we think about numbers and records, *not* because it's actually all that different.
Also, how many no-hitters were lost because of blown calls before there were replays? In the 1920s, 30s, 40s, or the 1800s? Conversely, how many no-hitters were *manufacturerd* by blown calls? Umpires miss calls! It's part of the game. Baseball is not a video game, it's not a machine. Forget about calls on the basepaths, what about balls and strikes? It's pretty easy to imagine that every game is heavily influenced by the home plate umpire's strike zone, and while each individual pitch may seem kind of insignificant, who's to say how a missed ball or strike call here or there affects the game? The way baseball is today, the batter-pitcher duel is a core part of the game, and the strike zone is inconsistent! As fans, we all accept as a fundamental premise of baseball, that every umpire has his own strike zone, that the umpire tries to stay consistent throughout a game, but that a pitcher has to learn how the ump will call a strike, and the umpires are not consistent over the course of a game. The strike zone isn't even precisely defined since it changes as the batter moves.
I'm not saying there's a problem with any of this. I'm saying that if you're a baseball fan, you implicitly accept all of these imperfections in the game. You accept that umpires miss calls all the time, and that most of them don't matter, but some of them do, and that's how it goes. In the end it all evens out, or at least you hope it does.
Last night Joe Girardi said "I think it's something that baseball should look at possibly because if they do change it, it doesn't affect the game. It doesn't affect the outcome."
Well, that's a bunch of crap. It affects Jason Donald's batting average. Jason Donald would probably be fine with it if you asked him, but that's not the point. The point is that baseball is ruled by decisions by umpires on the field at the time of the play. If the league decides to rewrite history it sets a dangerous precedent. Imagine a World Series game decided by a controversial call, changed the next day. I'm not saying this particular game has the significance of a World Series game, but the idea goes against a fundamental part of baseball. If you think we should switch from human umpires to some kind of machines, that's fine, but that's another conversation.
Baseball is weird. It's played on fields that are different shapes and sizes, the rules change every few years, the rules are enforced differently by different umpires, bad calls are made on important plays, all these imperfect, imprecise factors are a part of the game on a very deep way. And at the same time we distinguish between 499 and 500 home runs, or 60 and 61 home runs, or a .299 vs a .300 batting average, or 27 vs 28 batters faced. If you really think about it, the precision with which we regard these numbers is absurd. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, many of them at home in lefty-friendly Yankee Stadium, but many of them on the road in parks with enormous outfields. Willie Mays hit 660 home runs and his home field was the Polo Grounds, with a centerfield fence almost 500 feet away! My point is that even though we think: OK, Mays hit 660 home runs, Ruth hit 714, so Ruth was a greater home run hitter, given perfectly equal opportunities, we really don't know who would have hit more. Given a perfectly called game, maybe Galarraga would have been perfect, or maybe he would have walked a batter. If Harvey Haddix's team had scored just one freaking run in 12 innings, he would have had a perfect game. There was nothing else he could have done. And there's nothing else we can do. Baseball is not a video game. If this Galarraga situation makes you mad, start a new list. Go back and find all the one-hitters and near-perfect games and other great performances. Galarraga deserves credit for his feat, even though it wasn't a perfect game. Let's give him credit, and let's give credit to all the .299 hitters, but c'mon, please: we don't need to change the rules of the game to recognize the great performances.
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