Matt Cain and the Myth of the Perfect Game

“Perfection is the only thing that can be surpassed yet never achieved.”

15 years ago, a friend of mine told me that over the phone. Let that marinate for a little while. It’s true, no?

I didn’t watch Matt Cain’s perfect game last night, or was even aware that it happened until I caught the highlights this morning on Sportscenter.

Cain’s 14 strikeouts tied him with Sandy Koufax for most fanned batters in a perfect game in the 146-year history of baseball. It was a dominating 125-pitch powerhouse performance that ranks up there with baseball’s best. And that’s where I stop.

Wait, but I thought his game was perfect. You mean it gets better than 27 up and 27 down?

For this, you can blame (or credit) Bill James, who invented an advanced metric called “Game Score” to track the effectiveness of a pitcher’s outing. Think of it like the passer-rating for quarterbacks.

The maximum game score for nine innings of work is 114. Matt Cain clocked a 101, tied for second all-time with Sandy Koufax’s perfecto and a Nolan Ryan 16K non-perfect no-hitter. Only in baseball can imperfection rub shoulders with perfection.

In fact, the highest Game Score ever recorded is a 105, set by the Legend of Kerry Wood back in 1998 with his 20-strikeout, 1-hit gem. It wasn’t a perfect game, it wasn’t a no-hitter, it was just awesome. Better than perfection.

Head spinning yet? Only in baseball, right?

Baseball isn’t the only sport where individuals can produce results that can be logged as ‘perfect’ on a game-to-game basis. Obviously, one could bowl a 300. But it’s been done so often and the sport is so fringe that it seems to somehow imply a less sacred level of perfection.

In football, quarterbacks can end a game with a perfect 158.3 (beautifully arbitrary number) passer rating, and indeed 35 quarterbacks have. But that’s a computed metric. There’s no hush to the crowd while the home team’s on offense as Tom Brady‘s logged a 158.3 through 3 quarters.

In basketball, you could theoretically have a perfect night shooting, going 7-7 from the floor and 12-12 from the line, but that wouldn’t constitute a ‘perfect’ game. They don’t mob you at center court if you make it through 48 minutes without missing a shot. (Especially if your team’s on the losing end.)

Goalies can shut out opponents. Drivers could lead every lap of a race. Horses can go wire-to-wire. But none of those are called “perfect.” (Not even you, Secretariat.) You could always win by more, run faster, stop more shots than the others.

And so it brings us back to baseball, and the uniqueness of a starting pitcher facing the minimum batters through a nine-inning game. Perfection that can come in varying degrees. How many pitches did he throw? How many batters did he strike out? What’s the ratio of balls-to-strikes? The computational array for the possibilities of perfection are myriad, but the accomplishment is so rarefied that just 22 men have done it. And so we’re left with only that sample size to judge perfect against perfect.

But of course one could be more dominant or impressive than perfect. Pedro Martinez once struck out 17 Yankees in a one-hitter that was, singularly, the most impressive pitching performance I’d ever seen.

Varying degrees of perfection. More perfect than perfect while being imperfect. It’s not a philosophy class. It’s not metaphysics. It’s not even trying to divide by zero. It’s baseball. And it’s what makes baseball so fascinating.

It’s the only realm where perfection can be both surpassed and achieved at the same time.

27 up. 27 down. Simple. Efficient. Uniform. The equilibrium of science and art.

In a word: perfect.