Updated: Apr 15, 2022
The game of baseball was robbed yesterday. When Dave Roberts, manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, removed his starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw from the game versus the Minnesota Twins, he declined to allow America’s oldest professional sport the opportunity to witness history. Instead of a chance at a perfect game, baseball fans had to settle for a one-hitter thrown by three pitchers. That’s not history, that’s just another solid outing on a Wednesday.
Kershaw threw seven perfect innings, striking out 13, throwing only 80 pitches, and generating 20 swings-and-misses. Despite these glowing numbers, and the fact that Kershaw fully in command, he was removed from the game in favor of reliever Alexi Vesia, who promptly lost the perfect game in the eighth. This is a travesty for Kershaw, and for baseball fans everywhere.
Now, in a vacuum, this decision is more forgivable. After all, Kershaw dealt with multiple injuries in the previous campaign, and did not even appear for the Dodgers in their playoff run. It's likely that this was on Roberts’ mind.
Even the man of the hour, Kershaw, seemed to understand the decision, saying, “Blame it on the lockout, blame it on me not picking up a baseball until January. My slider was horrible the last two innings. It didn’t have the bite. It was time.” Fair enough.
“He was awesome today,” said Dodgers’ catcher Austin Barnes after the game. “Later on in the season, when he’s a little more built up, I think he goes out there, but I think it was the right call taking him out. It was the right move for sure. He was getting a little bit tired.”
All understandable from a certain point of view. That said, it’s easy to poke holes in these explanations.
The game of baseball is not played in a vacuum. Unlike any other sport in the United States, the history of baseball is just as important, if not more so, than the present. In the entire history of Major League Baseball, from the very first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869, all the way to the present, there have only been 23 perfect games. Out of all 30 MLB franchises, only 14 have had a perfect game thrown by one of their pitchers.
Besides, Kershaw had only thrown 80 pitches in the game when he was taken out. Even if his slider didn’t have the bite, as Kershaw alluded to, it had more than enough for an overmatched Twins lineup. You don’t strike out 13 batters with a sub-par offering.
For those who suggest that Kershaw's injury history was a significant factor in pulling him from his perfect game, it’s impossible to predict that injuries from a previous year have anything to do with this outing. Injuries happen to pitchers after 120 pitches and after zero pitches. The Atlanta Braves just won the World Series with their best player, Ronald Acuna, out of the lineup with a knee injury. There’s always a risk of injury in sports; that’s not an excuse to take history away from someone.
The most recent perfect game came almost 12 years ago, when Seattle Mariners’ ace Felix Hernandez capped off his brilliant career by throwing his perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays back on August 12, 2012. Hernandez struck out 12 batters in that game and needed 113 pitches to accomplish the feat.
Interestingly, 2012 saw two perfect games thrown, the other by long-time San Francisco Giant Matt Cain back on June 13. Cain needed 125 pitches to get through his perfect game versus the Houston Astros, striking out 14 batters in the process.
Kershaw had plenty left in the tank. He is one of the finest pitchers of his generation. He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He has a World Series ring. He threw a no-hitter back in 2014 and needed 107 pitches to do so. He has won three Cy Young Awards, an MVP, and a Gold Glove. He has a career ERA of 2.49 and a career WHIP of 1.00. The only thing missing from his resume is a perfect game. Now, he’ll likely never get another opportunity.
This isn’t the first time Roberts has done this, either. Back in 2016, Roberts removed starter Rich Hill from a perfect game after seven innings as well. At least Roberts had a legitimate excuse that time: Hill was dealing with multiple blisters. Even so, Hill wasn’t pleased, nor should he have been.
Pulling pitchers from perfect games early is especially frustrating when juxtaposed with the Detroit Tigers’ Armando Galarraga throwing the infamous “28-out Perfect Game” back in 2010. Galarraga retired the first 26 batters in an outing versus the Cleveland Indians, when first-base umpire Jim Joyce mistakenly called runner Jason Donald safe. Replays showed that the throw for Tigers’ first baseman Miguel Cabrera clearly beat the runner to the bag. Yet, without the ability to challenge the play, Galarraga would have to settle for a one-hit shutout.
After the game, Joyce was so upset by his mistake that he tearfully apologized to Galarraga. Galarraga, who was out of the majors by 2014, was gracious and famously told the distraught umpire, “Nobody’s perfect.” The two would later co-write a book in 2011 with author Daniel Paisner, titled Nobody’s Perfect: Two Men, One Call, and a Game for Baseball History.
Let that sink in for a second. Just eleven years ago, America was so consumed by this almost-perfect game that an entire book was written about it. Today, a player’s own manager didn’t hesitate to ruin his chance at baseball immortality.
That’s cause for real concern. For Kershaw, Roberts and the Dodgers, maybe this decision made sense. Maybe Kershaw really does understand, and maybe he really does agree with the decision. That doesn’t make it good for baseball.
It used to be that the entire country would stop when a perfect game was in progress. ESPN would cut to a live broadcast. Even radio stations that had nothing to do with sports would give updates. Today…not so much.
That’s the sad part. Analytics, for all the positives that it's brought to the game, has diminished some of what made baseball special. A perfect game is something that should be cherished, celebrated, treasured. If someone has the opportunity to accomplish something that rare, damn the analytics, damn the stats, and damn caution. Kershaw will never have a better chance than he did yesterday. Hopefully no manager will take that opportunity away from any other player moving forward.
Baseball needs perfect games. It needs its history. The history is what makes baseball so rich and so memorable. Without it, baseball will continue to lose its grip on the American imagination. Next time, Dave, if there even is a next time, leave Clayton in there.