An analysis of perfection

-Ari Kaplan,


July 23, 2009

What is going through the mind of an analyst and scout while watching Mark Buehrle’s perfect game? As a long-time consultant to over half of all teams over 20 seasons, I have seen a lot. But it was my first no-hitter, and first perfect game I’ve seen. The same could be said for every reporter at the game – even a no-hitter is a rare treat. A perfect game is what every kid dreams about being a part of.

The day started out perfect on a personal level for me. Growing up in New Jersey, my next-door neighbor since kindergarten – Matt Spiegel - landed an anchor job on Chicago’s “The Score” and we were attending our first game together. Lots of catching up, celebrating his new job, and analyzing the game before it started.

We looked at the home-plate umpire Eric Cooper’s strike zone. It’s one of the tightest (and most accurate) of all umpires, which makes a perfect game even more remarkable. I’ll look do a full analysis later, but at the game he appeared to be calling it well.

Next we looked at Buehrle’s delivery, mechanics, and approach to Rays hitters. In his game on July 12th, he got rocked – 10 hits and a walk, his release points 5 inches higher, and his changeups and cutters lacked their usual velocity. His curveball release point is always 6 inches higher than his other pitches, something we were concerned could tip off batters. The fact that he likes to make pickoff moves (top 10% of pitchers) never was tested – how often can I say that? My scouting report shows how he mixes up the velocity, location, and break of his pitches often and broadly. He has great command of his pitches, although his slider is not deceptive (89% of swings make contact). When I analyze his game, I’ll take a look at what changed in this game, but I can tell from being there just how fabulous the ball moved.

Pure analysts like to dismiss “leadership” and “guts”, possibly since they cannot describe or quantify it. I do not take this point of view. Just watching A.J. Pierzynski keeping Mark loose in the 8th and 9th inning helped keep him relaxed, which is needed to maintain proper mechanics in pressure situations.

Another underappreciated and lesser understood part of the game is defense. Ozzie Guillen made what turned out to be a smart move by defensively substituting DeWayne Wise into center field. At that point, the goal was to prevent a hit, and that is what Wise does best. Analysts are going to be providing significant new perspectives on defense in the coming years with new defensive tracking technology set to launch next year. We’ll know who takes the most optimal turns around third, which outfielders get the best jump and maximum speed on balls, and more. Until then, it was impressive to watch Wise – sitting in the press box I had the perfect angle to see peripherally how he did not hesitated and followed a near-perfect angle back on the ball. I had the opportunity to speak with him in the clubhouse after the game. At the time, he hadn’t even seen a replay of the catch but heard from his teammates it was a good one. I told him it was the catch of the year, if not the decade given the situation. What was going through his mind? Was he thinking “here’s my angle, I’m near the warning track, the wall is coming so I’ll jump now?” He actually was confident the entire way – off the bat he knew exactly where to run to. He told me he didn’t feel the ball hit the glove but thought it was in there, and when coming down saw it slowly roll out of the glove.

So what was the atmosphere? Reporters and broadcasters – who’ve seen a lot and are conditioned not to show emotion, were tearing up. All of us had hoped to be part of something so significant that we were shaking hands. It felt like 40 years ago this week when humans first walked on the moon. The press conference with Mark was made special by the presence of his wife and newborn, and owner Jerry Reinsdorf. The press conference was ended by a call from President Obama on Air-Force One. It was only a week ago that they were together for the All-Star Game.

Ozzie Guillen’s analysis of the game was that Mark threw “strikes, a lot of guts”.

One thought to leave with – the press box was buzzing starting with “no hitter” and “perfect game” in the 6th inning, and it did NOT jinx the game. So everyone can safely stop that superstitious ritual.

-Ari Kaplan,