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Max Scherzer, Jose Tabata, and the perfect game that wasn't

Only Jose Tabata stood between Max Scherzer and perfection on Saturday, both metaphorically and, as it turned out, literally. Time for judgement, with a little math and a lot of discretion.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Max Scherzer, in case you hadn't heard, is a good pitcher. If you have heard and you don't believe it, consider that he threw a no-hitter yesterday, allowing only a single batter to reach base and striking out ten. Consider also that the start immediately before that, he threw a one-hitter, allowing only two batters to reach base and striking out sixteen, and in tandem, those starts make him the only pitcher ever with consecutive game scores greater than 97 (h/t @paul_casella). Consider finally that Saturday's no-hitter was, in many ways, a disappointment, because of what could've been and wasn't.

Scherzer entered the 9th inning on Saturday having faced the minimum, and proceeded to get Gregory Polanco to pop up and Jordy Mercer to fly out. Jose Tabata, sporting 33 PAs and an OBP of .333 for the season, pinch hit in the pitcher's spot. He swung at and fouled off the first pitch, the second, and three more, as well as taking two balls en route to a 2-2 count. With the whole stadium on their feet, and countless fans watching from home, this happened:

The rage was swift and fierce. If you were feeling generous, Tabata didn't try to avoid the pitch, and if you weren't, he clearly moved his elbow directly into its path. Scherzer then proceeded to get Josh Harrison to fly out, preserving the no-hitter and absolute gem of a game, so you could argue this really shouldn't mar our perception of the his performance. Scherzer is also facing the hapless Phillies for his next start, so you could even argue this has only delayed his perfect game, not actually derailed it.

But. Those takes are limp, quiet, and lukewarm at best. If the internet has proven anything, it's that #hottakes get  people going, and who are we to deny that? So it's time to definitively determine Tabata's guilt or innocence, beyond any argument or disagreement.

That said, we here at Beyond the Box Score are men of science and reason! Plus, the esteemed Grant Brisbee of SBNation MLB frequently grades the unwritten rules violations of situations such as these, and does so much better than I ever could. So this will be a #hottake, but it will be a data-informed #hottake. Did Tabata go out of his way to ruin Max Scherzer's perfect game?

The Context

Before Tabata came to the plate, Scherzer had been dominant. This wasn't a fluky perfect game, if such a thing is even possible; he had mowed down all comers, throwing 95 pitches and 74 strikes. His command was excellent (of course), and he had thrown only 5 pitches more than 18 inches away from the center of the strike zone (about 9.5 inches off either edge of the plate). His stuff was excellent, as evidenced by his ten strikeouts, but his control and command were a big part of his utter dominance. There were the expected great plays behind him to keep the perfect game intact, but nothing about the game suggested Scherzer was tiring, or getting wild, or anything similar.

The Tabata at-bat went as follows:

(Zone plots and pitch characteristics from Brooks Baseball)

Ignore, for now, pitch #8--we'll get to that later. Pitch #1: a 96-mph fastball, outside, upper half, fouled away down the right field line. Pitch #2: an 88-mph slider, upper half, just a shade off center, fouled away down the right field line. Pitch #3: an 87-mph slider, inside and low, that Tabata ignores. Pitch #4: a 97-mph fastball, an attempt to climb the ladder but elevated about 9 inches too much, that Tabata again lays off. Pitch #5: 86-mph slider, just off the inside corner, that Tabata check-swings foul down the first base line. Pitch #6: a 97-mph fastball, outside corner, upper half, that Tabata barely fouls off. Pitch #7: a 96-mph fastball, slightly off-center, upper half, fouled off.

The pattern seems fairly obvious. Scherzer had a plan: pound elevated fastballs on the outside half, and come inside with offspeed pitches. Tabata came very, very close to getting out multiple times -- he didn't take a single strike, and didn't put a single ball in play, fouling off five pitches. The first inside pitch clearly caught him somewhat by surprise, as he tried to check, and instead squibbed it foul toward first base, which makes me think he was very worried about those outside fastballs. On the one hand, coming inside with a slider on pitch #8 seems like an easy decision for Scherzer, and maybe something Tabata should've anticipated. On the other hand, good lord Max Scherzer is excellent at pitching, and this is proof. Tabata is having to cover opposite corners of the plate, and you better believe he knows what is riding on this at bat.

So, before the pitch in question, we have Scherzer with excellent command, pounding the zone all night, and Tabata barely hanging on. He's seen four pitches in the high-and-outside quadrant of the strike zone, and knows Scherzer might blow him away on an elevated fastball, but he's also seen two sliders off the inside corner. The stage is set.

The Pitch

The pitch is thrown, and like Scherzer's other sliders, it doesn't suddenly break or anything similar. It is pretty clearly headed inside, and Tabata, without question, drops his elbows toward the pitch. He does begin to recoil, but not before taking the pitch off the elbow pad. Lamentation results.

The broadcasters aren't exempt either. "Well that's just the worst way ever to lose a perfect game." Mmmmm, I think that, say, a walk-off home run might be worse, but okay, sure. Scherzer was really, really close to something incredible, and now can only hope for something substantially less incredible.

Now clearly, Tabata does move toward the strike zone, and I think an umpire could have reasonably called the pitch a strike as a result. He also clearly begins to move away, and I don't think the umpire's call was crazy. In either case, who cares what the rulebook says? If a long-forgotten section of the rulebook was discovered that said anyone with the initials JT can throw themselves in the way of a pitch if there's a perfect game in progress, that wouldn't make you feel better. This is about moral supremacy!

So let's consider the pitch itself. Before Saturday, Scherzer had hit 48 batters in his career, with 8 of those HBPs coming on one of his 3,653 sliders. By that oversimplified measure, a random slider had about a 1-in-500 chance of hitting a batter (.00219, to be pedantic), which is pretty normal. In all of 2014, there were 1,652 HBPs in 705,084 pitches, and if Scherzer's slider matched exactly that rate, his expected number of batters hit would be 8.55. So his slider is basically league-average. But we can get more precise than that.

Again, using Brooks Baseball, we can pinpoint the location and velocity of the pitch in question. Switching to Baseball Savant, I searched for all pitches off the inside of the plate to a right-handed batter, at a height between 2.8 and 3.0 feet, and thrown between 86 and 88 mph. These are pitches that would've looked a lot like the one Scherzer threw. There were 3,336 such pitches in 2015 prior to Saturday night, and 22 of them hit a batter, for an overall rate of .00659. For context, if the league hit batters at that rate in 2014, there would've been about 4,650 hit batsmen, close to triple the actual number. This is a type and location of pitch that stands a decent chance of hitting a batter.

That said, there's a limit to how precise Baseball Savant can be, so let's watch one of these pitches to get a sense for the comps. A pitch Nationals fans might remember, to Kris Bryant, on May 25th:

Again, there's an almost-swing; a recoiling, but not quite in time; and debate over the legitimacy of the call. It's almost as if this is a real grey area!

Make of all this what you will. For every reasonable argument, there's a counterargument that's just as reasonable. Tabata started to swing, but he also tried to stop. This is a pitch in a zone where HBPs are likely, but not a zone where they're guaranteed. By the rulebook, the umpire could've called this a strike, but it would've been a huge departure from past precedent to do so.

This has almost certainly not changed your mind, which is fine. I advertised this as a hot take, but I just can't sustain that level of intensity about something that straddles the line between justifiable and not so squarely. This was a borderline pitch that came at a very important point in a very exciting game, and no matter what happened, it was going to cause a commotion.

If we accept that this move by Tabata is allowed, imagine the alternative. What if we knew he had an avenue to reach base and didn't pursue it, just for the sake of preserving the perfect game with his team almost guaranteed to lose? Should the previous batters have done the same? How close does the game have to be to justify a batter continuing to try to win? What if Scherzer didn't have a perfect game, but did have a no-hitter, or a Maddux -- how impressive does the potential feat have to be before opposing batters are expected not to do everything they can to win?

Slippery slope arguments don't sit well with everyone, so I'll leave you with this. Remember the commotion around Adam Wainwright maybe-almost-sorta-grooving a pitch to Derek Jeter in last year's All-Star Game? (Whether you do or you don't, refresh your memory with Grant's Unwritten Rules post on it, because it's great.) Now imagine Tabata doing something similar, like leaving the bat on his shoulder for the entire plate appearance, but in a real game, between two teams that could make or miss the playoffs by a single win. Imagine the whole sports internet consumed in the flames of scorching, white-hot takes. Imagine Scherzer's name in the record books, and the nagging little asterisk of doubt you'd slip next to it if you thought Tabata hadn't tried until the very end. That's not a good outcome for anyone.

At the end of the day, Tabata did a thing, presumably knowing exactly the risks involved (namely, of turning a ball into a strike), and made the choice he thought gave his team the best chance to win. You can lament the loss of a perfect game, and lament the perceived lack of climax because of the HBP, but you shouldn't blame Tabata for doing his best. What else do you want from him?

Henry Druschel is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter @henrydruschel.