Last Sunday, 20-year-old Roki Sasaki threw the first perfect game in Japan’s top professional baseball league since 1994. A perfect game—in which a pitcher and his teammates prevent anyone from reaching base by hit, walk, error, or any other means—is one of the rarest feats in sports. There have been just 23 official perfect games in Major League Baseball history, while Sasaki’s was the 16th ever in Nippon Professional Baseball.
Sasaki’s performance was extraordinary even by perfect game standards. The Chiba Lotte Marines pitcher, who pairs a fastball that consistently exceeds 100 mph with a devastating forkball, tied the NPB record with 19 strikeouts, and set the all-time NPB mark by striking out 13 batters in a row. “This is the greatest,” the Chiba Lotte Marines pitcher said after the game.
Sasaki might be right. There’s a metric called game score, invented by Bill James, that gives a quick-and-dirty sense of a pitcher’s performance. To calculate the score, start with 50 points, then add 1 point for every out recorded, another for every strikeout, and 2 points for every inning the pitcher finishes after the fourth. You then subtract 1 point for each walk, 2 points for each hit and unearned run allowed, and 4 points for each earned run. Game scores typically fall between 40 and 70, while scores in the 80s and 90s are exceptional. In major-league history, there have been 16 scores of 100 or higher in a nine-inning game, the highest being Kerry Wood’s 105 game score in his 20-strikeout no-hitter in 1998. (Wood’s only blemish: a single walk.) Sasaki’s game score last Sunday was 106.
Now, here’s the remarkable thing: Throwing maybe the best game in the history of high-level baseball wasn’t the most impressive feat that Roki Sasaki pulled off this week. Sasaki, nicknamed “The Monster of the Reiwa,” took his next start for the Chiba Lotte Marines this Sunday. Once again, he started reeling off perfect innings. After striking out the side in the eighth, Sasaki was one inning away from back-to-back perfect nine-inning outings. But the 20-year-old didn’t get a chance to complete the feat: His manager, former Chicago White Sox second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, yanked him out of the game, which at that point was in a scoreless tie. Sasaki’s Marines would lose 1-0 in extra innings.
It wasn’t a crazy decision: Sasaki already has a history of arm issues in his brief career. It also wasn’t an unprecedented decision: Just this week, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts removed 34-year-old Clayton Kershaw after seven perfect innings. Kershaw, who missed last year’s playoffs with arm trouble, had thrown just 80 pitches in his seven-inning stint. Sasaki, who was reportedly still throwing 101 mph in the eighth inning, tossed 102 pitches before getting taken out.
No pitcher in the history of big-time pro baseball has ever thrown back-to-back perfect games. (It has been done in college softball and high school baseball.) Before this week, it would’ve been absurd to suggest it was even possible. Mark Buehrle of the Chicago White Sox came closer than anyone else in recent years, throwing one perfect game in July 2009, then making it to the sixth inning of his next start before giving up a single to Denard Span.
Left-hander Johnny Vander Meer did throw back-to-back no-hitters for the Cincinnati Reds in 1938, a feat that earned him the extremely unimaginative nickname “Double No-Hit.” Vander Meer finally gave up a hit to the Boston Bees’ Debs Garms in the fourth inning of his next start, to the pitcher’s great relief. “I’m glad that’s over,” Vander Meer said. “Now maybe I can get a good night’s sleep for a change.”
As the Guardian noted earlier this week, Sasaki has a tragic personal story. His family’s home was swept away in a 2011 tsunami that killed his father and grandparents. “It’s been 11 years but I cannot easily erase the agony and sadness I felt at the time,” he said in an interview last month.
On the baseball field, Sasaki has been a domestic superstar since high school. He was the No. 1 pick in Japanese baseball’s amateur draft in 2020 and had a strong rookie season last year, going 3-2 with a 2.27 earned run average. This year, his numbers are way, way better: a 1.16 ERA in 31 innings pitched, with 56 strikeouts to go along with just seven hits and two walks allowed.
If you’re hoping to see Sasaki in Major League Baseball, you’ll likely have to wait a few more years—that is, if the 20-year-old Sasaki even wants to leave Japan. The posting system for Japanese players is extremely complicated; there are all sorts of scenarios depending on the player’s age and service time, and they could always be revised. The hitting-and-pitching phenom Shohei Ohtani signed with the Angels in 2017, when he was 23. That decision potentially cost Ohtani hundreds of millions of dollars: As of now, Japanese players who are younger than 25 get paid like rookies as opposed to high-dollar free agents.
Ohtani, who won the 2021 American League MVP award, has been doing things that no major-leaguer has ever done. But even he has never done anything like Roki Sasaki did this week. In his next start, Sasaki will be looking to extend streaks of 17 perfect innings and 52 consecutive batters retired. (The major-league record for consecutive batters retired? Forty-six, by the San Francisco Giants’ Yusmeiro Petit in 2014.) At this point, it’d be foolish to believe that those streaks won’t keep going.