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Pitching a Perfect Game, American Idol-Style

Will a finalist ever complete their AI run with no below-average performances?

All of us here at the WhatNotToSing.com offices are former baseball and softball players.  This probably comes as little surprise, given our statistics-oriented website plus our penchant for metaphors and analogies to the Great American Pastime.  Which brings us to this week's essay topic, one that's a bit more lighthearted than usual.  How likely is it that a future American Idol contestant will someday "pitch a perfect game," as it were?

Before we go on, we'd better explain a few things to our overseas readers.  In a perfect game, a pitcher must retire all 27 opposing batters from start to finish without allowing any to reach first base.  Perfect games are among the rarest of baseball feats, having been accomplished just 17 times at the major league level in the sport's 130-year history.

There are several ways one might define the Idol equivalent to perfection, some more challenging than others.  We'll choose one that's enormously difficult but still perhaps attainable.  To be credited with a perfect game, a finalist must finish his or her Idol run having delivered no performance with an approval rating below 50.  In other words, every outing has to be above average in the eyes and ears of the Idolsphere.  (Note that, unlike in real baseball, our perfect pitcher doesn't actually have to win the competition, though of course that would be ideal.  We're perfectly happy to concede that some perfect games might be more perfect than others.)

From AI1 through AI7, no contestant has made the grade.  Yes, that includes Kelly Clarkson – even though we don't have the Season One approval ratings published yet, we can tell you from our preliminary figures that even she fell short of 50 at least once.  And yes, that includes everyone from Season Seven, too.  David Cook and Carly Smithson both started with seven plusses in a row but went down in flames together on Inspirational Songs week.  In fact, even if you summed their approval ratings that night, they still didn't reach 50.

So exactly how close has anyone come?  Let's take a closer look.

Practically Perfect In Every Way

From AI2 through AI7, 16 contestants started out their careers with at least five above-average performances (see table below).  Five of them ultimately reached double figures.  But all eventually found the 40s or worse...in some cases, much worse...at least once before they were through.

Topping the box score is none other than Elliott Yamin.  He knocked down 14 straight performances, navigating one difficult theme after another, before finally meeting his match in the form of Clive Davis.  Davis assigned him Open Arms in the Final Three episode, which the popular S5 contestant couldn't hoist above a 43.  But perhaps Yamin needs a Barry Bonds-style asterisk beside his record.  Two of his performances finished at 50 on the nose, and one of those, If Tomorrow Never Comes, was actually a 49.8 that rounded up.

Two contestants on the Near Miss List fell below 50 only one time apiece, and this brings us to our absolute favorite piece of trivia in the WNTS.com database.  LaToya London's and Melinda Doolittle's lone sojourn below the 50th parallel both came on the same song!: The Bee Gees' Love You Inside Out.  Why London ever chose that deservedly forgotten post-disco mediocrity is a mystery; why Doolittle followed her defies all attempts at reason; why any future contestant would even consider it is grounds for both disqualification and institutionalization, at least if we had any say about it.

None of the Top 5 fell harder than Season Six winner Jordin Sparks.  She retired 10 in a row before Bon Jovi Night came around and, at her mother's suggestion, the power-ballad specialist tried to rock out Livin' On A Prayer.  In keeping with the baseball theme, Sparks gave new meaning to the term "pitch problems."  She sent one cracked note after another to the backstop a la Steve Blass and Rick Ankiel on her way to a 13 – the lowest-rated performance ever by an eventual winner.

As for the fifth Idol on the double-digit list...Clay Aiken's streak had reached 12, including three straight performances at 88 or higher, when one day while rummaging through the wardrobe room he found this adorable red leather jacket and...um, yeah.  The rest was history, as was his chance at perfection after Grease finished at 42.  (Even if he'd made it to 50, it would've prolonged the perfecto by only one batter: Vincent was on deck.)

Put Me In, Coach!

The easiest path to a perfect game is to stay above average in the semifinals, then turn in an unmemorable 52 or so early in the Finals.  Vanessa Olivarez nearly did exactly that in Season Two: a 76 in the semifinals and a 43-skidoo in the Final 12.  Stephanie Edwards's box score line in S6 was: 83, 70, 54, 53, 32, showers.  Several semifinalists have gone home without ever seeing the wrong side of 50, including three who performed more than once: AI2's Chip Days (55, 58), AI4's Mario Vasquez (64, 56, 60), and American Idol's all-time felony victim, AI3's Suzy Vulaca (80, 73).

But seven years into the show's run, no finalist has ever pitched a perfect game, and that's part of the definition.  Quite honestly, if the incomparable Doolittle couldn't do it, we're not terribly confident that anyone will.  American Idol is as demanding, grueling, and treacherous a competition as any you'll ever see on TV.  The format is designed to uncover weaknesses; thus, the themed Final episodes run the gamut of styles and genres from Latin to Country to Classics to Disco.  The better you sing, the longer you're likely to last.  Make it to the Final Five and you suddenly have to choose, arrange, rehearse and perform two or even three songs per week.  Reach the Final Three and the judges and producers will be choosing songs for you (and, frankly, they're often no less clueless than the contestants at this crucial task.)  You'll also be asked to repeat a song or two, which rarely goes over very well – on average, reprises lose more than 20 ratings points off the original performance.

On top of all this, toss in the dawn-to-dusk photo shoots, group-sing rehearsals, Ford commercials, promotional appearances, and other burdens and pressures of sudden celebrity.  Remember too, just one ill-timed smile, off-the-cuff comment, or misinterpreted facial expression at any point along the way will have millions of hyperjudgmental viewers wishing the absolute worst upon you.  That'll affect your approval ratings in one way or another.  If you somehow manage to negotiate all of these pitfalls without a single Tuesday slip, you'll make it to the Finale, where the ultimate Boss Battle awaits: an American Idol Original Winner's Song™ of your very own.  From AI2 on, just one performance of these little beauties has scored above 55 (Barrino's I Believe).  Break a leg!

Still, it's springtime, and hope springs eternal.  Every time we attend a baseball game and a pitcher has put up an unbroken line of zeroes on the scoreboard through the fifth inning, we get a little excited, even though we realize the odds are still overwhelmingly against him.  Similarly, when both Cook and Smithson were perfect through seven, we wondered: could this be the year?  (Particularly so for the strong-voiced Smithson, whose unconventional appearance made her a candidate for being voted off at any moment.)  Alas, Queen and Our Lady Peace ripped back-to-back line drives through the box, knocking both Idols head over heels and leaving them sprawled on the pitchers' mound in their skivvies, like Charlie Brown.

So no, much as it pains us to acknowledge it, a perfect game on Idol probably will never happen.  But then again, there are only 10 more months until the AI8 semifinals start.  Wait 'til next year!

(Addendum: A few weeks after this article was originally published, we finalized and published the Season One ratings.  If you're curious, Clarkson started off with six above-average performances before her streak got Rained outTamyra Gray's first six performances were all above 75, much less 50, until her disastrous New Attitude in the Final Four cost her more than just a perfect game.  But, AI1 adds another name to the list of semifinalists who performed more than once without dropping below average.  Anybody remember Kelli Glover?)

(Addendum, Part Deux: It took a full decade with plenty of close calls along the way, but a contestant finally closed the deal with Perfection in Season 10.  After one of the most shocking and inexplicable eliminations in the series history, Pia Toscano finished with no performance below 4-stars, let alone 50.  Her final stat line, pending end-of-season adjustments, read: 91, 82, 76, 73, 67, 84.  As per baseball custom, we tried giving her a shaving-cream pie in the face afterwards, but...um, yeah.  The L.A. police really need to lighten up a bit.)

- The WNTS.com Team

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