“He deals the cards to find the answers. The sacred geometry of chance. The hidden law of the probable outcome. The numbers lead a dance.” — Sting
Matt Cain hurled the 22nd perfect game in MLB history on Wednesday night. For many observers, the perfect game is the most difficult of all single game feats. Yet, like many of baseball’s most exclusive clubs, the club is getting less and less exclusive by the day. We have already seen two perfect games this season and we haven’t even made it to the all-star break. You would think we were talking about the 500 home run club.
Anyone that has read my articles for any length of time knows I am about the numbers. Like the subject of the song above, I find the numbers bring order out of the chaos. All of us acknowledge that a certain amount of chaos must always exist. Some of us try to distill as much uncertainty as we can out of the world. Others revel in it.
Certainly, no one would take away anything from Matt Cain or Phillip Humber. Yet, one couldn’t help but notice that their feats came against the Astros and Mariners respectively. 1880 saw two perfect games and then the duplication of the feat didn’t happen again until 2010 (Roy Halladay and Dallas Braden). Now, we’ve seen two pitchers hurl perfect games in two of the last three seasons.
However, that doesn’t tell the real story. Most historians mark the beginning of what we would call the major leagues in 1871. Naturally, there is some dispute there as the National League opened play in 1877. Either way, we find that there were 12 perfect games between 1871 (or 1877) and 1990. If we accept 1871 as a starting date, we find that a perfect game occurred once every ten years. We’ve seen ten perfect games since 1991 alone. Obviously, the mystique of the perfect game is gone.
Houston Astros radio play by play announcer Dave Raymond pointed out that the game’s early history saw numerous rules changes beginning with the move from underhand to overhand pitching. The distance between the mound and home plate also moved. Heck, the game’s first hitters could call the location of the pitch they wanted a la kickball. So, having only two in 19th century makes a lot of sense. Still, the so-called Dead Ball Era was known for great pitching and it had only two.
The irony is that the so-called Live Ball Era (1920-1945) saw only one perfect game. Charles Robertson hurled that beauty in 1922. The game didn’t see another one until Don Larsen hurled his unlikely perfect game in the 1956 World Series. The game was dominated by hitting throughout that period. What makes this so odd is that today’s game is known more for offense than for pitching. Even after the steroid era was over, we still had players surpassing 50 home runs in a season. We had Ichiro break the single season hit record. Teams like the Texas Rangers have threatened to surpass the 1000 run plateau. All of this is happening at the same time as all of these perfect games.
A part of the explanation comes down to an alarmingly high strikeout rate. Mark Reynolds’ name is all over the single season strikeout record book. Others are routinely fanning 100 times or more during a season. Our hitters are stronger and faster than they have ever been, but are they any better at the craft of hitting? Traditionalists would say no and the number of no-hitters and perfect games would seem to echo that sentiment.
Baseball’s modas operandi is usually to overreact to situations like this. The simple truth is that the resurgence of pitching is a direct result of all of the hitting that happened in the 1990s and 2000s. Teams knew they needed to focus on pitching to combat the offensive wave that hit the game. Now, baseball is flush with excellent pitching. Sooner or later, the pendulum will swing and teams will begin scouting hitters differently. Low strikeout rates and situational hitting will become more important in relation to raw power and speed. In short, players will need to show the ability to play small ball in addition to the power game.
The game has always had a way of policing itself. Sooner or later, the numbers of no-hitters and perfect games will reach a critical mass where talent evaluators will focus on stopping that from happening to them. When that will be is anyone’s best guess, but that day will happen sooner rather than later.
Filed under: MLB