The proliferation of perfectos (and its slightly less glorious cousin, the no-hitter) is a phenomenon that can't be avoided. Not when three perfect games have been thrown this year for the first time in MLB history, to go along with three standard-issue no-hitters.
What Felix Hernandez did Wednesday at Safeco Field was magnificent, exhilarating and awe-inspiring.
But it is becoming less of a rarity — at least not by the standards that prevailed for decades in major-league baseball — was a rarity.
The proliferation of perfectos (and its slightly less glorious cousin, the no-hitter) is a phenomenon that can’t be avoided. Not when three perfect games have been thrown this year for the first time in MLB history, to go along with three standard-issue no-hitters.
The six total no-hitters is one short of the record of seven for one season, established in the fluky back-to-back years of 1990 and 1991.
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Starting with Mark Buehrle’s 27-up, 27-down masterpiece on July 23, 2009, there have now been six perfect games thrown in slightly over three years — 26 percent of all the perfect games (23) achieved since 1880. And that doesn’t count the perfecto taken away from Detroit’s Armando Gallaraga via a blown umpire’s call on June 2, 2010.
It’s a feat that has been accomplished by established aces (Roy Halladay, Hernandez), by journeymen (Philip Humber, Dallas Braden), and by those in-between (Buehrle, Matt Cain).
In one 13-day span this season, there were three no-hitters — Cain’s perfect game, a no-hitter by Johan Santana (first in the Mets’ 51-year history), and a six-man no-hitter by the Mariners’ staff (one of three no-hitters this year at Safeco Field, the most ever for one venue in a single season). There have been 14 no-hitters in the majors since Ubaldo Jimenez’s on April 17, 2010.
Mind you, this in no way is meant to detract from Hernandez’s accomplishment. Considering that nearly 400,000 games have been played since 1876, to pull off a feat done only 23 times — roughly once every 17,000 games — is still monumental.
But something weird must be going on, right? After Charlie Robertson of the White Sox threw a perfect game on April 30, 1922, there wasn’t another one for 34 years, when Don Larsen of the Yankees threw his World Series perfecto against the Dodgers on Oct. 8, 1956. And not until June 21, 1964, when Jim Bunning of the Phillies was perfect against the Mets, was there another one in the regular season — a span of 42 years.
The pitching-dominated 1960s featured just three perfect games, all by Hall of Famers (Bunning, Sandy Koufax and Catfish Hunter). There weren’t any in the 1970s, three in the 1980s (Cleveland’s Len Barker, the Angels’ Mike Witt, Cincinnati’s Tom Browning), and four in the 1990s (Montreal’s Dennis Martinez, Texas’s Kenny Rogers, and the Yankees’ David Cone and David Wells).
Randy Johnson of the Diamondbacks threw one on May 18, 2004. And then, with Buehrle in 2009, the deluge started.
The obvious first conclusion is that the rise of perfect games and no-hitters is tied to the introduction of drug testing in 2005. In the heart of the so-called steroids era, from 1998 (year of the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race) through 2004, there were a combined 11 no-hitters, and three perfect games. In eight seasons since, there have been 23 no-hitters, and six perfect games (and the 2012 season’s not over yet).
The numbers don’t lie: Offense is way, way down. There will be about 4,000 fewer runs scored, and 900 fewer home runs hit, this season than in 2000. No, those aren’t typos. And doesn’t it stand to reason that if offense is declining, then the odds of a perfect game increase?
After Hernandez’s gem on Wednesday, Mariners’ manager Eric Wedge was asked if he felt Safeco Field played a factor in the three no-hitters thrown there this year.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the ballpark,” he replied. “Just look at baseball in general. You look at the way pitching is leading the way. The game’s reverted back some. Which I don’t think is a bad thing.
“You have to play good baseball to win baseball games up here. You can’t sit around, be sloppy, and count on a three-run homer in the eighth or ninth inning. Those days are gone. The better baseball teams are going to win, because if you execute and play good baseball, you’re going to have a chance to be on top.”
Wedge said that steroids testing “is probably a part of it, but I think it goes heck of a lot deeper than that. I know when I came up, you didn’t have everyone throwing 95 mph. Now you have middle relievers throwing 95 mph. Ninety-five used to mean something. Kids are stronger, they’re in better shape, they start earlier, they’re getting lessons when they’re 7, 8 years old. You’re seeing the product of all that.”
Related to that observation, and another likely cause of the run of perfect games, is the fact that hitters are striking out like never before. The current rate of 7.49 whiffs per nine innings would be the highest in history for a single season. Not only are pitchers throwing harder, but the stigma of striking out has lessened. The result has been a staggering amount of swinging and missing.
Again, this would seem to be conducive to increasing the chances of throwing a perfect game, because a strikeout is the one outcome not dependent on the skill of the fielders behind you, or the chance result of a bloop hit or nubber that’s beaten out. It’s telling that many of the recent perfect games have featured double-digit strikeout totals, including 12 by Hernandez and 14 by Cain, matching Koufax’s record in a perfect game.
Several other factors could be in play, as well. The number of teams in the majors has nearly doubled, from 16 to 30, in the expansion era, and the season was expanded from 154 to 162 games in 1961. More teams, more games, more chances for a perfect game.
I firmly believe that fielding is better than ever, and errors statistics back that up. Fielders are demonstrably more sure-handed. But beyond that, players today are faster and more athletic than ever before, and they have the benefit of better scouting reports than at any time in history — and getting more refined by the day. Thus, it’s tougher than ever for the modern player to “hit it where they ain’t.”
I mentioned drug testing, and the initial reaction is naturally steroids. But don’t forget that baseball also started testing for amphetamines in 2006. Many baseball people feel that the absence of “greenies” to give a boost in the dog days has had a significant effect on players’ performances — and since starting pitchers are only asked to work once every five days, I’d theorize they stay stronger than their offensive peers as the season drags on.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that this is all just a statistical aberration, and outcomes such as Hernandez’s on Wednesday will become fewer and farther between, just like they used to be.
Or maybe we’ll keep seeing exuberant scenes like Wednesday’s played out at a rate that once was unimaginable.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry.